Looking Back on the Age of Genocide

BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Welcome to this week's episode of Voices on Genocide Prevention. With me today is Mark Danner, who's a writer, journalist and professor, who's written for more than two decades on foreign affairs and international conflict. He's covered Central America, Haiti, the Balkans, and Iraq, among other stories, and has written extensively about the development of American foreign policy, as well as about violations of human rights. His latest book, which is what we'll be talking about today, is Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War. Mark, thank you for joining me.

MARK DANNER: Well, thank you for inviting me, Bridget. It's good to be here.

BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Can you explain what the title means? Stripping Bare the Body.

MARK DANNER: Yes. That title comes from something that a former Haitian president told me. His name is Leslie Manigat, and he was briefly president after the fall of Duvalier in 1987. He said, and has written elsewhere, that looking at political violence-- or rather, political violence itself-- is like stripping bare the social body, the better to place the stethoscope and hear the true life beneath the skin. In other words, in times of crisis-- during revolutions, during coup d'états, during civil war or other forms of political conflict-- you see really what is at work in a society. What the social stresses are; who has power; who doesn't; who is trying to get power; where the power lies. To seize on the society at a time of great stress, of fear and conflict, is to really have a chance of understanding its underlying dynamics. I've never forgotten that line and that lesson, because I've found it to be true in a couple decades of reporting and writing. Find a place that's under great stress, whether it's Haiti after the fall of Duvalier, or the United States after the attacks of September 11, 2001, or Bosnia during the Balkan Wars, and you will be able to see things at their heart. You'll be able to see, as it were, the root of things. Professor Manigat, later President Manigat, proved this to be true when his brief tenure as president was ended after five months by a military coup d'état in Haiti. He was both an exponent and a practitioner of that bit of wisdom.

BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And you mentioned some of them, but if you could tell our listeners, what are the main topics, the main crises then, that you examine in this collection.

MARK DANNER: Really the book is a compendium of stories about different places during times of violence and stress. The subtitle says it all: politics, violence, war. It begins in Haiti, a fascinating, extraordinary, almost magical place, that really was my training ground as a reporter. I went there during the violence that overthrew Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986 and covered it-- well, have covered it ever since. It's an extraordinary place, very small, but politics of great, great complexity, and fascinating people -- enormously talented, enormously politically aware. They walk in history. Haiti's history, of course, is very grand, following from the Haitian Revolution, the only successful slave revolt in history. This is a story about not only the fall of Duvalier, but what happened afterwards, and what happened to the grand predictions of the transition to democracy.

It's a story really of how politics works on the ground, the difference between rhetoric and reality, and also, I think-- and this is a continuing theme of the book-- the limitations of power of the United States. Here's a country just an hour and a half from the coast of Florida. The United States again and again has tried to alter it or shape it according to its will. It's occupied it twice in the last century, and now, during the earthquake, perhaps a third time. Yet Haiti has continued to be Haiti and has really resisted a lot of these outside efforts and influence. I had a chance in Haiti to really write about revolution, coup d'état-- all of these different political forms that went by in a kind of phantasmagorical panoply in front of me. It's just an amazing place.

Anyway, that is, in a sense, the introduction. When it comes to time, it's really about the late Cold War. The United States trying to cope with crises in the periphery, as it were, at the end of a Cold War.

Then there is a long section reporting on the wars in the Balkans. The so-called beginning of the post-Cold War world that stretched from George H. W. Bush's administration into Bill Clinton's, and saw the first of the great genocides of the 1990s. A hundred thousand or more people killed in Bosnia. Not only killed, but killed, in effect, before the eyes of the world. Much of the violence, in one way or another, was televised. The world had vowed that such genocide would never happen again, let alone in Europe, but indeed it did happen again.

BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And you wrote a lot of the articles that are the basis for this on Bosnia years ago. When you came back to it now to collect them for this book, what did you find in there, in your previous work, and in your memories and your thinking about Bosnia that shone through to you as being particularly meaningful for people to return to, to continue to think about, moving forward out of that time period?

MARK DANNER: Confusion. The confusion of U.S. interests. The fact that American policymakers, when they are left without an ideological guiding star --as it were, as U.S. policymakers had during the Cold War, which is to say containment, containing the Soviet Union --when American officials are left without that guiding star, they very frequently are unsure what U.S. interests are; especially, what should be important enough to lead the United States to risk its young lives and treasure in a military intervention. After the end of the Cold War, in '89 to '91, there was a lot of talk about the end of history-- "This is it. We've conquered everything. Now it's going to be democracy and capitalism. Everything will be fine." Suddenly there's this absolutely vicious war in the Balkans. The United States concluded at the beginning, in the words of James Baker, the Secretary of State at the time, "We have no dog in this fight." That is, "This doesn't affect us."

One of the things that happened over the course of those several years and those hundred thousand deaths was the United States finally concluded that it did in fact have a dog in this fight. Unfortunately it concluded this long after it could have prevented the war, and only after thousands and thousands of deaths. I think that confusion is interesting, because the third part of the book is mostly on Iraq, the War on Terror, and torture, among other things, which is really the stripping bare of the body of the United States during the War on Terror-- what are we willing to do. I thought in that general story, looking at Bosnia, another example of kind of ideological confusion and the need for an ideology, that George W. Bush, after the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, rushed really to reconstruct a kind of Cold War ideology that had been left in shreds by the end of the Cold War but that now proved useful. If you look at the president's, President George W. Bush's speeches after 9/11, they really recall President Truman's speech that has come to be known as the Truman Doctrine speech. It sets out a very stark view of the world, us and them; you're either with us or you're against us. It, in effect, takes the terrorists and makes them the new communists. So there's a return to ideology in a very predictable and familiar American way.

BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: You talked them about the period of the 1990s, when you have the U.S. invasion in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, genocide in Rwanda-- some of these crises that have changed how we think about intervention and engagement. And in some camps, people think that the conversation has progressed significantly. But I'm curious, because the way you're describing it as an interim period, some people could argue that the reigning ideology at the time was democratization or an ascendancy of human rights. Do you think that was the case, and if so, that's a weak ideology, or do you think that wasn't the case?

MARK DANNER: Well, I think that's a very astute and also very complicated question. I think that at the time, as I mentioned, one would have called the era of the '90s either the post Cold War world -- which is one of those weird phrases like "nonfiction," which is defining something by what it's not -- or you could call it "The End of History," following Francis Fukuyama's famous essay with that title. As we look back on it now, I'd be inclined-- and I say this in the book-- to call it the Age of Genocide, because we had not only Bosnia, of course, but Rwanda. These savage, savage conflicts, which were distinguished not only by their savagery but by the refusal of the reigning great powers to do anything to stop them until they had reached-- I mean, in the case of Rwanda, nothing was ever done to stop it, and in the case of Bosnia, intervention on the part of the West happened very, very late.

I think one would have a hard time making the case that the '90s were the era of human rights. There was some progress made-- there's no question about it-- and if we look certainly at Eastern Europe, you saw a kind of efflorescence of democratic forms that were very encouraging at the time.

The vision that you're mentioning, I think, about human rights and the expansion of it, was quite influential. I'm just not sure, looking back on it, whether what we can see in that period really justifies it. You can look-- I called it the Age of Genocide-- and you can look at these conflicts as, in a sense, backwashes of the Cold War. The Balkans certainly was. I mean, that war could not have happened during the Cold War, simply because the Soviet Union and the United States would not have let it happen. What it changed was the willingness of the great powers, or the Superpowers, to let such a conflict unfold. And I think that's true also of Rwanda, that the Great Lakes region was itself in a kind of Cold War grip, partly under the hegemony of Mobutu and others. So I don't know. Again-- who was it who said-- it wasn't Mao-- who said, when asked by Henry Kissinger, "What do you think of the French Revolution?" and he said, "It's too early to tell." So it may still be too early to tell whether your vision or mine is closer to the truth.

BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Yeah, and I'm not certain it's mine either. I just--

MARK DANNER: You just threw it out there.

BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: I threw it out there to see how you would respond. The book then-- as you said, it covers several decades, and it runs across at least three continents. What do we learn by viewing them together, and by returning to crises? Because even Iraq, while the war continues, it's not in the limelight anymore. Of course, attention has shifted to Afghanistan, Haiti, because of the earthquake, and—its horrifying impact is-- but one can only imagine that it will fade soon, and Bosnia certainly gives way to other crises, and those to the next. What do we learn about what we should remember from these crises, and what we have forgotten, by looking at them all together?

MARK DANNER: Well, I think the first thing we learn is that American memory is very short, and American amnesia is very strong, that we tend to repeat the same mistakes, and retain the same illusions, because we don't tend to learn from history. That goes for the American public certainly, and to some extent I think for American statesmen as well. One of the lessons that comes back again and again is American over-reaching, the limitations of American power, and the initiate of statesmen to remember those limitations.

I think the story of American engagement with the Balkans wars is fascinating, in part because of these illusions. It was a different kind of illusion when it came to the Balkans. The first one was that the United States with the Cold War's ending simply had no real interest in Southeastern Europe, which was just a fallacy. It wasn't true. The United States-- NATO was still the foundation point of American foreign policy, and an ongoing war would inevitably weaken NATO in Europe. No one wanted to contemplate getting involved in the nasty Balkans affair, which could have been bloody and longstanding, and they simply didn't want to take on the political burden of getting involved. The idea that this could be avoided was illusory.

It's interesting here that one of the reasons for this is you had two high officials-- Brent Scowcroft, the National Security Advisor, and Laurence Eagleburger, then the Deputy Secretary of State and later the acting Secretary of State-- who had been very much involved as younger men in the Balkans, had served in Yugoslavia. They believed they knew very much what was going on. As a matter of fact, they didn't. But they thought that, "Well, the war will burn itself out quickly. The Serbs will go to victory very quickly, and the best thing we can do is stand aside and let them win." And this again was an illusion, born of the fact that they didn't want to draw the necessary conclusions about U.S. involvement.

What happened was, as you know, the war grew very bad very quickly. You had a series of incredible atrocities, which forced the Europeans to take some involvement. The Europeans began, essentially, a humanitarian mission, which meant that they were feeding people, bringing food to people who were under siege. You had Blue Helmets-- that is, troops from France, Spain, the United Kingdom and elsewhere-- who were wearing the blue helmets of the United Nations, delivering food while the sieges were going on, notably in Sarajevo. And the Sarajevans called this "feeding the dead." That was their name of this policy.

It was horrible and it involved both the United States and the Europeans in a policy that just gave the lie to Western pretentions about human rights. I think that the turning point here-- or it could have been a turning point-- was the campaign, the presidential campaign, of 1992. Governor Clinton of Arkansas attacked President Bush, and basically said, "You have to do something about Bosnia." This is when the concentration camps at Omarska and elsewhere were revealed. You had actual film. Forty years after World War II, you had film of concentration camps shown on international television. These images were very much reminiscent of images taken when the concentration camps in Germany and Poland were liberated. It had a huge political effect. Governor Clinton, campaigning for the presidency, demanded action be taken. George H.W. Bush refused, and partly in reaction to this, he established the War Crimes Tribunal in Yugoslavia, which is still going on. The intervention in Somalia was also a reaction to this, which had its own cataclysmic reactions because it turned into a fiasco, and really had, I think, the overwhelming influence on convincing the Clinton administration not to intervene and do anything in Rwanda. Not only not to intervene, but to prevent the Canadians and others from intervening. So that had cataclysmic effects.

BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: So a chain reaction of responding to Somalia instead of Bosnia, and then the crisis out of that making it impossible to respond to Rwanda.

MARK DANNER: Exactly. The other, of course, chain reaction was the fact that when Bill Clinton did win the presidency, in part because he was aggressive with the so-called foreign policy president, George H.W. Bush-- when Bill Clinton got into office, having demanded bombing and strong action, he was confronted with this complicated war, and confronted with an advisor who said to him, "Do you want to be like Lyndon B. Johnson, who sacrificed all his grand domestic ambitions for involvement in a distant war that Americans care little about?" And Bill Clinton's answer, at least by his actions, was, "No." And he proceeded essentially to do very little for several years, during which thousands of people died.

BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And genocide at Srebrenica.

MARK DANNER: Exactly. The genocide at Srebrenica is of course the purest, more horrible example of it. But the genocide was already going on at the time he took office. In fact, in the book I cite a document from the Defense Intelligence Agency of the United States in which-- and this is during the summer of '91, late summer of '91-- in which there is a list of camps, of concentration camps in Bosnia, and the categories are: number of prisoners-- top of this list-- and then number liquidated. This is an American intelligence document, during which-- at a time, by the way, when the United States was vehemently denying that genocide was taking place. Which of course, by the way, one should mention, the Genocide Convention, which had, during that decade of the '90s, and interesting consequence. During the Bosnian war, its consequence essentially was that the United States claimed repeatedly that there was no genocide, even though it knew that there was. But the Clinton administration and the Bush administration before it seemed to fear that if it was admitted that genocide was taking place, the Genocide Convention would compel the United States and other nations to do something to stop it. And of course later in Rwanda, there was-- I think it was Warren Christopher who said that, "This is tantamount to genocide," and again, no action was taken. And finally we reached Darfur under George W. Bush when Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged that there was genocide going on, but still very little was done to stop it. So the story of the Genocide Convention is another complicated strain running through the era, I think.

BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And for those who would like to learn more about Mark's writing, his teaching, his books, and all of his work, you can go to Mark, thank you very much for your time.

MARK DANNER: Thank you, Bridget. I've enjoyed talking to you.

NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about responding to and preventing genocide, join us online


Mark Danner reflects on what we can learn from the genocides of the late 1990s.  With Bridget Conley-Zilkic of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for the Voices on Genocide Prevention podcast.

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