January 11, 2000
With a Grain of Salt
Misha Glenny, Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War (London/NY, Penguin Books, 1996, 314 pages)
Misha Glenny's Fall of Yugoslavia was initially published in 1993, when the Bosnian war raged with then-unprecedented ferocity. Europe and the US had not yet become used to images of suffering and the tear-jerking testimonies of professional victims that had flooded their airwaves. Out of the Balkans came stories of horrors, some real, many fake as if what really happened could be exaggerated! finding an audience hungry for explanations more than information. Why?, not what? was the question of the day.
Into such an atmosphere came a book that tried to answer both. Glenny's Fall of Yugoslavia was suited for the role. Written in an educated but popular language, it is not a political analysis or a military survey of Yugoslavia's collapse. It is rather a bit of both, bound together by emotions and a sometimes acerbic British wit.
Though begun during the war of Croatian secession, Fall of Yugoslavia was shaped and finished during the Bosnian civil war. Hence, this conflict necessarily occupies a large portion of the book. It could frequently be found in the luggage of English-speaking reporters covering the war. Rather than discredit the book, as the knowledge of those reporters' bias could do, it only reinforces the staggering proportions to which they ignored its message. For though his main points were in line with the European public opinion of the time, and Fall was as filled with myths as any other contemporary book on the Balkans wars, Glenny also rejected several major misconceptions that the Europeans and especially Americans harbored. His narrative is very blunt, even condescending in places when he berates the Western public and politicians for getting their Balkans ABCs wrong. Though this approach is not new to the self-righteous pseudo-historians, unlike them Glenny backs up his opinions with facts, not the other way around.
"Our understanding of the war in BiH has, regrettably, been clouded by the level of suffering and the tendency of many witnesses to confuse the moral questions raised by the conflict with political issues which caused it." (p.183)
For Glenny, connected emotionally with his local guides most of whom were urbane, English-speaking Yugoslav-oriented people the destruction of Yugoslavia is almost as big a tragedy as the suffering of war. In his mind and in his book, nationalism was something primitive, regressive and harmful a notion only reinforced by ethnic warfare that followed the abolition of Socialist checks and balances. Thus it is not surprising that he defends the idea of Yugoslavia even as he fiercely criticizes the Serbs who professed to defend it.
"Whatever their tactics, the Serbs insisted on the maintenance of Bosnia's central political mechanisms of constitutional parity which is both just and reasonable." (p.165)
[SDS's] demand for a political solution which guaranteed the rights that they fought for in the two world wars was mistakenly ignored." (p. 188)
The concept that Serb war aims in Bosnia were political and legitimate was revolutionary at the time. While American foreign policy bore down on anything Serb as the root of all evil, advocated armed intervention on the Muslim side and presented the war as a Serbian "aggression" against "Bosnia," while European mediators proposed peace plans that were at least six months behind the events on the ground, and while their public was being fed shocking footage of death and despair, Glenny cut through the veneer of emotions and addressed the issue rationally.
"The theory that the perpetration of atrocities is a central war aim (of the Serbs, in particular) has gained wide currency. This represents a failure of historical understanding which has led to a frequently crass interpretation on the part of the international players involved in the current drama. It has often been encouraged by the local authors to further their political ends, and together, this has ensured that, on the whole, the nebulous blob, which parades under the epithet 'the international community,' has contributed to a worsening of the crisis. In order to comprehend the atrocities, we must understand the politics, and not the other way around." (p. 183-4)
One ought not to make a mistake of considering Glenny's prose purely rational. On the contrary, it is laden with strong emotions. But like a disciplined and educated Briton, he uses emotions as a way of presenting his arguments, rather than making them the argument in and of themselves. Consider this passage, which describes rather sharply his position on the Muslim-dominated "Bosnian government" in Sarajevo, and its role in the war:
"[T]his does not exonerate Bosnia's Moslem leadership of a share of the responsibility. They coaxed their people into a war for which they were criminally unprepared, and at times have both consciously and unconsciously allowed the mass slaughter of their own in the hope of receiving weapons from the West so that they might fulfill their political agenda." (p. 183)
In one paragraph, Glenny is capable of saying what politicians and journalists took years to hint at. Fall of Yugoslavia is brimming over with these incisive analyses. One can also see how Glenny's tone shifts as the wars go on. When the Bosnian War ended in 1995, the third edition of the Fall of Yugoslavia featured a lengthy, revised epilogue. In it, Glenny examined the events of 1995 and their impact on the understanding of events that preceded them.
It was obvious that the Balkans of 1995 was radically different than in 1994 or before. NATO had entered the war, as did Croatia; the Serbs were expelled from Krajina, surrounded and bombed in Bosnia, and finally sold out by Milosevic at Dayton. American "hawks" finally had their way. NATO's air attacks in 1995 not only created a precedent for the Alliance's future engagements, but also had a profound effect on the ground changing the military situation and increasing the power and influence of Slobodan Milosevic.
"Many regard the NATO raids as final proof that bombing the Bosnian Serbs was the only way out of the crisis and that it was a tactic that should have been used much earlier. This is an oversimplification which obscures the complicated politics behind the bombing." (p. 289)
"Americans' intention was not to inflict a massive military defeat on the Bosnian Serbs. They were bombing them to the Contact Group map as evidenced by their warnings to both Sarajevo and Zagreb not to attack Banja Luka... Militarily, NATO bombing amounted to a pacification of the Bosnian Serbs." (p.290)
From a distance of five or more years, with the knowledge of what followed, reading Glenny's book offers new ways to understand the collapse of Yugoslavia. Its real value is its simultaneous analysis of the role both the world and the Yugoslavs played in these events a rarity among Western accounts, which usually focus on one or the other.
The Fall of Yugoslavia is far from being an authority on the Balkans. It is consistent enough with the rest of early Western analytical work on the topic to make a full, objective understanding possible if taken by itself. But to those familiar with the situation, Glenny's work can be a useful source of information. The details he digs up, most of which the press and the politicians were all to keen to purposefully neglect as they did not fit into their constructed realities, make it a worthy reading experience. Right or wrong, misguided or right on target, Glenny is most of all straightforward. This certainly earns him the benefit of a doubt.
This article originally appeared on the Serbian Unity Congress website.
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