July 10, 2003

Worthless Words
Perusing the Balkans Anti-Books
by Nebojsa Malic

Driven by the demand for information about the Balkans wars, a veritable mountain of books, pamphlets and papers have been produced over the course of the 1990s, purporting to explain and analyze tragedy of former Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, this quantity did not translate into anything resembling quality. Most of what's been written about the fighting in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo is complete rubbish.

It would be a full-time job just to read, let alone analyze, all the drivel written about the Balkans recently. Just about every hack with elementary spelling skills and some without has tried to make a name by peddling tall tales of genocide, massacres, death camps, mass rapes and whatnot.

If the purpose of a book is to educate, then the works listed here could be considered the "anti-books." Their readers are mostly miseducated about the Balkans, having read a skewed and deformed picture of events. The books featured here should be avoided, or read only with extreme prejudice because they were written with one. Whether their authors were paid propagandists, sensation-seeking fabricators or quasi-historians with agendas makes little difference.

But consider yourself warned: "Toxic Language Ahead."

Hemingway Wannabes

Among the worst reports from Bosnia are books penned by advocacy journalists. As a group, they were generally completely ignorant of the region, and based their background "knowledge" on first impressions, previous media coverage, or "helpful" hints from local government propagandists. As Serbia was under a blockade from April 1992, most reporters first landed in Zagreb, Croatia, and covered stories in the territory controlled by Croats or Bosnian Muslims.

Both Ed Vulliamy (The Guardian/The Observer) in his Seasons in Hell: Understanding Bosnia's War, and Roy Gutman (Newsday), in his Witness to Genocide, peddled stories of Serb "death camps," mass rape and genocide.

Yet Gutman hardly "witnessed" anything; most of his stories came from Croat and Muslim propaganda sources. In fact, one linguist has even asserted that Gutman's book was ghostwritten by local propagandists, citing odd expressions never used by native English-speakers.

Vulliamy was with the ITN TV crew that filmed a refugee transit camp in northern Bosnia and edited it to create an appearance of a "death camp." When a German journalist exposed this fact on the pages of a London communist magazine LM, Vulliamy helped his ITN colleagues muzzle LM by suing it for libel.

Another "journalist activist" is David Rieff, whose Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West is a condemnation of alleged Western non-intervention. Rieff visited Bosnia as a guest of the Sarajevo Muslim government, in effect a volunteer propagandist for their cause. There was, of course, plenty of foreign intervention in Bosnia, but Rieff and his fellow "humanitarians" felt the only real thing would be a military involvement on behalf of the Muslims.

The worst of this lot is David Rohde, former correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. Rohde's name is revered in interventionist circles and his book, Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, is used to teach "human rights journalism." Since 1995, Rohde has made Srebrenica into his personal cause celebre, assailing everyone who tries to question both his facts and his judgment.

Character Assassins

Laura Silber and Alan Little's Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation is the parent of character-assassination genre, first to blame Yugoslavia's collapse on Slobodan Milosevic alone. It's already been reviewed here, so it does not merit much further attention.

Another hit-job is Louis Sell's book, Slobodan Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. A retired US Foreign Service officer, Sell is also a board member of the International Crisis Group, and former director of its program in occupied Kosovo. Given Sell's involvement in the organization that supported the KLA and elevated Serbophobia to an art, any claims he makes should be viewed with suspicion.

As an aside, Sell's fellow ICG board member Wesley Clark former NATO commander in charge of bombing Serbia and invading Kosovo recently published his memoirs, titled Waging Modern War. Read it only if you are interested in the workings of this unscrupulous ladder-climber's brain, but the way he "fought" over Kosovo should have illustrated that already.

British reporter Tim Judah has two entries in this category. The Serbs: History, Myth and Destruction of Yugoslavia, and Kosovo: War and Revenge both follow in Silber, Little and Sell's footsteps, but take a step further and blame the entire Serbian people for the 1990s wars. Judah's theory is that Serbs are collectively insane, obsessed with myths that compel them to attack and murder their innocent neighbors. The second book has transcended even that form of Serbophobia, justifying the 1999 NATO aggression and the KLA terror that followed.

Rounding out this list of miscreants is Croat nationalist Branimir Anzulovic, whose Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide seeks the roots of Serbs' "genocidal nature" in the 1389 Battle of Kosovo. About as much fun as Mein Kampf.

Attack of the Quasi-Historians

Journalists and political activists can be forgiven to some extent, because their bias and ignorance are not necessarily at odds with their professions. Historians, on the other hand, need to have a closer relationship with the truth than that.

One of the most notorious quasi-historians in the former Yugoslavia was Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman, whose works (Horrors of War, and Genocide & Yugoslavia) have tried to deny the Croatian state's genocide against Serbs and Jews during World War Two.

Prior to the 1990s, Yugoslav histories were mostly written by Communists, and made for exceptionally dull reading in the West. Ethnic warfare came quickly on the heels of socialism's collapse, preventing true revisionism of Communist myths and leaving a vacuum where history of Yugoslavia should have been.

Into the void stepped the quasi-historians, peddlers of misinformation and fabrications presented as accurate history.

The worst offender in this category is British militant Noel Malcolm, whose "Short Histories" of Kosovo and Bosnia managed to accomplish what Ottoman Turks, Imperial Austria and Nazi Germany failed: to eliminate Serbs from these regions altogether. Malcolm's exclusive use of non-Serb sources is but one facet of his quasi-historical opus. Though of course Imperial supporters praise and quote his works, others have deemed Malcolm's writings imaginary and misleading. Even Tim Judah (see above) challenged some of Malcolm's fanciful theories.

Not as well-known as Malcolm, but even more vitriolic, is Michael Sells, an apologist for militant Islam who teaches at Haverford College, Pennsylvania. His A Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia, needless to say, paints the picture of innocent peaceful Muslims fighting the genocidal, bloodthirsty Serbs for their very survival. Sells also maintains a web page on "human rights and genocide" in Bosnia and Kosovo, where he published racist screeds that would make even his favorites in Bosnia blanche.

Robert Donia and John V.A. Fine's Bosnia-Herzegovina: A Tradition Betrayed was one of the first attempts to present Bosnia's history as that of tolerance and co-habitation instead of ethnic repression. Even though the book was endorsed by Izetbegovic's regime, Donia and Fine are minor-league offenders compared to Malcolm and Sells. They are merely wrong, not obnoxious about it as well.

Finally, if one wants to read another history of Kosovo from a pro-Albanian perspective (though at least decently written), there is Miranda Vickers' Between Serb and Albanian: A History of Kosovo. Vickers is a historian of Albania, so she would have been partial even if it weren't for her association with the rabidly Serbophobic ICG.

And A Few Others

Some works simply defy categorization. Robert Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts, for example, is a sort of ethno-political travelogue, reported to have influenced Bill Clinton's policymaking. All it does is offer a rationale for "nation-building" by describing Balkans-dwellers as feuding savages.

Ivo Daalder and Michael O'Hanlon's Winning Ugly pretends to criticize NATO, but actually endorses the Kosovo war. If apologia is your thing, by all means go ahead.

Then there is Stephen Schwartz and Christopher Hitchens' Kosovo: Background to a War. Just the names of this spineless chameleon and neocon militant should be red flags, even if the book weren't shameless propaganda for NATO and the KLA. But lo and behold, it is!

Other works to be avoided for the sake of sanity include anything involving the so-called "mass rape" in Bosnia, as this canard was thoroughly debunked by the end of the war. It resurfaced briefly during the NATO attack on Serbia in 1999, only to be deep-sixed when the Western public refused to swallow the bait again.

What Good May Come

This list could go on for pages, as there are plenty more books and pamphlets peddling untruths about Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. That they weren't mentioned does not mean they are worth reading. Which books are worth reading is a topic for another column, and another time.

– Nebojsa Malic

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Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo, and contributed to the Independent. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Thursday.

 

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Retrospect: Balkans And the Big Picture – A Year Later
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Bosnia's Founding Stepfather
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The Folly That Is Europe
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Worshippers of Power and Violence
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After 'Liberation,' Democracy
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Bolsheviks in Belgrade
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Seeking Scapegoats
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The Argument of Force
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Alley of the Damned
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Death of a Manager
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From Kosovo to Baghdad
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Genocide Games
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Excuses and Justifications
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Yugoslavia's End
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Balkanizing the World
1/30/03

A Chauvinistic Farce
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The 12 Months of Christmas
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Democratic Destruction
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Forged Memories
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Making the Balkans Connection
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Remembering the Obvious
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Empire's Playground
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Casus Belli
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Forward to The Past
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The Unbearable Futility of Voting
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A Global Balkans
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Triumph of the Will
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The Day Nothing Changed
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Illusions of Truth and Justice
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More archived columns by Nebojsa Malic


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