Images Worth a Thousand
In Popular Culture
the pervasiveness of mass entertainment in the United States,
and the dominance of US-made entertainment in the world markets,
one should not underestimate the impact American popular culture
has on world events. History may be written by government-paid
scholars and crooked journalists, but its vastly simplified
form is burned into the minds of the masses through movies
example, the image of Arabs as terrorists has long been a
staple of Hollywood fare, so ubiquitous during the 1980s that
cult classics such as Back
to the Future and E.T.
featured terrorist plot elements or references. Muslim terrorism
was also the key element in the early 1990s techno-thriller
books, such as Larry Bond's Enemy
Within or Tom Clancy's Sum
of All Fears.
1998, Edward Zwick (Glory, Courage Under Fire)
made The Siege,
an exceptional drama dealing with a series of deadly terrorist
attacks by Islamic militants in New York, and the horrific
assault on civil liberties by the US government that followed.
It was eerily prescient, given what would occur on Black Tuesday
2001 and afterwards. Yet the film was immediately protested
by Arab-American advocacy groups. They had become so used
to images in popular culture that depicted Muslims solely
as terrorists, they attacked Zwick's film without even seeing
it. A film that was fair to Arabs, for a change
– especially compared to, say, James Cameron's True Lies (1994) – was thus subject
to controversy and boycotts. So alleged prejudice was fought
with unjustified prejudice, and (not surprisingly) prejudice
there not been so many images of Muslims as terrorists in
the popular culture, the American Arabs may not have reacted
to The Siege with a knee-jerk rejection. Had the lessons
of The Siege been taken even halfway seriously, September
11 might not have happened. Fate, as always, plays cruel tricks
on those who mock it.
the 1990s, with the wars in the former Yugoslavia all over
the headlines, the entertainment business rushed to cash in
on the mysterious carnage on the other side of the world.
Added to images of Arab terrorists were now images of Balkans
terrorists – as it happens, almost exclusively Serbs. Real
events that were first misrepresented in the press, then embellished
by pundits, now became embellished again by professional purveyors
of illusions. Through books, movies and TV shows, the Balkans
that never was came alive in the minds of American audiences…
Nicole Kidman could have a tragic love affair in Moulin
Rouge, she first had to save Manhattan – with George
Clooney's help – from a Serb with a backpack nuke in Peacemaker (1997). The villain
was no less than a member of the Bosnian Serb parliament,
who first killed a colleague to ensure he'd have a spot on
the New York-bound delegation. His motive? Vengeance on the
UN, because snipers killed his family and the peacekeepers
had done nothing to help.
doesn't have to know much about the Balkans to see the problem.
First of all, Bosnian Serbs never had nuclear weapons, nor
is there any evidence that they tried to obtain them. Secondly,
the motive ascribed to the "terrorist" was bogus. Bosnian
Serbs never expected the UN to help – the Muslims did.
And it's not as if Bosnian Serbs didn't have real grievances
against the UN and the Empire; they did help their enemies,
after all – sometimes, as it turns out, through some real terrorists.
But one should never let accuracy get in the way of a good
Bosnian Serb nuclear-smuggling angle was revisited by a UPN
Days (1998-2001), as its time-traveling hero fought
Serbs who sought to purchase some weapons-grade plutonium
from domestic US terrorists. Seven Days went back to
Bosnia in one more episode, to rescue American hostages from
Bomb And Judge
frequent visitor to Bosnia has certainly been the CBS hit
(Judge Advocate General). One of the first episodes saw the
indomitable lawyer-pilot Harmon Rabb Jr. going on a bombing
raid over Bosnia. Afterwards, he helped rescue US pilots,
went on to bomb Kosovo, and even rescued US intelligence operatives
from the Serb-paid Italian Mafia...
episode has Commander Rabb defending an overzealous fellow
pilot, who bombed Russian peacekeepers thinking they were
Serbs committing atrocities. Indeed, the pilot claims he saw
atrocities before, and vowed not to let them happen again.
Even as a flight of fancy, this is too much. Never have any
atrocities been witnessed by any US or NATO personnel,
let alone pilots. They were more apt at committing them, as
bombed-out trains, bridges, schools, hospitals, marketplaces
and TV stations testify throughout Serbia.
someone completely ignorant of the Yugoslav Army could assume
that it uses the same troop carriers as the Russians. It doesn't,
thus making the key plot point completely moot. Furthermore,
no Yugoslav (or Serb) troops were in Kosovo by the time the
"peacekeepers" showed up. There were few Serb civilians left,
for that matter. The only atrocities NATO's occupation troops
witnessed – and did nothing to stop – were those of the Albanian
KLA. It is, of course, never mentioned. Might complicate things,
Man With Two Wrong Names
colossal blunders are more the rule than an exception in TV-land.
Fox's hit "real-time" series 24 features Dennis Hopper as villain
Victor Drazen, accused of atrocities in Kosovo. Of course,
everyone knows there were mass atrocities in Kosovo,
even though none have ever been established as anything more
than fanciful speculation. But it is surely a supreme irony
that Fox's "Serbian
terrorist/warlord" has a Croatian name, and
an impossible one at that.
as reality would have it, is a Croatian given name, not a
surname. Like "Bob" in the US. Actually, there's a higher
probability to run into someone with the last name of "Bob"
in the US than anyone in the Balkans being surnamed "Drazen."
And of course, Victor (or Viktor, as Croats would write
it) is Latin for "winner," and thus pretty popular among the
Catholic Croatians. So, not only did they give poor Dennis
Hopper the wrong surname, they also gave him the wrong name
and the wrong ethnicity! To be that ignorant takes
more than talent; it takes effort…
is another interesting question: why are Serb villains routinely
played by non-Serbs? In all the above examples, in all the
examples still to follow, and in quite a few others, the Serb
villains are always played by someone else. Perhaps Serb actors
– unlike their political leaders – still have some dignity.
the most mendacious sub-genres dealing with the Balkans is
The Rescue. It was used as a plot point for 1997's Welcome to Sarajevo, supposed
to be an indictment of journalists who practiced indifference
in the face of murder. In reality, it was the "advocacy
journalism" – not indifference – that made the Bosnian
War so dirty, with suffering and death deliberately provoked
with the purpose of feeding Western cameras. This is not the
only cliché Welcome to Sarajevo peddles shamelessly:
there are massacres and "concentration camps" as
well. Finally, the focus of one reporter's
crusade – a young orphan he fights to rescue from the
besieged city despite the policy banning all evacuations –
is a Muslim. Yet the real girl, on whose story the movie is
(very) loosely based, was a Serb.
the greatest offender,
however, is 2001's Behind
Enemy Lines. A pathetic dreg of recycled propaganda,
it tries to put a touch of Hollywood on the most embarrassing
story of Lt. Scott
O'Grady. The results are predictably atrocious.
the summer of 1995, O'Grady's F-16 was shot down by a missile
while he scouted Bosnian Serb positions for the planned NATO
bombing campaign. He ejected, hid in the mountains for several
days and was retrieved by a company of Marines, without interference.
Losing a multi-million dollar aircraft to an obsolete missile
system in broad daylight, trekking in the mountains of Western
Bosnia for a few days, then getting airlifted out by a company
of Marines is not particularly heroic. It became so when the
US government needed heroes to shut up critics of its Balkans
is, O'Grady's real story was a yawner, even when embellished
by the military and the press. So Hollywood came up with a
new one. This time, the "hero" was a navigator, who survived
while his pilot was brutally murdered by psychotic Serbs (unsurprisingly,
again played by non-Serbs). He then had to make a run for
his life, through a hail of bullets, fireballs, landmine pellets
and multiple explosions, to be rescued by a maverick commanding
officer. Oh, and did anyone mention he was a "witness to Serb
atrocities" (not that again!) and brought back evidence
to that effect?
real O'Grady was shot down a hundred miles away from any war
zone, and nowhere near the places alleged to have seen atrocities.
Yet at the end, Behind Enemy Lines claims that the
retrieved "evidence" was used at war
crimes trials! Knowing the ways of the Hague Inquisition,
taking evidence from movie scripts might not be that unusual,
Solitude of Truth
properly document all the instances of grossly distorted Balkans
realities in just the US popular culture would take a lot
of time, effort and money. These are just some of the more
conspicuous examples. Finding other, more accurate depictions
is much easier; there are almost none.
notable exception is Ralph Peters' novella, There Is No
War in Melnica. Standing out in the otherwise bland Combat
anthology (vol. 3) edited by Stephen Coonts, the novella describes
the grisly character of the chaos in Bosnia, with misrepresented
atrocities and staged executions for the sake of provoking
a foreign military intervention.
was in Bosnia, unlike most screenwriters and their producers,
so that could be partially responsible for his accuracy. However,
as many other Westerners have also been in the region, yet
chose to tell lies and half-truths instead, the bulk of the
credit should really go to Peters himself: a small, solitary
voice of truth amongst the roaring sea of foolish lies. Truth,
after all, is often more interesting than fiction.
fiction, especially bad fiction, is so much easier to produce.