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The Foul Balkan Sky?

In response to:

Bosnia in Our Future from the December 21, 1995 issue

To the Editors:

Timothy Garton Ash is correct to suggest [NYR, December 21, 1995] that many people who have cynically opposed forceful action in the Balkans have used my book, Balkan Ghosts, as ammunition. Unfortunately, this is another case of a book being used for purposes to which it was not intended. Balkan Ghosts was completed before the war and edited before the relevant events he discusses. Moreover, my emphasis on Balkan ethnic strife in my writings of the late 1980s proved correct: in the July 1989 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, before the Berlin Wall even fell, I wrote:

In the 1970s and 1980s the world witnessed the limits of superpower influence in places like Vietnam and Afghanistan. In the 1990s those limits may well become visible in a Third World region within Europe itself. The Balkans could shape the end of the century, just as they did the beginning.

But a background of ethnic strife will not necessarily cause hundreds of thousands of deaths, in conditions which resemble the Holocaust, just a few hours train journey away from Vienna. For that, you need an additional factor: Western cowardice. That is why since early 1993, I have—consistently, frequently, and publicly—called for strong military intervention against the Bosnian Serbs. I have made this opinion crystal clear in television interviews with CNN, C-SPAN, etc.; in newspapers such as The Washington Post; and in speaking engagements at military colleges such as Fort Leavenworth and Carlisle Barracks. For several years now, I have promoted the case for military intervention in the Balkans to the US military.

Robert D. Kaplan
Potomac, Maryland

Timothy Garton Ash replies:

How far an author is responsible for the use made of his work is an old but still interesting question. Having looked again at Balkan Ghosts, I feel confirmed in my judgment that the tone, language, and general thrust of its account of former Yugoslavia (“the landscape of atrocities,” Bosnian villages “full of savage hatreds, leavened by poverty and alcoholism”) did lend color and apparent credibility to the always widespread view that bloody ethnic conflict was endemic to the Balkans, and another round of bloodshed inevitable there. Indeed, on the last page of the book, after quoting Shakespeare’s “so foul a sky clears not without a storm,” Kaplan writes: “conflicting ethnic histories, inflamed by the living death of Communism, had made the Balkan sky so foul that now, sadly, a storm was required to clear it.” Well, you can’t stop a storm can you? Nor would you really want to, if it is “required” to clear a foul sky. Nonetheless I am, of course, happy to accept Mr. Kaplan’s assurance that he did subsequently do his bit to try to stop the storm, with contributions (of which, I must confess, I had previously been unaware) from CNN to Carlisle Barracks, urging the need for military intervention against the Bosnian Serbs.

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