The Killing Fields of Bosnia

To End a War

by Richard Holbrooke
Random House, 408 pp., $27.95

Croatia: A Nation Forged in War

by Marcus Tanner
Yale University Press, 338 pp., $16.00 (paper; to be published in November) (paper)

Death has two faces. One is non-being; the other is the terrifying material being that is the corpse.

—Milan Kundera

Only now, more than three years after he recorded the interview with CNN’s World Report, can one see subtle signs of Richard Holbrooke’s discomfort and unease. It was July 16, 1995, a Sunday, and even as the bloody catastrophe of Srebrenica was playing itself out four thousand miles to the east, the assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs managed to answer Jeanne Meserve’s questions about Bosnia with precision and aplomb. Yet look more closely now at the videotape, study it frame by frame, and you will see that this Sunday afternoon finds Holbrooke pale, unsettled, distracted; for it is five days after Bosnian Serb troops shelled and strafed and finally overwhelmed the “safe area” of Srebrenica, humiliated its several hundred Dutch peacekeepers, and seized its forty thousand or so underfed, sickly, and bedraggled Muslims; and though CNN’s producers had announced for that afternoon a typically self-regarding theme focused on the future—“The Bosnia Quagmire: How close is the United States to being pulled into the mess in Bosnia?”—their guest Richard Holbrooke could not help but be preoccupied with an all-too-painful present.

Even on that Sunday afternoon, as he sat answering the reporter’s questions, Holbrooke tells us in his memoirs,

precise details of what was happening [in Srebrenica] were not known…, but there was no question that something truly horrible was going on.

An odd construction, that sentence, defining what is known only by what is not: five days after the Serbs swept into Srebrenica, Holbrooke and other officials, men and women perched on the heights of the United States national security bureaucracy and benefiting from all of its vast powers of perception (satellites gazing down from space; spy planes snapping photographs from the upper atmosphere; unmanned “drone” planes relaying “real-time” video images; diplomats and attachés “in-country” working their informants for secrets and rumors and gossip) could know no “precise details” of Serb actions in this one tiny place in eastern Bosnia, but were able nonetheless to harbor the certainty that “something truly horrible was going on”?

How could they have been so certain? Doubtless the lack of “precise details” was meant partly to serve as something of a hedge against accusations of guilt through inaction. (Given real knowledge, so the implication goes, something might have been done.) But what after all could that “something truly horrible” be? Did Richard Holbrooke and his colleagues really require “precise details” to answer that question? And in what would such details have consisted? Would Bosnian Government Minister Hasan Muratovic’s explicit warning of July 13 qualify, in which he told US Ambassador John Menzies in Sarajevo that Serb soldiers had gathered more than a thousand Muslim prisoners in a soccer stadium in Bratunac? How about Bosnian Foreign Minister Mohammed Sacirbey’s detailed description, in a telephone call to UN Representative Madeleine Albright the same day …

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