A war fever is breaking out among the leaders of the free world. Congressional Democrats are egging on President Bush to do something about the situation in Bosnia, and their concerns are echoed by Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and the conservative leadership of Mr. Bush’s own party. As we head into the last months of the presidential campaign, a successful war might just tip the balance in Mr. Bush’s favor. On the other hand, failure would prove to be a domestic political disaster. It’s a tough situation.

People like George Bush do not listen to people like me, but if I had a few minutes of his time, I would tell him: Don’t do it. Does anybody in Congress or the State Department have any idea of what we would be getting into? I doubt it, because if they did, we would not hear so many glib generalities. For a while, all we heard about was the evil Croatian Nazis who slaughtered Serbs and Jews in World War II. More recently, it has been the evil Serbs, and—as things go on—we might hear more of the evil Albanians, the troublemaking Macedonians, perhaps even the thieving gypsies. The truth is, few Americans know anything about Yugoslavia, and those few tend to be ethnic partisans.

Yugoslavia is or was a misbegotten union of at least six distinct Slavic peoples with nothing to bind them together except their common hatred of each other. The largest ethnic group, the Serbs, are a frustrated imperial race, whose defeat at the battle of Kossovo in 1389 led not only to their subjugation by the Turks; it also grafted a permanent chip on their shoulders. The real devils in Serbian history are the Serbs who collaborated with the Turkish oppressor and converted to Islam, and Orthodox Serbs have always dreamed of cleansing their soil from the Muslims who pollute it. They also cherish fierce animosities, not only against the Croatians who slaughtered them like cattle in World War II but also against each other. In Serbia, World War II was played as a civil war between royalist and Communist Serbs.

In 1989, I was taken by a Serbian friend to a Serbian Orthodox monastery not far from Chicago. In the course of the long afternoon of liturgy, it finally dawned on me that we were commemorating the martyrs who had fallen six hundred years earlier. What was even stranger, some of the older men, who had been royalist guerrillas in World War II, carried in pictures of Drazha Mihajlovich, the royalist leader murdered by the Communists.

In their minds, it is all the same struggle, and I recalled the old ballad in which the Serbian prince, on the eve of the battle of Kossovo, is given the choice between victory over the Turks and worldly success or success in heaven and a future of political servitude and Christian faith for his people. The prince chooses God and defeat, and ever since the Serbs have identified the national identity with their religion. The Orthodox Serbs and the Croatian Catholics and the Bosnian Muslims have been killing each other for six hundred years.

It would be just as easy to make out a case for the Serbs as victims as it is to make the case for the Croatians and the Bosnian Muslims. Americans are alarmed and disgusted by the stories of atrocities being committed by Serbs against their prisoners, but similar stories are told of all sides in the struggle. The Serbian aggression has been more successful, simply because there are more Serbs and they can mobilize the military resources of the defunct Communist regime.

The most chilling atrocity story reported in the press are the rapes said to be perpetrated by Serbian guards. One woman told a Chicago Tribune reporter that when she became visibly pregnant, her captors sent her away, telling her to “Go to Zagreb and bear Serbian children.” This story—appalling as it is—contains the germ of the whole conflict. Anyone who has raised cats, knows that when a male cat finds a mother with a fresh litter of kittens not his own, he slaughters the kittens and reimpregnates the female.

The tomcat’s object is to have as many offspring as possible, to spread his own genes as far and wide as he can. Other mammals—including human beings—do similar things. The ugly conflict in Yugoslavia, for all the historical complications, is the most basic and elemental struggle in the world.

It is ethnic warfare at the tribal, even biological level, but it has also taken on the colors of a religious crusade. The Bosnian Muslims are the residue of the Turkish occupation. There are Christians in the United States who sympathize with the plight of Bosnian Muslims. At the same time, they would not like to be in the position of defending Islam against Catholic and Orthodox Christians. Exactly 500 years ago, the same King and Queen of Spain who sent Columbus to the New World expelled the Moors who had conquered and occupied large parts of their country. Humane people may not condone such acts of “ethnic cleansing,” but we ought to make an effort to understand them, if only for reasons of self-interest. The last time the Western powers took an interest in Bosnia, the result was World War I, and George Bush would be well-advised to keep America out of Yugoslavia, even if it costs him the election.