For a documentary on the 100-year history -- and horror -- of aerial bombardment, Barry Stevens' "The Bomber's Dream" has a remarkably deft touch. The emotion driving the film isn't outrage so much as jumpiness, of the sort that bedeviled Stevens' mother, a survivor of the Nazis' rocket blitz on London during World War II, who was thereafter spooked by loud noises.
She was permanently unsettled, Stevens says, by "a memory just below the skin, of things going very wrong very quickly." Multiply that by all of us and you have modern society, which lives on this edge and calls it peace . . . or the closest we can get to it.
"The Bomber's Dream" tears back the assumptions and paradoxes and, yes, the good intentions of high-tech war and leaves us mourning not so much its millions of victims -- or even the 40,000 dead of the Hamburg firestorm of 1943, survivors of which Stevens interviews ("outside, the wind sucked babies out of their mothers' arms") -- as a single 15-year-old girl. Her sad and pointless death is a stand-in for all the others.
The girl is Sanja Milenkovic, who died nearly eight years ago, in the waning days of a forgotten war, the last of the 20th century: NATO's aerial campaign against Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia that was meant to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.
As part of NATO's campaign to demoralize the Serbian population (this is always a prime justification for bombing "enemy" civilians and it never works -- never), an unknown pilot from an unknown country, though almost certainly the United States, fired not one but two AGM130 missiles at the bridge in the center of the Serbian village of Varvarin. It was a Sunday morning in May. It was market day. The bridge was crowded with people.
The first missile struck the bridge just after Sanja had crossed it. Like many others, she ran back to help -- and here's where the tragedy and absurdity intensify. As the injured were being cared for, the pilot struck the bridge again, upping the kill count. In all, 10 people, including Sanja, died in the attack; another 30 were injured.
The dramatic, real-time center of Stevens' film is this tiny sliver of history, which became the subject of a quixotic lawsuit brought by the survivors of the victims of Varvarin -- including Sanja's mother, Vesna -- against Germany, as a member of NATO, seeking about half a million euros in reparations. The contention of this unprecedented lawsuit was that the bombing had no strategic purpose and the deaths, therefore, were wrongful: in a phrase, war crimes.
The film keeps returning to the progress of the lawsuit, and to the heartbreaking perseverance of Vesna Milenkovic, who shares her memories of her daughter and speaks in halting, anguished sentences for most of the human race. "If they want to make a war in the name of human rights, they must think of both sides. . . . What we do now -- this will be for all victims in the whole world. . . . They will think about it (next time) before they make decisions to kill somebody."
Well, no they won't, and God help us all because of this. We see the plaintiffs lose not one but two appeals, the second one before the German Federal Supreme Court in Karlsruhe, which ruled against the concept of a nation's paying out war damages to civilians.
And here, you might say, is the center of the center of "The Bomber's Dream," or the hole -- the bomb crater -- at its center: the shockingly elusive question of responsibility, for anything at all that happens in wartime, or for war itself. Over and over again, Stevens pushes us smack up against this void.
For instance, we hear an aging Arthur Harris, the British father of aerial bombardment, mastermind of the allied campaign to firebomb Hamburg, Dresden and many other German cities during World War II, defend his life's work thus: "Tell me one operation of war which is moral. Sticking a bayonet into a man's belly, is that moral?"
At a press conference after the Varvarin incident, we hear a NATO spokesman say, with a shrug, yeah, it's a shame, but, "There is always a cost to defeat an evil."
Even Bill Arkin of Human Rights Watch, an expert on the Kosovo war, tells Stevens, regarding Varvarin, "I'm afraid no one is responsible." That is, the bombing occurred in a command vacuum; there were too few deaths to matter at a level beyond the pilot's own decision-making. Yet the pilot isn't responsible either, because he was just doing his job, and had been placed in that position by circumstances beyond his control.
Lack of responsibility echoes throughout this compelling, award-winning documentary (for inquiries, contact Stevens at email@example.com). Yet no one's humanity is given short shrift. He interviews pilots, officers (including Gen. Wesley Clark) and even a former Luftwaffe dive bomber (Stevens' own cousin), a likable old man whose "sorry about that" is as much responsibility as anyone takes for anything.
The film leaves us with questions and a lost look in Vesna Milenkovic's eyes, after the second appeal is lost, that says as much as anything I've ever read about the cost of war.
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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
© 2007 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.