Swans Commentary » swans.com June 20, 2011  



The (Narrative) Crimes Of Ian Buruma


by Aleksandar Jokic





[ed. Ian Buruma is a professor of Democracy and Human Rights at Bard College.]


(Swans - June 20, 2011)   "Ratko Mladić is an easy man to hate," is the first thought of Ian Buruma on the topic.

It is easy to hate the writing of Ian Buruma. Why be serious, when you can be sloppy, demonstrating deplorable ignorance on many levels, and still get published? Why be decent when you can engage in the most primitive attribution of animalistic characteristics to real people and still get published? Why try to be coherent and follow the dictates of logic when you can incongruously slap together a few ideas and still be published?

These are just some questions that come to mind when reading Ian Buruma's "The Crimes of Ratko Mladić" (Project Syndicate, May 30, 2011). The piece is a veritable study in how not to take seriously the arrest of the former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladić.

What to say about Buruma's immediate description of what a thug looks like, and Mladić in particular: "the kind of bull-necked, pale-eyed, snarling psychopath who would gladly pull out your fingernails just for fun." Buruma has obviously never seen Ratko Mladić, and must have confused him with some bull-necked, steroid-filled NFL player. So, how did Buruma come up with his shocking, animalizing description of Mladić exuding with hatred? He, I imagine, spent hours staring at photographs of Ratko Mladić performing a peculiar mental exercise of putting to words what it feels like when you decide to hate. But how does one recognize from someone's picture that he is a psychopath who would enjoy pulling out your fingernails for fun? Interestingly, the ICTY indictment (PDF) of Mladić contains the word "fingernails" exactly zero times and makes no claim that Mladić ever tortured anyone. Clearly, then, what appears like Buruma's descriptive talent of presenting the horrible l'autre to us is just a gratuitous invitation to peek into his own soul and share his lines with approval. What grave insecurity! The presumed easily shared hatred for Mladić -- a man who has done nothing to him or his co-nationals -- must be converted into love and admiration for him, the author of the sickening description of the general. But the real sickness lies elsewhere: if it is really this easy to hate and use it for one's own cheap self promotion, then what difference could there be between the describer himself and the person allegedly being described? The "snarling psychopath" boomerangs right at the scribe's head! As to whether Buruma would enjoy pulling Mladić's fingernails I cannot be sure.

In this piece Buruma's writing talent shines in his abilities to mix items that don't go together, to presumably expose things while obscuring the crucial elements of the story, to make a difficult point while showing ignorance of the basics, and to engage in conceptual confusion while intending to make substantial normative judgments. Let us take each of these talents in turn.

Buruma manages to mix up the purpose of courts as legal institutions with an apparatus that can discover character traits of entire peoples. Thus he tells us "the UN's tribunal for ex-Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice decided that the Bosnian Serbs were genocidal." But, needless to say, neither body did that, since no court whether legally constituted, like ICJ, or one of dubious legality, like ICTY, could rule that Serbs are genocidal people. Indeed, this is obvious to anyone not embarking on any sort of effort to slander a whole group of people, an effort of the same variety as the intent to destroy a group "in part or whole." So what, exactly, is Buruma trying to do here? Has he not already provided two clues by expressing how easy it is to hate Mladić, and embarking on a curious depiction of his physical appearance? If one were to interpret a WTO ruling in favor of India and Brazil against Netherlands in the practice of seizures of generic drugs as somehow advancing a larger depiction of Dutch people as possessed with a moral shortcoming of some serious sort -- though, of course, this is unlikely -- how would such a claim be interpreted? I would imagine that it would not be well received, and that its author might not be published, as she might seem to be advancing the kind of xenophobic agenda most decent publications have rightly come to think of as unacceptable, and thus, unpublishable. In fact, I even doubt that it could be possible to publish a claim about Nuremberg having found the German people "aggressive," or anything else. Indeed, in all likelihood even in Nazi Germany publishing demeaning attributes of entire groups other than Jews (perhaps also Roma and Slavs) of the kind that Buruma today attributes with ease to Serbs would have been difficult. Where most peoples are concerned, we seem quite capable of making intellectually simple distinctions between individual, state, and collective, national, or ethnic guilt. We know that courts, including international ones, are not instruments for pronouncing on the character of nations. And yet, this basic logical and moral inhibition seems absent from Buruma's argument.

Buruma tries to use his piece to expose key elements of Srebrenica and Nuremberg but only manages to obscure the essential elements of both. About Srebrenica he writes that Mladić "was responsible, in the summer of 1995, for the killing of around 8,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the woods around Srebrenica." Somewhat differently, the ICTY indictment of Mladić speaks of "over 7,000 Bosnian Muslim prisoners captured in the area around Srebrenica [who] were summarily executed." However, what Buruma obscures is the fact that Srebrenica was not a demilitarized "safe haven" but an enclave under control of the brutal Muslim warlord Naser Orić, commander of the 28th Division of the Bosnian Army, whose well armed men (an entire army corps with artillery) committed numerous massacres in nearby Serb villages, and this according to the sworn testimony at the Hague of the French general Philip Morillion who was even held hostage in Srebrenica by Orić at the orders from Sarajevo. Hence, those killed "in the woods around Srebrenica" were not "unarmed Bosnian Muslim men and boys" as Buruma writes, but members of the Bosnian Army who received the order from Sarajevo to abandon Srebrenica and try to make it (with their arms) to the Muslim held territory. It is another matter that the ICTY, stretching the definition to absurdity, declared the deaths of those Muslim combatants that didn't survive the trek (though many did) to be "genocide." All the while Mladić supervised an orderly evacuation of Muslim civilians from Srebrenica. Thus, Buruma's pathetic lament about the shame of Dutch troops who were "outnumbered and outgunned by Mladić's forces... surrendered Srebrenica to its fate" also misses the point. What were the Dutch supposed to do: offer personal escort to each armed Muslim combatant who instead of defending Srebrenica, which would have been very easy because of its geographical position, followed the order to make a break from the town? And what were the Bosnian Serb forces supposed to do: let those Muslim soldiers reinforce the troops on the Muslim held territory to fight them again, even though many of them could be presumed responsible for killing thousands of Serb civilians in the villages around Srebrenica? That Buruma fails to consider these questions shows how much easier it is for him to hate than to think.

Apparently trying to pull some analogy with Mladić at ICTY and Nuremberg, Buruma tells us the following: "The Holocaust was not the main issue at stake in the Nuremberg Trials." In fact the destruction of European Jews (since the Vietnam War referred to in the U.S. as the Holocaust) was less than a minor issue at International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. Incongruously mentioning "the Holocaust" here only serves to obscure that the main issue at stake in the Nuremberg trials was the crime against peace -- aggression -- about which Justice Robert H. Jackson, chief prosecutor for the United States at the Nuremberg Trials, stated: "aggression...is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole." Needless to say, Mladić is not accused of committing aggression; this supreme crime of international law isn't even within the jurisdiction of ICTY. And is it worth pondering why it is not? Does this have anything to do with the fact that the only clear crime against peace committed in the region was the US-led NATO aggression against Yugoslavia?

A useful point Buruma makes is his declaration that ethnic cleansing is not the same as genocide. In this of course he is correct. But, this is useful to emphasize because many appear to think otherwise, and Buruma seems to attribute the same misconception to ICTY itself when he says that Mladić "will be tried for genocide" while he insists that Mladić was only engaged in ethnic cleansing, "which, though reprehensible, is not the same as genocide." He does not like this conflation of "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide" for a very good reason: Buruma worries that this may lead to more wars of intervention. This is an example of Buruma's writing where he manages to make a difficult point while showing ignorance of the basics. In the currently prevailing culture it is not easy to make these two points that (i) ethnic cleansing does not amount to genocide, and (ii) that more interventionist wars are not welcome. Unfortunately this comes at a very high conceptual price. Buruma thinks that genocide, as a legal concept, is vague, and that trying Mladić for genocide will further "loosen" its legal definition, which in turn will further facilitate political legitimization of interventionist wars, presumably by the U.S., all over the globe. This is to confuse the legal definition of genocide, which is perfectly clear, with the difficulty to prove that an individual was engaged in this criminal act as intent to destroy a protected group "in whole or part" cannot easily be established. Secondly, it is to confuse the alleged changes of the definition of genocide occurring, by "loosening" it, with arguably incorrect and legally indefensible practices at an ad hoc international body of dubious legality, the ICTY. In most normal circumstances, if a court were to abuse a legal concept in the course of passing its judgments this would be corrected by higher courts. The fact that we cannot expect this to happen at an ad hoc (would be) court, such as ICTY, does not speak to the alleged vagueness of a concept -- in this case the concept of genocide -- but it speaks to the inadequacies of ICTY as an alleged legal (rather than purely political) institution.

Finally, one cannot but almost agree with Buruma's concluding remark, though it is entirely detached from the rest of his text: "By invoking Hitler's ghost too often, we trivialize the enormity of what he actually did." However, the problem is not the frequency of invoking Hitler that is an insult to his victims or the memory of the Holocaust. The problem is when Hitler is invoked regarding events quite unlike the Holocaust, a practice I have elsewhere labeled "genocidalism" (Swans, November 6, 2006) and connected it to the prevailing Western narratives about Bosnia, where Buruma's piece also belongs.


To e-mail this article


· · · · · ·


If you find our work valuable, please consider helping us financially.

· · · · · ·



Feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Aleksandar Jokic 2011. All rights reserved.


Have your say

Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.


About the Author

Aleksandar Jokic is a professor at Portland State University where he teaches courses in moral philosophy and international justice.   (back)


· · · · · ·


Internal Resources

The Balkans and Yugoslavia

· · · · · ·


This edition's other articles

Check the front page, where all current articles are listed.



Check our past editions, where the past remains very present.

· · · · · ·


[About]-[Past Issues]-[Archives]-[Resources]-[Copyright]



Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art17/ajokic07.html
Published June 20, 2011