Thursday, December 31, 2009

"In Harm's Way" by Martin Bell [22]


This brief conclusion to the book finds Bell realizing that he needs to leave Bosnia--not only is the war over, but he finds himself feeling genuine anger at the needless waste of it all. Needless, because the Western world could have and should have intervened much earlier to save thousands of lives and the chance for multiethnic Bosnia to survive. Bell believed that the international community bore some responsibility for the massive war crimes in Bosnia--unlike many observers, he never forgot that Srebrenica was a UN "safe area" nor does shy away from confronting the sad reality that in the end the Dutch UN contingent was concerned with nothing more than its own survival.

And so he left, and the book ends rather abruptly--but then again, even the second edition was published in 1995, while the peace was still new and untested. This is in many ways a raw book, informed by immediate reactions and fresh, direct impressions. Some of Bell's judgments could be fairly questioned, but it is crucial to note that he gets the big questions right. Precisely because this is not an impassioned work of partisan advocacy, "In Harm's Way" is ultimately a quite effective argument in favor of humanitarian intervention by the international community. It is also a thoughtful meditation on the role of the media in wartime and on the function of the mass media in the post-Cold War world. And it is many other things as well.

I highly recommend this book; it won't tell the average reader of this blog much about Bosnia that he or she doesn't already know, but Bell's point of view is worth knowing.


It is fitting to finish this book review just a few hours before I finish the first decade of the 21st Century. I would reflect at more length on the decade and on where Bosnia and the cause of humanitarian intervention and internationalism--but my wife informs me that it is time to get ready for our New Year's Eve outing! So I wish all my readers a happy 2010, and I look forward to continuing our ongoing dialogue in the new year. Best wishes to all.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

"In Harm's Way" by Martin Bell [21]

Chapter 23: Fainthearts Confounded

The final chapter of the book finds Bell observing and commenting on the endgame of the Bosnian war. Bell was called away from the field to provide his expertise in studio back home in Britain, where he confronted the difficulties of trying to distill the war and its denouement in short soundbites for a public which was suddenly paying attention again.

As for the war--Bell recognized the key to why the war came to a sudden end; as he reiterates over and over in this book, force works. A muscular use of force by NATO forced the Serbs to the negotiating table, and a determined show of arms by IFOR immediately following the Dayton treaty ensured that both sides kept the peace and respected the peacekeepers. There would be no more ceasefire violations, no more terrorist kidnappings of hapless UN personnel to act as human shields.

Even though it was disturbingly clear that all Dayton had accomplished was essentially to force the Bosnian Serbs to accept their own plan for de facto ethnic partition (albeit with far less territory than they would have liked), the main lesson Bell learned was this--it could have been done sooner, meaning that more lives could have been saved, less injustice would have been enshrined at Dayton, and something of the old multiethnic Bosnia might have been saved.

A lot of trouble, death, and destruction could have been avoided, and our Western values much less betrayed, had the world known in advance what Bell saw in hindsight.

Friday, December 25, 2009

"In Harm's Way " by Martin Bell [20]

Chapter 22: Darkest Before Dawn

Bell continues his account of the final months of the war, here recounting the despair he was falling into in the summer of 1995, as Srebrenican and Zepa both fell to well-organized militias of genocidal mass murderers with the United Nations watching on and the Western world still did nothing. Bell found it hard to even get airtime for his reports, even as he knew that the war was entering a new phase of violence and ferocity. And then there was another marketplace massacre in Sarajevo, and he found himself wondering what the UN would do, even though by now he had learned that the answer would be--once again--nothing.

But this time he was wrong.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"In Harm's Way" by Martin Bell [19]

Chapter 21: Showdown

This chapter is a brisk and exasperated account of events in Bosnia from late May up until around the fall of Srebrenica as witnessed by Bell and other members of the media, who were unable to witness much of what was happening first hand.

Mostly, this is account of the final, craven capitualation of the United Nations to the Bosnian Serb forces and of the continued increase in the volume and ferocity of the armed combat between those forces and the Bosnian government. It was clear to Bell at the time, as it is to all reasonable students of the war in hindsight, that the UN was a spent force at best by this point. Bell correctly notes that its mission had become an absurd anomoly, a protection force which seemed only interested in protecting itself. The UN was by now occupied with little other than negotiating for its own hostages and urging NATO to leave so that the Serbs would no longer threaten them. The fall of Srebrenica was the final, humiliating proof that it was well past time for the United Nations to leave.

Monday, December 21, 2009

"In Harm's Way" by Martin Bell [18]

Chapter 20: A Day in the Life

Literally an account of one day of war reporting; notable in that the day in question was May 24, 1995, and the war was ramping up in intensity and ferocity. It seems that this was the day Bell either say or actually reported the use of phosphorus weapons by the Bosnian Serbs.

The endgame was near.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

"In Harm's Way" by Martin Bell [17]

Chapter 19: Days of Foreboding

An interesting and entertaining account of the first half of th final year of the war, beginning with Jimmy Carter's bogus cease-fire in the winter of 1994, and ending in spring, just as Operation Flash went into effect and helped unleash the chain of events which led, ultimately, both to Srebrenica and finally Dayton. Bell ruminates on how little the war registered in the West by that point, since there was now little access for television reporting (the Bosnian Army was not interested in advertising its new strength and capabilities, and the Bosnian Serbs were simply done with talking to the rest of the world, period) and also because Europe was, seemingly, bored with it.

The chapter ends with Bell recounting his pride at a piece he finished after three weeks work piecing together what information he could get and whatever images he could acquire, a piece he was proud of and felt passionate about, and which he felt conveyed some sense of the terror enfolding mostly offscreen. The piece was butchered, and only a few brief clips were played with in-studio voiceovers. Nobody was listening.

[Note: I have corrected this post, in which I originally referred to "Operation Storm" which would not actually occur until a few months later.]

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"In Harm's Way" by Martin Bell [16]

Chapter 18: Arm Your Children

I had a difficult time figuring out how to summarize and review this chapter because at first I could not quite grasp what it is about. And then I realized--it is a brief summary of the post-Cold War world and what the Bosnian conflict signaled about its challenges, communicated through a brief synopsis of Bell's career from 1989 through the mid-1990s.

Bell, who had been assigned to BBC's North American beat for over a decade, was in 1989 reassigned to Berlin to cover the fall of Communism. He got to see a lot, but he also experienced the pressures of political correctness when he was discouraged from filming examples of nascent neo-Nazi groups in the former East Germany as Romanian Gypsies and other outsiders began pouring across the newly opened borders.

In Bosnia, he again faced the PC pressures to avoid words and images which might offend when he referred to mental patients trapped in the no-man's land between Muslims and Croats during the 1993 civil war by using the word "madhouse." One would think this was quite fitting--the patients were left to their own devices because they had been abandoned by the staff. But "madhouse" might offend, and we can't have that.

Bell also recounts how the longer he reported on Bosnia, the harder it became for him to to adjust during his periodic returns home, an experience shared by many. One person whom he sympathizes with in this regard is General Lewis MacKenzie, who adjusted (in his opinion) by throwing himself into civilian work after finding post-Bosnia military duties unfulfilling. This book was published in 1995, so we will forgive Bell for not being aware that MacKenzie would use his new position as a front for covert Serb nationalist proselytizing.

And so the chapter moves--quietly, patiently, and finally unexpectedly--into a rumination on the responsibilities of the international community--and the journalist--in the face of genocide. Bell is quietly convincing here, since he has taken pains not to be a crusading journalist or to engage in polemics, but he believes that journalists have an ethical and moral obligation as well as a professional one. Genocide has consequences. Lessons will be learned. It is the responsibility of the international community to take actions to ensure that those lessons are the right ones.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"In Harm's Way" by Martin Bell [15]

Chapter 16: Shading the Truth
Chapter 17: War Is a Bad Taste Business

These two chapters are both concerned with war reporting, the physical, ethical and moral risks involved in that endeavor, and with the dangers of self-censorship as well. Both chapters are well-written, deeply felt, astutely observed, and grapple with complex and difficult moral questions. They are not, however, directly concerned with the subject of this blog, so in the interests of keeping this review moving on I will only mention that my admiration for this book grows as I work through it, and leave it at that.

It's not that Bosnia does not figure in these chapters--while Chapter 16 largely goes back in time, to Bell's days reporting in Northern Ireland, Chapter 17 is entirely concerned with events in Bosnia. Rather, the main issue is not the war itself but rather the reporting of it, and some of the factors which affected that reporting. Specifically, how one central fact of war reporting--that it is dangerous and can get you killed--imposed a "bias" of sorts on the reports coming out of Bosnia. Chapter 17 concludes with this sobering statement:

"On the issue of our coverage of the Bosnian war the true charge against us is not that we misrepresented it by seeking out the horrors and ignoring the context; or that we somehow short-changed our public by telling them less than we knew. It is that for reasons of prudence we didn't know, and therefore didn't tell, the half of it."

Only six chapters and a short epilogue to go. There is already a candidate for my next review waiting.

Monday, December 14, 2009

CNAB Letter to the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

The Congress of North American Bosniaks has published an open letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The message--that America has a vested interest in seeing Bosnia survive as a unified, democratic, secular, and multicultural state--will not be an unfamiliar one to readers of this blog:


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
US Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520

Honorable Secretary Clinton,

On behalf of the Congress of North American Bosniaks, I am writing to express our gravest concern regarding the political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the resurgence of the ultra-nationalist rhetoric that led to the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The appeasement of Slobodan Milosevic and other Serb nationalists during that time period created an environment that was based on ethnic and religious hatred and led to the worst civilian atrocities Europe has seen since World War II.

Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence within its historical borders and was recognized by the United States, the United Nations, and the larger international community as a multi-ethnic, democratic state that could have served as a model for peaceful coexistence and tolerance as they have done for many years in its history. But evil forces of Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, and other Serb leaders at the time used nationalist rhetoric that was rooted in deep hatred towards non-Serbs, especially the Bosniak Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We all know how the story unfolded, and that it was thanks to the Clinton administration, the United States government, and NATO that the war ended with the Dayton agreement.

Unfortunately, a sequel seems to be in the making, as the same ultra-nationalist rhetoric is once again being propagated by a new generation of Milosevic’s pupils, including Milorad Dodik, the current premier of Republika Srpska, Nikola Spiric, the prime minister of BiH and Nebojsa Radmanovic, the current member of the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Over the last few years, they have been testing the will of the United States and the European Union and purposely crippling any hopes for reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina, by trying to create an environment where they can illegally proclaim a referendum for independence of Republika Srpska, thereby attaining Karadzic’s wartime goals.

Looking back on the Dayton agreement, the wartime representatives of Bosnia and Herzegovina only agreed to the Dayton agreement after a full guarantee by the United States that its sovereignty will be preserved. It was clear that the intentions were to end the war, guarantee Bosnian sovereignty, and hope for a better future for Bosnia. Instead, these Serb nationalists choose to misinterpret the agreement and use it as a tool for their agenda to accomplish “in peace” what Milosevic and Karadzic could not in war, a greater Serbia. This is, sadly, being almost completely ignored by the United States and the EU, who have sent a message that the people of Bosnia must resolve their own differences and come to an agreement on how to structure the country. While this sounds like an ideal solution, it is clear that the Serb representatives do not want to accept any solution, except that which preserves a homogeneous Serb state. This is now also fueling fires with some Croat representatives who think they should have the same. On the other hand, there is clear lack of leadership by the Bosniak representatives in dealing with these issues. Thus, the ascertainment that the destiny of Bosnian framework is up to the local politicians is only partially acceptable because the international community, with the Dayton agreement, provided them with tools which they now misappropriate for nationalist gain, by spreading propaganda of fear and hatred in order to promote a secessionist agenda.

Therefore, we ask, again, for the help of the United States in this dire time of need. Although, thankfully, there is no armed conflict at this time, it is imperative to implement sound foreign policy to prevent the injustice that Bosnia has suffered and the tragedy that has happened to its centuries’ old tradition of tolerance, diversity, and coexistence. This time, we ask not only as the former refugees from Bosnia, but also as American citizens to save Bosnia from the dark clouds that have once again begun to gather on the horizon. There is absolutely no rhyme or reason why Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot exist as a multi-ethnic, democratic, and prosperous nation that is fully integrated in Europe and a future member of NATO. One of the main obstacles to Bosnian democracy is the so called ethnic voting, which severely undermines the ability of Bosnia to function as a state.

The only question that remains is the following: is the United States still committed to fulfilling its obligation as the broker of the Dayton agreement to preserve peace, democracy, and sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina, or will it stand by and allow these ultra-nationalist elements to disintegrate any resemblance of a functioning state and be rewarded for committing genocide? As it currently stands, Russia now has a far more involved role in Bosnia than before and threatens to undermine the U.S. efforts by promoting Serbian nationalism. We urge you to consider the gravity of the situation and realize that it is not only the moral duty of the U.S. to stop such activity, but that it is of vital national interest to the U.S. to prevent further instability in the region. Also, consider the message that inaction would send to the Muslim world, that the Bosniak people, even with all their European and secular values, have been betrayed by those who claim to promote democracy and freedom in the world.

We believe that an urgent entry of Bosnia and Herzegovina into NATO would quell the manipulation of some of its citizens and provide a strong message to all in the region that Bosnian sovereignty will never come into question. We also recommend urgent constitutional reforms that guarantee equal rights for all of its citizens, but also eliminate the undemocratic process of ethnic voting that holds the central government hostage from implementing any reforms that would lead towards euro-Atlantic integration. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Mr. Haris Alibašić, MPA
President of the CNAB Board of Directors

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Americans Turning Isolationist

One of the premises of this blog is that the Bosnian war was about more than a brutal conflict in southeast Europe; it was a trial run of what the world might look like in the post-Cold War era, and a test of how the democratic world would meet (or fail to meet) these new challenges.

One of the lessons I believe we should take from the Bosnian experience is that the world needs to become more, not less, cosmopolitan and internationalist in orientation. From the dangers of global warming and Islamic fundamentalist terror, to the challenges raised by widespread immigration and an increasingly global economy, we need the regard ourselves more and more as global citizens, and to regard all our fellow humans as our brothers and sisters. In Bosnia, we were told that "they" were none of our business, and in Kosova we were told that Serbia's national sovereignty somehow trumped our obligation to the Kosovar Albanians. Fortunately, in both cases we (belatedly and not always forcefully enough, it is true) did not listen.

But unfortunately, lessons learned can easily be forgotten:

Pew Poll Showing Americans Retreating Inward

It will be a very interesting test of the Obama Presidency to see how he deals with a public which wants nothing to do with the world beyond our borders.

Friday, December 11, 2009

"In Harm's Way" by Martin Bell [14]

Chapter 15: Of Men and Mandates

While the previous chapter raised a few troubling doubts about Bell's overall interpretation of the Bosnia crisis and the people involved in it, this chapter refutes those doubts in spades. You might disagree with some of Bell's individual judgments, but there can be little doubt that he grasped the big picture.

This chapter is largely Bell's recounting of the haphazard manner in which the United Nations stumbled into the unworkable "peacekeeping" mandate it found itself in; furthermore, he outlines the real-world implications of this confused mandate. The UN was keeping people from starving to death so that they could be murdered--Bell saw this clearly.

What he also saw was that many UN personnel were very conflicted about this, and more than a few were outraged. Some quite admirably did all they could to stretch their interpretation of the mandate as far as they could in order to save lives whenever possible. Bell's description of the UN in Bosnia as essentially a Red Cross with guns (which they were only allowed to use in self-defense) is a good one.

He also saw clearly that even as the quality and the moral courage of individual UN commanders made a difference within even a misguided mandate, so did the quality and professionalism of the soldiers. The Ukrainian contingent do not come out looking well in his account.

We also see General Michael Rose again, and the portrait this time is far less flattering than in the previous chapter; Bell tellingly refers to Rose's "supporters" in this chapter, and in context it is clear he is not one of them. Nor is he the man's enemy, but it is clear that he found Rose to be, the end of his first year in Bosnia, a deeply shaken man presiding over a failure of leadership and resolve, a far cry from the confident, decisive, can-do leader in the previous chapter. Rose has lost the plot, and failed to see the Bosnian Serb leadership for the murderous, bullying, untrustworthy thugs they were.

The chapter ends with a consideration of some lessons from the Bosnian experience of peacekeeping. Each of them is elaborated in more or less detail than I will quote here, but these few sentences will hopefully do his excellent arguments justice:

"First, a merely victim-based strategy doesn't work, and probably prolongs the war...

Second, humanitarianism conflicts with peacekeeping, and still more with peace-enforcement. The threat of force, if it is to be effective, will sooner or later involve the use of force...

Third, the credible use of force can yield results...This was the lesson of Bosnia, that force prevails...

Fourth, all threats will be tested; and if they are bluff they will be seen to be bluff...If you declare a safe area you have to make it safe...

Fifth, peacekeeping is a soldier-intensive business in which the quality of the troops matters as much as they quantity...

Finally, peacekeeping is not just soldiering under a different-coloured helmet."

Which concludes this chapter.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Amnesty International Response to My Letter Protesting Chomsky Lecture

I received what turns out to be a form letter from Amnesty International UK in response to my complaint about Chomsky's guest lecture recently. Here is the full text:


Dear Mr Johnson,

Thank you for your correspondence regarding the delivery of this year’s Amnesty International Annual Lecture in Belfast by Professor Noam Chomsky.
Please accept our apologies for the delay in responding.

I understand that the issue with which you are concerned is a very serious one. However, Professor Chomsky was an external guest speaker at the event and his views are not necessarily representative of those of Amnesty International. The lecture has been given by numerous people over the years – journalists, former Guantánamo detainees and serving national presidents. The opinions they put forward are not Amnesty policy, nor does their giving the lecture imply complete agreement between Amnesty and the individual on every topic.

The decision to invite Professor Chomsky to deliver the Belfast lecture was made by Amnesty International UK. We felt that he was a speaker of international repute with views on international affairs that would be of interest to the event’s audience.

Whilst Amnesty International UK continues to believe that its decision was legitimate, we recognize that it is contentious. We do not believe that the invitation implied endorsement of his views on the Balkans conflicts or any other subject. We acknowledge that it has caused offence to some, and this is of particular concern where the complainants are survivors or witnesses to the human rights abuses in the Balkans. This was not our intent, and we apologise for any offence we have caused to you through the lecture or collateral publicity. We should note that we have made Professor Chomsky aware of some of the criticism and he believes that it is based on misrepresentation of his views and comments.

Amnesty’s view on the conflict and the abuses that took place is very clear, however. We are committed to pursuing justice for the victims of the Srebrenica massacre and other human rights abuses, and for their families. In fact we released a new report as recently as September, looking at the failure to provide justice for thousands of women who were raped during the conflict in Bosnia.

Best wishes,
Gordon Bennett

Supporter Care Team
Amnesty International UK
Tel: 020 7033 1777

Amnesty International UK
The Human Rights Action Centre
17-25 New Inn Yard

Saturday, December 05, 2009

"Americans for Bosnia" Celebrates Post #500 with an All-Star Extravaganza

Well, no, not really. I considered writing a "looking back" post to remark on how things have changed in Bosnia in the over 3 and a half years I've been writing this blog; after all, back in the spring of 2006, Radovan Karadzic was still a free man!

But, there's too much going on in and related to Bosnia as it is, and I've been so lax about keeping this blog up that it seems a waste of what little time I've been able to dedicate to keeping up to the good fight on a retrospective of what I've done, or on recap of recent events which most every reader is already aware of anyway.

I will take a few minutes to reflect, however. One thing I am happy about with this blog is that it has developed something of an identity; for better or worse, "Americans for Bosnia" is first and foremost a blog of book reviews. I do, of course, sometimes link to articles or weigh in on current events, but there are many, many blogs and websites out there who do the same thing, do it better, and much more reliably. Had I tried to compete with them, this blog would have ended up as little more than yet another well-intentioned, earnest failure. As it is, I like to think that I have been able to make some modest contribution to the Bosnian cause.

I also must confess that while not everyone enjoys my lengthy review of revisionist works such as "Fools' Crusade", those projects are among my favorites. I really enjoy the work of confronting such disingenuous works on their own terms, and systematically refuting both the specific charges in those books as well as the underlying premises they are founded on. Sorry to say, but you can expect a few morer such projects in the future. Unfortunately, Balkan revisionists have found a willing market for their poison, and the more places unwitting potential readers can stumble across contentious "corrections", the better.

That said, I also have some regrets. One is that I have not yet followed through on my promise to create an annotated bibliography of works about Bosnia, the war, and related topics. This would be a worthy project, and I have nobody but myself to blame for not having made any meaningful progress on it to date.

A smaller regret--and perhaps a concession to my own ego--I wish that my "review of one section of Jimmy Carter's Beyond the White House: Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, Building Hope had either received a bit more attention, or triggered a bit more scrutiny, or at least been part of a larger reexamination of Carter's misguided views on the crisis he intervened in without bothering to understand. It was noted by many at the time that his negotiating was a disgrace, but I still feel that too few people took note that over a decade later, Carter still didn't get it.

Another shortcoming of my work so far is less a regret than an impatience--I have felt for some time that I have been fitfully crawling towards a larger, and more all-encompassing, purpose in this blog. Some sense that the lessons of Bosnia apply in a larger sense to the post-Cold War world; but also that the arguments over intervention and Bakan revisionism concern larger issues about national sovereignty, human rights, global citizenship, international interventions, and so forth.

That said, I have enjoyed working on this blog for many reasons, but the main one has been the new contacts I have made, the discovery of like-minded people who are passionate and informed, and generous with their time and their comments. It has been a joy and a privilage to get to know some of you through our correspondence.

That said, I'll be back to regular blogging shortly, and I look forward to the next 500 posts!

Friday, December 04, 2009

"In Harm's Way" by Martin Bell [13]

Chapter 14: Court Martial by Blue-Eyed Stare

Here we meet General Michael Rose, the British UN Commander in Bosnia of less-than-stellar reputation among certain circles (ahem). Bell holds Rose in much higher regard than I do, and to be honest he makes a case that I may need to revise my opinion. Bell was the reporter who passed along Rose's "intemperate" (to be very generous) comment that the Bosnian government army had deliberately collapsed its' defenses at Goradze in order to draw the UN and NATO into the war on their side.

Bell's version of events suggests that while Rose certainly meant what he said, he possibly did not mean to imply a larger shifting of blame for the war. Bell strongly implies that Rose knew that the Bosnian Serb leadership and the Belgrade regime were the primary movers of the conflict, and in this chapter at least there is no suggestion that Rose adopted a wider blame-the-victim interpretation of events based on his belief that the Bosnian government exaggerated the situation in Goradze in order to sway Western opinion. Nor does Bell apologize for the possible role the media might have played in such a scenario, although he certainly is aware of the theoretical dynamic which would have been in play.

There are also hints at the personal dynamics driving the lack of cooperation between the UN and NATO. Given that the UN ultimately failed to stop aggression in Bosnia, and that NATO airstrikes helped bring the war to an end, Rose's trademark brusqueness and intemperance seem much less charming than earlier in the chapter.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

"In Harm's Way" by Martin Bell [12]

Apologies for dragging this out so long. I will resume regular blogging shortly; in the meantime, take my word for it that the next two chapters:

Chapter12: Colonel Bob


Chapter 13: Soldiervision

while interesting, entertaining, and certainly relevant to the subject of war reporting (and to a lesser degree to the public perception of the Bosnian war in the UK), are only of tangential relation to the main purpose of this blog.

There are only 10 chapter and a Conclusion to go; I promise to wrap this up sooner rather than later. I am as eager to move on to another project as my readers most likely are for me to finish with this book already!