Monday, October 19, 2009

"In Harm's Way" by Martin Bell [9]

Chapter 8: Of Serbs and Satellites

Earlier, Bell mentioned that his view towards the Serbs was more ambiguous than some of his more impassioned colleagues. In this chapter, he goes to some length to explain why.

I was dreading this chapter; I was afraid that Bell would end up confronting the same strawmen that Balkan revisionists so often drag out in an effort to bog down the debate over Bosnia in false equivalences, forcing their opponents to back down from "anti-Serb" positions they largely never held in the first place.

I am not "anti-Serb"; I am, however, anti-fascist, anti-racist, and anti-collectivist. As I noted frequently in my review of Diana Johnstone's "Fools' Crusade", one of the most frustrating aspects of dealing with Balkan revisionists and Serb-nationalist apologists is that they have boxed themselves in with their own collectivism; because their worldview is collectivist, they can only conceive of war guilt in collective terms. Any crimes committed by a nation's political elite or by forces operating in the nation's name must be shared by the entire nation, or not at all. Any criticism of the actions of some Serbs becomes an attack on all Serbs. The guilt becomes too much to bear, and is easily refuted.

Fortunately, this is not what Bell is up to. He never forgot which forces started the war, which side committed the lion's share of atrocities, which political elite sought to divide the country up into ethnically cleansed cantons. What he does do is to note that because most Western reporters were largely trapped in Sarajevo, they naturally came to identify with the victims of the Serb nationalist assault on the city, and to regard "the Serbs" as the 'bad guys' and the Muslims as the 'good guys.'

It needs to be said--this was a gross oversimplification of the situation in Bosnia, and regrettably the Western media did often distill the conflict down to this--that word again--collectivist stereotype. Which, of course, gives ammunition to the Diana Johnstones and Michael Parentis of the world.

But Martin Bell isn't one of them. His one fault in this chapter was that he might have failed to realize that the Serbs he spoke to were operating in an extreme situation, and a very ideologically charged one. The stereotype of people in the Balkans is that they are people who live in the past, drenched in a deeply-felt sense of history. The Serbs Bell met lived up to this image almost too well, and it's a shame that such an experienced journalist accepted the glib generalizations about Balkan history which were used to explain (if not justify) so much extreme behavior and statements.

Aside from that, this is actually a very balanced and fair account, in which he mulls over the built-in bias that reporting from the point of view of the primary victims instilled. Acknowledging that this bias was justified by events (which the revisionists, of course, wish to deny) does not negate the point. It does, however, lessen the urgency of the question, as Bell seems to acknowledge at the end.

Bell also recognized something which Western policy makers--particularly those who wished to keep the international community as disengaged as possible--routinely lied about; the tenuous situation the Bosnian Serb military was in. Bell identified the enormity of the Serb advantage in armor, heavy artillery, transportation and supply logistics (although he stressed it less than I would have liked), but he also realized how thinly-spread they were in infantry. Since he also realized that the government side had an enormous advantage in sheer man-power, he should have recognized that population alone could not account for that--many male Serbs of fighting age wanted now part of the Greater Serbia project.

But while Bell sometimes lacked the basic raw data which might have helped him to interpret the situation, he was very attuned to what he saw. He saw through the crude bragging and bullying from the Bosnian Serb leadership, and as noted he never forgot the political and military origins of the war. But he remained humane and curious about the fate of the individual human beings who were, increasing, removed from view on the other side of the lines.

1 comment:

Owen said...

Thanks for your very fair appraisal of Martin Bell. He is a decent, conscientious and honest reporter of what he sees around him.

I think he comes from a military family background. His reporting appears to be inspired by the same dispassionate fairness and sense of right and wrong that inspires a principled professional soldier like Bob Stewart for example. (I have to say that I don't understand Bell's apparent respect for Michael Rose.)

Bell is an objective and trustworthy reporter and critic of the situation he finds himself in. But he seems reluctant to engage in critical analysis of the origins of that situation. That was a limitation that I felt limited his effectiveness as a commentator during his time as the BBC's correspondent in the US.

I'm glad you draw this very clear distinction between Bell's perspective and Johnstone, Herman et al. Bell is above all honest.