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Book reviews. Yugoslavia: An Avoidable War
Yugoslavia: An Avoidable WarNora BeloffNew European PublicationsLondon1997146 pp.ISBN 1-872410-08-1
Nora Beloff wrote this book, her swan song, under the most trying and desperate of personal circumstances when her health had begun to fail and she was enduring unpleasant treatment. It is a testament to her memory and to her commitment to the pursuit of truth. It was published largely at her own expense, posthumously, in response to what she perceived as a reluctance in the West to hear a view that challenged the prevailing beliefs in the international community about the origins of a war which she believed was avoidable. A reputation for being controversial and contentious will not be diminished by this last book which undeniably challenges many of the accepted views that determined international policy and intervention in the former Yugoslavia. These views she feels were formed by politicians who were inadequately informed of the historical context in which this conflict has to be placed and who were excessively influenced by partisan reporting by image makers in television whose images created a general impression of good against evil ... the Serbs being the bad guys with expansionist aspirations. Given the troubled history of the Balkans it is tempting to say that this was a conflict waiting to happen, and rather than being avoidable, was almost inevitable. The argument for the war being avoidable contradicts the generally accepted thesis that Yugoslavia collapsed from within as a direct result of Serb agitation. Beloff argues that errors of judgement by Western governments in the recognition of new statelets (without first securing minority rights) in which many Serbs would have become a vulnerable minority and foreigners in what they regarded as their own country was a catalyst for the ensuing civil war. This view became more accepted as the conflict progressed with the diplomats becoming more familiar with the issues and is perhaps no longer as controversial as the second argument for avoidance of conflict.
The second argument challenges the politically correct view of multi-ethnic co-existence being a moral imperative that must be imposed in Yugoslavia and dictated international policy. Beloff believes that the human condition has an innate need to be distinct and separate. Recognition of this, with a geographical division that recognised the separate ethnic identities, could have been sufficient to avoid the subsequent bloodshed. Indeed the UN were offered the opportunity to administer what amounts to ethnic separation but turned the opportunity down as it was against their philosophy. History will judge whether this pragmatic solution was a crucial error that made civil war inevitable. It is salutary to see how the subsequent peace reflects her argument.
In no way condoning war, indeed being horrified by the atrocities that were perpetrated by all sides, Beloff argues most cogently that the political rationale for conflict and the subsequent actions and conduct of the protagonists are almost mutually exclusive. This is an argument that field people could not adopt because of their proximity and direct influence. A sound political rationale does not excuse atrocity but perhaps explains it as the Serbs were placed in the position of having to defend their very existence. The fact that they and the others behaved badly in battle does not negate the rationale for the conflict and begs the question, is all fair in love and war? A highly debatable point but wars have never been fought with Queensberry Rules.
There are large substantive variations in the numbers of people killed between Beloff's figures and those of other writers on the subject. The international investigators will hopefully, literally as well as metaphorically, uncover the truth that this book seeks to further.