an open letter to a serb youth searching for truth

April, 1999

Once upon a time, my people were slaves. Perhaps you've heard of them. They were Africans, and we are African Americans. It was not so long ago in fact, a mere 150 years. From what I’ve heard, your fight is a little bit older, and perhaps more deeply felt. But the reasons are not so important in times of war as they are in times of peace.

In times of war, reason is not on anyone's side. As you well know, facts will be distorted, lies will be spread, lives will be extinguished and so will your ability to get to the truth. The truth is an illusive thing, even under the best of circumstances. Anyone who is in search of truth during times of war is simply too late. Truth is a necessary condition for justice and reconciliation. So you are wise to remember what you see and keep a record for the future.

But what of that future? How will it be lived? That, my brother, depends on your ability to maintain peace. For only in peace is justice possible. And only in peace can the truth come out. The fool is the one who believes that truth only serves his desire. In fact truth serves no one. It simply exists, whether or not you choose to see it. If you do choose to see it and follow the path it dictates and pursue justice, then this is the greatest responsibility you can take up. It is also the most painful and challenging, because true justice will mock your desire. In that way, we are not really in control of justice, much like the way we cannot control war. But we are responsible for its creation and maintenance, just as we are responsible for the creation and maintenance of war. There is always a choice between war and peace, there is always a choice between justice and revenge. One follows the other. When we make war, we get revenge, sometimes. When we make peace, we get justice, sometimes. But we cannot ever get justice during war.

I raise these issues because you will live the rest of your life trying to make sense of these facts. You will ever be hoping that the truth will justify your outrage. You will forever ask why. But I tell you something now. You will forever be frustrated. It is not within your capacity, or any man's capacity to know all the reasons why. You will always be in doubt. You will never know for sure. And so you must have faith.

Faith alone will allow you to put your mind at rest. And so you must have faith in your fellow man. You must have faith that he will eventually come to know that peace is better than war, that justice is better than revenge, that truth does not serve him alone, that his greatest responsibility is the same as yours which is to seek the path that truth dictates and take responsibility for peaceful justice - even as it mocks your desires. Justice will humble you. Justice will humble you completely.


As you look to your fellows, you must ask them how willing they are to make war. I am thinking today that it must be awfully humiliating to see that you are not in control of your own government. But how could you be if you seek justice and peace, and yet you are at war. It is humiliating for us to know that we are not in control of our government - yet at least we Americans have the comfort of having known this for a long time. Yet as much pain and suffering, death and destruction that NATO is capable of delivering to you, you must certainly know that we Americans are not at war with you. Yet we may be soon. I hope not, but the possibility is real, despite what is said about opposition to ground troops.

Your third army is in Kosovo. They are soldiers and tanks moving on the ground. They are an army doing what armies do, seeking out and destroying the enemy. We are part of an air force, doing what air forces do - picking out targets and destroying them with bombs. And yet everyone knows that an air war requires much less commitment than does a war of soldiers, tanks, guns, knives and fists. It's much easier and cowardly to fly jets and push buttons. You must know this in your heart. And that is why you should know that we are not truly at war with you, not in the way your army is at war with its enemy. We do not want our hands around your throats. We don't want the blood under our fingernails. We don't want anything from you that badly. Yet we are in a war, not with our full hearts and minds, but it is a full-on disastrous war nonetheless. And as I said before, there is no truth or justice to be found in that situation now. All we know is what armies are doing and what air forces are doing.

But at some point, we were talking about peace. At Rambouillet perhaps. At Dayton perhaps. Americans have been involved with many peace processes with your people. Now all that is past. All those reasons are not clear in our minds. How could they be when so much killing is going on? How could we be concentrated on the finer points of diplomacy and negotiation when there are armies and tanks and refugees and submarines and warships to feed?

So when we have a moment to pause, and certainly we have a bit more time over here in our comfortable homes, we strain to think about how peace was lost. When the negotiators were negotiating, what was the demand that proved too costly? What was the insult too unforgivable? What was the condition too unacceptable? What was the sticking point too humiliating that made the fist slam on the table and the backs turn? What was the paragraph that your people and my people could not sign together? What made your tanks roll? What made NATO fly its jets? Do you know? Do you care? Would you bother to find out? Is it too late? Is war what you really want?

Some faith was broken, and a new faith must be crafted. The dead are already dead, and things will never be as they were. A new peace with new conditions in the recognition of a new reality must be brokered. And we will all sift through the rubble for truth for years to come. But it won't serve our desires. The truth will shame us, the truth of war always does. In this world, African Americans 120 years out of slavery talk to Yugoslavians in Belgrade. So what I conceive as peace is something you must consider. That is the way of the world now, and there is no going back. You must survive and bear witness, as we have. You must strive in peace to take control of those powers which embarrass you now - those powers which claim to make war for your sake.

I have my prejudices, and they were born in stories about Chetniks impaling their victims. I read that many years ago. I have other prejudices born in stories about Srbernica. I can remember driving through Dayton Ohio and thinking it was all over, not really knowing the details. I was happy, comfortable and trusting. But now I am not. There are a million truths I will never know about Serbian enemies. And a million you will never know about us. Fine. Know this. There will always be another chance for peace. And perhaps next time we will spend more time paying attention to that peace.