Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Srebrenica and the Western left

An interesting spat developed earlier this month in the pages of the Guardian, over an interview with Noam Chomsky by the journalist Emma Brockes. It focused upon a book by Diana Johnstone, entitled Fools Crusade: Yugoslavia, Nato and Western Delusions, which was withdrawn by its Swedish publisher after a swarm of controversy in the national press there. Fairly or otherwise, this controversy focused on Johnstone's claims about a number of the atrocities committed during the conflict in the Balkans during the 1990s, and in particular on the events in Srebrenica in 1995. Cental to Johnstone's argument in this regard is that there is little actual evidence to support the oft-quoted figure of 8000 innocent muslim men massacred. She notes that:

Six years after the summer of 1995, ICTY forensic teams had exhumed 2,631 bodies in the region, and identified fewer than 50. In an area where fighting had raged for years, some of the bodies were certainly of Serbs as well as of Muslims. Of these bodies, 199 were found to have been bound or blindfolded, and must reasonably be presumed on the basis of the material evidence to have been executed.

She then concludes:

War crimes ? The Serbs themselves do not deny that crimes were committed. Part of a plan of genocide ? For this there is no evidence whatsoever.

The book containing these and other assertions was withdrawn by its Swedish publishers, amid accusations of atrocity denial from the national press. Chomsky publicly defended both the book and its author; he did so, however, in defence of her scholarship and her right to free speech, not on the content of her actual claims. It was this distinction that seems to have caused the tiff in the letters pages of the Guardian.

The interview was removed from the online edition of the paper following complaints from Chomsky - a letter, and then an open letter, to the newspaper. His complaints centred around the headline for the interview - a piece of text removed from the context and printed in large, bold text at the outset. It stated:

Q. [Brockes]: Do you regret supporting those who say the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated ?

A. [Chomsky]: My only regret is that I didn’t do it strongly enough.

To the extent that the interview touched only on the issue of free speech, and not on the content of Johnstone's claims on Srebrenica, the headline does seem misleading, to say the least. Little surprise then, after being subjected to the full force of Chomsky's eloquent sophistication, that the Guardian decided to pull the interview.

As luck would have it, however, this very subject gives us a chance to have a look at some of the early work coming out of the Henry Jackson Society, the new UK neoconservative group on whom I posted last week. Two early papers deal with this very issue, one directly and one in more general terms. I should, at the outset, state that i am in absolutely no position to judge the claim and counter claim here in substantive terms; however, several interesting issues of scholarship more generally are raised, both by the arguments proposed and the meanings enacted by the two groups of texts.

Firstly, for example, the author of the HJS papers, one Marko Attila Hoare, makes an interesting allegation in terms of Johnstone's claims: that she has done no original investigative work; that her sources are overwhelmingly English language, despite the fact that she writes on the Balkans; and that she doesn't even speak one of the languages of the region. These are, in certain circumstances, very valid points; however, they seem to me to miss one of the main thrusts of Johnstone's work, which was not to provide an account of what actually happened but rather to weigh up the imbalance between how the West reported events, and the actual evidence available to support these reports. As she herself notes:

My book does not attempt to recount what happened at Srebrenica, but to point to the political symbolism of such events, marked by the media tendency to dwell on some and not on others, to repeat the highest of casualty estimates when there is no scientifically established number, and above all to simplify and dramatise an unfamiliar and complex reality by resorting to analogy with Hitler and the Holocaust.

A more powerful argument, perhaps, is the one that Hoare makes in terms of the "left" in general: that it is characterised by a far-too-ready willingness to adopt any stance, to support any cause, that is aligned in opposition to the liberal-capitalism consensus of western Europe. He suggests that, thus blinded by its hatred for one, it ignores, accepts or even glorifies the crimes of the other. This seems to me an exceedingly important point, and one that rings true in many contexts: all too often, radical scholarship is a smokescreen for poor scholarship, for immature posturings and territorial pissings that have altogether too much to do with negative self-definition, and altogether too little to do with a genuine attempt to understand both, or all, sides of an astoundlingly complex situation.

Hoare's insistence on this point, however, would have a whole lot more force if he had managed to enact, in his language, the type of scholarship he is implicitly endorsing; instead, however, he does exactly the opposite, using distorting analogies and reductive generalisations in order to demonise his interlocutor and browbeat his audience into agreement with him (exactly the allegation that he lays, perhaps not without justification, at Chomsky's door). Firstly, is his choice of target. I have not read Johnstone's book; I have, however read her contribution to Tariq Ali's
Masters of the Unverse: Nato's Balkan Crusade, in which she makes a series of similar claims. Many of the authors in this book did rely far too much on the demonisation of the oppostion, and the rubbishing of their scholarly works, for my taste; this was not, however, my impression of Johnstone's piece, which maintained a balanced tone throughout. Her own recent contribution to the Guardian seems to confirm this, largely free from the sensationalism or affected disinterest that characterise both Chomsky's open letter and Hoares opinion pieces.

The other point, which, as her earlier quote suggests, will not have surprised Johnstone, is Hoare's continuous attempts to reduce the Balkan wars to the "goodies" versus the "baddies" by a constant stream of analogies to the Holocaust. The piece on massacre denial begins with the "parallel" between Chomsky and David Irving, the Holocaust-denying historian who was recently arrested in Austria on those charges. The following passage, worth quoting at a little length, exemplifies this perfectly:

To sum up Johnstone’s position on Srebrenica: she blames everything that happened there on the Muslims; claims they provoked the Serb offensive in the first place; then deliberately engineered their own killing; and then exaggerated their own death-toll. She denies that thousands of Muslims were massacred; suggesting there is no evidence for a number higher than 199 - less than 2.5% of the accepted figure of eight thousand. And she eschews the word 'massacre' in favour of 'execution' - as if it were a question of criminals on Death Row, not of innocent civilians. It is as if she were to claim that less than 150,000 Jews, rather than six million, had died in the Holocaust; that the Jews had provoked and engineered the Nazi killings; that these killings had been 'executions'; and that the Jews had then exaggerated their death toll.

The trouble is that Hoare's piece is almost completely devoid of any attempt to rebut the specific claims made by Johnstone, except insofar as they go against what is "generally accepted", or has been established by international investigation. As Johnstone's aim is to call these processes into question, Hoare's position seems more than a little circular. And, of course, it carries with it the deeply unpleasant and unwarranted implication that all those who question the received wisdom in questions of war crimes or other atrocities are crypto-fascist Holocaust deniers.

The holocaust theme is taken up at every available opportunity, and reinforced through usage even when not directly linked to the claims of his targets. The more general piece, for example, on Srebrencia and the London Bombings, begins with the claim that "
At Srebrenica on 11 July 1995, Christian Serb fascists - Chetniks - massacred about eight thousand Muslim men and boys. A few days before the tenth anniversary of the massacre, British Islamic fascists massacred over fifty people in London." And again, he notes that, in the early stages of the Balkan conflict "John Major’s Britain and Francois Mitterand’s France fought hard to appease Milosevic". (For those who do not know, the term "appeasement" is an extremely loaded one in the English language, particularly when used in the context of international relations, as it was the name of the failed policy of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in his attempts to avoid war with Hitler. At best ikt conjures up images of woeful naivety; at worst, craven cowardice; and always in the face of the Nazis.)

It is difficult to see what links the notion of fascism in these two situations (the Serbs and the London Bombers) beyond a penchant for illegal massacre (with which Hoare disagrees); we may ask whether this is an honest use of the term, or an attempt to reduce horrific yet deeply complex situations to the black/white of the Holocaust, with all that this term implies. This is not to suggest that complexity can excuse the massacre of innocent civilians - of course not, nothing can - but that the invocation of the rhetoric of the Holocaust casts a shadow over the entire debate about what can, should, must be done; and that this shadow removes the complexity necessary for us to make mature ethical and political choices about the past and the future.

This is the most disappointing thing about Hoare's critique; there are some important points to be made about certain trends in left wing thought; they are, however, buried beneath Nazi analogies and other, almost hysterical language that seems designed to bully the reader into agreement (but is more likely to alienate all those who do not already agree). For example, he raises the issue, particularly important in terms of his recent letters, of what Chomsky does actually think of the reporting of the Srebrenica massacre; whether it was indeed "exaggerated" or not. Like so much done in this field, however - and so much of the work that Hoare justly criticises - it does so not so much as to invite an answer, or conversation, on this point, but rather as a weapon in a war the sides in which have already long been decided. But should we expect any more from a society that is determined to use force to spread democracy, and that comes into existence at precisely the time when this idea seems to be at its shakiest in practical terms, as Jack's post below, on Iraq, suggests?

In a sense, however, (although I suspect an accidental one) Hoare's critique functions brilliantly: not only does he rightly criticise, in the substance of what he rights, a type of writing that gives rise not to mature ethico-political converstaion but only to a series of ever-more-polarised and reductive knee-jerks; he also enacts it, he exemplifies it, in his prose. We are thus left with a very full sense, much fuller than a mere description could ever hope to furnish us with, of exactly how disagreeable it is to read writing of this sort. I finished my (admittedly brief) reading around this subject absolutely none the wiser over what happened in Srebrenica in 1995, but with a sense of despair over much of what passes for scholarship, on both sides.

Perhaps ironically, the only actor in this saga not to leave me with with this impression was Johnstone herself.


Renegade Eye said...

I have been reading various blogs about this subject. I met Diana in the 1970s, when her main controversy, was who she dated.

I think your article is the most balanced.

Srebrenica Massacre said...

Hi Reneged Eye,

I was also in contact with Diana Johnstone by e-mail. We exchange - what I call - few e-mails of 'understanding.' She's openly pro-Serbian and she does not hide it.

Anyways, you said you med Diana in the 1970's when her main controversy was who she dated. Can you tell us more about it? It would be highly appreciated, Thank you.