With Ratko Mladic in the dock in the Hague and warlords' friend Tomislav Nikolic wining the elections in Belgrade, it is time again to remember the atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia two decades ago, but also the sides people took.
At the time, the Tory media and the John Major government (who largely pursued a policy of neutrality, appeasement and realpolitik) span the conflict as the re-emergence of ancient atavistic racial hatreds, with all sides as bad as each other.
This line found had a ready audience on the Stalinophile left, who had seen the Titoist one-party state as a progressive bulwark against such tribalism (much as some “anti-imperialists” have viewed Ba’athist Iraq and Syria, and even Gadhafi’s Libya), and played to a left-wing pro-Serbian sentiment formed in WWII, which (wrongly) framed the Serbs as anti-fascists and the Catholic Croatians and Muslim Bosniaks as Nazi collaborators.
Key figures on the left, many of whom now have very influential positions in our media world, played a major role in denying, minimising or downplaying the violence perpetrated by the Serbian side. To talk about this brutality (mainly inflicted against Muslims) was to buy into some “Western” or “imperialist” narrative.
The deniers and minimisers included the magazine LM, then recently rebranded from Living Marxism and the outlet of the Revolutionary Communist Party. When the Guardian’s Ed Vulliamy and ITN’s Penny Marshall and Ian Williams exposed the Serb-run concentration camp at Trnopolje in northern Bosnia, LM claimed they were fabricating evidence.
ITN sued LM for libel, which put it out of business. It now trades as Spiked, and its commentators have high profile roles in the establishment media, regularly appearing on the BBC and given columns in papers such as the Times and Telegraph. As Michael Mosbacher puts it, they have taken the long march through the institutions – rather more successfully, we might add, than other Marxist groups who have followed the Rudi Dutschke dictum.
They have been supported over the years by the cranky pseudo-anarchist celebrity professor Noam Chomsky. Chomsky has given comfort to Milosevic’s regime and its apologists: “[Milosovic] did all sorts of terrible things, but it wasn’t a totalitarian state. I mean, there were elections, there was the opposition…” Chomsky once told Serbian television. It is worth re-reading what Vulliamy said in 2009 when Chomsky was invited to speak by alleged human rights defenders Amnesty:
Prof. Chomsky was not among those (“Novo” of Germany and “Living Marxism” in the UK) who first proposed the idea that these camps were a fake. He was not among those who tried unsuccessfully (they were beaten back in the High Court in London, by a libel case taken by ITN) to put up grotesque arguments about fences around the camps, which were rather like [Frederick] Leuchter’s questioning as to whether the thermal capacity of bricks were enough to contain the heat needed to gas Jews at Auschwitz. But Professor Chomsky said many things, from his ivory tower at MIT, to spur them on and give them credibility and energy to spread their poisonous perversion and denials of these sufferings. To use the analogy of Holocaust denial, he was more David Irving than Leuchter - the man with academic pretentions, doing it all from a distance, and giving the revisionists his blessing. And the revisionists reveled in his endorsement. In an interview with the Guardian, Professor Chomsky paid me the kind compliment of calling me a good journalist, but added that on this occasion (the camps) I had “got it wrong”.
Got what wrong?!?! Got wrong what we saw that day, August 5th 1992? (I didn’t see him there.) Got wrong the hundreds of thousands of families left bereaved, deported and scattered asunder? Got wrong the hundreds of testimonies I have gathered on murderous brutality? Got wrong the thousands whom I meet when I return to the commemorations? If I am making all this up, what are all the human remains found in mass graves around the camps and so painstakingly re-assembled by the International Commission for Missing Persons.
Chomsky disciples Edward Herman and David Peterson have also claimed that the “Western” narrative about what happened in Yugoslavia (as well as the genocide in Rwanda) is mere propaganda. Their book, The Politics of Genocide, has a foreword by Noam Chomsky and an endorsement by John Pilger. In a column last year, George Monbiot demolished the core arguments they make there
Today, Monbiot argues in the Guardian that "On trial beside Mladic in The Hague is a disturbing case of infectious idiocy and denial which the left can no longer ignore". (The version on his website is fully footnoted, and supported by expert statements ; I've put clickable versions of his hyperlinks into the bottom of this post.) He describes how Chomsky, Pilger, ZNet’s publisher Michael Albert and others have continued to defend Herman and Peterson and their lies.
Pilger, for instance, said that “Chef Monbiot is a curiously sad figure. All those years of noble green crusading now dashed by his Damascene conversion to nuclear power’s poisonous devastations and his demonstrable need for establishment recognition – a recognition which, ironically, he already enjoyed.”
Bizarrely, because Monbiot and Vulliamy write for the Guardian, these uber-radicals have now decided that the Guardian is part of the demonic Amerikkan coalition of the willing trying to destroy heroic truth and resistance. (Herman and Peterson responded to Monbiot’s last column on this with over 16,000 words and 93 footnotes, including the claim that because Emma Brockes and Ed Vulliamy make the same spelling error they must be conspiring. Chomsky’s allies at CounterPunch actually described the Guardian as “a dangerous cult” and “a thought police for the internet age”, although this was also for publishing Andy Newman’s criticisms of Gilad Atzmon’s antisemitism as much as for its Yugoslavia line.)
The people I criticise here rightly contend that western governments and much of the western media ignore or excuse atrocities committed by the US and its allies, while magnifying those committed by forces deemed hostile. But they then appear to create a mirror image of this one-sided narrative, minimising the horrors committed by forces considered hostile to the US and its allies.
Perhaps this looks to you like the kind of esoteric infighting to which the left too often succumbs, but this seems to me to be important: as important as any other human rights issue. If people who claim to care about justice and humanity cannot resist what looks to me like blatant genocide denial, we find ourselves in a very dark place.
One interesting irony of all this is that so many of those who defended the Serbs and were so callous towards the Muslim Bosnians and then Kosovans have posed as the friends of Islam in the current century, while many of those who were in solidarity with the Bosnians and Kosovans have been denounced as Islamophobes. As Hitchens later said:
“at that time, when they were real, Chomsky wasn't apparently interested in Muslim grievances. He only became a voice for that when the Taliban and Al Qaeda needed to be represented in their turn as the victims of a "silent genocide" in Afghanistan. Let me put it like this, if a supposed scholar takes the Christian-Orthodox side when it is the aggressor, and then switches to taking the "Muslim" side when Muslims commit mass murder, I think that there is something very nasty going on. And yes, I don't think it is exaggerated to describe that nastiness as "anti-American" when the power that stops and punishes both aggressions is the United States.”
In fact, in denying Serb violence against Yugoslav Muslims, these “anti-imperialists” find themselves sharing a political space with counter-jihadis like Pamela Geller, who so hate Muslims anywhere that anyone who kills them is given a positive spin.
However, that may not be odd for the Spiked crew – who like to defend Geller’s comrades the proto-fascist English Defence League. Spiked have also recently been busy constructing “Marxist” arguments for the Sun’s Page 3, “contrarian” denunciations of mental health rights, “radical” dismissals of women’s rights and rape case anonymity, and “libertarian” attacks on gay civil partnerships.
Oh, and Spiked also take contrarian lines on various environmental issues, which they have in common with Alexander Cockburn of CounterPunch – so it is another irony to see Pilger dismissing Monbiot’s claims about genocide by reference to Monbiot’s support for nuclear power!
- Monbiot’s correspondence with Chomsky
- Ed Vulliamy “Open Letter to Amnesty International about Noam Chomsky”
- Oliver Kamm “Dangerous lies that spread from Auschwitz to Srebrenica”
- Expert assessments of Chomsky’s claims (by Adam Jones, Martin Shaw, Linda Melvern, Marko Attila Hoare).
Responses to Herman and Peterson cited by Monbiot
- Martin Shaw, September 2011. Review of The Politics of Genocide. Journal of Genocide Research, Vol.13, no.3, pp353–387. [draft in Google Docs,
- Gerald Caplan, 17th June 2010. The politics of denialism: The strange case of Rwanda: Review of ‘The Politics of Genocide’. Pambazuka Issue 486.
- Adam Jones, 16th November 2010. Denying Rwanda: A Response to Herman & Peterson.
- Nick Cohen/David Campbell “Chomsky’s Bosnian shame”
- Michael Mosbacher “Frank Furedi”
- RCP/LMwatch “RCP/LM and Occupy”
- Cedar Lounge Revolution “Left Archive: Ireland’s victory means Britain’s defeat’, Revolutionary Communist Tendency, 1980” [this is on the RCP, originally the Revolutionary Communist Tendency, and their ne plus ultra line on supporting Irish republican violence. Arguably, the Serbs played a similar role in their worldview to the IRA, although oddly they rarely write about Northern Ireland politics now]
When John Pilger was my hero; Why I hate Noam Chomsky; Why Spiked are destroying Britain. More on Chomsky, on Bosnia, on Spiked, on CounterPunch.