Saturday, April 4, 2009

running a fever while waiting for my war to end

In America, a culture of forgetting has developed not merely out of the usual avenues of repression, censorship, and distraction; its a forgetfulness of the refresh button (or F5, depending on your platform). Much is made of the internet's rising tide of information; raising all boats, elevating discourse, metastasizing policy debates, and so on. It has also had the effect of burying the recent past, and eliminating the spaces where we would perform reflections on and resolutions toward our hideous deeds.

I am pushed towards this reflection by the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic's essay "Why I have not returned to Belgrade," published in the Serbian newspaper Publika in late February to considerable controversy. In it, she ponders the responsibility for the Serbian people to confront their complicity in the state's brutal repression of Bosnian Muslims and Kosovars of the late 90s, and ultimately, if hesitantly, places this burden upon the current generation of Serbian youth. While they are not the torturers and collaborators who performed the deeds of the 90s wars, it is they who must take their parents to task, and they who will bear the brunt of the global community's scorn until some demons are properly exorcised. Drakulic, a Croat who nonetheless identifies with a fragile pan-Yugo consciousness borne, possibly, from years of emigre life in occidental Europe, has faced vigorous criticism from the usual suspects: nationalists who conclude that Serbia must just not be for her, and tell her to keep away.

Their refrain is familiar; let the guilty parties find their punishment, the rest of us will move on. While it's lazy to simply relate the Balkan wars of the 90s to the recently laid-off War on Terror, the post-war situation in both Serbia and America has a few parallels. The War on Terror's central premise, that the American way of life was under assault, is a foundling version of the culture of Serb victimhood, nurtured since the 14th century. Both have some roots in justification but have been wildly manipulated by war-making zealots, both have employed the notion of the preservation of a society as the excuse for the destruction of another.

The greatest danger, Drakulic warns, is that we will resist the lessons afforded by these violent adventures, and indeed, this appears to be unfolding today. Despite the accepted wisdom that the Iraq War was botched in its initial execution, we have allowed the redemptive rhetoric of the Surge to paper over the fact that many urban areas in Iraq are either still held hostage by sectarian conflict or subject to the false pacification of ethnic cleansing. That the war has seen the deaths of nearly 100,000 Iraqis and displaced nearly 5 Million refugees, is underacknowledged into oblivion; the numbers, like bailout figures, simply too large to comprehend. Rather than an honest conversation about the perils of nation building when our own nation is in such rough shape, rather than frank remonstrances against the conflation of noble pursuits abroad with those of empire, and rather than a thorough accounting of the torture policies knowingly adopted by the previous administration, we have instead a new official dialogue on Afghanistan that looks frighteningly similar to the incrementalism of CPA-era Iraq, and endless handwringing over torture memos. Obama's pragmatism is certainly refreshing, but it is not enough to replace a regime that bumbled into quagmires with malign intentions, with one that does the same thing under the auspices of humanitarianism.

The election of Barack Obama was said to have heralded some moment of newness, when our nation's political death sentence would be commuted. It was to be a splash of cold water on the faces of our media elites, a warning that a considerable portion of the populace had acquainted themselves with harsher realities. We were ready to face down the bad news. We no longer had any use for the "let us look forward, not backward" platitudes, or for the condescension from those well-heeled Bush enablers, content for so many years to flout the law, now hiding behind its sacred obligations. It's not clear, unfortunately, that this new position has won out.