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Bridge Across the Tara: A Review

by Nomad Tue Dec 4th, 2007 at 06:42:44 AM EST

Of the few books which I brought to South Africa, the one I've read with most fascination was Frank Westerman's "De brug over de Tara" - a Dutch book set during the Yugoslavian Wars. Frank Westerman was foreign correspondent from roughly 1992 until 1994 for one of the major Dutch newspaper in the Netherlands and the book encapsulates his personal impressions. Dutch review here. Sadly, it appears the book has not been translated, while many of Westerman's other books have. Perhaps still in the pipeline.

This may open a whole cesspit on the break-up of Yugoslavia, the western intervention and the peoples of the Balkan - nevertheless, I'd like to stimulate debate on this topic. The motive is entirely ulterior: this is for my advancement of personal understanding of the conflict and of the Balkan areas. I don't intentionally seek for brain haemorrhages for people like vbo.

Furthermore, I hope it may serve as an introductionary text for the upcoming and seemingly crucial decision on the sovereignty of Kosovo on December 10.

Diary rescue by Migeru

Let me put this in a personal context. The war on the Balkan was for me the first war in my life during which I became truly aware of war and conflict. When the end of the Iraq-Iran war was announced on the radio in the late eighties, I was in my pyjamas. I shrugged and continued back to my attempts to beat the computer with chess. In my first year of secondary schooling, I couldn't understand why the higher grade students were walking around with transistor radios to follow the news on Desert Storm. Even the Rwanda genocide was a faraway, abstract happening - although it began to tickle my interests and questions began to bubble in my mind, while at the same time Yugoslavia already had fallen apart! Perhaps it was because the murmurings of "genocide" that rose during the Rwandan conflict, began to be whispered whenever the war in "former Yugoslavia" was featured. Perhaps it was how my parents lamented and sadly shook their heads as they saw Sarajevo shot into debris. One evening my father came down from the attic with the slide projector and showed me and my sisters a different, sun-filled Yugoslavia which my parents had seen visited shortly after their marriage.

But whenever I tried to find an introducing text to understand that patch of Europe on the map, with new borders now so tangled and strung together with enclaves, I rapidly lost track of the names, the peoples (which somehow mattered), the history (which somehow mattered even more). Tito stood out, but Tito was long dead - what did he matter? Muslims mattered, but they were not your archetypical Muslims I knew and they belonged to the same people?? I gave up. I was seventeen, there were other books to read, and some six months later the Dayton accords put a stop to the war. I thought.

It was not until 1999 when the war over Kosovo erupted, that my interests for the history of the Yugoslavian countries resurged, and they've not left me until today. Yet the experience I had then was not so different from what I had when I first began - even while geography, history and ethnology were better lodged into my head, my readings still failed to answer the mother of my questioning: what were those driving factors that disintegrated Yugoslavia, and more importantly, what motivated their people to willingly set upon this downward spiral into destruction?

"Bridge Across the Tara" has, so far, answered those questions with the most conviction I've come across. Besides that, it's a terrific read - I've read it thrice now.

The first two chapters, "Vukovar Junction" and "Silvercity" (translation mine) are, overall, anti-war stories - it would not have mattered what locations, or what time, they'd be told. They do, however, serve to set a stage for a desire to explain why these stories were told in former Yugoslavia.

Uklet Vukovar - the Cursed City

Vukovar, a city situated on the very eastern edge of Croatia, was declared Croatian when Croatia took her independence. Civil unrest worsened over time and during the Battle of the Barracks, a stream of tanks (which had been built cooperatively by Serbians and Croatians) rolled out of Belgrade and shot an estimated 87.000 grenades upon the city - about twice the amount of Vukovar citizens at that time. The Serbians retook a destroyed city - perhaps another sad example of "To save the city, we had to destroy the city." Note: according to the city administration, the Croatian population was about the same size as the Serbian one when the unrests began.

Water Tower of Vukovar, now a symbol of the folly of war

War turned both sides into animals - a point that is reiterated in Westerman's book time and time again - but the overall focus is on Serbian expansion and war acts. The Serbian people were displayed in the western press as the bad guys (that's how I remembered the war, too) and the Croatians as the good guys - which seems an utter fallacy to me now. Westerman talks about victimization a lot, and the sinister role which it consistently played in the mythologies surrounding the war. Even in the first chapter, a fierce anti-Milošević Serbian, got furious at Westerman when he had portrayed the Serbian soldiers as bellicose in one of his articles: "We Serbians love to fight" had read the header. Wasn't it true? Yes, it was, but Serbians were also victims - which was never told in the west.

Vukovar Junction is a story of Serbian victims. It shows the remains of Vukovar on February 1993, some 16 months after the siege - hollowed buildings, basements rumoured to still hold decomposing bodies, dogs that explode when they rummage through the debris and trip an unexploded shell or mine. The remnants of the over 1600 oak trees that had greened the city - now forming scorched and blackened crosses lining the streets. And it tells about Drago and his wife Svetlana - both Serbian, trapped in a city besieged by Serbians. When the health of Drago's wife deteriorates after spending three months in a musty, earthen shelter, they make for the communal hall in the city - a fateful two days before the Croatians, out of ammunition, would surrender the city. Their neighbour (Croatian) can enter the hall immediately. Drago and Svetlana are set apart and made to wait until nightfall; they are then ordered to get into a jeep - ostentatiously to take them back to their house. But they are not. "Where are you taking us?" "We're putting you onto the train to Belgrade."

Drago knows now. On the other side of the train tracks lies the Serbian front.

He had helped his wife to get out of the jeep; her blanket had snagged behind something. "Belgrade is there." The barrel of a rifle was poked between his ribs. "Quick! Walk!" They would tread on a mine, Drago thought, or otherwise the Serbian soldiers on the other side would open fire. But there was only one path: straight across the front. They began to walk, stumbling across the tracks. "I didn't dare to look back, neither did my wife, but I almost had to drag her with me." Then the loud sound of clack-zip-clack: the sounds of a kalasjnikov arming.
Drago's wife looks back and sees in that fraction of a moment what a human being is not really supposed to see.
Two bullets hit Drago in the hip. "Here and here, through this vest which I was also wearing that day." And one in his head. Zjika looks the other way when his father puts down his glasses and lets his staring eye drop in the palm of his hand. "The bullet grazed my temple, but took my eye with it." On the pit of the socket a small pluck of cotton-wool is recognisable.
He had lain face forward in the grass and had felt the warmth drain out of his wife's hand. Doors slammed - the kind of sound that carries, even when the night is filled with whistling blows. Everything in his body felt liquid and warm, as if he was streaming empty, which also was happening. He had stayed down a little longer after he heard the wheels of the jeep squeak. "I kissed my wife and then put the blanket across her."

Translation mine.


Where the first chapter is an anecdote from the war zone between Croatia and Serbia, the second chapter turns towards Bosnia-Herzegovina. Silvercity tells, it is inevitable for a Dutch audience, about Srebrenica - some three years before the genocidal slaughter of the enclave. The timing is not exact - dates in the book are sporadically given and need to be puzzled together.

I do not know how many journalists during the 1990 - 1995 conflict have been able to punch through to Srebenica. Westerman recalls a German photographer, who went in before him and was locked in there for months. He gives the impression that he and his companion from The Independent were the next ones - and whether that's true or not, their entry and visit to the Muslim enclave is done by a hugely daring and bewildering stratagem. The chapter is more about the journey than the destination, and hence I'll be brief on this chapter. A notable quote, though:

Serbians, Croatians and Muslims, the latter elevated by Tito's decree to a "people", share the same language, height and girth, eye colour. The mean shoe size is identical to decimals behind the comma yet grotesque differences are being fantasized. On Serbian radio a professor in ethnography explains that Muslims vocal chords are shorter than Serbians'. "That's because of singing the muezzin for centuries." The contradictions are rife. "Muslims are a degree darker than Serbians," says one. "That's because their wives slept with the Turks".
"No," says another, "Serbians are a degree darker than Muslims: the Turkish landlords had the right to deflower every Serbian daughter."
Every race doctrine has something absurd, I thought, but this one was strung together from loose pieces of absurdity, which made it multi-headed, random and hence extremely dangerous.
"You don't understand us," Zoran says, his eyes tired.

The third and the last chapter, although written in the same thoughtful, inquisitive approach, seem to aim to find that understanding, scratching through the brutal surface of the war, observing how the orthodox church played its dastard part. In "Children of Tito" Westerman chases another impossible target: a better understanding of Milošević, the man described in the western press as the evil genius behind the war.

Wikipedia pictures from Marcović (left) and Milošević

A picture is painted of Milošević as a goofy compassionate, incapable to abuse the power of his presidency, haunted by traumas from his youth: his father committed suicide with a hunting rifle, his mother hung herself. The timeline in the book, however, do not match the dates on other sources: Westerman writes that his mother committed suicide when Milošević was a university student. According to his friend, Brana Crnčević, the president doesn't read papers, just violent thrillers, and frequently quotes Dostojevski, about the tragic fate of the Serbian people. And despite that (or because of that?), he became the most popular communist at the start of the post-communist era.

Milošević himself is unapproachable, so Westerman sets his eyes upon the persons that surround or know him intimately: his mother (but she's dead), Mirjana Marcović, his equally sphinx-like wife, and Gospodine Stambolić, the long-time friend and political mentor who Milošević ultimately betrayed. Stambolić answers the doorbell but does not open for interviews. Establishing an interview with Mirjana Marcović results in a months-long goose-chase in which Westerman eventually succeeds - yet fails: Mirjana is portrayed as an idealistic dreamer, ever nurturing the idea of restoring Tito's dream of a Yugoslavia made whole, while her husband occupies himself destroying that dream with every day that passes. This is in itself entirely different than this 2001 BBC article, who depicts her as the brain behind Slobodan.

The theme that emerges most persistently throughout the chapter is the subject that Tito tabooed and suppressed: the beast of nationalism. Instead of understanding Milošević, the currents that steered him to betray Tito's legacy and Stambolić come more and more into the limelight. It was those currents that washed Milošević to the shores of presidential power, according to Westerman - the currents had created and propped him up, not the other way around.

Had the Serbian intellectuals, as a movement, not contributed a much larger part to the liquidation of Yugoslavia than Milošević himself? Djukić, Milošević's biographer, wrote: `He was embraced by the intellectual circle, who exchanged their democratic flag immediately for the nationalistic tricolour. Scientists, writers, doctors and dissidents, all admired him. Milošević would never have been as self-confident if he hadn't had the backing of the Serbian intellectuals.' But that wasn't it. Those writers, scientists and artists shouldered Milošević because he had been pliant enough to execute their preferred policy.

This, in turn, leads to an absolutely fascinating interview with high-positioned members of Matica Srpska, an intellectual institute (what we'd call a think-tank these days) situated in Novi Sad, which in all honesty deserves to be diaried in full - as it glimpses into the heart of what would be the theme in the final, fourth chapter: understanding the psyche of the people on the Balkan.

"Milošević was the first to understand the (1986) memorandum," said the philosopher. "The Serbian people have the right on an own state, more than anyone else."
"You cannot suppress one's national identity. The creation of the own state was unavoidable," said the president.
The philosopher briefly thought and then said, "You in the west propagate those universalistic ideas: a new world order. What is that? Freedom and democracy for all? I say: it is imperialistic balderdash. The world forms a mosaic of intermixed and intermingled cultures. The western humanitarian tradition wants to outlaw nationalistic feelings. Hah, that's what Tito also wanted. Yet individuals resist against that, because universal values are insufficient to live on. One can not live without a national identity."
"Why does Europe want to keep Yugoslavia whole?" asked the president, accusatory. He looked at me with frowned eyebrows.
"A multi-ethnical state is unnatural," the philosopher spoke with feeling. "People know this. It spawns spontaneous movements that resist the universal thoughts of equality and freedom. I predict that the twenty-first century will become the century of nationalism."

The fourth chapter, "In the footsteps of A. den Doolaard" is the most empathic and humane of all chapters. Westerman meets A. den Doolaard, then over ninety years old and the man, a national Dutch icon, would pass away a few years later. He, too, is worth a diary on its own. Den Doolaard (a pseudonym) traveled in his youth extensively through the Balkan and attempted to capture the spirit of the Balkan people within his literature, which is still popular both in the Netherlands and the Balkan. There is now a monument in his honour in Macedonia.

A. den Doolaard

It's the best chapter to gain some insights behind the people on the Balkan - it is also much too short, as it is set up as a tripartite of three areas: Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro. All areas, as we now know in hindsight, would rally in some form for independence. Personally, I found Westerman's insights on Kosovo and Montenegro the most enlightening.

In Kosovo, he tries to interview the Serbian Arkan, or Z. R. - an internationally sought and convicted criminal, a war criminal to boot, with a history that reads on its own as baffling. After bank robberies in Sweden, he's arrested in Amsterdam, but soon after escapes from prison, and is later re-captured and wounded after robbing a jewellery store in Frankfurt which ends with another successful escape from the hospital. His football club, "Red Star" would take the World Cup in 1991, and Arkan latched onto the growing nationalism as no other. It has been rumoured he armed the hooligans of his club with arms and set them hunting Croatians in Vukovar - and their killing methods have been graphically documented by a Time photographer in the Bosnian city of Bijeljina .

When Westerman was in Kosovo, Arkan tries to get elected for Serbian parliament and preaches to the converted: "Kosovo is part of Serbia". Kosovo is the Jerusalem of the Serbs (apparently a quote from Milošević) - they do not see how it can be split.

An excerpt from a speech of Arkan:

"We're going to build new weapon factories. Weapon factories for Kosovo. A new super-army must arise in Kosovo. A super-police. Made from the best sons of the people. [....] Mothers and daughters of Serbia!" I could see the speaker boxes tremble with the noise, and yet Arkan's voice hardly could rise above the crowd's cheering. "Mothers and daughter of Serbia, I want you to give birth to ten children. If the Albanese can do it, then so can you: ten sons each." As if he had single-handedly made a goal, or had punched his opponent knock-out, the public roared with enthusiasm.
When I left, my ears squeaking, I realised that Arkan wasn't a typical Balkan product. Purely the fickle circumstances had allowed him to start his own bank or take a seat in parliament. [...] Arkan was a recognisable phenomenon, that is, he was the kind of pathological killer that is universal.
I concluded this with some relief. I had developed increasing doubts about this whole idea of the Balkan-man. Because so far I had only found a peculiar Macedonian beatnik and a master-villain ripped from the pages of a James Bond thriller. I had focussed on the extremities without concentrating on what moved the masses. And why, I asked myself, would I want to continue on this slippery slope of ethnology? [...]
I preferred to declare the Balkan-man dead, but my arguments to do this weren't strong enough yet.

So now Westerman focuses on the other side of the Kosovo population: the Albanian one. 1.7 million people in Kosovo that had subjugated to the ruling Serbian minority, that had been pushed out of most, if not all, public functions, and were united by a bloodless resistance. Westerman doubts that unity. And yet: when the Serbian army created a new road, the Albanese refused to make use of it, and preferred to roll their mule-carts through the grassy verges beside a perfectly level, unused tar road. All of the Albanese seem related, as family, split up in clans - and the clan elders had expressly prohibited violence - although Westerman finds plenty of sentiments to reach for arms against Serbians.

And then the book reaches the enigmas of the vendetta - that binds and dooms the Albanian men from birth - but which philosophy seems to underpin the whole of Balkan thinking. In 1989, so runs an estimate from the book, over 17.000 men risk their life the moment they set a foot outside. But the vendetta has been upheld by the clan-elders - because of the types of Milošević and Arkan. It reads as "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" - and it sounds too good to be true. It is. When Westerman meets another clan-elder, he learns that the vendetta already has retaken his course: another man has been killed. "Three years is a short while".

A. den Doolaard had written: "The vendetta was the doom of birth: never have I seen a race that carries the mark of Cain so distinguishable on its sombre, wise faces. [..] We in the west embrace Abel (at least, during peacetime), who multiplied the fruits of his harvest. Yet the [Albanian] honours Cain." Westerman is intrigued by this simple philosophy - but what would be its foundation? Den Doolaard had also speculated on this: The vendetta makes living life pleasantly bearable, an escape from an otherwise mind-numbingly dull existence.

Westerman concludes:

Death motivated life. Leonard, Gjorg, the Shejqiri's and the Xhosa's killed each other born out of that same human need that had made Arkan choose a life of committing violent robberies, that made the matador enter the arena with the bull. But with one difference to the matador: the Balkan-man does not choose to enter the arena voluntarily, he's being dragged into it, whether he wants or not.

Bridge across the Tara

In the final piece, this theme crystallizes further. Westerman is brought to Montenegro specifically by the history of one man: architect Lazar Jauković, who built the bridge across the river Tara that separates Serbia from Montenegro. The same man destroyed his own creation during the Second World War and he was hung by the Italian forces on one of the bridge's remaining pillars. Westerman wonders: do the Montenegrins honour the architect for building the bridge, or for destroying it? Again, the amount of foresight in this book astonished me: Westerman interviews Slavko Perović, one of the first politicians to openly speak out for total independence of Serbia - which would happen in June 2006. Most of Lazar Jauković's relatives have already passed away - and by sheer fortune Westerman runs into his niece. From that interview he concludes: the Balkan-man is a man. Women do not matter, except for giving birth to soldiers.

And finally, he visits the bridge, spanning across the steep cleft. "As if a sword had cut the mountains in half." The Serbian customs halts the group of people, but lets them finally walk across the bridge.

We kept talking for a while. When the ice had been broken, Colin asked whether we could cross the bridge. "Go ahead," they said. Goran didn't dare to look across the railing; it took me a lot of effort. The boulders in the stream below could only be reached by fifteen minutes of falling down.
"You aren't afraid, are you?" taunted one of the Serbian men. We turned and saw how the Balkan-man was standing on the edge of the railing. He walked ten, twenty, thirty paces, a balancing act with death, before he jumped back onto the road.
Complete despise of death! "That indifference towards dying is inherited, the Serbians are like that," had Den Doolaard said.

Its final conclusion:

Perhaps it works like this: the Balkan-man exists in the heads and minds of the people on the Balkan. He does not exist in their genes or blood. To make him continue to live on, he must be recreated in every new generation and because this had continuously happened, it gives the appearance that it is part of its nature. Yet: because he's become entangled in the web of his own history, he's become powerless to look ahead neutrally. That's his tragedy. The Balkan-man marches with his back first into the future.

Keeping in mind the pending decision on December 10 about the future state of Kosovo, Westerman's reading of the cultures and the people on the Balkan do not bode particularly well for the results that now are coming rapidly to a climatic head.

This diary was practically goaded into existence by bruno-ken's clip about skiing Serbs and Albanians, although the bulk of the diary was already there before that post.

Further reading:
Comment is Free - A confederation for Kosovo
The Dismantling of Yugoslavia - an alternative take, hat tip to A swedish kind of death

I'll be off-line for a few days after today, though. Be nice to each other.

by Nomad (Bjinse) on Mon Nov 26th, 2007 at 05:06:44 AM EST
A bridge diary not on a Thursday ??? (-:

It is however a truely fantastic bridge.
Wikipedia ses:

It was built between 1937 and 1940, designed by Mijat Trojanović, who oversaw the building of the bridge. When it was finished, it was the biggest vehicular concrete arch bridge in Europe.

The bridge is 365 m long, and has five arches, the biggest having span of 116 m. The distance between the roadbed and the river is 172 m.

The Tara Canyon is part of the Durmitor NP. It is the deepest canyon in Europe, reaching up to 1.3km deep.

Great Diary as well (-:

by PeWi on Tue Nov 27th, 2007 at 09:12:16 AM EST
Thank you, Nomad.

Any substantial comment I could make would essentially hijack the diary, so I'll just say that you might want to look at Slavenka Drakulić's books as well, especially Balkan Express and They Would Never Hurt a Fly.

by lychee on Tue Dec 4th, 2007 at 02:23:28 PM EST
You do make me rather curious now.

I went to Google. It sounds awfully depressing but important material.

Slavenka Drakulic Criticism

In addition to her fiction, Drakulic's nonfiction works show a firm focus on the ramifications of the social and political conflicts in Eastern Europe. In How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, Drakulic traces communism's failure to meet the needs of women in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, and East Germany, using her own personal recollections and interviews with other Eastern European women. The essays focus on a wide range of subject material, from the oppression of women by communist governments to the domestic impact of shortages of material goods, such as the lack of toilet paper and tampons. Sterben in Kroatian: Vom Krieg mitten in Europa (1993; The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War) collects essays that illuminate the gradual changes caused by the onset of war in the Balkan region from the spring of 1991 through May 1992. One of the most significant themes of the collection arises in the essay "Overcome by Nationhood" when Drakulic describes what it felt like to be stripped of all of her identification--including education, profession, and personality--and to be defined solely by her nationality. Drakulic argues that treachery becomes part of everyday life during wartime and that the label of nationalism can destroy individuality.

They Would Never Hurt a Fly: War Criminals on Trial in The Hague -- book review

It is extremely difficult to take a hard, long look at the mistakes of a beloved homeland and ask if, under the right circumstances, she could turn into one of the monsters. This is a question we should all ask ourselves and take a serious look at our own media; buzz words like "the war on terrorism" and "the axis of evil" come all to easily to mind. Drakulic admits too few people saw what was happening and even fewer acted on their beliefs.

The trials are nothing like Court TV; they are long, drawn out, often boring. Her attention is caught by a guard on trial for shooting prisoners he says were trying to escape. How then, asked the judge, did the blood get on the walls inside the cells? Stunned, the author realized, "I see what I did not see before, not their (the defendants) dull faces but a room with walls splashed with blood."

A painful, thoughtful book on war crimes and those who were accused and, in some cases, convicted of those crimes. It would be hard to find a more pertinent book for our times.

And also I found:

"S.: A Novel About the Balkans" by Slavenka Drakulic - Salon.com

In "S." she opens the trapdoors to the killing rooms of that war and shows us the raped, tortured and murdered bodies of civilians. The immediacy and power of the novel rise not from the unbelievable news it brings but from precisely the opposite: What's unbelievable is that we are witnessing horribly familiar events. Fixated by the supreme example of the Holocaust, we don't notice when it happens again, and again -- never quite in the same way, of course, and not on the 6 million scale we can't stop focusing on.

That's when the narrative of one ordinary life becomes essential again, as a reminder that decency is frail and wars make monsters. Drakulic's first chapter, set in March 1993, starts with the aftermath. In a maternity hospital in Stockholm, S., a refugee from the war in Bosnia, has just given birth to a boy. She regards him coldly; he is not a child to her but a tumor finally removed from her body, "the fruit of their seed

A thought... A theme Drakulić seems to accent is how the ordinary population became ensnared and doomed by the surge of nationalism that their leaders, and according to Westerman at least the Serbian intellectual elite, took up. I'm reminded of Baghdad Burning, where Riverbend has argued that Iraq could not be split into Sunni and Shiite camps - tight intermingling relations and marriages would safeguard against it. I always thought that a fallacy, because the fracturing into separate identities happened within Yugoslavia with nary an effort.

by Nomad (Bjinse) on Tue Dec 4th, 2007 at 03:31:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Drakulić's books have been a great help. They can be depressing and alarming, but for better or for worse, her perspectives and reporting eliminate illusions one might have had. The revelations you get when those illusions are stripped away are not always pleasant-- no one wants to hear that the war criminals she saw were not all grizzled old men from with grudges from long ago but included people their own age, with whom they might have traded music tapes in happier times-- but they're necessary.

I mentioned diary hijacking basically because I've been going through a similar process for the past few months but with a very personal edge. I lived in pre-war Yugoslavia for a short time and thus it's easy to make this diary into something All About Me, when it's not.

by lychee on Tue Dec 4th, 2007 at 04:17:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
beautiful writing, nomad!

what a pleasure to read, you could have kept my rapt attention even at ten times the length.

a perfect example of why ET is wonderful, jeje.

this area's conflicts has always fascinated me for its very obscurity, in the sense of tangled opacity.

when the jet fighters were flying over during the last war, it didn't feel so obscure at all, only a few hundred clicks away as the crow flies, just a quick zodiac ride and a hike away...murder, mayhem, rape and mutilation, while i tilled my garden, and strummed songs...

too damn close for comfort....

i have watched hours of reportage and still can't figure out if there are any 'good guys' or movements to support in this salad of multi-century tensions.

i'd feel just as hopelessly flabbergasted at the end as i was before!

this diary is a jewel, for the insights and the style.


The western humanitarian tradition wants to outlaw nationalistic feelings. Hah, that's what Tito also wanted. Yet individuals resist against that, because universal values are insufficient to live on. One can not live without a national identity.

well, i think sages of even older cultures may have envisioned a more universal way of life beyond nationalism since way before europe or the 'western' humanitarian tradition extolled it...(the latter while control freaking around the planet).

so if he wants to diss someone for that utopian affirmation, no need to pick on 'the west', whom he obviously doesn't feel kin with, though due to geography or our attitudes i'm not sure, maybe both.

i wonder how barbarous things have to get before we realise that nationalism = unsustainable, due to simple attrition.

being a half breed of two nationalities, i have not felt automatic or easy allegiance to either, perhaps this impedes my fuller understanding of what it must be like to grow up and form attitudes with only one cultural matrix, and underestimate the weight of identity invested.

there is no dichotomy for me in wanting to harvest values that are universally consonant from both cultures, and i'm happy to leave behind the more limiting characteristics.

in this cultural sense, globalisation is a good thing, we can put parochiality for ever behind us if and when we collectively choose to in enough numbers.

...which is why the UN is such a visionary organisation, warts and all.

i'd like to see it scaled up 1000 times, and made much more egalitarian and transparent.

the way things look right now, we're centuries away, but it feels so right to be thinking longterm...

och, i ramble...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Dec 5th, 2007 at 08:14:53 AM EST
Nationalism never exists in a vacuum, however. As much as we prize multiculturalism and liberty, there will always be nationalists as soon as someone limits our sense of possibility, puts into question our very identities. This is why a multicultural country was so easily torn apart. The initial movement to break up Yugoslavia was also seen as a nationalist movement. The very name Croatia implies something about Croat ethnicity.

One thing to pay very close attention to once you begin reading these books is the writers' stance at the very beginning of the crisis. For instance, what is the writer's opinion of the initial break-up and how it was to be conducted? From that, all else flows.

I was discussing Samantha Powers' book on DKos recently, since she is the foreign policy expert in Obama's campaign, and her admirable idealism and work against massacre and genocide eventually became a topic of concern. In A PROBLEM FROM HELL, she critiques Vance-Owen as a flawed plan that allowed the Serbs to stall and eventually commit genocide. But she never compares the Vance-Owen plan to he ultimate Dayton plan. They were very very similar in the end. If, out of idealism, she would counsel the rejection of the Vance-Owen plan, then in some sense she--as a potential diplomat--would also bear some of the responsibility for what ensued. After James Baker and the early Clinton team scuttled  the Vance Owen plan, the Serbs went on a genocidal rampage in Bosnia and killed approx. 75,000 Muslims. I would submit that these Muslims would be alive today if the Vance-Owen plan had been accepted by the US.

So what was it that scuttled the plan? It was a form of idealism which, above all, insisted on the right to self-determination while at the same time adopting a contradictory approach that insisted on multiculturalism. This idealistic tendency was absolutely doomed to fail in the Balkans, and it still is. You can't have both self-determination and multiculturalism when different ethnicities are living village by village in a federation.

So Vance-Owen was killed because it gave federated status to the Serbs.

Again, you have to go back to the beginning, to the initial moments of recognition of independent states, recognition which did not address the issues of ethnic minorities in those states. The Serb reaction was appalling, and by no means does the lack of diplomacy at the beginning excuse their behavior. But the emphasis here is on conflict resolution. How did diplomatic efforts fail to address the reality of the situation?

by Upstate NY on Wed Dec 5th, 2007 at 03:51:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
An important insight...

Notably, "Bridge across the Tara" does not cover the set-up of the crisis, nor does it hints on its stance in regard of the break-up. Whether this omission is deliberate or accidental, I can't tell.

Would you have a link to your DKos diary? I'd be interested in reading that - although it seems to touch on resolution building, and not on the war causes - although one would think they go hand in glove. I wonder now how Vance-Owen's team interpreted the conflict and its underlying causes.

My impression of the controversial Kosovo solution looks to me heavier accentuated on self-determination. I also get the impression that only a next round bloody slaughter will stop it...

by Nomad (Bjinse) on Thu Dec 6th, 2007 at 07:41:19 AM EST
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Nomad, it wasn't a Kosovo diary. It was just a response to someone touting Obama because of Samantha Powers, and I responded to my reading of her book which is more or less the same as my response here. These are the relevant paragraphs of that reading:

I also admired Samantha Power's book, but the conclusions in that book are not so cut and dry in terms of foreign policy. Power advocated an intervention into Bosnia to stop the genocide by dismissing diplomatic efforts as stalling tactics or negotiating tactics by the Serbs. For instance, she dismisses the Vance-Owen plan as a naive attempt by diplomats to appease the Serbs. A big problem with her conclusion: Vance-Owen was scuttled by American diplomats that didn't like it because it supposedly gave away too much to the Serbs. The plan was "stalling" because Western diplomats dithered when there was a plan in the offing that would have saved countless lives. 75,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered subsequent to the agreement on that plan which would federate Bosnia into two constituent Republics, with the Serbs getting 49%/51%. Hmmmm, sounds very close to Dayton. In fact, it WAS very close to Dayton. The scuttling of Vance-Owen accomplished nothing at all except giving the Serbs a pretext to commit genocide. I suppose in retrospect Power's position was that the Serbs should not have been rewarded at all. But in the final analysis, they did receive just such a reward largely because of the question of ethnic Serbs living outside Serbia proper. This is precisely why Cyrus Vance and David Owen (as well as many Europeans) realized that a deal had to be cut, to address the imperfect drawing of new borders. Were Power a significant voice in the state dept., it very well could be that Bosnia could have turned into an even bigger bloodbath (quite possible were it not for the Serb agreement to trade populations in the Krajina for their own federation in Bosnia).

Power was excellent on Rwanda, as well as on delineating all the genocides of the 20th century, from the Armenian genocide to Rwanda. But it's the nitty-gritty decisions that need to be made BEFORE a genocide happens that are crucial. Reading her book on Bosnia, I am not convinced she would have given proper advice had she been in power. As it was, James Baker blew it as did Clinton's team in the earlygoing in Bosnia.

by Upstate NY on Thu Dec 6th, 2007 at 09:16:44 AM EST
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Lord David Owen has a book about his interpretation of the crisis. In the book, it's evident that he realizes that with Serb military might, and with their initial actions in Vukovar, there was going to be a lot of bloodshed. He had no love for the Serbs. But he knew the Serbs did feel exploited by the recognition of states with a heavy Serb population. The relative peacefulness in Slovenia served as an indicator that Serbia was not interested in areas without a Serb ethnic presence--as opposed to the shelling of Vukovar.   Owen knew that the one sure way to prevent bloodshed would be to cut the Serbs in on a deal. I believe this deal was scuttled because it was seen to reward the military aggressor very early on (there is some controversy about who began the aggression in Croatia, but no controversy about who caused most of the early damage).

I agree with this ideal that military aggression should not be rewarded, but first we have to judge whether the aggressor actually has any outstanding issues that deserve address.

To a large degree, I believe the logic of Vance-Owen is being adopted in Kosovo. Independence is being offered to pacify the Kosovo Albanians. The threat is that Kosovo will become a much more dangerous and violent place without cutting this deal now. This is precisely David Owen's thinking in 1992. The riots of 2004 prove that the UN and NATO have no effective way of quelling Albanian anger.

by Upstate NY on Thu Dec 6th, 2007 at 09:27:15 AM EST
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