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Witness to Horror

Dominique Nabokov
Mark Danner, New York City, 2007

We got no dog in this fight.”

—Secretary of State James Baker after his failed mission to Yugoslavia in 1991


Now that independent war correspondents are nearly an extinct species and we fight wars with fewer and fewer images of destruction and carnage shown on television or in newspapers, it’s worth recalling that there was a time when this wasn’t so. Before the Pentagon established the policy of embedding reporters with our armed forces—thus restricting their movement and making it harder for images and reports that do not fit the official narrative to appear—war correspondents were more or less on their own in war-torn countries, reporting what they saw and drawing their own conclusions. It was an extremely dangerous line of work. Between 1991 and 2001, forty-three journalists died in the Balkans, which is fewer than in Iraq, where between 2003 and 2009, 145 were killed in crossfire, suicide bombings, and premeditated murders by various participants in the conflict who didn’t want reporters poking their noses where they shouldn’t.

Beginning with the 1987 election that was supposed to bring democracy to Haiti after the bloody reign of the Duvaliers, and which resulted in another bloodbath, Mark Danner chronicles the even more violent conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia in the early 1990s, the post-invasion violence in Iraq, the torture in our secret prisons around the world, and the various policy decisions in Washington that had either a dire or beneficial impact on the people of those countries. These lengthy, well-researched, and well-written pieces, many of which appeared in these pages, combine political analysis, historical background, and Danner’s eyewitness reporting to convey the vast human suffering behind events that can often seem remote.

The title of the book comes from the former Haitian president Leslie Manigat, who took power from Duvalierist officers after they brutally aborted the 1987 election. He told Danner that political violence “strips bare the social body,” allowing us to see beneath the surface to the real workings of a society. That is what makes this collection so fascinating to read. At the same time as we are being educated about these countries beset by violence, we are witnessing Danner’s own education, his deepening understanding of the limits and unintended consequences of our military interventions.

Haiti was Danner’s initiation. He arrived to cover the country’s “transition to democracy” for The New Yorker in 1986, just after François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s son was flown to luxurious exile in France in an American military jet, courtesy of the Reagan administration. Danner naively expected, as he himself admits, that a freely held election and the popular government it would produce could break the cycle of military coups and dictators, in which a shy country doctor becomes a homicidal monster, a general with a stutter a drunken Caligula. He came to realize that

Violence is the motor of Haiti’s politics, the means of regime change, the method of succession. The struggle for power is ongoing and endless, permeating all aspects of life and implicating any Haitian of wealth and reputation. “If a man does not go into politics,” says the former president who gave me this book’s title, “then politics itself comes to him.” A professor, intellectual, and writer from an illustrious political family, he attained power thanks to the military after a bloody, aborted election, and lost it a few months later in a tumultuous coup d’etat.

History repeats itself in unhappy countries. The absence of respected institutions and well-established laws that a person can count on to protect him condemns these societies to reenact the same conflicts, make the same mistakes more than once, and bear the same horrific consequences of these acts. In Haiti, as a former finance minister told Danner, “The whole bloody business of repression, torture, and killing was developed to stay in office, in order to make money.”

There are plenty of other places where this has been true and continues to be true, but such corruption is usually better concealed behind the veneer of law and order. In impoverished Haiti, with its sharp split between a small, educated ruling class that speaks French and the rest of the population who are illiterate and speak Creole (so they often do not understand what their president says to them), these harsh realities are, indeed, laid bare. The elder Duvalier, who ruled between 1957 and his death in 1971, believed there should be no boundaries in administering terror. One ought to kill not only one’s enemies but also their friends, and in as spectacular and brutal a fashion as possible.

On Sunday, November 29, 1987, the day the election was aborted by General Henri Namphy, the head of the military junta that had ruled the country since the departure of the younger Duvalier, another stunning daylight massacre took place. Without a word of warning, soldiers opened fire on people waiting in line at polling places. The streets of Port-au-Prince were strewn with corpses of men, women, and children lying in pools of blood. In the countryside, it was the same. As a well-to-do woman told Danner over the phone, “‘All this brings back Duvalier, the father…. You see,’ she said after a pause, ‘ you think it was a massacre, but this was just a normal day under Duvalier.’”

American attempts to reshape politics in Haiti go back to 1915 when Marines were sent to put an end to the chaos of internal conflict. They stayed for nineteen years, declaring that the Haitian people were unfit to rule themselves. Americans seized land and created an army and police force that were supposed to prevent revolt and protect American capital. That was not the end. Papa Doc Duvalier received US military assistance during his first, bloodiest years. He got $40 million from Washington and the help of Marines to protect his regime from any popular movement that might threaten his rule.

In 1994, President Clinton ordered American forces to intervene to restore the elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to power after he was overthrown, protect American interests, and stop the atrocities. “Even sending twenty thousand US troops,” as Danner writes, “failed to alter the fundamental dynamic.” US soldiers did not confront the militiamen who kept their weapons since they did not want to risk American casualties. As for Aristide, he was flown by US helicopter back to the Presidential Palace, from which he ruled erratically, only to be flown a decade later into exile again.


The pros and cons of American intervention were to become a pressing issue once more during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, which Danner reported on a few years after his visit to Haiti. The Dayton agreement brought peace to Bosnia and Herzegovina in November 1995, and almost four years later the NATO intervention in Kosovo and the bombing of Serbia took place. Danner, who spent time in Bosnia during the war, was pondering not just his own experience there, but looking back at the events that led to the secession and recognition of various republics as independent nations, the wars that ensued, and the dissolution of a country that had been known as Yugoslavia since 1918.

What concerns him, as it does almost everyone who has written about these wars, is how it was possible for the international community, and in particular the United States, to do nothing in the face of the shelling of Sarajevo and the murder of unarmed people by the Serbian forces, which the whole world saw on TV. Why wasn’t there a military intervention to counter Serbian ethnic cleansing? Why wasn’t air cover provided to escort the surrounded and defenseless Bosnians in Srebrenica to safety? Some of the dithering by the United States and the European Union about what to do can be understood and even forgiven in retrospect, but not this atrocity for which there was plenty of advanced warning given to people who could do something about it and who then procrastinated until it was too late.

Danner chronicles the involvement of the United States, beginning with the first President Bush and the failed visit of Secretary Baker to Belgrade in June 1991. Baker tried to hold Yugoslavia together despite a recent CIA National Intelligence Estimate that, according to an unnamed source quoted in The New York Times, said prophetically that the old Yugoslav experiment had failed, that the country would break up, and that this likely would be accompanied by ethnic violence and unrest leading to civil war. “No one can prove that ‘concrete threats’ or even ‘actions’ (and one can conceive of many, short of all-out war) could have prevented the conflicts to come,” Danner writes. Military intervention, however, was not considered, since the United States was busy elsewhere with the turmoil in the Soviet Union and the Middle East, and with the approaching presidential election.

Danner claims that with Slovenia and Croatia about to secede, Baker’s warnings against a unilateral declaration of independence and against the use of force to hold the federation together seemed to sanction force by the Serbs. Still, it wasn’t the Serbs but the Yugoslav army and the Yugoslav government—still in place—that naturally would have had some interest in preserving the union.

The situation, at least before the hostilities started, was not as clear-cut as Danner leads us to believe. Yugoslavia was a country that, despite what the ethnic nationalists trumpeted, was not an awful place to live for most of its population and especially for the people who were intermarried or lived as minorities in republics where another ethnic group dominated. They and many other Yugoslavs hoped for reason to prevail and some sort of looser confederation between the republics to emerge gradually. The European Community, however, put a stop to that by going on record to declare in March 1991 that the Yugoslav republics had the right to freely determine their own future. Germany pushed for Slovenia and Croatia to secede immediately, as did the United States a few months later with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Without a thought for the consequences, they encouraged nationalist leaders and ethnic groups they found congenial to break up a multiethnic country at the expense of those who had no clear ethnic loyalties and those like the Serbs who, although the largest ethnic group in Yugoslavia, found themselves a large minority in Croatia and almost half the population in Bosnia-Herzegovina. None of the nationalist parties favored by the US, including the Slovenes, had any use for multicultural identity. The openly fascist features of Croatia’s ruling HDZ party, with its anti-Serb rhetoric, were passed over as a matter of little importance. So was the Muslim triumphalism in Bosnia. Slobodan Milosevic would not have had such a free rein if Yugoslavia and its last government, including its multiethnic army, were not so precipitously forced out of existence.

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