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Witness to Horror

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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

1.

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.

2.

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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Abbas/Magnum Photos
A statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, decapitated after the invasion of Iraq, 2003

In view of all that, it was understandable that Serbs would feel threatened when the entire international community not only sided with the secessionists, but instantly rewrote the history of Yugoslavia, making them the oppressors and everyone else victims despite the fact that the absolute ruler of Yugoslavia from 1945 till his death in 1980, Marshal Tito, was partly a Croat and that Slovenia and Croatia were the two most prosperous republics in the federation. The European Community also declared that the borders of republics could not be changed, so that, for instance, Croatia could secede, but not the Serbs in the region called Krajina who wanted to separate from Croatia, or, for that matter, the Albanians in Kosovo who wanted to secede from Serbia.

Of course, when in the autumn of 1991 Serb artillery and infantry encircled the Croatian city of Vukovar and Milosevic first revealed to the world his plan for defending Serbian national interests by destroying cities and shooting unarmed civilians, nobody cared to remember what led to the war or had any sympathy for the already demonized Serbs. Danner thinks force should have been used immediately, quoting with approval a US Army military planner who felt that a concentrated air attack on Serbian forces surrounding Vukovar would have halted the siege; but Danner also grudgingly admits the unlikelihood of any nation using its military at a moment’s notice to break up a foreign conflict.

I’m surprised that Danner doesn’t mention several early attempts to broker peace between the warring sides. In particular José Cutileiro, a Portuguese diplomat, in February and March 1992 tried to preclude civil war by bringing the leaders of the three ethnic groups to Lisbon to reach a constitutional agreement well before the republics declared independence. The arrangement he proposed would have divided Bosnia into three separate regions with a high level of autonomy and a weak central government, with Muslims getting 45 percent of the land, the Serbs 42.5 percent, and the Croats 12.5 percent.

In his memoirs, the former US ambassador Warren Zimmerman, who encouraged the Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic to reject the plan at the time, states that Cutileiro’s proposal would have probably worked out better for the Muslims than any subsequent plan, including the Dayton formula that ended the fighting in 1995. So why did the United States sabotage the Lisbon accord and then go on to recognize Bosnia and Herzegovina the very next day, when its intelligence agencies were unanimous in saying that after such recognition the place would blow up?

David N. Gibbs, in his excellent book about the destruction of Yugoslavia, First Do No Harm,1 offers a credible explanation. The US was worried about European efforts to create an independent European foreign policy. In recognizing Bosnia, the US reaffirmed its leadership position and corrected its early lack of clear policy. In other words, considerations of realpolitik were behind the US decision.

Whatever the full story of that decision may be, what happened next was hell on earth. Approximately 100,000 people died in the next three years, both soldiers and civilians, with twice as many Muslims killed as Serbs. Danner’s detailed account of the atrocities that culminated with Srebrenica makes a powerful indictment of the indecision of the international community and the savagery of the Serbs, who set out to slaughter and ethnically cleanse Muslims in a manner nearly identical to that used by Croatian fascists in eliminating Serbs fifty years earlier. Not that the Muslim and Croats were entirely blameless. John Deutch, then a Defense Department official, said, “One of the reasons it was so hard to have a good policy is how terrible all the sides were.” In any case, the Bush White House and the generals were against intervention. Of the two tragedies going on in the world, they chose to intervene in Somalia over Bosnia, regarding the former as a low-risk, high-payoff operation.

Danner asks the hard question: What accounts for the extraordinary cruelty of the Serbs? He attributes it to the ideology connected with a belief in Greater Serbia (of which, by the way, I never heard a word before the fall of Yugoslavia), the near-hysterical sense of historical grievance, and the heightened rhetoric and paranoia about a coming genocide of Serbs (forgetting that the bloodbath carried out by Croatian fascists in World War II was still fresh in many minds).

Danner is closer to the truth when he lays the blame on ambitious and ruthless politicians; nevertheless, his portrait of Milosevic, whom he calls a dictator despite his having to deal with opposition parties and frequent demonstrators in the streets, is unconvincing. As is often the case with men who bring disaster to their own people, Milosevic was an opportunist and a manipulator without an ounce of common sense. His nationalist policy was not meant to solve any problems for his fellow Serbs, but existed solely to increase his personal power and to enrich his associates. Instead of protecting legitimate national interests, he behaved like a thug and managed to squander whatever international sympathy Serbs might have had.

As for his followers—80,000 of whom came out in Belgrade in 2006 to pay him their last respects, many of them ethnically cleansed from Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo—they clearly made no connection between his policies and their plight. What they remembered about him and what they still admired was his pigheadedness. He kept saying no to everybody even when it was against his own interests. Danner gives the impression that he was a kind of evil genius who had everything planned ahead. I don’t see it that way. It was the Croatian leader General Franjo Tudjman who knew how to plan. He knew you needed to have powerful allies if you wanted to get away with ethnic cleansing.

In both Croatia and Bosnia a lot of what happened was about revenge. As Danner documents in his articles, the massacre in Srebrenica was revenge for the killings of Serbs by the Muslims who used the “safe area” to make nightly raids on the surrounding villages. In General Ratko Mladic’s unforgiving, brutal mind, this gave him the right to massacre two to three times as many Muslims regardless of their individual responsibility for what happened to the Serbs. It’s no wonder it took the international community almost four years to fully grasp what kind of demons Milosevic had let loose.

I share Danner’s outrage that something was not done to halt the siege of Sarajevo and to prevent the mass killing in Srebrenica, but Europe and the United States were caught between two morally and practically contradictory policies: either deploy peacekeeping forces to stop the killing—which would have favored the Serbs, who by mid-1995 held almost 70 percent of Bosnian territory—or seek to reverse ethnic cleansing by bombing Serbs and letting Muslims and Croats, who were regarded as victims, ethnically cleanse them in turn.

Danner acknowledges that the latter course would have meant hundreds of thousands of additional Serb refugees. But he thinks it would have been preferable: instead of ethnic partition, it might have led, if the US had been willing to take on “the task and responsibility of building a new state,” to “the reconstruction of some sort of integral Bosnia.” This, he says, “might have brought to Bosnia a very different future from the grim ‘cold peace’” of the Dayton accord, however idealistic and unlikely, in my view, that may have been. Also, I don’t think he grasps the full implication of what he is suggesting. In order to restore justice we would have committed another monstrous injustice by treating all Bosnian Serbs as guilty. In the end, neither the United States nor the European Union could bring themselves to do that.

3.

Danner’s pieces on Iraq, published in these pages between September 2003 and April 2009, and written after visits to witness key political events in the country, which I read and admired as they came out, seem even stronger now that they are collected together. With all the disadvantages of making political analysis and predictions on the spot, this is reporting at its best. His pictures of Baghdad torn by ethnic strife and hundreds of suicide bombings, its streets lined with twelve- or fifteen-foot-high blast barriers, and of Fallujah with its buildings reduced to near rubble by Marine artillery are terrifyingly vivid. As an opponent of the war, Danner is more skeptical of US government claims and more appreciative of the immense complexity of the situation on the ground than he was in Yugoslavia. He is good at showing the distance between a bleak reality—a country devastated by our occupation, civil war, huge political problems, and terrorism—and Bush administration officials with their confident view that truth is subservient to power and that they had the ability to make reality appear to be whatever they wanted it to be. The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue, the waving of purple fingers after the first election, and other such carefully managed images are what they wanted us to see, and not the rest, which they believed ought to remain hidden from the eyes of Americans.

Both Danner and Ron Suskind, whose book The One Percent Doctrine he quotes from at length,2 believe the invasion of Iraq was meant to make an example of Hussein in order to demonstrate what anyone with the temerity to acquire weapons of mass destruction—which in fact they did not possess—or in any way to flout the authority of the United States could expect from us. Henry Kissinger concurred; he supported the war, Danner quotes him as saying, “‘Because Afghanistan was not enough.’ The radical Islamists, he said, want to humiliate us. ‘And we need to humiliate them.’” For the sake of American prestige and the credibility of American power, Danner writes, the image of “the burning, smoking towers collapsing into rubble” had to be supplanted by the scenes of “American tanks rumbling proudly down the streets of a vanquished Arab capital.” This was to be a grand display of “shock and awe” unrestrained by the so-called weapons of the weak: the United Nations, the international laws and courts that the rest of the world uses to hobble American power.

In actual practice, what Danner describes in Iraq resembles what Barbara W. Tuchman called “the march of folly” far more than a demonstration of invincibility. In her famous book,3 she studied historical figures who made catastrophic decisions contrary to the self-interest of their countries, decisions that were perceived as counter-productive even in their time and for which an alternative course of action was readily available.

To reread Danner’s pieces today is to realize that there was nothing remotely resembling sober reflection prior to our invasion of Iraq. Our leaders were sure of themselves and refused to allow UN inspections to continue; they believed that weighing and calculating the risk would only inhibit action. What could careful deliberation, based on cause and effect, matter when one has the most powerful military, spending more on defense than the rest of the world combined? When, following the invasion of Iraq, looting broke out in government ministries in Baghdad, universities, hospitals, power stations, and factories, virtually destroying the country’s infrastructure and with it whatever respect Iraqis might have had for our competence, the 140,000 American troops did nothing but watch the growing anarchy.

Similarly, when L. Paul Bremer, the US administrator of Iraq charged with overseeing the reconstruction of the country, made the decision to fire all Baathists from the government and disband the army—thus making 350,000 humiliated and suddenly unemployed people into enemies, and transforming what had been the Pentagon’s plan for a quick victory and quick departure into a long-running occupation—no one on the National Security Council or in the State Department was warned beforehand. The systematic failure in Iraq, Danner makes clear in his book, resulted in large part from an almost willful determination of those who made decisions to cut themselves off from those in government who knew anything. As a historian remarked regarding the extraordinarily imprudent Philip II of Spain, “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.”

The two most disturbing pieces in the book deal with torture and were published last April after Danner got hold of a secret report by the officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In order to monitor compliance with the Geneva Conventions and to supervise the treatment of prisoners, they traveled to Guantánamo and interviewed in private a number of inmates who divulged what kind of interrogations they’d been subjected to both at Guantánamo and in our secret global network of prisons where they had been held. They describe in detail, and independently of each other, what President Bush called the “alternative set of procedures” that indisputably, despite his vehement denials, are torture.

Borrowed from Soviet and Chinese Communists and other repressive regimes, both ancient and modern, these “techniques” were fine-tuned with the assistance of lawyers in the Department of Justice working with CIA officials, doctors, and psychologists. They not only revived the long-outlawed practices of inflicting pain and terror on human beings from the most shameful chapters of human history, but did so with the active participation of senior officials in government who insisted on being informed on an hourly basis about the progress of these “interrogations,” and who micromanaged the application of waterboarding, sleep and sensory deprivation, and other barbaric methods on some of the more well-known prisoners.

Since international law (to which the United States is a signatory) prohibits cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, our practice of torture was obfuscated, excused, and pretty much dismissed, not only by the Bush administration and its apologists, but equally by Congress and now even by many Americans, more than half of whom support it according to the latest polls. What makes reading Danner’s pieces on the ICRC report even more chilling is that they were written when we still had a reasonable hope that there would be some type of serious investigation and possibly eventual prosecution by the new administration.

That is not likely to happen. The Obama administration has taken steps to end torture and released documents showing official complicity in carrying it out, but it appears to have no interest in any kind of truth commission that would fully investigate what crimes our past leaders and high officials have committed. This is where Danner’s book becomes so valuable. It ought to be read by those who still see our wars as moral crusades. They may learn from its pages why so many ungrateful beneficiaries of our largesse are willing to blow themselves up in order to do us harm, and why wars based on delusions only lead to more delusions and more wars.

  1. 1

    First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (Vanderbilt University Press, 2009).

  2. 2

    The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (Simon and Schuster, 2006).

  3. 3

    The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (Knopf, 1984).

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