Monday, September 11, 2006

Review: Love Thy Neighbor, A Story of War

Love Thy Neighbor
Peter Maass

I first read Peter Maass's Love Thy Neighbor approx 7 years ago. When I read it, I was in high school, and it immediately struck me for the writing style and passion. It quickly became a favorite book of mine. I have since re-read the book, and to tell you the truth, it didn't pack the same punch as it originally did. Nevertheless, the book is an important book on Bosnia and a very worthy read.

Maass is a very good writer, he has the ability to write very lucid prose, that is easy to understand; yet he does not rely on a lot of fluff. He packs a great deal of information into his paragraphs.

Besides the writing style, the aspect of the book that captured my attention the most was his wide range of subjects and topics he captures in the book. The ethnic cleansing of Eastern Bosnia, the camps in Northern Bosnia, Sarajevo, Milosevic, the west, it serves as a microism of the first year of the war.

More than anything, I remember Maass for introducing me to the term "War Porn."
War porn, are the images that saturate CNN, pictures of dead bodies, mutilated bodies, burned down villages. Like the proverbial train wreck, we don't want to look, but we do. As Maass rhetorically asks, how many of us actually flip the channel when the anchorman warns us that the next report contains "disturbing pictures."
Our being disturbed comes not at the pictures, but of the fact that we do not feel disturbed enough by the pictures.
I myself would say that the obsession with war images is much easier if you are not involved in the war. If the people dying are not friends or relatives, or people you feel any real connection to. It is easy to create a division, beyond the superficial division of the TV screen between them and you.
Yet, Maass also describes the fascination and almost dare I say, delight that wartime journalists have with war. People who risk their lives everyday to shoot images of bombings and atrocities.
And the more you are there, the more images you see, the less disturbing it is. As Maass writes "I haven't forgotten the images from Bosnia, but they no longer disturb me as before, and I don't know whether this is good or bad."
I really appreciate Maass' honesty in this section. Like "My War Gone By, I Miss It So." and "War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning." He is not afraid to bring up a topic that might seem uncomfortable or even distasteful to many people. After all, most people do not want to admit that they are sucked in by the T.V. images of war, and that war is almost like a seductress at times.

Beyond talking about the personal effect the war has on him, he has also discusses his utter disappointment with the Western incompetence and appeasement during the war. For many Western journalists, Bosnia seemed to be their coming of age. And perhaps for the first time, they were thoroughly delusioned by their governments; who stand for democracy, plurality and tolerance, yet who did (almost) nothing as a country was being torn apart and a full scale ethnic cleansing campaign ravaged the land. Returning to America, Maass is asked time and time again over whether the camps are really "that bad?"
"Yes, I visited them, and yes, they were as bad as you could imagine." Is Maass's response. Unfortunately, it seems as if there are still people today who not only deny the horrors of the camps, they also deny their very existence.
Maass's book isn't going to change any of their minds, but his testimony of the atrocities serves as another link in the armor against denial and revisionism.

In most books I have read, I usually find the "ordinary people" much more interesting and revealing than the politicians. This is not true with Maass's book. Of all the interviews I have read in the book, the two that stuck out the most was the one with Slobodan Milosevic and Dr. Nedret Mujkanovic, a doctor who became something of a postwar celebrity in Bosnia.

Milosevic of course needs no introduction, Maass however does a good job of explaining in very simple terms the power of Slobo. Unlike his fellow dictators the world over, Milosevic kept his goals short, his goal was to simply stay in power. And in order to stay in power, he would do anything, whether it meant being a "loyal communist" one day, or are "arch nationalist" the next, or at times, both.
And unlike other dictators, Milosevic was intelligent. He did not commission giant statues of himself in every province of Serbia, he did not write bad romance novels and then force the population of Belgrade to watch the play version. He did not force everyone to dress a like, or randomly kill thousands of people out of the blue, whom he thought were plotting against him.
Nope, Slobo was too smart for that. Instead, he allowed a semblance of debate. He allowed newspapers like "Vreme" to operate. Of course, the minute they became too popular or threatened his regime, he shut them down. This way, Milosevic had the best of both worlds. He could show the western world that he was allowing "debate" to take place in Serbia. But, of course, he made it possible that no true debate would ever occur and that his power would never truly be contested.

And then there is Nedret Mujkanovic. Like all wars, Milosevic and his fellow war criminals are always better known than the people like Mujkanovic. Originally from Tuzla, Mujkanovic traveled to Srebrenica to become the besieged town's only surgeon. In 1993 the UN comes to evacuate the enclave's most seriously wounded men. Their evacuation and return to Tuzla is captured by TV cameras.
Just as the West's first impression of Milosevic as a "partner for peace" was misleading, so to is Maass's first impression of Mujkanovic. While all of the other men were dressed rather poorly, and were wounded; Mujkanovic was dressed in a fedora and silk shirt and leaps onto the tarmac. Immediately, Maass comes to the conclusion that Mujkanovic is the mafia king of Srebrenica that the journalists had heard about, and that he probably bribed or forced his way onto the relief helicopter.
Maass is soon set straight, and he is told about Mujkanovic's efforts to perform surgeries in a most difficult situation. The clothes he is wearing tell the story of how much the people of Srebrenica appreciated his efforts. Not wanting their doctor to appear like a slob, they all gave him some of their best clothes to wear.
When asked about his greatest achievement during the war, it is not about saving limbs, or saving lives, although he certainly did that, it was about the fact that he treated his Serb patients with the same care and attention as he did his Bosniak patients. "My greatest satisfaction as a humanist and a doctor is that they were carried into the hospital on stretchers and left on their legs..."
It seems a pity that Milosevic is so well known, but people like Mujkanovic has faded into the background.

Maass's book is an important reminder not only of the war, but of all of the people who were effected by the war, and whom the war continues to effect to this day.


Srebrenica Massacre said...

I have mixed terms about the term "war porn", it's very distasteful terminology. However, I will definitely look for that book; hope to enjoy it as much as you did!

Owen said...

There comes a point at which emotional self-preservation takes over. That is sad but healthy. It's at that point that the person faced with these awful images has to bring in the backup mechanism which is an intellectual determination not to forget the meaning of those images.

I don't think the images in themselves constitute "war porn", it's manipulative use of them that's the obscenity.

I still remember the image Dan has displayed of his website of what at the time I thought was a young woman and now I have learned was a fourteen year old girl, who had hanged herself after being raped.

Initially I was angry that the Guardian had used this very intrusive image (Dan's picture is cropped from a wider image showing more of the tree from which the girl hanged herself and a background of trees in the forest). I felt the woman deserved privacy in respect for her last moments of despair.

After brief reflection I changed my mind. The image was so strong that it has stayed with me all those years, reminding me of the awful fate she suffered. In printing that image the Guardian was making it clear that we must not forget the awful thing that happened to the hanged woman, and making sure that we would not.

Shaina said...

The debate over the media and the use of images (war images, disturbing images etc.) has always fasinated me.

One of the main plots of the movie "Welcome To Sarajevo" is of the journalists trying to get the images of the Sarajevo shellings on the BBC, only to be told that they are to disturbing (the stories on Sarajevo are replaced by some fluff on Fergie and Andrew).
I remember after the Oklahoma City bombing there was debate over whether the national newspapers should have put the picture of the dead baby on their front cover.
Some argued that it showed the true horror of that day; others argued that the picture was exploitive.

That seems to me to be the crux of the debate, how do acurately show what is occuring, without exploiting the people involved?
How do you make that balance?

There have also been times where I have seen video/images that I felt were nothing but exploitive. I remember a TLC program (TLC is an American cable station that shows a lot of documentaries) on the death penalty. A woman's son was being scheduled to be executed at 1:00. She wasn't there for his execution, but they showed her in front of her own apartment at 1:00 and she suddenly collasped onto the ground and started wailing and screaming. I saw the program AT LEAST 5 years ago, and it is still one of the most disturbing images.
I remember being really mad at TLC, because I felt that they were taking advantage of what obviously is a horrible moment in this woman's life, and videotaping it on national TV.
However, looking back at it, I'm not sure if my disturbance was based so much on my concern for the woman being exploited; OR if I was simply very uncomfortable watching her raw and painful emotions on the TV.

Owen said...

There is another problem and that's the repetition of horrific pictures without any real explanation other than the bare minimum to tie the picture into the story-line. That's the situation with car-bombs in Baghdad. The theme is the spiral of violence and disorder and the picture provides the visual hook.

It's very rarely that we get any indication who the people who died were and that they were all individuals with a life and history, not simply statistics.

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