Divide and Fall? Bosnia in the Annals of Partition

Document Actions
One of the best things to come out of the war in Kosovo is the bevy of current literature that provides accounts of the Yugoslav civil wars.

Radha Kumar

Reviewed by Joel Schalit

Monday, November 15 1999, 6:58 PM

One of the best things to come out of the war in Kosovo is the bevy of current literature that provides accounts of the Yugoslav civil wars. The most popular and hotly contested of these books is the well-timed Kosovo, by Noel Malcolm, which represents the first attempt to try and explain that long forgotten part of the former Yugoslavia's history to a non-academic, popular audience. However, another book of equal relevance came out a year or so before. Radha Kumar's more academic treatise, Divide and Fall? Bosnia in the Annals of Partition is the first effort to provide an accessible portrait of the West's intervention in the Bosnian civil war, and was recently released in paperback by Verso.

Unfortunately its author tries to do something much grander than that. Kumar wants to show how the West's involvement in Bosnia represents a revival of traditionally British-style colonial practices, the kind that contain ethnic conflicts by making world powers responsible for carrying out the partition process of ethnic division in a manner supposedly antithetical to the West's own democratic, multicultural values. In describing how Europe and the United States helped accomplish this in Bosnia, Kumar argues that the NATO alliance essentially finished carrying out what the instigators of the Bosnian civil war set out to do in the first place. The only difference is that it was supposedly done on the West's own terms rather than on those of the warring parties who initiated the conflict.

Kumar's analysis of how the West has done this in Bosnia is excellent, because it questions the value of foreign intervention in post-Cold War civil wars. What's the point of committing troops and money if nothing is really accomplished short of providing your armies with another opportunity for employment somewhere else other than at home? While not the only moral of Kumar's story, this question consistently hovers in the background throughout the book, but is never quite fully answered. Rather, it serves as an ideological backdrop which Kumar's historical reportage leaves one feeling pessimistic about. The problem is that such a controversial thesis deserves more space than she allows, so what we end up with is two separate books, one which chronicles and indicts the West's complicity in the fragmentation of Yugoslavia, and another which provides a historical sketch of the rise of post-Cold War imperialism.

While one can see the point Kumar is trying to make in developing a historical context for understanding how the West's bungled attempts at managing Yugoslavia's nationalist warring factions plays out in the greater scheme of colonial politics, Kumar's execution appears haphazardly put together, going from theory to history and back again. Such a narrative deserves to have been assembled a little better, because information of the kind that Kumar makes available puts NATO's moral justification for administering both Bosnia and Kosovo in an entirely different light. The sooner we assimilate such facts, the easier it will be for us to debate the morality of NATO intervention anywhere in the world, including the Balkans.

Nonetheless, Divide and Fall?'s information regarding the continuation of hostilities in Bosnia after the advent of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords is absolutely invaluable, especially if one is concerned with NATO's ability to turn Kosovo into a democratic, multiethnic society. According to Kumar, nothing of substantive political significance has been accomplished in Bosnia except for a forced cessation of all-out warfare under the trained sights of NATO's guns and the occasional arrest of not-so-important war crimes suspects. Democratic political institutions have still not been properly established due to one problem or another, nor have relations between Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox Serbs returned to their pre-civil war era of secular tranquility.

Despite this overwhelmingly depressing portrait, Kumar makes a rather upbeat prediction about the potential for peace in the Balkans in the last chapter of the book. Looking at how the British and the Irish have moved towards a permanent settlement in Northern Ireland, she predicts that the divide and partition ethos of contemporary Western colonialism will be usurped by the forces of better post-colonial planning, global capitalism and the emergence of local free market economies. Given how Kumar exhaustively recounts how badly the West has executed its responsibilities both in Bosnia, and before that in India-Pakistan, Israel-Palestine and Cyprus, such faith in an unseen hand of administrative and economic progress leaves one skeptical that there will ever be any end to the colonialism indicts in Divide and Fall?.

Divide and Fall? is published by Verso 

Copyright © 1999 by Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.

Personal tools