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…

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