Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War
By Peter Maass
In the course of writing this book, many friends have asked me what it is about, and I have had a hard time coming up with a precise answer. It is about many things, about war, about Bosnia, about politics and hatred and demagogues and heroes and cowards and me and. . . . It is about many things. After spending a year writing more than 100,000 words, I have a better idea of what the book is about, and I think it is about the wild beast, which is not an animal, nor a person, but a spirit of evil that exists in all animals, all people, all societies. The understanding of what my book is about has helped me answer, at least in my own mind, a question asked thousands of times in America since the war began: Why should Bosnia matter to those of us fortunate enough not to live there? Here is my answer: Bosnia can teach us about the wild beast, and therefore about ourselves, and our destinies.
What happened in Bosnia was not a Balkan freak show but a violent process of national breakdown at the hands of political manipulators. The dynamics of fear and loathing between people of different backgrounds–ethnic or religious or economic–are not as unique or complex as we might like to believe. Violent breakdowns can occur in virtually any country during times of economic hardship, political transition or moral infirmity; such troubles create opportunities for the manipulators, and the manipulators create opportunities for the wild beast. I would not dare predict that it could happen in America, which is so different from Europe, but I would suggest that we avoid placing bets on any predictions, whether optimistic or pessimistic. Rebecca West put it best: “I have been struck again and again by the refusal of destiny to let man see what is happening to him, its mean delight in strewing his path with red herrings.” Sometimes, destiny need not even waste its herrings on us, for we can be incapable of seeing what is before our eyes.
In 1984, Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics. If you had been there at the time, and if you had asked any Yugoslav–that’s what they called themselves back then, Yugoslavs–whether he could imagine his city falling into war in eight years’ time, he would have laughed out loud and tried to detect slivovitz on your breath, and if he didn’t detect any, he might have excused himself and walked to the nearest police officer to report a madman on the loose. Now fast-forward to a year before the war began. Yugoslavia is falling apart. A group of comedians make a short film for Sarajevo television in which the members of a mixed Bosnian family wage hand-to-hand combat for ownership of their apartment; the biggest battle is for control of the bathroom. Viewers laughed long and hard at the film’s absurd notion that the people of Bosnia would wage war against one another. Fast-forward one more time, to just a few months before the war started, when a colleague from my newspaper interviews Muslims, Serbs and Croats who live in the same apartment building in Sarajevo, live right next to one another and, in the case of mixed marriages, of which there were many, share the same bed and gave their children a Serb first name, a Muslim last name, and perhaps, in honor of their best friend, a Croat middle name. These people said there could be no war, no, never, because no one wanted it, and war would make no sense; how, after all, could you divide up people who were so intertwined?
Not long ago, destiny played its games on me. In February 1991, the Post sent me to the Soviet Union for a few weeks, and I spent most of my time in the Baltic republics, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which were bogged down in a doomed effort (so we thought) to become independent. Mikhail Gorbachev, beloved in the West, had made it clear that the Soviet Union was not going to let any of its republics break away, and lethal force had been used to back up his point. In Moscow one evening, I had dinner with several colleagues who lived there. We talked, naturally, about politics, and I asked the usual newcomer’s questions, including, What is going to happen? There was a silence, and then, one after another, my colleagues talked of a long period of darkness, years, during which the oppressive hands of the Red Army and KGB would rule the country, because Gorbachev was losing control, perestroika and glasnost had failed. I remember feeling depressed by their diagnosis, and glad that I worked in Eastern Europe, where the corner had been turned, the darkness had ended. If I would have suggested that, in six months, hard-liners might stage a coup against Gorbachev, and that the coup would fail and that the Soviet Union, which we all had grown up with and believed to be immortal, would die on the spot, breaking into bits and pieces with names like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, my colleagues would have laughed and wondered whether my water glass was filled with vodka.
My point is this: The gap between reality and science fiction has narrowed. One of the books I read during my travels in the Balkans was J. G. Ballard’s “High-Rise,” the tale of a London apartment building in which the white-collar residents slip into war against one another. It was sparked by a dispute over a loud party and led to primeval combat in which men urinated and defecated in corridors to mark their territory and smeared their naked chests with the blood of others they had killed. The book begins with these sentences: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months. Now that everything had returned to normal, he was surprised that there had been no obvious beginning, no point beyond which their lives had moved into a clearly more sinister dimension.” Although the passage comes from a book of science fiction, it is not entirely irrelevant to today’s America.
I was born in Los Angeles, and lived, until I left for college, fifteen minutes away (by car, the measure of distance in L.A.) from the sidewalk where Nicole Simpson’s throat was cut from ear to ear. I don’t know about the rest of America, but I know that Los Angeles is changing. Parts of it remain healthy, even vibrant, but other parts are rotting. You cannot jog along Ocean Avenue, which is on alovely bluff in Santa Monica overlooking the Pacific, without passing by a pile of rags that is, in fact, the sleeping body of a homeless man, and there are days when beaches are closed because raw sewage is washing onto the sand. This is a yuppie’s lament, but I am not looking for sympathy for myself, only for my hometown, which is different now, still containing greatness, but less of it, and less balance. A few years ago, a jury’s verdict in the Rodney King case set off a major riot. Does this mean we are slipping into a sinister dimension? No one knows for sure these days, and that’s what concerns me. The response of America’s leadership (Republican and Democratic) to the ravaging of Bosnia has not been reassuring; politicians who accommodate evil abroad are not particularly well suited to defend us from it at home.
I cannot deny that a residue of caution has stayed with me after the time I spent in Banja Luka, Sarajevo, Belgrade and Geneva; the darkness of men and governments was quite strong in those places, and it cannot be forgotten easily. I remember how Colonel Bob Stewart, the British commander in Vitez, said Bosnia changed him more than any other experience in his life, but he did not know what the changes were. I am beginning to sense the ways in which Bosnia changed me.
My parents, whose main concern was academics rather than religion, sent me to the best secondary school in Los Angeles, which happened to be an Episcopal school with mandatory chapel once a week. This was no problem for me, nor for the many other Jewish students. The chaplain, Father Gill, a history teacher and model-airplane fanatic, was beloved by all students, and you counted yourself lucky if you were placed in one of his courses. I even served as his altar boy on one occasion, an honor I could hardly refuse, nor wanted to. I slipped into a white cloak in the vestry and performed flawlessly until, at the end of the service, Father Gill offered me communion. I had reached a boundary that I knew I should not cross, so I politely shook my head from side to side, a silent no. I remember the way one of his eyebrows shot up in surprise before he carried on and offered communion to the next boy. He never mentioned it afterward, and I received an A in his history class.
I had no formal training in Judaism, and I felt that being Jewish never mattered much in America; I never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic in my presence, nor can I recall any instance in which being a Jew affected me academically or professionally. It seemed no more important than the color of my hair. After graduating from my Episcopal high school, I attended a Jesuit university, Georgetown, for two years; nobody cared, nobody asked, nobody whispered. I count this as a blessing, for I know, after living in Eastern Europe and reporting on Bosnia, that such things cannot be taken for granted by any minority group that has faced harassment through the ages. In Poland, for example, there is an amazing situation in which some Poles blame their economic problems on the Jews, even though, among Poland’s nearly 40 million citizens, only a few thousand are Jewish. Such is the incoherence of hatred that it can exist in the absence of those who are hated.
This is what I have taken so long to say on the question of changes: I am now more aware of the fragility of human relations, and more aware of what being a Jew can mean. I learned this from the Muslims of Bosnia, who made two fatal mistakes. They thought that being a minority group no longer mattered in civilized Europe, and they thought the wild beast had been tamed. They failed to realize that although a person might attach little importance to his religion, other people might take notice one day; and just because your society seems stable does not mean it will always be so. Muslims versus Christians, Jews versus non-Jews, whites versus blacks, poor versus rich–there are so many seams along which a society can be torn apart by the manipulators. These are the lessons of Bosnia that have stayed with me and, perhaps, altered me. The wild beast is out there, and the ground no longer feels so steady under my feet.
Copyright @ Peter Maass