NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 was the first political event I lived through and thought I understood. I brought my first journal with me backpacking across Southeastern Europe, and last night I opened it to the first entry. I was 11 years old at the time and my penmanship was by no means clear – but my rosy, idealized view of the world certainly was.

For most students, even the hard-nosed sons and daughters of our School of Foreign Service, there has come and gone a passing moment of rationalized naïveté – the West’s intervention in the leftover mess of Yugoslavia was mine. My entry for that day read, “America should do the right thing, save the Albanians and defeat Milosevic’s evil regime.”

I went back to that entry not because my opinions had profoundly changed – though now I can find the Balkans on a map, know who the Albanians are and have learned Milosevic’s first name. I returned to my journal as I sat in a park in Belgrade, Serbia, overlooking a destroyed building the Serbs left as a reminder of the war and a memorial to the 17 workers who were killed there when our bombs fell.

Don’t get me wrong: International politics is never simple, violent force is a useful and necessary tool of diplomacy, and bombing Serbia probably saved lives. If saving lives is a primary goal of American foreign policy, then we were likely successful.

Being here, however, brings a new perspective that hardly comes through in predigested media reports or even sober-minded academic study of another nation and its problems. For most Americans, Serbia remains synonymous with the endemic violence and instability in the Balkans. The word is associated with Yugoslavia, Albanians, Kosovo, genocide and not much else.

Nothing of the East-West struggle – embodied by the debate over Latin or Cyrillic alphabets, for instance – infiltrates our collective consciousness. We never see Serbia’s sprawling capital, still hung over from the binges of Yugoslav leader Josip Tito, the ambition of its cityscape belied by the small and isolated country Belgrade governs. We never see the friendliness and carefree nature of the Serbian people, who, like most others, simply want to live unmolested.

We do, however, see their rage and resentment. The year 1389, the period when a Serbian army was defeated by Turkey, is graffittied throughout the city. These people have a long memory.

I hardly consider myself a neoliberal, nor am I an apologist for Serbia. The point I hope to make is a simple one for a community as fixated upon international affairs as our own: Before we blather on about our country doing this, that and the other, an open mind and a measure of humility are in order. Actions have unforeseen consequences and the attitudes we develop in youth, if left wholly unchallenged, can become overriding and cloud our views. It’s a lesson that university students and governments alike could learn.

Ten years from now, Serbians who grew up with American jets flying overhead will be young adults, deciding whether to study English or Russian, whether to bring their skills to America or some other country with hopes of financial success (with their pride intact). We are the world’s great power, and we should act like it – in war and peace alike.

As for Georgetown students, the words of a former teacher remain with me: $100,000 is better spent on seeing the world for oneself than on two years of college. As a university student myself, I can’t judge him right or wrong without prejudice, but I think he has a point. So many of us study one country or another for years, and only leave to visit others that are safe, pretty or on the beaten path. It hardly makes sense that a day of three or four lectures can cost a student hundreds of dollars, while that same amount can get a judicious traveler through a few weeks or more abroad.

Reading about Turkish history in a library cannot capture the glimmer in an old man’s eye when he tells you his political party is “Ataturk,” as you wonder how many fantastic, ancient bloodlines course through his veins.

Adam Kemal is a junior in the College currently studying abroad at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, England. He can be reached at kemalthehoya.com. It’s a Long Way to Tipperary appears every other Friday.

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