Many years ago Norman Finkelstein wrote of how in America writers signal their shift to the right with an attack on Noam Chomsky. It is, he argued, a right of passage for the clapped out radical. One wonders now with George Monbiot. Have the sloppy comforts of middle age become too enticing for him too? Is his recent attack on Edward S. Herman, a close friend and collaborator of Chomsky’s, an aberration, linked to a political culture extreme in its views on the Yugoslavian civil war, or is it the moment when he begins that interminable journey into willful fantasy and reflexive abuse?
Granted, only the men of military age were systematically massacred, but it is significant that these massacres occurred at a time when the forcible transfer of the rest of the Bosnian Muslim population was well under way. The Bosnian Serb forces could not have failed to know, by the time they decided to kill all the men, that this selective destruction of the group would have a lasting impact upon the entire group. Their death precluded any effective attempt by the Bosnian Muslims to recapture the territory. Furthermore, the Bosnian Serb forces had to be aware of the catastrophic impact that the disappearance of two or three generations of men would have on the survival of a traditionally patriarchal society, an impact the Chamber has previously described in detail. The Bosnian Serb forces knew, by the time they decided to kill all of the military aged men, that the combination of those killings with the forcible transfer of the women, children and elderly would inevitably result in the physical disappearance of the Bosnian Muslim population at Srebrenica. Intent by the Bosnian Serb forces to target the Bosnian Muslims of Srebrenica as a group is further evidenced by their destroying homes of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica and Poto~ari and the principal mosque in Srebrenica soon after the attack. (International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of Former Yugoslavia since 1991)
In his original article Monbiot attacks Herman, and his co-author David Peterson, for genocide denial. He quotes a phrase from this passage as an example of their unreliability with sources – if they get this wrong they cannot be trusted; thus all those references to back up a detailed analysis are, implicitly, condemned as fraudulent. So let us see what he does with this quote.
He summarises their position in the main body of the article:
Last year, with David Peterson, he published a book called The Politics of Genocide(18). Mis-citing a tribunal judgement, he maintains that the Serb forces “incontestably had not killed any but ‘Bosnian Muslim men of military age’.”(19)
And “demolishes” it in a footnote:
In fact the judgement says that “only the men of military age were systematically massacred” (para 595).
Can you spot the difference? Herman and Peterson couldn’t.
My first thought when I read paragraph 595 was that Monbiot was lazy: his critical intelligence suffering from middle age spread. But it is more than this. That first phrase appears in a sentence that makes a distinction between a “systematic massacre” and the forcible transfer of the rest of the population. This is hard to miss, even for those addicted to the remote control and the TV dinner; so intellectual sloth cannot be the only reason.
The Bosnian Serb forces knew, by the time they decided to kill all of the military aged men, that the combination of those killings with the forcible transfer of the women, children and elderly would inevitably result in the physical disappearance of the Bosnian Muslim population at Srebrenica.
This is describing the brutality of war and ethnic cleansing: potential soldiers killed and the rest of the population forced out. Herman and Peterson’s quoted remarks are a paraphrase of the ICTY, and seem accurate – although their “any” probably goes too far.[i] It is Monbiot that distorts what he believes is the clinching source. He is relying on his readers trusting him to be right. Even the curious would probably stop at that first phrase, obvious proof that he has shown the authors’ duplicity.
He begins his attack on Herman (Peterson tends to float in and out of his sentences) by rubbishing his view that the number of dead is lower than the conventional one. This is what Herman actually writes:
With 8,000 allegedly executed and many killed in fighting, there should have been huge gravesites and imagery-intelligence in the form of satellite and aerial photographs of the executions, the burials, and any exhumations and reburials. But the body searches in the vicinity of Srebrenica fell far short of predictions, with only some 2,570 bodies found in searches through 2003,including bodies killed in action and possibly Serb bodies, some pre-dating July 1995. The sparseness of these findings impelled the Prosecution at the ICTY to resort to claims of large-scale body removal and reburial, but this was implausible and lacked any evidential support. This was the period when NATO was bombing Serb positions and the Croat and Muslim armies were driving towards Banja Luka in Serb-controlled territory. The BSA was on the defensive and was extremely short of equipment and resources, including fuel for its vehicles. To have mounted an operation of the magnitude required to exhume, transport, and rebury thousands of corpses would have been beyond the BSA’s capacity at that time. Furthermore, in carrying out such an operation, they could hardly hope to escape observation from OSCE personnel, local civilians, and imagery-intelligence.
It maintains that the Serb forces’ reburial of Bosnian corpses is “implausible and lack[s] any evidential support” (an astonishing statement in view of the ICMP’s findings).
Notice the nuances of Herman’s argument and Monbiot’s reduction, which falsifies the statement. The figure Herman is quoting, of 2,570 bodies found in searches as of 2003, is the same as Dean Manning’s testimony to the ICTY. This includes references to local reburials – of body parts distributed between primary mass graves and smaller secondary graves. The ICMP seems to agree on this point:
In many cases, the bodies of Srebrenica victims were broken apart when heavy machinery was used by the perpetrators to dig up the mass graves and rebury the bodies in smaller secondary mass graves in an effort to hide the evidence of their crimes (As of 2006 according to the ICMP there were 7,789 victims of which 2,636 have been identified. My emphasis)
In a 2009 report the ICMP writes:
In many cases the perpetrators of Srebrenica removed mortal remains from one ‘primary’ mass grave and hid them in multiple sites in an attempt to conceal evidence of war crimes, thus leaving a trail of disarticulated skeletal remains, whereby body-parts of the same person can be found in different sites. In one case, ICMP identified a man missing from the fall of Srebrenica whose remains were found in four different mass graves two of which were 20 km from the other two locations. (My emphasis. In this report of 2009 the ICMP identifies 6,186 missing, and estimate a total of 8,100 victims. Though note, in the three years since the first report the number of reported victims has declined by nearly 1,700.)
This latter quote seems to bear out Herman’s assertion about the implausibility of mass transfer of dead bodies to other parts of the country. Of course, there is a discrepancy between the figures quoted by the ICTY and the ongoing findings of the ICMP. However, even here we must be careful, as the ICMP is discussing missing persons and bodies found in the ground; Herman the allegation that 8000 were executed. These are two quite separate things, which Monbiot nicely conflates, to confuse us all.
We also must remember that Herman is discussing something quite specific: the ideological use of Srebrenica by Western governments and its media. This is reflected in his analysis, directed at the reasoning of the ICTY; and their attempts to account for the shortfall in numbers executed, at the time of the Milosevic trial. This is a separate question as to how many are now known to have died – executed and by other means; a distinction made in Paul Manning’s witness statement, but not in the ICPM’s reports on their website; the ones journalists seem to be quoting. Thus if the ICMP were to show that the numbers cited by the western governments turned out to be true, even though at the time those allegations were based on little or no evidence, the conclusion of press bias and ideological blindness would still be accurate. The criticism of Herman would then be that is original critique is correct, but that he hasn’t modified is overall assessment of the conflict in light of the new evidence. This would be a fair criticism, if it is indeed correct, but one could counter that he is not writing history, only concentrating on the biases of the western presentation of the conflict.
Monbiot begins his attack on Herman thus,
…best known for co-authoring Manufacturing Consent with Noam Chomsky, [he] published a new book called The Srebrenica Massacre. It claims that the 8,000 deaths at Srebrenica are “an unsupportable exaggeration. The true figure may be closer to 800.”
It is true that the book contains this phrase – in the forward by Philip Corwin. In the strictest sense Monbiot’s assertion is true. Although it would have been nice if he had made the distinction between the two authors. However, Monbiot is not satisfied with this sleight of hand, he also resorts to outright distortion:
At the same time, the facts presented in this volume make a very cogent argument that the figure of 8,000 killed, which is often bandied about in the international community, is an unsupportable exaggeration. The true figure may be closer to 800. (Philip Corwin. My emphasis)
The distinction between overall deaths, from a variety of sources – mostly war related – and the systematic execution is what Herman, and I assume Corwin, is writing about.[ii] 8,000 dead in a war zone is terrible but not that many in relative terms. However, 8,000 executed is another story altogether; and is what the case for genocide is built on. It was the basis of Blair’s faith in Humanitarian Intervention:
The principle of non-interference must be qualified in important respects. Acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter. (Quoted in David Marquand’s Britain Since 1918)
Ethnic cleansing is brutal and ugly, but as we see in Iraq, after the American invasion, and Turkey, at about the same as the Balkan Wars, and in Europe after World War II, this does not result in calls for military attacks against the perpetrators. Escalate this brutality to genocide and then the demands for action become intense; and they can warrant military strikes. This may account for, to this writer at least, the curious heat that the discussion about Srebrenica produces. It appears inextricably linked to the faith of much left-liberal opinion in Humanitarian Intervention, and its foundation on claims of genocide. Like all “hot’ faiths it suggests an element of conscious doubt.
Like Karadzic, the book claims that the market massacres in Sarajevo were carried out by Bosnian Muslim provocateurs.
Tony Blair believed Saddam Hussein was a monster. He was right. Given Blair’s atrocious human rights record should we therefore discount his opinion? If we accept this quote uncritically Saddam Hussein cannot be a monster because Mr Blair, who Monbiot believes is a war criminal, said so. Of course, these remarks are nothing more than a smear. Herman’s assertion may be factually incorrect, but this needs to be argued.
It insists that the witnesses to the killings are “not credible” and suggests that the Bosnian Muslim soldiers retreated from Srebrenica to ensure that more Bosnians were killed, in order to provoke US intervention.
Again Monbiot isn’t quite accurate with his summary. This is what Herman actually wrote:
There were witnesses to killings at Srebrenica, or those who claimed to be witnesses. But there were not many of these, and some had a political axe to grind or were otherwise not credible.
He then goes on to discuss one such witness, Drazen Erdemovic, explaining why he thinks he is unreliable. Monbiot doesn’t bother arguing the second point. Clearly for him such an accusation is absurd. All he needs to do is the mock horror show in the footnote:
This is such an astonishing claim that, in case you don’t believe Herman could really have made it, I reproduce it here in full (page 284):
Bosnian Muslim officials have claimed that their wartime president, Alija Izetbegovic, told them that Bill Clinton had advised him that direct U.S. military intervention could occur only if the Serbs killed at least 5,000 at Srebrenica.27 The abandonment of Srebrenica prior to July 11, 1995 by an armed Bosnian Muslim force much larger numerically than that of the Bosnian Serb attackers, and the retreat that made that larger force vulnerable and caused it to suffer heavy casualties in fighting and vengeance executions, helped produce deaths that, once their actual number was inflated, would not only meet but surpass the Clinton threshold. There is other evidence that the retreat from Srebrenica was not based on any military necessity, but was strategic, with the personnel losses incurred regarded as a necessary sacrifice for a larger purpose.”
Here are the references Herman gives:
“27: See Kofi Annan et al., The Fall of Srebrenica (A/54/549), Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to General Assembly resolution 53/35, November 15, 1999,. As this document reports: “Some surviving members of the Srebrenica delegation have stated that President Izetbegovic also told them [in 1993] he had learned that a NATO intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina was possible, but could only occur if the Serbs were to break into Srebrenica, killing at least 5,000 of its people. President Izetbegovic has flatly denied making such a statement” (para. 115). Also see above, George Bogdanich, Ch. 7, “UN Report on Srebrenica—A Distorted Picture of Events.”
28 See above, Bogdanich, Ch. 2, “Prelude to the Capture of Srebrenica.”
It is an astonishing claim. However, it is recorded in a UN report; not some newssheet from a Serb nationalist. Herman is only repeating what a Bosnian delegation has stated; using this, together with evidence from other sources, to suggest a possible explanation for what happened in Srebrenica. Both they and he could be wrong, but surely we should investigate it a little more before dismissing it out of hand. Does Monbiot think that Izetbegovic’s denial is enough to prove the allegation preposterous? He must already be close to the portals of power to believe the statements of leaders without external verification. On the following page Herman cites other testimony:
As British Lt.-Col. Jim Baxter, assistant to UN Commander Rupert Smith, told Tim Ripley, “They [the Bosnian government] knew what was happening in Srebrenica. I am certain they decided it was worth the sacrifice.”
In the same section he quotes Bernard Kouchner, Newsday’s Roy Gutman, and ABC’s Peter Jennings, to confirm that Izetbegovic admitted to exaggerating atrocities, and that
There were no extermination camps whatever the horror of those places,” and added that “[he] thought that [his] revelations could precipitate bombing [of the Bosnian Serbs].
Maybe Herman is quoting incorrectly; though I suspect if he is Monbiot would have told us.
Tell people something they already know and they will thank you for it. Tell people something new and they will hate you for it. (Sometimes quoted on George Monbiot’s website).
His own reaction seems a perfect illustration of clearly a favourite phrase. He doesn’t argue with Herman’s analysis; he merely simplifies it, asking us to compare it with what we already know; which must surely be correct, the conventional wisdom tells us so. If I was to trust Monbiot, and after all he does right for the guardian and has a good reputation as an establishment critic, and if I knew nothing of Herman’s work, I would assume that he must be right, and we are dealing with a crank. The beauty of such a technique: it relies on our ignorance and lack of curiosity. But Monbiot knows more than this. He probably knows more about Herman than I do. There is only one conclusion to draw: he is playing with us; exercising the privileges of a well-known columnist; and the power that it gives him. [iii]
I know little about the wars in the former Yugoslavia; outside of the mainstream press coverage, which I didn’t follow that closely. Generally, if I think about it, I accepted the standard position, and was skeptical of the criticisms from the left; the latter almost certainly the reason I didn’t look any further. Deep down I thought they might be biased. A big but obvious mistake to make, for experience shows the more a subject is studied the more likely the media’s portrayal will be exposed as overly simplistic; and often crudely biased. The value of Edward S. Herman, and the few like him, is that he forces us to think a little more deeply about these issues. Maybe he is wrong, and if I research the subject I will come to disagree with him. At the present time of writing I simply don’t know – I haven’t enough knowledge. Just like George Monbiot, in fact.
Worse still, he places the Rwandan genocide in inverted commas throughout the text and maintains that “the great majority of deaths were Hutu, with some estimates as high as two million”, and that the story of 800,000 “largely Tutsi deaths” caused by genocide “appears to have no basis in any facts”. It’s as straightforward an instance of revisionism as I’ve ever seen, comparable in this case only to the claims of the genocidaires themselves.
Until I read those words I had simply accepted the conventional narrative. Then I read some of Herman’s work on this topic. Afterwards I looked up one of his sources:
The concentrated evil of the methodical Hutu slaughter of Tutsis in 1994 is widely known. For many it has long been understood as a grim, if fairly simple, morality play: the Hutus were extremist killers, while the Tutsis of the RPF are portrayed as avenging angels, who swooped in from their bases in Uganda to stop the genocide. But Lemarchand and Prunier show that the story was far more complicated. They both depict the forces of Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front as steely, power-driven killers themselves.
“When the genocide did start, saving Tutsi civilians was not a priority,” Prunier writes. “Worse, one of the most questionable of the RPF ideologues coolly declared in September 1994 that the ‘interior’ Tutsi”—those who had remained in Rwanda and not gone into exile in Uganda years earlier—”deserved what happened to them ‘because they did not want to flee as they were getting rich doing business’” with the former Hutu regime. He also notes that the RPF “unambiguously opposed” all talk of a foreign intervention, however unlikely, to stop the genocide, apparently because such intervention could have prevented Kagame from taking full power.
Moreover, slaughter during the one hundred days of genocide was not the monopoly of the Hutus, as is widely believed. Both Lemarchand and Prunier recount the work of RPF teams that roamed the countryside methodically exterminating ordinary, unarmed Hutu villagers.4 This sort of killing, rarely mentioned in press accounts of the genocide, continued well after the war was over. For example, on April 22, 1995, units of the new national army surrounded the Kibeho refugee camp in south Rwanda, where about 150,000 Hutu refugees stood huddled shoulder to shoulder, and opened fire on the crowd with rifles and with 60mm mortars.5 According to Prunier, a thirty- two-member team of the Australian Medical Corps had counted 4,200 corpses at the camp before being stopped by the Rwandan army. Prunier calls the Kagame regime’s use of violence in that period “something that resembles neither the genocide nor uncontrolled revenge killings, but rather a policy of political control through terror.” (Howard French, Kagame’s Hidden War in the Congo)
This is from possibly the most liberal journal in America: The New York Review of Books. Again Herman has suggested new lines of enquiry. If we are curious we will investigate them, and draw our own conclusions. Who knows what they will be. Clearly, this is something Monbiot doesn’t want us to do. Much better to draw the simple moral, to sate our interest:
…both groups then take the unwarranted step of belittling the acts of genocide committed by opponents of the western powers. The rest of us should stand up for the victims, whoever they are, and confront those trying to make them disappear.
It is revealing that he links the murders in Srebrenica with the massacres in Rwanda. He equates them both as genocide. Let us assume 8,000 men were executed in Srebrenica, does this really merit such a comparison with what happened in Rwanda? Let us also assume the received wisdom on that country is correct. In that case we are comparing 8,000 military aged men murdered in a war zone with the slaughter of 800,000 in one ethnic group. A single European life for 100 Africans. Isn’t there something wrong here? What scale of values does it suggest? The reflexive nature of the comparison is also surely telling. In his introduction to Herman and Peterson’s book Chomsky comments on the inflation of the term genocide; the term increasingly used in an ideological sense, to demonise our opponents.[iv] Geoffrey Nice, a prosecutor at the ICTY, appears to agree:
Another problem Armatta and anyone else writing about the Milosevic trial faces is that there was little that was truly exceptional about the men who landed up in The Hague to be tried for war crimes; nor, however ghastly, were their crimes all that extraordinary. There’s no point demonising Milosevic as the ‘Butcher of the Balkans’: a tabloid description that appears on the back cover of Armatta’s book – it adds nothing to our understanding of situations in which politicians can mobilise the worst instincts of their countrymen without seeming to have any sense of their own guilt or responsibility. (My emphasis)
The ICTY is also in the business of genocide denial it seems, if we follow the logic of Monbiot’s later argument – he attacked Media Lens for supporting Peterson’s and Herman’s right to question the figures of Srebenica, he called it their “SUPPORT for genocide denial.” Everyone it appears is guilty; perhaps even Monbiot himself, who quoted the ICTY as supporting evidence in his original article. For isn’t he, if we follow him and take his argument to beyond its logical limit, tainted by his source?
[i] In Dean Manning’s witness statement that Herman quotes, and which seems to justify his figures – 1,955 probably executed - it mentions a wide age range from 12 to 75.
[ii] In the following paragraph Corwin uses deaths rather killed. This does suggest some ambiguity.
[iii] One privilege is to deny the right of response. The Media Lens Message Board is one of the few places that appears concerned about this quite serious affair: to call someone a genocide denier is remove their humanity; condemning them to institutional silence. Such charges need strong evidence indeed. Something Monbiot has not done here. He reminds me of the Soviet Commissars and they nasty attacks on dissidents and undesirables; completely risk free from their offices in the establishment they banished their opponents from polite society. For some examples of their style in the 1950s see my Clowns in Charge.
[iv] It is the ideological use of the term genocide that is in quotation marks, and to which Monbiot refers.