The so-called 'sixth generation' of Chinese cinema is rich in poignant realist storytelling and subtle political critique - even if this critique is often aimed at the relatively soft target of Mao's Cultural Revolution (Wang Xiaoshuai's 11 Flowers) and its aftermath (Gu Changwei's Peacock). Slightly more daring, perhaps, are Jia Zhangke's films, which document the economic and socio-political changes that have impacted on the lives of ordinary people in China in more recent times. The interview above contains an informative and well-illustrated introduction to the industrial and biographical context, political themes and distinctive visual style of Jia's output.
The Burmese celebrity-politician Aung San Suu Kyi has delivered the first of this year's BBC Reith Lectures. Daw Suu heaped praise upon the BBC as a beacon of liberty and repeated the phrase 'freedom' many times, but said little about how her brand of pro-Western liberal capitalism would help what she called 'the people of Burma'. In answering questions from the audience following the lecture, Aung San Suu Kyi decried those who prize 'power' above 'humanity', while calling for sanctions against the ruling Burmese junta. In the audience, the liberal academic Timothy Garton Ash (a tireless propagandist for the British state criticised recently by me here) and an influential figure in British foreign policy circles, Kieran Prendergast, were on hand to lend their support.
But what political interests lie behind the high-sounding rhetoric and noble sentiments of Aung San Suu Kyi and her Western supporters?
Aung San Suu Kyi is a social democrat and daughter of the British-installed ex-Prime Minister of Burma (Myanmar, for US readers), Aung San. Until November 2010, she had been placed under house arrest by the ruling Burmese junta, which is heavily under the influence of China. Winner of the Nobel peace prize in 1991, she has become a key focus of Western imperial ambition in Burma and the poster girl of ‘pro-democracy’ activists.
Crucially, Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy, is seen by Western states as the best hope of gaining political leverage and curtailing the influence of Chinese imperialism in the region. Although British and US capital investment in Burma is significant, Western states have a clear interest in destabilising the pro-Chinese leadership of a country that is as rich in mineral and gas deposits as it is in geo-strategic potential.
This accounts for the BBC Radio 4 tribute to Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear (18 June 2010) and the welter of fawning features about her in the Western media following her release from house arrest last year. And there's more - much more - to come. Luc Besson's tribute film The Lady is now forthcoming. Some idea of the level of analysis to expect from the movie is suggested by Besson's description of Aung San Suu Kyi as 'very Gandhi like' and 'more of a heroine than Joan of Arc' (although presumably, despite the Buddhist tradition of political self-immolation, this lady is not for burning). At least Michelle Yeoh, who stars in the film, seems to appreciate just what a slender thing Suu Kyi is. Apparently she said of her meeting with The Lady: 'the first thing we did is hug and I thought: "you are really skinny, man".'
‘History is Screaming at Us’: Humanitarian Interventionism and the Popular Geopolitics of the Bosnian War in Leigh Jackson and Peter Kosminsky’s Warriors
In the light of my previous post on the arrest of Ratko Mladic, I thought it might be worth posting the following draft of a longer piece I wrote about the representation of the Bosnian war...
Warriors is a much-admired two-part television drama about the 1992-95 Bosnian war written by the late Leigh Jackson, directed by Peter Kosminsky, and broadcast by the BBC in 1999. This article contextualises and analyses the drama’s representation of the Bosnian war and critiques some of the historical and political assumptions that underpin it. In this way, the article aims to contribute both to the all too slender body of scholarly work on popular representations of the Bosnian war and to the broad field of ‘popular geopolitics’ (Dittmer, 2010).
The article begins by contrasting what might be called the dominant or established narrative of Bosnian conflict – the one upheld by the mainstream Western news media and by some academics – with the alternative, and, I contend, more convincing, account of the war that has been constructed in recent years by a number of radical historians and critics. Yet vital as it is to understand the role of news media in promoting misleading or propagandistic views of war, it is important, too, to appreciate the role of popular media forms in influencing public understandings of geopolitical issues. Mark Lacy (2003) identifies the cinema as a space where ‘commonsense’ ideas about geopolitics are reproduced, naturalised and legitimated. Popular film, for example, has played a leading role in recent years in building public support for US military operations (Power and Crampton, 2007). In the second part of the article, therefore, I turn to the representation of the Bosnian war in popular media forms, using Jackson and Kosminsky’s Warriors – perhaps the most critically lauded screen representation of the war – as a case study. Warriors it is argued, manages to avoid some of the egregious over-simplifications and misrepresentations that have characterised Western news media and popular cinematic accounts of the Bosnian war, making it one of the most engaging and convincing narratives about the conflict. Yet the drama’s representation of the war and its combatants is nonetheless problematic. For all its gritty authenticity and emotional force, Warriors reproduces many of the Western stereotypes about the conflict. In particular, the film’s perspective on the causes and possible solutions to the Balkan wars of the 1990s echoes the official discourse of humanitarian interventionism that was resurgent during that decade, as the disappearance of the Cold War threat of Communism required Western states to find new languages of legitimation.
There is insufficient space in this article to rehearse, let alone analyse, every event of the Bosnian war. Yet a reasonably extensive prolegomenon on both the history and the public representation of the war is indispensable here, not least because there is strong critical disagreement over competing accounts of the conflict. In particular, the widespread Western view of the conflict as a war of aggression waged primarily by the Serbs has been forcefully challenged in the last decade by a number of radical historians and critics whose work is drawn upon here – in particular, Peter Brock, Noam Chomsky, David Gibbs, Peter Gowan, Diana Johnstone, Michael Parenti, Edward Herman and David Peterson. Oscar Wilde famously quipped that the one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it; the critics mentioned above have attempted, to borrow Walter Benjamin’s (1999: 248) phrase, to ‘brush history against the grain’, exposing the omissions, inventions and inconsistencies that, according to them, characterise the dominant media narrative of the Bosnian war – or what Herman and Peterson (2007: 1) have provocatively called the Western news media’s ‘tsunami of lies and misrepresentations’ about what happened during the conflict.
The disintegration of the multi-ethnic federation of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s was precipitated by internal and external pressures. Before war broke out, Yugoslavia was obliged to undertake an International Monetary Fund ‘shock therapy’ program that raised the cost of living, reduced the social wage and eliminated jobs, forcing many Yugoslavs to leave the country to find work (Gowan, 2010: 21; Johnstone, 2002: 21; Parenti, 2000: 21; Woodward, 2005: 47-57). According to Herman and Peterson (2007: 4), the new economic regime also ‘threatened the solidarity’ of the country’s population in a way that allowed politicians to exploit ethnic differences. In 1990, multi-party elections – the first in Yugoslavia since the 1930s – took place in the former republics. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, three parties – the Muslim SDA, the Croat HDZ and the Serb SDS – together won 80 percent of the votes, forcing the Communists from power. Appealing for votes on the basis of ethnic identity, each of these parties gained a share of the ballot roughly equivalent to the population of the ethnic communities they claimed to represent. The three parties’ ethno-communalist appeals were directed across the old republican borders, serving to weaken the inter-ethnic bonds that had theretofore characterised Yugoslavian society. Following a referendum in 1992, Bosnia, following Slovenia and Croatia, declared its independence from Yugoslavia; yet some of Bosnia’s Serbs boycotted the poll and an independent, although internationally unrecognised, Serb state, Republika Srpska, was declared in Bosnia, under the auspices of the Serb commander Radovan Karadžić and Slobodan Milošević’s Yugoslav rump state. When war broke out in 1992, Muslim and Croat forces fought against the Serbs and eventually against each other, leading to three-way fighting among the ethnic groups.
Yet the fragmentation of Yugoslavia was not solely, or even mainly, a consequence of political and ethnic divisions within the republic. Although the point has mostly been ignored in academic literature on the breakup of Yugoslavia (Gowan, 2010: 21), the world’s great powers played a key role in encouraging the secession of Yugoslavia’s constituent republics in the early 1990s. After reunification, Germany ventured onto the world stage openly for the first time in fifty years. Along with Austria and Hungary, Germany provided political and economic support for the separatist political movements which had emerged in Slovenia and Germany’s historical ally Croatia (Gowan, 2010: 24). In common with many of Germany’s European neighbours, the US initially opposed recognition of these states, but ultimately accepted Germany’s position, eager, perhaps, to shift the costs of economic development in Eastern Europe onto Germany. This was accompanied by a hardening of US attitudes towards Milošević – once a Washington favourite – and the Yugoslav rump state. The US refused the faltering Yugoslav economy World Bank loans and denied the right for Serbia – the Yugoslav region that had shown the greatest resistance both to the IMF-led austerity programmes of the 1980s and to the war when it began (Wildcat, 1996; Parenti, 2000: 22) – to secede from the federation. In 1993, the US, keen to find its own client in the region and to regain the initiative in the crisis, began to promote the ‘independence’ of Bosnia, backing the Muslims led by Alija Izetbegović.
Britain, like most of the European states, had relatively little economic interest in the Balkans and in 1992 its politicians were divided over whether to orient towards Serbia or Croatia. While ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher appeared on British and Croatian television to support military action, the Major government was far less hawkish (Osmançavuşoğlu, 2004). Moreover, the UK, along with France, had longstanding alliances with the dominant Serb faction of Yugoslav ruling class, acting as its principal arms supplier, and was as concerned as any nation about the prospect of German revanchism in Europe. Yet Britain was more reluctant than most to engage in military intervention, not least because British troops might have been expected to bear the brunt of any fighting and because the potential cost of a war was hardly to be welcomed during a recession (Almond, 1994). Ultimately, however, Britain came to accept the position of the US as it adopted a more aggressive policy towards Bosnia. Britain and France, which boasted the two largest UN troop contingents, entered the Balkans to assert their own potential as Europe’s ‘policemen’, supporting the US in its bid to ‘defeat forces in the East which were undermining stability’ (Gowan, 2010: 37).
The official Western narrative of the Bosnian conflict maintains that Milošević initiated the war in a drive for a ‘Greater Serbia’. This view is elaborated in several widely read books about the Bosnian war (Glenny, 1996: 33; Silber and Little, 1997: 26) and is repeated frequently among journalists and academics to this day, along with the suggestion that Milošević aimed to create an ethnically pure Serbia. But as Herman and Peterson (2007: 8) contend, Milošević had in fact tried to hold the federation together, expressly warning against nationalism in speeches made in 1987 and 1989 (speeches widely reported in the Western media as inciting Serb nationalism). This was in contrast to the openly anti-semitic president of Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, who revived the red-and-white chequer board of the Nazi-era Ustaše flag. The Bosnian leader Izetbegović, meanwhile, was a Muslim fundamentalist and a member, during the Second World War, of a group that collaborated with the Nazi Schutzstaffel, committing atrocities against Jews and the resistance movement (Parenti, 2000: 51). If Milošević was a nationalist, it seems that he was no more aggressively nationalistic than Tudjman or Izetbegović. Yet the ethno-religious intolerance of the latter two men has been largely overlooked by high-profile Western journalists such as David Rieff, Ed Vulliamy and Marlise Simons, all of whom identify Milošević as the war’s prime mover (Herman and Peterson, 2007: 11).
Like Saddam Hussein a few years earlier in the first Gulf War – and like many other world leaders who outlive their usefulness to US power – Milošević underwent a transformation in the Western media from an ally of the US into its enemy. Yet the commonplace view that Milošević and the Serbs were uniquely or even primarily responsible for the Bosnian war is problematised by a number of details. For one thing, Serbia proper saw no ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian conflict and actually witnessed a net inflow of refugees; as Herman and Peterson (2007: 13) note, this is a curious situation to be tolerated by a state supposedly aiming for ethnic purity. Nor did Milošević strive to keep all Serbs in one state; in fact, he declined to defend Croatian Serbs when they were ethnically cleansed in 1995 (Herman and Peterson, 2007: 14). And whileMilošević can be characterised as a nationalist who was responsible for many atrocities, several critics have pointed out that the Western media ignored the expansionist drives of Croatian and Kosovo Albanian nationalists for a ‘Greater Croatia’ and ‘Greater Albania’ and Izetbegović’s refusal of a settlement in the hope of ruling over all three Bosnian ‘nations’ (Parenti, 2000: 32; Herman and Peterson, 2007: 14).
Following a settlement in early 1994, the three-way fighting between Croats, Muslims and Serbs became a war between two sides. The Muslims and Croats in Bosnia called a truce and formed a confederation, which in August agreed to a plan – developed by the United States, Russia, Britain, France and Germany – for a 51-49 split of Bosnia, with the Serbs getting the lesser percentage. But despite the Muslim-Croat alliance, the peace proposal, and an ongoing arms embargo against all combatants (an embargo criticised abroad for maintaining Bosnian Serb dominance in weaponry), the fighting did not stop. According to the received wisdom, this was because ‘the international community’ was slow to act and because the Serbs would not cease their aggression. Yet according to Herman and Peterson (2007: 8), the US sabotaged efforts at peace until the Muslim and Croat forces it armed and trained had improved their military position. Diana Johnstone argues that the fighting continued because the Bosnian Muslims were holding out for better deals from the US. Indeed, the eventual NATO bombing of Serb positions in 1995, argues Johnstone, was undertaken under the false pretence of Serbian intransigence: ‘The United States bombed the Bosnian Serbs to get Izetbegović to the negotiating table’, writes Johnstone (2002: 236), ‘but the version for the public was that bombing was necessary to get Milošević to the negotiating table’.
In the lead-up to the bombing in 1995, the US president Bill Clinton justified intervention by invoking Serbian human rights violations – comparing them to those committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Journalists and academics were also at pains to emphasise the similarities between the Serbs’ treatment of Muslims and the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews in the Second World War, even going so far as to imply the existence of Nazi-style death camps (Robison, 2004: 388-389). Although ‘the UN forces never found such “death camps” when they gained access to all of Bosnia-Herzegovina’ (Finley, 2004: 130), this rumour was solidified into a fact with stunning success by the public relations agency Ruder-Finn and was used to galvanise the support of Jewish pressure groups which might otherwise have been less than enthusiastic to back the cause of Muslim fundamentalists with historical connections to the Nazis. When challenged on the evidential basis of their claims, Ruder-Finn’s director stated bluntly: ‘Our work is not to verify information […] Our work is to accelerate the circulation of information favourable to us […] We are professionals. We had a job to do and we did it. We are not paid to moralize’ (quoted in Parenti, 2000: 92). In fact, although there were indeed Serbian holding camps during the Balkan wars, Muslims and Croats also operated camps in which prisoners were often detained in appalling conditions with totally inadequate food or sanitation. In fact, the Bosnian Muslims ran more camps with more detainees than the Serbs; yet only Radovan Karadžić allowed the Western media to visit his camps (Johnstone, 2002: 71). This, as Diana Johnstone notes, proved to be a strategic error by the Serbs, as the notorious ITN picture of the ‘thin man’, Fikret Alić, standing beside barbed wire, was subsequently presented by Western news editors as evidence of the existence of ‘death camps’ being run exclusively by Serbs (Johnstone, 2002: 72-73; Brock, 2005: 245-246).
Western news media also emphasised rapes committed by Serb, but not by Croat or Muslim forces. Western feminist groups picked up quickly on rumours that Serbs were organising rape camps and academics have also repeated this claim in the years following the war (Tester, 2001: 11). Yet as Finley (2004: 130) notes, ‘evidence of such camps was never unearthed’. Rape is always an under-reported crime and while rapes were undoubtedly committed by all combatants during the war – more frequently, no doubt, than during ‘peacetime’ – there is no evidence that Serbs committed rape systematically or that Serbs raped more women than Muslim and Croat forces. The Western media, however, concentrated on the stories of the women raped by Serbs, ignoring evidence relating to Serbian rape victims (Johnstone, 2002: 78-87; Hammond, 2004: 174-189; Brock, 2005: 59-72; Herman and Peterson, 2007: 38; Parenti, 2007: 24).
Meanwhile, public consent for military ‘intervention’ in Bosnia was engineered in the news media by a culturally influential cross-section of the liberal commentariat. Anthony Lewis wrote numerous New York Times columns demanding military action. Susan Sontag (the mother of one of the chief advocates of military action in Bosnia, David Rieff) also campaigned for intervention. Indeed, the ‘Bosnian question’ converted numerous left-liberal academics and commentators – including Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Todd Gitlin, Jürgen Habermas, Christopher Hitchens and Michael Ignatieff – into ‘humanitarian interventionists’. Although these commentators tended to focus overwhelmingly on Muslim rather than Serb victims, the reputation of many of these figures as ‘voices of conscience’ reinforced the respectability of their views among socially conscious cultural practitioners. The actress Vanessa Redgrave, for example, travelled to Sarajevo to support intervention.
Despite Britain’s ambivalence about deploying force against its erstwhile allies in Serbia, as the war progressed and the nature of the US commitments in the region became clear, the British news media came to adopt an anti-Serb position and, like its US counterpart, demonised the Serbs. One of the most hard-line interventionist newspapers throughout the 1990s, The Independent, talked of Serbian genocide and rape camps, while from left to right, the British press, including The Independent, The Telegraph, New Statesman, The Guardian and The Sun mobilised a range of racist stereotypes which presented Serbs as tribal, primitive, evil, bloodthirsty and bestial (Hammond, 2004: 185). Furthermore, as Philip Hammond (2004: 183) notes, ‘Western journalists consistently downplayed or ignored attacks by Croats and Muslims, so that Serbian attacks appeared to be evidence of a one-sided war of aggression’. Indeed, contra those journalists and academics who argued that media coverage of Bosnia was ineffectually ‘neutral’ (Vulliamy, 1999; Power, 2002), it could be argued that Western media coverage of the war was savagely partisan. Drawing on the journalism of Ed Vulliamy and David Rieff, Graham Spencer (2005: 91) rightly notes that ‘it was the betrayal of the Bosnian Muslims by the West which most evidently surfaces in accounts of the war’; but as we have seen, there are very good reasons to question the veracity of those accounts.
A brief consideration of the media coverage of some of the key events in the war will help to illustrate some further problems with the dominant news media account of the conflict. The so-called marketplace massacres in Sarajevo provide a useful case study here. During the siege of Sarajevo, Serb forces were criticised in the Western news media for perpetrating the infamous breadline and marketplace massacres, even although these were, according to many UN officials, committed by Muslim troops (Parenti, 2000: 75). In fact, Muslim forces in the city often fired first against Serbs to provoke a military response and gain sympathetic media coverage. The British diplomat and EU co-chairman of the Conference for the Former Yugoslavia, David Owen (quoted in Parenti, 2000: 75) records in his memoir that NATO knew of Muslim ‘friendly fire’ attacks, noting that ‘no seasoned observer in Sarajevo doubts for a moment that Muslim forces have found it in their interest to shell friendly targets’. Muslim forces also prevented Serb civilians from leaving the city in order to use them as ‘human shields’ and shot at Muslim civilians ‘in attempts to blame Serb attackers’ (Parenti, 2000: 75).
Yet it is the massacre of Muslim men and boys at the supposed ‘safe haven’ of Srebrenica that provides the most dismal example of misleading news reporting. Srebrenica was (and still is) widely described by journalists and politicians as a Nazi-style ‘genocide’ that ‘we must never forget’. We can readily agree that the horrors of Srebrenica should never be forgotten and that appalling atrocities were committed there; but some important contextualising remarks must also be made. Some critics (Johnstone, 2002; Herman and Peterson, 2007) have questioned the widespread claim that as many as 8,000 civilians were executed at Srebrenica by Serb forces, arguing that the numbers of those killed have been exaggerated for propaganda purposes. It is unnecessary, if not unseemly, to fixate, however, on the Srebrenica body count. Clearly, Muslim men and boys were killed in large numbers around the town (women were spared, arguably rendering the term ‘genocide’ inappropriate). That a massacre took place at Srebrenica is not in doubt. What is questionable is the tendency of journalists to detach the massacre from its context. In 1992, Serbs had been driven out of Srebrenica and the years leading up to the massacre saw many attacks on nearby Serb towns. Indeed, Srebrenica was not simply a ‘safe haven’ for civilians; it also functioned as a UN cover for Bosnian Muslim military operations. Nasir Oric, for example, was a Muslim officer operating out of Srebrenica. Oric ventured out to attack nearby Serb villages, burning homes and killing over a thousand Serbs between May 1992 and January 1994. Oric even invited Western reporters to his apartment to see his ‘war trophies’: videocassettes showing the severed heads of Serbs, burnt houses, and piles of corpses (Herman, 2003). Yet while Muslim warlords launched many attacks on Serbs and Croats in Bosnia, only Serb paramilitary leaders, such as Arkan, are well-known from Western news media coverage of the conflict.
None of this context is supplied in news media references to Srebrenica. Edward Herman (2003) notes that
it has been an absolute rule of Rieff et al./media reporting on the Bosnian conflict to present evidence of Serb violence in vacuo, suppressing evidence of prior violence against Serbs, thereby falsely suggesting that Serbs were never responding but only initiated violence (this applies to Vukovar, Mostar, Tuzla, Goražde, and many other towns).
It is also well-known – and was even conceded by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTFY) – that all the Bosnian Muslim women and children in Srebrenica were helped to safety in Bosnian Muslim territory by the Serbs before the fighting began.
The critical question here is not whether Serb forces committed appalling atrocities at Srebrenica and elsewhere (which they certainly did), but why only Serb atrocities have drawn the opprobrium of Western commentators. According to Herman and Peterson (2007: 20-22), it is likely that more civilians were killed during Operation Storm, the 1995 US bombing raid in which 250,000 Krajina Serbs were displaced, than were killed at Srebrenica; yet only Srebrenica has entered historical myth as a genocide. Herman and Peterson’s (2007: 26) wider observation about the one-sidedness of Western news media reporting is relevant here:
We find it interesting that in the West, the millions or more deaths from the ‘sanctions of mass destruction’ and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths that have followed the 2003 invasion are never presented as ‘genocide’ or events that we ‘must never forget’. These deaths did not merit the indignation of Ed Vulliamy, David Rieff, Samantha Power, and the mainstream media. The driving out of 250,000 Serbs from Croatia, and killing several thousand of them, doesn’t even rate the designation of ‘ethnic cleansing’, let alone genocide. […] The 16,000 Serb civilians killed in Bosnia in 1992–95 are effectively disappeared, while the 31,000 Muslim civilians killed in the latter years are elevated to world class status as victims of genocide. In short, these are words to be used only when describing the crimes of US enemies, with suitable attention and indignation to be provided in parallel.
Adding insult to injury, the anti-Serb bias of Western journalism was justified by an appeal to a set of professional practices that collectively became known as the ‘journalism of attachment’ (Bell, 1998: 15-22): an allegedly new mode of affective reportage that would supplement the supposedly suffocating ‘neutrality’ of existing journalism with a proper sense of moral outrage. The concept of the ‘journalism of attachment’ allowed journalists such as Ed Vulliamy to present themselves as mavericks unafraid of ‘speaking out’ bravely and passionately about the horrors of war, while in practice doing so only on behalf of Muslim victims. According to Tariq Ali (2000: xv), these self-styled ‘mavericks’ in fact constituted the journalistic mainstream and those who questioned their version of events ‘were denounced as traitors, appeasers and worse’.
In the autumn of 1995 US warplanes attacked Bosnian Serb positions in Operation Storm. The air strikes, which were backed up by 100,000 Croatian troops, involved 3,200 sorties, more than one ton of bombs and the firing of cruise missiles from US warships in the Adriatic. Towns and villages throughout Bosnia were targeted and many hundreds of civilians were killed and wounded. The stated strategic aim of the bombings was to inflict overwhelming damage on the telecommunications and transportation links of the Bosnian Serb army, allowing the regular army of Croatia, together with Bosnian Muslim and Croat forces, to overrun Serb regions in northwest Bosnia. This ground offensive killed and wounded thousands and turned another 125,000 people into refugees. They joined 225,000 Serb civilians who were driven out of Krajina by the Croatian army in an operation backed by the US and which was probably the war’s largest single act of ethnic expulsion (Parenti, 2000: 29; Gibbs, 2009). This was what Edward Herman acerbically describes in several of his works as ‘benign’ ethnic cleansing, i.e. ethnic cleansing undertaken by the US and its allies.
The Dayton Agreement which followed the bombing represented a victory for the USA and a defeat for almost everyone else (with the partial exception of Germany). The Pax Americana completed the process of ethnic partition which had already cost the lives of more than 200,000 people and turned millions more into refugees. The settlement took place in a US airbase where the participants were locked away from the world’s media and forced to accept the US solution, just as happened four years later at Rambouillet to end the Kosovo crisis (Parenti, 2000: 108-114). While European-initiated settlements had been blocked for many years on the grounds that they rewarded ethnic cleansing and failed to preserve an independent and multi-ethnic Bosnia, Bosnia was now partitioned into Muslim, Serb and Croat enclaves. The US drafted a new constitution for the former Yugoslav republic, sanctioning the use of force against anyone who opposed the US plan.
The impact of the Bosnian war on communities and infrastructure in the former Yugoslavia continues to be felt to this day. But the interventionist assumptions of media commentators on the Bosnian war have also proved to be enduring. The humanitarian justification for Operation Storm set the precedent for NATO’s 1999 bombing of Kosovo (and for the US’s later military interventions, also launched under the banner of human rights, in Afghanistan and Iraq). Václav Havel was just one of many prominent liberals to see in the Kosovo intervention the dawning of a new age in which a renewed respect for human rights had finally triumphed over the monolithic power of the state, sending the message that ‘it is simply not permissible to murder people, to drive them from their homes, to torture them, and to confiscate their property’ (Havel, quoted in Chomsky, 2008: 40). But as Noam Chomsky (2008: 40) dryly counters, the Kosovo bombing showed that ‘it remains permissible, indeed obligatory, not only to tolerate such actions but to contribute massively to them’.
In the years following the Bosnian war, the Western news media’s anti-Serb bias has also been echoed and amplified by numerous journalists and academics. Repeating media reports of genocide and rape camps, Thomas Cushman and Stjepan Meštrović (1996: 1-38), for example, compare Serb atrocities during the war to those of the Nazis and berate ‘intellectuals’ for failing to take sides as the conflict raged. They further argue that, instead of reacting immediately to prevent crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia, ‘the world’ acted voyeuristically – passively watching the horror unfold, but taking no action. It has even been suggested that the war in Bosnia elicited ‘relatively few expressions of outrage’ (Tester, 2001: 11). This myth of Western passivity has in turn given rise to the construction of the grand psycho-social theory that Westerners now inhabit a ‘postemotional’ society in which our proper moral outrage in the face of injustice and suffering has been hollowed out or eroded (Meštrović, 1996). Yet the proposition that the Balkan crisis elicited no emotional response from Western observers is at least as questionable as that other ideological canard of the 1990s, Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’. Not only were the great powers heavily involved in dividing up the federation, training and arming their allies in the region, but the Western news media carried a veritable outpouring of support for military intervention from journalists and intellectuals.
Both during and after the war, then, Western journalists tended to present Milošević as the instigator of the war, to see Western states not as active instigators of the war but as its passive observers, to downplay the significance of atrocities committed by Croats and Muslims and to demonise the Serbs as uniquely brutal and fascistic, frequently by invoking comparisons with the Nazis. Given the extent of these representations in the Western news media, it is unsurprising to find that they are also commonplace in Western cinematic and televisual depictions of the Bosnian war, as I discuss in the second part of this article with a particular focus on Jackson and Kosminsky’s Warriors.
Popular films, as Power and Crampton (2007: 6) note, ‘provide a way of solving (geo)political uncertainty […] providing moral geographies and making clear the lines between “us” and “them”’. Hollywood war films often reinforce the aims and perspectives of the US military, sometimes by introducing historical and moral reversals which turn perpetrators into victims and vice versa. In Michael Cimino’s critically lauded The Deer Hunter (1978), for example, the guilt for the trauma incurred by the US invasion of Vietnam is displaced onto America’s brutal and sadistic enemies, most notoriously in the Russian Roulette scene, in which US torture of the Vietnamese is reversed to show the Vietnamese torturing Americans. Another Oscar-winning film, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001), travesties the US’s ‘humanitarian war’ in Somalia in 1993 via a similar reversal. Scott’s film, which focuses on the 1993 battle of Mogadishu, was made in close collaboration with the Pentagon and the White House, which edited the final script. The film begins with documentary-style reconstructions and its opening title asserts its claim to be ‘based on actual events’. Yet Black Hawk Down ignores the US massacre of around 1000 starving Somalians during the battle of Mogadishu (in which 18 US soldiers were killed) and presents the US invaders as righteous avengers against hordes of Somalis, who are portrayed as snarling ‘blood-thirsty madmen’ (McCriskin and Pepper, 2005: 171). Without labouring the point, the recent crop of films about the Iraq war contains many more such examples of historical and geopolitical distortion (Kellner, 2010).
The major Hollywood films about the Bosnian war, too, tend to follow familiar news media scripts, demonising the official enemy of the US – even though many of these films are notable for their liberal, humanitarian ethos. A case in point is Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), a film based on a book by a British foreign correspondent, Michael Nicholson, about the attempt to evacuate Muslim babies during the siege of Sarajevo. In order to reinforce the equation of the Serbs with the Nazis, Welcome to Sarajevo uses quasi-documentary techniques, intercutting images of civilian suffering with television footage of one of Bill Clinton’s public statements about Bosnia: ‘history has shown us that you can’t allow the mass extermination of people and just sit by and watch it happen’. Elsewhere, footage of a speech made by George Bush Senior, in which the ex-president asserts that ‘you can’t negotiate with a terrorist’, is juxtaposed with images of the Serb commander Radovan Karadžić. Moreover, as Goran Gocić (2001: 42-3) points out, Welcome to Sarajevo introduces several factual inaccuracies, seemingly in order to demonise Serbs:
The infamous killing at a Sarajevo wedding in 1992 (which triggered the hostilities in the city) had Serbian victims and, in the case of a Sarajevan child adopted by a British journalist, the child was a Croatian girl. In Welcome to Sarajevo, however, the events were converted into a Croatian wedding and a Muslim girl, and these changes were introduced obviously for political reasons.
Gocić adds that the screenwriter and director have never been challenged over these ‘evident falsehoods’ which, Gocić suggests, come ‘close to propaganda’. Moreover, Welcome to Sarajevo depicts Western journalists as hard-drinking, cynical, but above all heroic and compassionate, Muslims as innocent victims and Serbs as raving psychopaths.
These stereotypes are also in evidence in Richard Shepard’s The Hunting Party(2007), in which a posse of intrepid investigative journalists journey into post-war Republika Srpska in order to track down a war criminal. Republika Srpska is described by the journalist Duck (Terrance Howard) as a ‘backward land’ presided over by the monstrous Serb war criminal The Fox and his degenerate bodyguard Srdjan (Goran Kostić), whom Duck forthrightly describes as a ‘psychopathic little fuck’. Srdjan has a tattoo on his forehead which reads, in Cyrillic, ‘I was dead the day I was born’. John Moore’s gung-ho Behind Enemy Lines (2001), too, stereotypes Serbs as ‘mono-dimensional demons’ who must be destroyed by angelic American forces (Watson, 2008: 55). To the list of barbarous screen Serbs we could add Victor Drazen, the chief villain of the first season of the highly popular Fox television series24 (2001) who has a background in ethnic cleansing. Drazen is a ‘one-sided’ figure, ‘an unscrupulous and cold-blooded murderer’ (Birk and Birk, 2005: 59). After the accent of a Serbian actor was judged to be too impenetrable for Anglophone audiences to understand, the role of Drazen was given to Dennis Hopper, an actor well-known for playing villainous screen roles.
Even Danis Tanović’s dark comedy No Man’s Land (2001), widely lauded for its anti-war message and certainly one of the more balanced treatments of the Bosnian conflict (Watson, 2008), reproduces many Western stereotypes of the war. The film is based upon the interaction between two combatants from opposing sides of the conflict who find themselves trapped between the Serb and Muslim front lines. The film does capture something of the craziness of war and the potential for human solidarity among putative 'enemies'. ‘Who cares who started it?’, declares Čiki (Branko Đurić), the Bosnian Muslim protagonist, ‘we’re all in the same shit now’. Later in the film, Čiki discovers that he and his companion have a female friend in common in Banja Luka. Some appropriate satire, moreover, is levelled at Western war reporters. Just seconds after the tragic moment in which the two soldiers are shot dead, the arrogant journalist Jane Livingstone (Katrin Cartlidge), insensitively asks her cameraman: ‘Did you get it?’. Yet despite these progressive elements, the presentation of the causes and consequences of the Bosnian war in No Man’s Landis consistent with that of the Western news media coverage. An argument between the film’s two protagonists about the origins of the war clearly identifies the Serbs as the primary aggressors. Čiki is coded as the compassionate hero of the story and his Rolling Stones tee-shirt reminds the audience that the Bosnian Muslims represent supposedly ‘liberated’, Western values. His Serb trench-mate, on the other hand, is neurotic and duplicitous, attempting at one point to stab Čiki with his own knife. The film’s final image of a booby-trapped Bosnian Muslim fighter left to die in a trench, meanwhile, reflects the mainstream news media perspective that Muslims were the only victims of the war.
This brief survey of films about the Bosnian war suggests that cinematic treatments of the Bosnian war have tended to conform to the dominant anti-Serb paradigm of Western news media scripts; the only exceptions to this pattern, as might be expected, are those films about the war made by Serb directors, notably Srdjan Dragojević’s Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (1996) and Pedrag Antonijević’s Savior(1998), both of which arguably bend the stick too far in the other direction by presenting Muslims as the primary perpetrators of mass violence (Watson, 2008: 56). Furthermore, the examples of No Man’s Land and Welcome to Sarajevosuggest that elements of Western propaganda about the Bosnian war are apparent not only in gung-ho action films, but also in broadly ‘liberal’ film narratives about the war. Both of these points can be elaborated through an analysis of Jackson and Kosminsky’s Warriors, which, despite being the lengthiest and arguably most critically respected treatment of the war, has been unduly neglected by film and television scholars.
Throughout his chequered yet distinguished career in television, Peter Kosminsky’s laudable aim has been not merely to reflect social realities, but to transform them. In this sense, Kosminsky is the heir to the British tradition of campaigning television drama established in the 1960s by his long-time hero, Ken Loach. A television hyphenate and self-confessed ‘trouble-maker’, Kosminsky has produced and directed television dramas intended to challenge audiences and precipitate governmental action. Kosminsky has never flinched from controversy, approaching political and military subjects from a provocative angle. While working for Yorkshire Television in 1987, he directed the documentary The Falklands – The Untold Story, whose interviews with Argentinian and British combatants challenge the jingoistic discourses of the mainstream media by presenting the Argentinian fighters as human beings rather than faceless adversaries and exposing the traumatising consequences of warfare upon the soldiers of both sides. Afghantsi (1988), a documentary about the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan in which Soviet soldiers describe the hardships of the war, is an equally bold piece of work that focuses on the experience of soldiers fighting on behalf of the West’s supposed enemies. Despite its high quality, however, the latter documentary attracted only a small audience. Kosminsky soon realised that the only way to get difficult subjects in front of large audiences with an adequate budget, scheduling and marketing was to make them as dramas (Kosminsky, quoted in Campbell, 2008).
By making docudramas rather than documentaries, Kosminsky raised the profile of his work, while at the same time hitting new heights of controversy. The 1997 ITV drama No Child of Mine, written by Guy Hibbert and directed by Kosminsky, followed the multiple sexual abuse of a thirteen year-old girl, implicitly criticising the failings of the British care system and campaigning for safe houses for abused children. It provoked strong reactions from viewers and drew moral condemnation from conservative politicians – the Conservative Member of Parliament Teresa Gorman, for example, asked whether the drama’s ‘depravity’ was ‘really necessary’ (quoted in Aitkenhead, 1997: 3). Indeed, since the 1990s, Kosminsky has emerged as Britain’s foremost television controversialist with a series of dramas that deal with socially urgent and politically contentious topics. Many of these dramas deal with the themes of trust and betrayal: in No Child of Mine, a child’s trust in adult authority is repeatedly shattered, while subsequent dramas, including The Project (BBC, 2002),The Government Inspector (Channel 4, 2005) and Britz (Channel 4, 2007), investigate the various ways in which New Labour, in Kosminsky’s view, betrayed the political trust placed in it by a large section of the British population in 1997.Warriors, too, is essentially a drama about trust and betrayal.
Featuring a clutch of relatively unknown (but soon to be famous) actors including Ioan Gruffudd, Matthew Macfadyen and Damian Lewis, Warriors follows the fortunes of British forces sent to Bosnia on a ‘peacekeeping’ remit under the auspices of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in 1992. The drama has the tripartite structure that is common to many screen narratives of war. Early scenes focus on the personal and family lives of the soldiers as they prepare to be mobilised. The central part of the film follows the soldiers’ deployment in Bosnia, where the men witness scenes of shocking brutality. The drama’s final portion, meanwhile, depicts the social and psychological difficulties experienced by the soldiers on their return home.
The central thesis of the drama is that UNPROFOR’s non-combat remit precluded the soldiers from protecting the civilian victims of the war (in this sense, the drama’s title is distinctly ironic – an irony lost when the film was re-titled Peacekeepers for the US market). In many scenes throughout the drama’s 175 minute running time, the soldiers can only look on in frustration as Bosnian civilians are shelled or displaced from their homes. The soldiers are not permitted to help civilians to safety using their vehicles, since such action would constitute ethnic cleansing. In one scene, the UN official Rik Langrubber (Carsten Voigt) rebukes Lieutenant Neil Laughrey (Damian Lewis) for his impatience when his column is halted by Serb forces. ‘Oh yes’, says Langrubber sarcastically, ‘you’re the British Army, so you want to smash your way through’. As Major Stone (Simon Shepherd) later angrily explains to Lieutenant Laughrey, the official UN mandate is to remain ‘neutral’, not taking sides, but simply observing and assisting with aid distribution – a mandate some of the soldiers find unconscionable and almost impossible to observe. The UNPROFOR soldiers often express cynicism about their all-too-passive role and frequently attempt to aid civilians as they are shelled. In a particularly tense scene, a young Bosniak boy is rescued from shelling and harboured in the back of the armoured vehicle by Private Alan James (Matthew Macfadyen); but the boy is discovered during a Serb vehicle search and taken away by the Serb forces, much to the annoyance and humiliation of James’ commanding officer, Lieutenant John Feeley (Ioan Gruffudd). James is severely reprimanded for his violation of the UN mandate. Later, the soldiers attempt to use their armoured vehicles to evacuate some civilians from buildings targeted by Croat forces, but are peremptorily ordered to cease the evacuation. ‘How can this be right?’ spits Corporal Gary Sprague (Joe Renton), as he reluctantly sets about removing the evacuees from the back of the vehicle.
The guilt felt by some of the UNPROFOR soldiers at their impotence in Bosnia is encapsulated in an outburst by Private James on his return to Liverpool at the end of the film. In response to his father’s comment that James and his comrades ‘did a great job out there’ and are ‘heroes’, James remarks blankly: ‘I think it was shite, what we did… leaving people to die’. In the following scene, James smashes up a bus shelter in a fit of frustration. Later, talking to Lieutenant Feeley in a café, he reveals that while he once dreamed of playing football for Liverpool, he now ‘dreams of walking on dead bodies’. Lieutenant Laughrey also has trouble adjusting to civilian life after his return to the UK, assaulting his pregnant wife while under the illusion that he is still in Bosnia. As he explains to a police officer investigating the incident:
When you’ve seen babies with their heads blown off, when you’ve had to drink coffee with men who you know have taken children and crucified them and thrown them into a river, it’s hard to get excited about what sort of nappies you should be buying or what colour the nursery should be. It’s hard to get excited about being a father because you feel so guilty for leaving all those people in the shit.
Warriors thus depicts the traumatic psychological impact of the Bosnian conflict on the UN ‘peacekeepers’ and the drama’s central thesis is that the soldiers ought to have been mandated to act decisively to prevent the human suffering they saw.Indeed, during the Kosovo conflict in the late 1990s – around the time thatWarriors was screened – Kosminsky himself appeared on British television current affairs programmes such as BBC2’s Newsnight,arguing that British forces should intervene militarily in Yugoslavia on humanitarian grounds.
Kosminsky is nothing if not a careful researcher. The screenplay of Warriors is based on transcripts of interviews conducted by Kosminsky with more than 90 soldiers and their families, giving the narrative a powerful sense of authenticity. Themise-en-scene of the drama adds to this sense: although filmed in the Czech Republic, the armoured vehicles, uniforms, weapons and combat situations featured in the production are presented with a keen attention to detail. Indeed, the drama’s depiction of war is thought to be so authentic that the film has been used in army training programmes in order to illustrate the dilemmas and challenges that arise for soldiers in combat situations. Journalists have also marvelled at the drama’s verisimilitude. During a panel discussion at the BBC in 2010, Kosminsky related how, at a Programme Review meeting about Warriors, he was told that BBC journalists had asked why they had put their lives in danger by reporting from Bosnia when Jackson and Kosminsky had succeeded in depicting the events of the war so well in fictional form.
Critical responses to Warriors have been no less complimentary. Writing after the initial broadcast of the drama, The Times’ Paul Hoggart (1999: 12), wrote thatWarriors ‘was, quite simply, stunning – gut-wrenching, soul-searing, heart-rending, thought-provoking, sensitive, powerful, deeply disturbing and dripping authenticity from every shot’. Other critics noted that Warriors eschews the more melodramatic elements of the Hollywood war film and praised the drama for its lack of bombast (Viner, 1999; Hanks, 1999). Indeed, in keeping with Kosminsky’s oft-stated aim of making himself ‘invisible’ as a director, the visual style and musical score of the drama are unobtrusive and violence is not fetishised – nor are the soldiers crassly heroised – through hackneyed cinematic devices, such as slow motion or the choral music used to etherealise moments of danger for the US airmen in Behind Enemy Lines (Watson, 2008: 54). The proto-romantic relationship between a married Muslim woman, Almira Zec (Branka Katić) and Lieutenant Feeley, is also elegantly understated and the moral dilemma it poses – put crudely, that of whether to ‘intervene’ in the affairs of others – neatly condenses the wider ethical conundrums surrounding the British soldiers’ involvement in Bosnia. For these reasons alone,Warriors can be distinguished from some of the more sensationalised treatments of the war discussed above.
In the years since its original broadcast, Warriors’ reputation as ‘quality’ drama has been upheld by television critics. In a discussion of the 2009 BBC drama about the invasion of Iraq, Occupation, The Observer’s Kathryn Flett (2009: 28) noted excitedly that she had ‘been waiting for a British war drama this good for a decade, since Peter Kosminsky’s Warriors’. But while press reviewers responded enthusiastically to the superb acting and thoughtful tone of the drama, they had less to say about its historical verisimilitude or its political message. Kosminsky (quoted in Campbell, 2008) himself has noted that
people didn’t question the bona fides of Warriors in the way other work has been questioned. We spoke to most of those directly involved and knew it was a fair reflection of what occurred. It’s more difficult when you get into an area like The Government Inspector [Kosminsky’s docudrama about the death of the government weapons inspector David Kelly]. A larger number of people know, or think they know what occurred and we have to defend our journalism more stoutly.
Given that some of Kosminsky’s other docudramas have provoked strong criticisms over their handling of historical events, it may seem surprising that Warriors’ depiction of the Bosnian war drew so little critical comment. Yet it is quite true that Warriors''s reconstruction of the war has mostly been ignored by critics, and when it has been discussed, has largely been exempted from detailed scrutiny. The Independent’s television reviewer Robert Hanks (2005: 10), for example, criticises Kosminsky’s The Government Inspector (Channel 4, 2005) for blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction; but he seems far more relaxed about Warriors’ relation to the historical record. For Hanks, the facts about David Kelly’s death ‘matter so much’ that ‘fiction can only get in the way’. Hanks appears to be satisfied, however, that the dramatic action of Warriors is ‘generically true’. ‘This sort of thing happened’, Hanks asserts of the events portrayed in Warriors, ‘even if not these particular things’ (2005: 10). In one sense, Hanks’s distinction between Warriors andThe Government Inspector is reasonable: while The Government Inspectorconcentrates on a real historical figure, the fictional characters in Warriors have no real-world referents, permitting a degree of dramatic license. On the other hand, Hanks’ confidence that Warriors deals only in ‘generic’ truths seems misplaced, since the historical events portrayed in the drama, such as the Ahmići massacre of 1993, are quite specific. Even Hanks’s confidence that Warriors depicts the ‘sort of thing’ that happened in Bosnia is open to question, as I suggest below. Indeed, questions of historical accuracy are important here: if the facts surrounding David Kelly’s death ‘matter’, then so too, surely, do the facts surrounding the events of the Bosnian war, during which many thousands of people were killed. In the following discussion, I consider how Warriors takes up and re-presents those facts.
Throughout Warriors, both Croat and Serb forces figure prominently as perpetrators of atrocities. In the drama’s early scenes, a Croat mob assembles outside the house of a Muslim family which Croat militia appear to be intent on burning down; a little later in the drama, Serb troops harass Muslim civilians. The UN forces are not entirely ineffective in preventing some of these abuses. In the second part of the drama, for example, Lieutenant Feely (Ioan Gruffudd) manages to deter some Croat militiamen (Croat militia operated alongside regular Croat forces in Bosnia) from ransacking an elderly Muslim couple’s home by asking them whether Dario Kordić (the commander of the Croat forces) has approved their mission.
But while Serbs and Croats are the perpetrators of violence throughout Warriors, Muslims are overwhelmingly presented victims. The Muslim Zec family and another anonymous family in Ahmići – whose members are later murdered by Croat forces – are the only civilians whose sufferings are explored in any detail. Almira Zec, in particular, is humanised through her incipient love affair with Lieutenant Feeley. Yet in the drama’s depictions of fighting and atrocities, Muslim forces are never directly portrayed as aggressors. Here the drama conforms to the dominant Western news media narrative of the war in which, as we have seen, Muslim atrocities and Muslim warlords were all but airbrushed from the official record. By bracketing out Muslim aggression, Jackson and Kosminsky’s drama underestimates the multilateral dynamic of the war. The absence of any representation of Muslim-initiated violence is especially troubling in view of the fact that Warriors is set in Vitez – an area of central Bosnia in which most of the fighting between 1992 and 1994 was between Muslim and Croat forces.
Warriors’ elision of Muslim violence is combined with a tendency to foreground Serb cynicism and aggression. In an early scene, the UNPROFOR company quietly intervenes when a Serb soldier rips open a woman’s blouse; yet there are no equivalent displays of sexual aggression from Croat or Muslim forces. Later, when the British troops ask a Serb commander – the drama’s central villain – to explain why his forces are shelling a village, the commander replies that the attack is in fact being conducted by Muslim forces shelling their ‘own people’. The commander’s self-satisfied smile and smugly folded arms as he utters this explanation clearly indicate that he is cynically lying; moreover, his arrogant manner shows that he cares little about concealing the lie from his interlocutors – on the contrary, he relishes this opportunity to mock the impotent UNPROFOR soldiers. That such cruel and contemptible commanders were widespread in the Bosnian war is beyond doubt. But the commander’s smug rationalisation of the shelling implies that the very notion of Muslim forces shelling Muslim civilians is a patent absurdity, recognised as such by all sides. This implication is highly problematic. As noted above, according to many UN observers, Muslim forces did bomb the Sarajevo marketplace in 1994 and 1995 in order to provoke a NATO attack on the Serbs. Certainly, Muslim false flag operations were commonplace in the Bosnian war and are not merely the cynical invention of Serb apologists.
Like much of the news media coverage of the Bosnian war, several scenes inWarriors emphasise the similarities and continuities between the Second World War and the Bosnian conflict. Blocked on the road by Serb forces, some of the UNPROFOR soldiers are subjected to racist abuse from the arrogant Serb commander discussed above. The commander is openly contemptuous of a Jewish soldier, Lieutenant Jonathan Engel (Ifan Meredith), and asks Sergeant André Sochanik (Cal Macaninch) why somebody with a Polish name would wish to save the lives of ‘dirty Muslims’. Sochanik does not respond to the provocation; a little later, however, he implicitly answers the commander’s question during a conversation with the interpreter Aida (Jasmina Sijerčić). Sochanik explains to Aida that his Polish father had been a forced labourer in Serbia during the Second World War. There he helped to build Nazi concentration camps, in one of which he met Sochanik’s Serbian mother; both parents survived and eventually found sanctuary in Scotland where they became, in Sochanik’s words, ‘invisible guests’.
Sochanik’s account of his troubled family history resonates with one of the film’s earliest scenes, in which Sochanik travels home to Scotland to attend the funeral of his brother, who has been killed in a tractor accident in a field on the family farm. On arriving at the farm, Sochanik’s first action is to visit the scene of his brother’s accident. As thunder rumbles ominously, Sochanik stands over a muddy pit stained with his brother’s blood, a detail that connects this particular site of horror across time and space to the killing fields of Bosnia and, implicitly, to the horrors that were presumably witnessed by Sochanik’s father in the 1940s. Sochanik feels guilty for having left his brother to look after the farm on behalf of his elderly parents; yet the clear implication of the film is that his presence in Bosnia is important in ensuring that persecution such as that suffered by Sochanik’s parents never reoccurs. Taken together, the scenes involving Sochanik establish a correspondence between the soldier’s personal debt of honour to his persecuted and exiled father and what the drama presents as Britain’s – and indeed the world’s – social and moral responsibility to prevent a recurrence of the Nazi holocaust. Sochanik is thus a key figure in the narrative and his personal biography links the ethico-political imperatives of the present to a memory of the Nazi past, evoking a dual time frame for the drama.
This linkage between the 1940s and the 1990s is made explicit in the second part of the film. In Croatian territory in 1993, Almira Zec and Lieutenant Feeley visit an open field that is ominously overlooked by a large crucifix. Almira grimly informs her companion: ‘This is where the perimeter fence ran. The Ustaše brought the Jews and the Serbs here, before they were transported to Germany. History is screaming at us’. Almira’s reflection upon the similarity between the atrocities committed by the Nazis’ Ustaše allies in Croatia during the Second World War and the current situation in Bosnia is grimly corroborated by the scenes that follow, in which the British UNPROFOR troops witness the horrific aftermath of the burning of Muslim houses by Croat forces in Ahmići.
Indeed, despite its glossing over of Muslim violence, Warriors identifies both Serb and Croat atrocities with those of the Nazis with creditable even-handedness. Given the widespread tendency in both journalism and popular media to present the Serbs as the sole progenitors and perpetrators of the Bosnian war, this is one of the drama’s most notable achievements. Yet the implications of the drama’s comparisons between the Bosnian conflict and the Second World War are nonetheless problematic, and not simply because of the difference in scale between the horrors of the Second World War and those of the Bosnian war. The invocation of Nazi atrocities to justify military intervention, while commonplace, rests on the assumption that the Second World War was a ‘just war’ against fascism. Jackson and Kosminsky appear to subscribe to this view, implying, through the figure of Sochanik, a parallel between the supposedly self-evident necessity of the Allies to fight against the Axis powers and the perceived need for intervention in Bosnia. As we have seen, the same parallel is drawn in Welcome to Sarajevo and was widely invoked by US politicians in discussions of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Yet the affirmative view of the allied cause in the Second World War is eminently contestable – and markedly less popular in Dresden and Hiroshima. In recent years, in fact, a great deal of important historical scholarship has undermined the hegemonic view of the Second World War was a just war undertaken in defence of democracy (Pauwels, 2002; Winer, 2007; Baker, 2008). Nor did the allied victory in the Second World War make the world a safer place, as the bloody history of post-war US imperialism – from Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq – clearly shows. Similarly, Western military involvement in Bosnia – and in Kosovo in 1999 – can be argued to have increased rather than reduced the bloodshed and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.
Warriors also reflects a distinctly optimistic view of the role of contemporary news journalism. When the British soldiers are prevented from moving their vehicle by a crowd of Muslim civilians seeking protection from Serb shelling, they essentially become hostages pending an attack by the Serbs scheduled for the following morning. As the people and the soldiers anxiously wait for dawn to break, Sergeant Sochanik – the drama’s central moral figure, as I suggested above – tells Aida that he can appreciate why the terrified Bosnians have prevented them from leaving. ‘If they die tomorrow’, notes Sochanik, ‘the world will be none the wiser. If we die too, the world will take notice’. Sochanik’s observation is poignant enough; yet it also reinforces a view of journalists as impartial observers whose reporting has – or at least should have – the power to prevent atrocities. There is clearly some resonance here with the heroic view of journalism found in Welcome to Sarajevo and The Hunting Party and with the notion of the ‘journalism of attachment’ that gained much currency during the Bosnian conflict. Like many Western journalists during the war, Sochanik argues that media coverage of atrocities will compel the ‘international community’ to act. But as argued above, the world’s major powers were heavily involved in the war from the outset; moreover, by reporting the war in way that reinforced the geopolitical interests of the great powers, Western journalists built support for the horrific NATO attack on Bosnia.
The presentation of the United Nations in Warriors is arguably characterised by a similar naivety. In many films about the Bosnian war – from No Man’s Land to The Hunting Party – UN officials are presented as bumbling incompetents. A similar view of UN personnel emerges in Warriors. The visible face of the UN in the drama is Rik Langrubber, a mild-mannered, knowledgeable, but ultimately ineffectual bureaucrat who is regarded with suspicion by the British soldiers, especially Lieutenant Laughrey. But the presentation of the UN as neutral and toothless ignores the UN’s structural role in co-ordinating the interests of various imperialist states (mostly, although certainly not always, those of the US). Like its predecessor, the League of Nations, which Lenin famously called a ‘den of thieves’, the UN has since its earliest days been complicit in orchestrating and implementing imperialist agendas, as Peter Gowan (2010: 47-71) has shown in detail. The International Communist Current (2008) even proposes that in Bosnia, ‘Britain and France, as UN peacekeepers, helped enforce the murderous Serbian siege of Sarajevo. The massacre of Srebrenica included the complicity of UN forces on the ground, notably Dutch troops and British SAS “observers”’. However that may be, the notion that the UN is potentially a force for global good – if only it could ‘get its act together’ – is highly questionable. In general, Jackson and Kosminsky conceive of the UN, the Western powers and the media in broadly liberal terms as fundamentally neutral institutions that can be used for good or ill, depending on the presence or absence of political ‘will’. But this view is challenged by the arguments of Diana Johnstone, Edward Herman, Michael Parenti and the other left-wing critics discussed above, for whom the West’s political, military and media apparatuses played an important part in dismantling Yugoslavia and in justifying Western military intervention to the public.
It would be churlish not to acknowledge the superiority of Warriors to the majority of popular and news media depictions of the conflict. The tone of Warriors is less overtly jingoistic than many of the Hollywood films about the war, such as Behind Enemy Lines and the film’s evocation of historical parallels through the character of Sochanik is highly sophisticated – even if these parallels are made in support an interventionist agenda. In its relatively even-handed depiction of both Croat and Serb atrocities, Warriors is also less one-sided and less in thrall to dominant media and political discourses than other respected Bosnian war films, such as No Man’s Landand Welcome to Sarajevo, and it certainly does not take such egregious liberties with the historical record as the latter film. It might also be argued that Warriors’ relatively lengthy, two-part dramatic form is better able to capture the complexity of the Bosnian war than other cinematic treatments and the drama arguably depicts the horrors of the Bosnian war, such as the Ahmići massacre, more adequately than any other screen fiction. The filmalso delivers some trenchant critical observations on the army’s treatment of its soldiers. During the UNPROFOR forces’ initial briefing on arriving in Vitez, for example, a soldier whispers sardonically to his colleague: ‘just remember your equipment’s made by the lowest bidder’. This comment resonates with more recent complaints that British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are dangerously under-equipped for combat. The drama thus acknowledges the pressures and hardships experienced by British soldiers – even if it accepts the legitimacy of their presence in Bosnia as a given. Overall, however, Warriors’ representation of the Bosnian war and its participants does not depart significantly from the dominant Western news media and popular cultural narratives of the conflict. The drama underplays the extent of Muslim violence, which ultimately leads to a rather one-sided view of the events of the Bosnian war. And by positing the resolution of the Bosnian war in terms of Western political, military and media intervention, the film underestimates the critical role of those institutions in causing the war and legitimating further military involvement.
As noted earlier, Kosminsky’s work has often drawn censure from the political establishment; but, tellingly, Warriors attracted no criticisms from journalists or politicians – perhaps because it departs so little from the hegemonic Western media view of the war. In its implicit call for Western military intervention in Bosnia,Warriors’ political message contrasts markedly with the anti-war perspective of Kosminsky’s early documentaries and his more recent television films for Britain’s Channel 4, such as The Government Inspector (2005) and Britz (2007), both of which implicitly question the legal and moral grounds for Britain’s invasion of Iraq. That Kosminsky, who is known for making dramas that question dominant political paradigms, should have adopted an interventionist line in Warriors suggests something of the potency and reach of Western propaganda throughout the 1990s on behalf of what Noam Chomsky (2008) has called ‘humanitarian imperialism’.
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The recent killing of Osama Bin Laden provoked widespread criticism among left-wing and radical commentators. This is hardly surprising; after all, even among liberals, Osama's value to the Western powers as a scapegoat and all-round bogeyman was well understood. By contrast, the events surrounding Ratko Mladić's arrest, and in particular its media reporting, have elicited far fewer expressions of concern, either from mainstream journalists or from radical and leftist bloggers.
On The Guardian's Comment Is Free blog, Misha Glenny (whose book The Fall of Yugoslavia lays the blame for the break-up of the country squarely, but in my view quite unfairly, at the door of Serb nationalists) praises the Serbian president Boris Tadić for the part he played in capturing the Butcher of Srebrenica. But as Glenny himself acknowledges, bringing Serb war criminals to justice has been a key condition of Serbia's EU membership; for this reason alone, the president's deliverance of Mladić can be seen as an act not of moral resolution, but of political expediency.
As well as smoothing Serbia's passage to EU membership, much of the recent media reporting of Mladić's arrest reinforces longstanding Western propaganda about the Bosnian war. Rather like Glenny's article, Henry Porter's recent piece in The Guardian, for example, implies that the war in Bosnia was perpetrated solely by Serbs and that the war's only victims were Muslims. By focusing on Serb atrocities and omitting any mention of the role of the Western powers in the devastation of Yugoslavia, the news media continues to present the great powers' manifold economic, political and military manoeuvres in the region - including the brutal Operation Storm in 1995 and the decisive bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 - as so many noble interventions in the fight against virulent Serb nationalism.
The virtual absence of any challenge to the media's recurrent presentation of the Bosnian war as a Manichean struggle between good ('the West') and evil (the Serbs) shows just how deeply the dominant narrative of that war has penetrated public consciousness - and just how far down the memory hole anything resembling an adequate account of the Balkan wars has been shoved.
We can have no sympathy for Mladić, who surely now faces severe punishment for his crimes. But to celebrate his arrest, as Timothy Garton Ash does in another Guardian Comment Is Free contribution, as evidence of 'a global movement towards accountability' is to ignore the fact that 'international justice' operates systematically in the interests of the powerful. That is why Mladić is now languishing in The Hague - and why Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright are not.
Today I went to see Duncan Jones’s Source Code. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, a US army helicopter pilot who must repeatedly relive the last eight minutes of a journey on a Chicago commuter train in an attempt to identify the train’s bomber. On the train, Stevens forges a romantic relationship with the puckish Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), who is perplexed by Stevens' increasingly desparate attempts to identify the bomber. But here is the eminently guessable thing: Stevens is already dead, having perished in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. The soldier is able to undertake his heroic mission only with the help of pioneering neuro-technology and an electronic link to his military handler, Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga). This scenario put me in mind of Marcuse's comment, in One Dimensional Man, about the totalitarian potential of 'technological rationality' to keep 'society and nature, mind and body' in 'a state of permanent mobilisation for the defence of this universe'.
The terrorist is eventually revealed to be a disturbed psychopath named - with chilling obviousness - Derek Frost (Michael Arden). Frost tells Stevens that ‘the world is hell’ and that he plans to reduce the planet to ‘rubble’ in order that humanity can start afresh. The brevity and incoherence of this explanation is unsatisfactory - even for a 'deranged' mass murderer - and, combined with the later revelation that Frost harbours ‘anti-government’ views, tends to imply that anybody who opposes the state is a violently dysfunctional misanthropist. Those who have spent time with anarchists will know that this is quite untrue (well, OK, largely untrue).
Source Code is the perfect US propaganda film: the soldier saves America, gets the girl and thwarts the ‘insane’ enemy of the state. In fact, the film’s ideological conservatism is remarkable, even by the standards of contemporary Hollywood. Although Source Code’s premise – a disabled soldier redeems the planet – clearly recalls that of 2009’s Avatar, the film eschews the subtextual references to social antagonism that characterise James Cameron’s films (or what Slavoj Žižek calls Cameron’s ‘Hollywood Marxism’). From the slick aerial shots of Chicago with which the film begins, urban America is a vision of sanitised and corporatised perfection, its geometric matrices of steel and glass gleaming in the sunlight. Like Anish Kapoor’s mirrored Cloud Gate sculpture, at which the film's romantic couple gaze contentedly in the scene towards the end of the film in Chicago's Millennium Park, the film’s storyworld constitutes a smooth bubble with no rough edges; but its depiction of terrorism and the reasons for its prevalence in the post 9/11 world is horribly trite.
Source Code is an engaging enough thriller and the performances are excellent all round; fans of films such as The Butterfly Effect, The Jacket, Déjà Vu and Inception will enjoy this latest addition to the genre. But from a film about terrorism, some reflection upon the causes and contexts of political violence does not seem too much to ask for.
Never let it be said that you don't get the most up-to-the-minute movie information here at Relative Autonomy. Tonight I watched a 1998 film, Predrag Antonijevic's Savior, with mixed reactions.
Set during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, Savior is at times an unpleasantly brutal film. Following the death of his wife and child in a Muslim terrorist bombing in Paris, Joshua Rose (Dennis Quaid) goes on an Islamophobic rampage, gunning down worshippers in a mosque. Fleeing to the French foreign legion, he eventually ends up in Bosnia fighting for the Serbs, where he further indulges his murderous bigotry with robotic impassivity. These early scenes are short and stereotypical - resembling a mid-film montage sequence rather than a conventional cinematic opening - so that the film's first quarter seems facile and dramatically under-developed. The acting, moreover, is woeful. Rather than the traumatised automaton he is supposed to be, Quaid looks like a man desperately trying to act like a traumatised automaton.
Things become more interesting when Rose, following a Serb-Muslim prisoner exchange, is obliged to take care of a Serb woman, Vera (Nataša Ninković), who has been raped and disowned by her family. When Vera's child is born, Rose takes on new responsibilities and undergoes the near-statutory moral reawakening. Hackneyed as the narrative may be, there are some touching moments. When Rose and Vera are offered refuge for a night by some kindly civilians, we are given an affecting insight into how ordinary people retain their dignity and generosity in the midst of horror.
Also noteworthy is the film's take on the balance of atrocities during the war. While some have accused the film - directed by a Serb - of pro-Serb bias, the film contains and clearly condemns scenes of Serb violence (in one of the film's ghastliest moments, Rose's degenerate comrade Goran cuts off the finger of an elderly Muslim lady in order to take her ring); but it also unflinchingly depicts Croat/Muslim atrocities - even if the latter do rather outnumber the former.
This is refreshing considering how closely Hollywood (and many other) films about the war have conformed to the anti-Serb script of the US and British news media. Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) and Richard Shepard's The Hunting Party (2007) are shameless pieces of anti-Serb propaganda in which Serbs are cast as screaming psychopaths and Muslim atrocities go unmentioned. Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land (2001), for all its cultural cachet, also propounds a one-sided view of the war, in its presentation of a neurotic and duplicitous Serb and a 'cool' and liberal, Westernized Muslim soldier. Even Peter Kosminsky's 1999 television film Warriors, which has been widely hailed for its realism and anti-war ethos, takes up the 'evil Serb' paradigm and does not depict Muslim atrocities.
Yet none of these films - including Savior - displays much understanding of the matrix of macro-political forces that contributed to the destruction of the former Yugoslavia. While it is difficult to forget the images of inter-ethnic cruelty in films like Savior, we should also remember how the world's great powers - notably the US, Germany, Britain and France - descended on Yugoslavia like wolves in the 1990s, tearing the country apart. That is a story too little told.