Connoisseurs of Cruelty

What unites many countries in the world, both the ones that don’t give a fig about human rights and the ones that profess they do, is their unwillingness to punish their war criminals. When it comes to accountability, instances of confronting their own guilt are exceedingly rare among nations, especially when the victims are members of some other race, religion, or country. Even international leaders concerned with situations such as the one in Yugoslavia, despite their protests to the contrary, are often reluctant to see the guilty punished since political interests usually take precedence over justice.

In addition, there’s an unwritten understanding that crimes committed by the United States and a few other Western powers go unpunished. When the International Criminal Court was launched in 2003, the Bush administration refused to join, fearing that its military and its leaders could be arbitrarily indicted by some grandstanding foreign prosecutor. But that was just dissembling. The real reason is that the United States regards itself as a country whose exceptional moral standing exempts it from accountability for the war crimes it commits. The trouble with that is that everybody else feels the same way. The belief that one ought to be able to kill one’s enemies and live happily ever after is nearly universal.

Not many people care to know what their governments do to others in their name. No society can bear the thought that it is committing some injustice against innocents, so elaborate excuses have to be made. Justifying war crimes to their fellow citizens is what nationalist intellectuals are expected to do. The editorial and opinion pages of our newspapers and magazines have recently published articles pleading with President Bush to pardon the lawyers in the Department of Justice who devised the regime of torture and detention and the officials who put them into practice, and not allow them to be criminally prosecuted, since, allegedly, they broke the law out of a sincere wish to keep us safe. What nationalist ideologues everywhere tell their own people is that they occupy a unique moral universe to which the laws of the outside world do not apply. Unlike everyone else in the world, they, and only they, are good even when they are slaughtering women and children. Anyone who objects to that view either suffers from self-hatred or is some sort of traitor in the employ of a foreign power.

The three excellent books under review mercilessly search for historical truth about the former Yugoslavia, and are bound to infuriate apologists on all sides. Typically, Serbs, Croats, and Kosovars do not wish to be blamed for anything and will tell you that the blame lies elsewhere. Most of the time, of course, they prefer to remain silent. Reading Tim Judah’s short history of Kosovo, I was horrified to learn just how bloody were the Balkan wars of the last century in which my grandfather fought. That’s not what I remember being taught in school or being …

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