Why Bosnia Matters: A Reply to Patrick Flaherty

By Lifschultz, Lawrence | Monthly Review, October 1994 | Go to article overview

Why Bosnia Matters: A Reply to Patrick Flaherty


Lifschultz, Lawrence, Monthly Review


Patrick Flaherty's description of our views represents the classic use of caricature in the realm of polemics. Create a straw man, declare it to be your opponents' position, and then set it on fire. Perhaps the smoke will sufficiently darken your opponents' actual views and readers will accept the critics' caricature as virtual reality. Thus according to Flaherty we "make a compelling case for some form of Western entry into the war" while our "recommendations...add up to a prescription for counter-genocide." Our sins are not limited to these opinions. According to Flaherty, we also engage in "whitewashing" the sordid side of reported Bosnian army actions in the Lasvanska Valley and thus rationalize a "military trajectory" which has brought immense suffering to Croats in central Bosnia. Flaherty has a number of ideas and speculative notions which he would like to assign to us. However, try as he may, they do not apply.

Although he has his own distinctive interpretation, Flaherty is a devotee of the "symmetry school" of Balkan war observers. In his view, the nationalist elites of Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia share the same "model of terroristic ethnic cleansing." By depicting the policies of each of these states as essentially equivalent to one another, he adopts a position which differs little from that of men like William Hyland, former editor of Foreign Affairs, who has described the war in Bosnia as a "fight among gangsters" where there are "no good guys." In the school of perfect symmetry, there is no distinction between an aggressor state and a state underattack--they are simply all "gangsters" or "terroristic ethnic cleansers." This concept of equivalence is an essential element of a broader notion that the war in Bosnia is a "civil war" and thus requires strict neutrality from the international community. We shall not repeat here the detailed arguments we made earlier in Monthly Review and elsewhere against this notion.

Among many on the left who view the former Yugoslavia as a state that had a social and political organization superior to the crude and brutish nationalism evident in its successor states, there is a reluctance to come to terms with the fact that Yugoslavia is no more. While some may yearn for the earlier era, the Yugoslav socialist federation disintegrated for reasons that need to be carefully analyzed and studied. Such an analysis needs to be made within the tradition of the early socialist debates on the national question. The present reality is that Yugoslavia no longer exists and in its place the borders of former republics have become recognized international boundaries. For Patrick Flaherty, the question of aggression and the traversing of international borders by the armies of foreign states appears to be only an incidental matter.

Since April 1992 Bosnia's international borders have been consistently violated by military supply convoys from Serbia. General Momcilo Perisic, chief of staff of the "Yugoslav" army, has openly acknowledged the commanding role played by his forces in conquering southeastern Bosnia, which was then handed over to local Serbian paramilitary units. In 1993 the borders of Bosnia were also openly violated by Croatian government military forces and their proteges. As the basis for his overall critique of our position, Flaherty describes a series of developments that occurred during the spring and summer of 1993, when a powerful faction in the Croatian government opened a new military offensive in Bosnia. Yet we are accused of "a conspicuous and unforgivable omission" in not indicting the actions of the Bosnian army during the battles which raged between Croatian and Bosnian forces in central Bosnia during this period.

The fighting which broke out in central Bosnia was the culmination of specific developments over a two-year period. However, the military battles fought in 1993 became a crucial turning point in the war, but not at all in the way Flaherty has depicted. …

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