Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"The Bridge Betrayed" by Michael Sells [2]


Rain of Ash

Sells begins his account of the Bosnian War not with Srebrenica, or Omarska, or with scenes of water-pail toting Sarajevans dodging sniper bullets; rather, he begins with the shelling of the National Library; the deliberate and systematic destruction of that repository of Bosnian history and culture. This is quite right, and very appropriate.

For anyone not familiar with this book, it needs to be kept in mind that it was published in 1996 and presumably was being written just as the war was drawing to a close. Coming after the end of hostilities, the book is not a piece of advocacy or reportage; neither is it work of history or retrospective analysis, since Dayton was still a relatively recent occurrence and there hadn't been time to collect information, documents, and interviews in the country. Rather, Sells was determined to illustrate the importance of religion and religious beliefs in the destruction of a mutliethnic/multi-confessional society; and also to debunk the conventional wisdom about "ancient hatreds" as well as other myths.

Keeping this in mind, I hope the reader will understand if I skim quickly through some passages in this book; not only did Sells write this book 12 years ago, he also wrote it as part of a series "Comparative Studies in Religion and Society". Therefore, his target audience cannot be expected to have had more than a cursory knowledge of events in Bosnia and Yugoslavia in the early 1990s outside of nightly news broadcasts and mainstream press coverage. Sells reiterates a lot of territory which will be old hat to anyone reading this blog. I shall not spend much time summarizing his account of events.

Back to the destruction of the national library...

To repeat--I think this is an excellent choice by Sells. While I certainly believe that human lives are more important than old books and that any innocent life is worth more than even the rarest manuscript, no aspect of the Bosnian war more starkly illustrates the genocidal nature of the assault against the sovereign nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina than the war against the physical manifestations of its history and culture.

It is telling that while revisionists like Diana Johnstone and Michael Parenti are often willing to consider civilian deaths in Bosnia (even though their analysis is rarely honest or complete), neither "Fools' Crusade" nor "To Kill A Nation" dealt at all with the systematic destruction of mosques in Serb-held areas, or with the deliberate destruction of first the Oriental Institute and then the National Library in Sarajevo. I think they know that bringing such incidents into their warped narratives would be a losing proposition for their revisionist project. While it is unfortunately possible to sell some people on the notion that widespread civilian deaths, while "unfortunate", were merely the inevitable product of ruthless "ethnic conflict" and inflamed hatreds rather than of a systematic campaign of destruction. It is much harder to explain away the dynamiting of every mosque in Serb-held areas after active combat had ceased, or to invent even a far-fetched rationalization for the intentional destruction of a library with no military value, but incalculable cultural worth.

The inferno and debris that resulted from that nihilistic act of barbarism is the "Rain of Ash" of this section's title. From page one, Sells is on the right track.


I will continue my review of Chapter One in the next post.

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