The Crisis in Kosovo 1989-1999
The Kosovo war was the last European war of the twentieth century, and NATO’s first. What we do we know about it a year later? Let’s start with a quick journey down the food chain of recent history.
In the beginning were the events themselves: the meetings at which Western leaders made the decision to bomb Serbia; American pilots sliding nervously into their planes at an Italian airfield to fly the first bombing missions; Kosovar refugees trudging to the border through snow and mud. Unless we were there, we will never know what it was like to be there. And the official records are still secret.
Yet there are amazing things that people who were not there can already know: for example, what it looked like to the bombs. Eerily silent images from video cameras mounted on the noses of NATO’s high-tech guided missiles show the very window or doorframe the missile is about to hit. This is quite new for historians. There were no cameras on the cannonballs at Austerlitz. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before we will see on our television screens, from a yet more advanced camera, on a still more accurate missile, the staring eyes of the victim in the moment before she dies.
Then there are the first reports. With the openness of modern democracies, there seems to be little of significance that does not get into the press, one way or another, and usually sooner rather than later. However, much of the information is deliberately “spun” by policymakers and their spin-doctors, or unintentionally garbled by the journalist, or both spun and garbled.1 Subsequent histories rely heavily on these first reports. For anyone who knows the chaotic conditions and often slapdash and alcohol-related ways in which journalists actually write them, as well as the hair- raising inaccuracies routinely introduced in the editorial process between that original writing and the printed page or broadcast program, this reliance is quite alarming.2 Running parallel to the reporting is the opinion barrage of politicians, commentators, experts, writers, and other public intellectuals. Several forests are felled during every war for this purpose alone.3 These opinion pieces are generally of minimal use for working out what happened and why. The world-historical reflections of a Nobel Prize winner prove more ephemeral than the hurried news story of a nineteen-year-old reporter.
Among the few exceptions are intellectual commentaries that themselves contain a strong element of personal reportage. Three quarters of Michael Ignatieff’s Virtual War is of this kind, consisting as it does of lightly revised articles written for The New Yorker and other journals before and during the Kosovo war. Ignatieff’s higher journalism is made especially vivid and accessible by concentrating on one person in each piece: Richard Holbrooke (“the ego has landed”) for his diplomacy, Aleksa Djilas as The Serb, General Wesley Clark as “Virtual Commander,” and Louise Arbour of the Hague tribunal for the attempt to do justice. The last-mentioned two pieces, in particular,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.