Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Bosnia and Beyond" by Jeanne Haskin [2]

I'm going to preface this post with two short apologies:

1) Sorry it took me over a week from the first post to continue this review; and

2) Sorry I selected this book without knowing more about it. Haskin does not seem to have anything particularly original to add to the debate on Bosnia. This is not necessarily a bad thing--I don't I have much to add to the debate on Bosnia, either, but I'm an amateur blogger. I freely admit to being a non-specialist and a non-speaker/reader of Serbo-Croat who relies entirely on secondary sources in English for his information. As such, I try to focus more on book reviews and historiography rather than any pretense to original research or analysis. Of course, this requires that I exercise some judgement and a willingness to make critical evaluations of the sources I rely on.

I am not convinced that Haskin is sufficiently aware that she works under the same limitations I do. This book is little more than a summary of other works, seemingly shoehorned into an ideologically pre-determined conceptual framework. A quick visit to the website of the publisher, Algora Publishing, reinforces that perception.

I will stick with this review, if only to give Haskin the chance to redeem herself, but so far I am not impressed.

Part 1
Chapter One: The Pre-War Situation

This chapter explicitly rehashes the argument made by Susan Woodward and Michael Chossudovsky--that the breakup of Yugoslavia was a direct result of a Western-imposed financial crisis at the end of the Cold War. The argument here is nuanced to the extent that she doesn't believe that the West intended to destroy Yugoslavia, but rather merely intended to overthrow the Communist government. The theory here is that disparities between the different republics created fault lines that nationalists were able to exploit; Milosevic most adroitly.

Her 'evidence' is slim, and the weakness of her book is evident within the first few pages; she states her positions briefly, includes a handful of footnotes from the same few sources, and considers her case made. If this were merely an aside to the larger issues to come, the reader could forgive her--but the premise of the entire book is that the West, particularly the United States, were primarily responsible for the breakup of the country and therefore bear a great deal of the blame for the violence which followed. Because of that, it is important that the author should establish this crucial point as best she can before moving on. She fails to do so.

Chapter 2

And yet--often is seems that Haskin's heart is in the right place. Although she accepts one of the key premises of Balkan revisionism, she seems not to have followed Woodward and Chossudovsky into the arms of Johnstone, Parenti, and company.

In this chapter, she briefly summarizes some of the context for the rise of nationalism in post-Tito Yugoslavia; specifically among Serbs and Croats. Nothing here will surprise any readers of this blog, but frankly they will surprise a reader who has just finished Chapter 1 and thinks he or she knows where Haskin is going.

Chapter 3

This chapter briefly summarizes the preparation for war among Serb nationalists, within the Milosevic regime and its proxies, to a lesser extent among nationalist Croats and the Tudjman regime, and the lack of preparation by Izetbegovic and the nascent Bosnian state. Again, there is nothing new here.

One interesting note: While Haskin accepts Woodward's thesis that Western-imposed economic hardship was the primary cause of the eventual breakdown of the Yugoslav state, she explicitly rejects Woodward's claim that the RAM--the Serb paramilitary forces created either by Milosevic or his allies--was created to defend against Western aggression. While I suppose it is good that she rejects Woodward's ridiculous claim, it is curious that she doesn't recognize that this is a warning sign that Woodward's thesis is an ideologically driven project to make the facts fit the theory rather than the other way around. Haskin picks and chooses which trees she likes without any awareness that someone is trying to get her lost in a forest.


I will probably continue to review Part 1 in a perfunctory manner; Part 2 might merit slightly more measured consideration and attention.


Shaina said...

"I am not convinced that Haskin is sufficiently aware that she works under the same limitations I do. This book is little more than a summary of other works"

I have not read Haskin's book, so I can't make any comments on her book in particular.

But parsing the above quote way to much ;), is your main point of concern (1) that the book does not contain any additional research?
(2) that the author did not add enough of her own analysis to the book?

From my perspective, relying completely on already published material (i.e., no original research) does not necessarily make for a poorly written book. Just as a book that utilizes original research does not necessarily make for a well written one.
For the first example, I'm thinking particularly of "Auschwitz" Sybille Steinbacher. The book is in my opinion, one of the best and most concise histories of the Auschwitz death/concentration/slave labor camps; and relies completely on already published sources.

On the otherhand, I can see the reader's frusteration if the a book is poorly organized and doesn't include any analysis or a fresh narrative-as did the aforementioned Steinbacher book.

Okay, that was probably way too much overanalysis of a very minor part of your review (and glad to see you reviewing again!), but I'd be interesting in your thoughts.

Kirk Johnson said...


You're not parsing too much at all; I am being far too imprecise and sloppy.

I don't have a problem with relying on secondary sources--heck, my blog mostly consists of book reviews! My point is that Haskin has written a book which argues a rather contentious point, and yet relies on only two or three secondary sources by Western authors with dubious opinions on the matter for her entire thesis. She establishes the case that Western-imposed economic hardships as the primary cause of the war in the first chapter, whic is only 12 pages long, and uses Woodward and Chossudovsky, along with a couple of journal articles, as her entire basis.

Considering that this premise underlies everything she writes, it seems pretty thin to simply pass along the gist of Woodward's book, along with some supporting quotes from Chossudovsky and a couple of others, and then consider the case settled. Haskin seems genuinely unaware of the fact that those two are frequently cited in support of Balkan revisiionist accounts of the war, which suggests to me that she either isn't aware of those arguments or simply chooses to ignore them. That seems far too selective and context-free for my tastes.

I hope that makes sense!

Anonymous said...

That makes sense, certainly, Kirk. Before an author sets about the task of producing a book, even one compiled from secondary sources, you'd expect them to have done sufficient reading to be familiar with the mainstream and know when they were relying on a very narrow reference base.