It was only when we went to visit his brother Boris that the eternal subject of Serbian national destiny came up. Boris was a successful trucking company executive who lived in a posh Westchester suburb, where he had a house, a wife, and three German shepherds. He loved to organize large dinner parties to which he’d invite his many Serbian friends, serve them fabulous food and wine, and then argue with them about politics till the next day.
Boris was a lefty in Yugoslavia, an admirer of the partisans, but as he grew older, he became more and more conservative, suspecting even Nixon of having liberal tendencies. He had a quality of mind that I have often found in Serbian men. He could be intellectually brilliant one moment and unbelievably stupid the next. When someone pointed this out to him, he got mad. Never in my life had I heard so many original and idiotic things come out of the same mouth. He was never happier than when arguing. Even if one agreed with everything he said and admitted that black was white, he would find reasons to fight you. He needed opponents, endless drama with eruptions of anger, absurd accusations, near fistfights. Boris, everyone who knew him said, would have made Mahatma Gandhi reach for a stick. Compromise for him was a sign of weakness rather than of good sense. He was not a bad man, just a hothead when it came to politics. He died before Milosevic came to power, and I have wondered ever since what he would have made of him and his wars.
Listening to Boris and his pals endlessly rehash our national history, I assumed this was just immigrant talk, old water under the bridge. Like many others, I was under the impression that Yugoslavia was a thriving country not likely to fall apart even after Tito’s death. I made two brief trips to Belgrade, one in 1972 and another in 1982, had heard about ethnic incidents, but continued to believe, even when the rhetoric got more and more heated in the late 1980s after the emergence of the first nationalist leaders, that reason would prevail in the end. I had no problem with cultural nationalism, but the kind that demands unquestioning solidarity with prejudices, self-deceptions, paranoias of the collective, I loathed. I couldn’t stand it in America, and even less so in Serbia.
The few friends and relatives I had in Belgrade were telling me about the rise of a new leader, a national savior, called Slobodan Milosevic, whom they all seemed to approve of. I started reading Belgrade papers and weeklies and having a huge monthly telephone bill trying to understand what was taking place. After more than forty years in America, I became a Serb again, except, as many would say, a bad Serb.
“We don’t want to live with them any more,” friends would tell me. They wanted a complete separation from Croats and Bosnians and at the same time a Serbia that would include all the areas where Serbs had lived for centuries. When I pointed out that this could not be done without bloodshed, they got very upset with me since they were decent people who didn’t approve of violence. They simply would not accept that the leaders and the policies they were so thrilled about were bound to lead to slaughter.
“How can you separate yourselves when you are all mixed together?” I would ask and not get a straight answer. I could recall the ethnic mixture we had in our neighborhood in Belgrade and could not imagine that someone would actually attempt to do something so wicked. Plus, I liked the mix. I spent most of my life translating poetry from every region of Yugoslavia, had some idea what their cultures were like, so I could not see any advantage for anyone living in a ghetto with just their own kind.
Of course, I was naive. I didn’t realize the immense prestige that inhumanity and brutality have among nationalists. I also didn’t grasp to what degree they are impervious to reason. To point out the inevitable consequences of their actions didn’t make the slightest impression on them, since they refused to believe in cause and effect.
The infuriating aspect of every nationalism is that it doesn’t understand that it is a mirror image of some other nationalism, and that most of its pronouncements have been heard in other places and at other times. Smug in their ethnocentricity, certain of their own superiority, indifferent to the cultural, religious, and political concerns of their neighbors, all they needed in 1990 was a leader to lead them into disaster.
How did I see what many others didn’t? Or as the Serbs would say, what made me an odrod (renegade)?
The years of the Vietnam War focused my mind. It took me a while to appreciate the full extent of the prevarication and sheer madness in our press and television and our political opinion, and to see what our frothing patriots with their calls for indiscriminate slaughter were getting us into. The war deepened for me what was already a lifelong suspicion of all causes that turn a blind eye to the slaughter of the innocent.
“Go back to Russia,” I recall someone shouting to the antiwar demonstrators in New York. So, it’s like that, I recall thinking then. You opt for the sanctity of the individual and your fellow citizens immediately want to string you up. Even today our conservatives argue that we lost the war in Vietnam because the protesters undercut the military, who were forced to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. In other words, if we had gone ahead and killed four million Vietnamese instead of two million, we would have won that war.
Milosevic struck me from the beginning, in the late 1980s, as bad news. I said as much in an interview with a Serbian paper. This provoked a reaction. I was called a traitor in the pay of Serbia’s enemies, and many other things. This only spurred me on.
After the siege of the Croatian town of Vukovar in 1991, one didn’t have to be Nostradamus to prophesy how badly it would all end for the Serbs. I wrote numerous pieces in Serbian and German newspapers arguing with the nationalists. Many others did the same in Serbia, and far more forcefully and eloquently than I did. We were in the minority. As is usually the case everywhere, a craven, corrupt intellectual class was unwilling to sound the alarm that war crimes were being committed, accustomed as they were under communism to being servants to power.
The belief in the independence of intellectuals, as so much of the twentieth century proves, is nothing but a fairy tale. The most repellent crimes in the former Yugoslavia had the enthusiastic support of people whose education and past accomplishments would lead one to believe that they would know better. Even poets of large talent and reputation found something to praise in the destruction of cities. If they wept, it was only for their own kind. Not once did they bother to stop and imagine the cost of these wars, which their leaders had instigated, for everybody else.
Many of my compatriots were upset with me. Serbs always imagine elaborate conspiracies. For them every event is a sham behind which some hidden interest operates. The idea that my views were my own, the product of my sleepless nights and torments of my conscience, was unthinkable. There were innuendoes about my family, hints that for years there had been suspicions about us, that we were foreigners who had managed for centuries to pass themselves off as Serbs.
My favorite one was that the CIA had paid me huge amounts of money to write poems against Serbia, so that I now live a life of leisure in a mansion in New Hampshire attended by numerous black servants.
Incapable of either statecraft or a formulation of legitimate national interest, all Milosevic and his followers were good at was fanning hatred and setting neighbor against neighbor. We now know that all the supposedly spontaneous, patriotic military outfits that went to defend Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia were organized, armed, and controlled by his secret services.
There is nothing more disheartening than to watch, year after year, cities and villages destroyed, people killed or sent into exile, knowing that their suffering did not have to happen. Once newspapers and weekly magazines became available on the Internet, I’d rise early every morning to read them and inevitably fall into the darkest despair by eight o’clock.
Serbs often say in their defense that they were not the only ones committing war crimes. Of course not. If everyone else were an angel, there would not be several hundred thousand refugees in Serbia today. Nonetheless, it is with the murderers in one’s own family that one has the moral obligation to deal first.
This, as I discovered, was not how a patriot was supposed to feel. The role of the intellectual was to make excuses for the killers of women and children. As for journalists and political commentators, their function was to spread lies and then prove that these lies were true. What instantly became clear to me is that I was being asked by my own people to become an accomplice in a crime by pretending to understand and forgive acts that I knew were unforgivable.
It’s not just Serbs who make such demands, of course. It is not much better in America today, but that, too, is not an excuse. The unwillingness to confront the past has made Serbia a backpedaling society, unable to look at the present, much less deal with difficult contemporary problems. It’s like a family that sits around the dinner table each evening pretending that granny had not stabbed the mailman with scissors and Dad had not tried to rape one of his little girls in the bathroom just this afternoon.
The worst thing is to be right about one’s own kind. For that you are never forgiven. Better to be wrong a hundred times! They’ll explain it later by saying that you loved your people so much. Among the nationalists, we are more likely to be admired if we had been photographed slashing the throat of a child than marching against some war they had fought and lost.
When I went back to Belgrade in 1972, after an absence of almost twenty years, I discovered that the window above the entrance of our apartment building, through which I had kicked a ball after the war, was still broken. In 1982, it was still not repaired. Last fall, when I returned, I discovered it had been fixed after the NATO bombing, which hit the TV studio close by and broke lots of windows in the neighborhood.
The reason it was not repaired earlier is that all the tenants in the building had quarreled and were not on speaking terms. My late aunt did not acknowledge the existence of some of her neighbors for forty years, so it was unthinkable that she would knock on their doors for the sake of a window or many other things that needed to be done. That, to my mind, is pretty much the story of Serbs and Serbia—or so I intend to tell my great-uncle, whom I still hope to run into one of these days.
He’ll be more than hundred years old, sitting in a rocking chair at a nursing home in rural Alabama, deaf and nearly blind, wearing a straw hat and a string tie over a Hawaiian shirt, but still looking like a Serb despite all the guises he devised in his long life to not look like one. From time to time, he mutters some words in that strange language which his nurses take to be just old man’s private gibberish. “All you ever need is a roof, a bowl of bean soup, and some pussy.”