Thursday, October 01, 2009

"In Harm's Way" by Martin Bell [4]

Chapter 2: Peacekeepers Accomplices

Bell was obviously quite impressed by his two new peacekeeper friends and allies, particularly General MacKenzie ("Lew"), whom Bell describes as a man of action ill-suited for the sort of desk work he was originally assigned to when sent to Bosnia on a UN peacekeeping mission just prior to the outbreak of war. The time for diplomacy having passed, MacKenzie was out in the field directing the work of humanitarian relief the best he could; the reader can guess that his subsequent experience negotiating with militias at roadblocks on behalf of beleaguered supply convoys might well have colored his experience in Bosnia.

Bell describes the war at this point as "unstoppable," a point I might wish to debate, then moves on to an anecdote which made quite an impression on him and I think it is safe to assume on his buddy "Lew." Namely, the violence surrounding the evacuation of the Serb forces under General Kukanjac from the barracks in Sarajevo as part of a deal to win the release of President Izetbegovic, who had been kidnapped at the airport by Serb forces.

It's a well-known story to anyone who followed the war; as is known, Bosnian Government forces carried out an ambush on the fleeing Serb soldiers in violation of the deal the UN (under MacKenzie) had brokered. Bell goes on to list the lessons about war reporting he gained from this experience.

Lesson number one--"stay with it." Bell missed the worst of the the ambush because he was away filing a story for a deadline. Enough said, for our purposes.

Lesson number two--"the department of preconceived notions was alive and well and living in distant newsrooms." In short, because up until now the news from Bosnia had been stories of Serbs slaughtering Muslims, Bell found himself in some difficulty explaining that this extremely bloody incident was an example of a large number of Serbs being killed by (mostly) Muslims. Bell felt this issue put the previously unambiguous conflict in a new light, since "Serbs can be victims too" as he told his superiors back in Britain. Yet the equivalence between what he saw in the Drina valley--unarmed civilians being driving by violence and terror from their homes--and this unfortunate incident--the ambush of soldiers who had been surrounded and trapped within government territory until the kidnapping of their President won the release of those enemy troops, cannot be taken too far. I don't wish to dismiss the lives of those Serb soldiers who were ambushed and killed; but the situation was rather unique and not at all a parallel to the systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing Bell had been witness to. While I admire his genuine feeling for the victims of war, his analysis here is superficial.

Lesson three--in peacekeeping, the press had a different relation with the military than in standard war reporting. Bell identified with the UN. "We wished it to succeed." The normal relationship between the press and the military--somewhat suspicious and cagey on both sides, as the military wished to keep its cards close to its vest while the press sought to pry out information from sources it assumed were not being fully forthcoming with them--didn't exist in Bosnia. The UN was transparent and generally knew less about the situation on the ground than the press did, especially because of the constant rotation of officers.

So a relationship evolved, one involving the flow of information between the press and the UN (later the IFOR). Bell is upfront about this--while some might have felt this was unethical or unprofessional, he wanted to serve the cause of peace. And, he states, "to help the UN was to serve the cause of peace."

And so it ends, with Bell fantasizing about someday telling his grandchildren--who, hearing that journalists often used their profession as a cover for espionage, ask him if he was ever a spy--that "actually I was. Just once, I spied for peace."

Bell's motives seem decent. Yet there are unspoken assumptions at the heart of this chapter which he does not address. The press wanted the UN to "succeed"; but at what? And, Bell assures us that "to help the UN was to serve the cause of peace." That sounds noble and high-minded. But in Bosnia, was this true?


Anonymous said...

Bell provides a much more rewarding subject for your thoughtful analysis than some of the previous burdens you've taken up on our behalf.

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