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Book Review
Last Updated: 05/19/2004
Is it just madness?
Simon Stander

Some places like Sarajevo are apparently getting back to normal, but normality seems a long way off in the former Yugoslavia, especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Some victims who survived can still see their torturers walking around living “normal” lives but only say “I don’t know why this happened.” Some victims go far away and try to forget. Others like Adir, a Muslim and former judge, searches incessantly and compulsively for bodies. Others struggle against the memories and fend off the madness, often without success, and the effects of post-traumatic stress are everywhere to add to grotesque physical maiming. In Madness Invisible, Janine di Giovanni tells her story of reporting the wars there.


Janine di Giovanni, Madness Invisible: A Memoir of War, pp. 286 Bloomsbury  2004

Janine di Giovanni begins her book with a quote from Robert Capa: While shaving I had a conversation with myself about the incompatibility of being a reporter and hanging on to a tender soul at the same time.

 

No doubt MS Giovanni does consider herself a tender soul driven by some not quite worked out set of reasons to find war zones her natural habitat.

 

This book is hard to take with numerous accounts of death, torture, cruelty of all kinds and politicians riddled with self-interest, greed hunger for power or (just as bad) ineptitude, disinterest and ostrich mentalities.

 

There are few heroes in this book so the author cannot be accused of glorifying war. Even when we come across really brave men who stood their ground, we get a feeling that they were simply stubborn rather than brave. Here and there she tries to lay the blame, and at times, strangely, showing grudging admiration for the sheer determination of some of the worst offenders against human decency.

 

While she chastises the Serbs and their leaders more than others, she has harsh words for the Croat leadership. Muslims come out best but maybe only because they were in the weakest position throughout the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

 

War reporting and travelers in post-war situations have gathered momentum. Michael Ignatieff, Ryszard Kapuscinski, William Shawcross, Chris Hedges[i], the Guardian collective of reporters on Iraq and many others have added to the pile in the latest decade or so.  Do these eye-witnesses tell us something really fundamental about the root causes of war and the capacity of the human being to exert unspeakable hurt on their fellow man? Classical analysis has long since been on offer from Thomas Hobbes explanation for the need for a strong state to Freud s observation that (homo homini lupus[ii]) man is a wolf to man. Janine reports what she saw (less of what she really felt) and the book abounds in tales of horror, sometimes as one dreadful incident follows the next the book almost becomes unreadable.

 

Does she have explanations for this carnage?

 

The explanations come in the narrative: lust for power of the major players, pettiness of those who carried out the awful deeds. Personal grudges feature as a direct cause. So does another loose Freudian explanation, feelings of inferiority. The war, she says, was not about nationalism but about power. Does that help our understanding?

 

Some victims who survived can still see their torturers walking around living normal lives but only say I don t know why this happened. Some victims go far away and try to forget. Others like Adir, a Muslim and former judge, searches incessantly and compulsively for bodies. Others struggle against the memories and fend off the madness, often without success, and the effects of post-traumatic stress are everywhere to add to grotesque physical maiming.

 

Violence is seen as an end in itself for some like Arkan but for others it is a means to an end. Kill the males, rape the women and thus destroy the gene pool of the enemy. Violence, of all kinds, therefore, is both a means and an end.

 

One question of some importance is whether indicting the leadership as war criminals might help stop killing and gross abuses of human rights.

 

Di Giovanni quotes a Western Diplomat: Being an indicted war criminal is pretty lousy Karadzic spends his life running from place to place. Physically and emotionally, it s no way to live. Biljana Plasvic, the only woman to be indicted, for instance gave herself up. The charges against her were extensive (http://www.un.org/icty/indictment/english/pla-ii000407e.htm) but she was found guilty on the one charge she admitted, and is now languishing in a Swedish prison serving an eleven year sentence delivered to her when she was 72 in February 2003.

 

In the end  the author admits to having being wholly addicted to the wars in the former Yugoslavia. She quotes Martha Gellhorn who claimed that it was only possible to love one war. That in itself is strange terminology, but maybe that's what happens: war does become a strange act of love which brings us back to Freud who claimed eros and thanatos, the death wish, were inextricably entwined. There is a solution to war, he claimed: more civilization. We all look forward to that day when there is enough .



[ii] Freud in Civilization and its Discontents continues: as a rule this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation... In consequence of this primary mutual hostility of human beings, civilized society is perpetually threatened with disintegration It is clearly not easy for man to give up the satisfaction of this inclination to aggression.  They do not feel comfortable without it.

“I was born in the US, after lunch on a Friday, the seventh child of an Italian American mother and Italian father. It was a loving but utterly chaotic family. . I started writing because I lived so much in my own mind. . I became a journalist by default; writing was too lonely. I became a war correspondent because I met a human rights lawyer in Israel in 1987 who convinced me that I had an obligation to report on injustice. I fought against many obstacles to cover the Bosnian war. . I love my life. When I was young, I used to tell people I wanted to live, to have a really big life. I think I have what I asked for.” Janine di Giovanni - analyses her life - Brief Article in the New Statesman, May 14, 2001 talking to Natalie Brierley


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