Mladic, Chomsky and Srebrenica: Time for an apology
By now the word that wanted war criminal Ratko Mladic has been arrested in Serbia has traveled around the globe. On the run for nearly 15 years, the former Bosnian Serb general accused of overseeing that massacre 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in July 1995 will face justice. But will the apologists for the violent Serbian expansion of the 1990s in the international community - the linguist and MIT professor Noam Chomsky chief among them - finally apologize to his many victims for seeking to scuttle their calls for justice all these years?
I first became aware of Chomsky's, shall we say rather unorthodox, views of the Bosnian conflict in connection with a campaign he and his supporters launched against the talented young British journalist Emma Brockes, whose October 2005 interview with Mr. Chomsky in The Guardian caused a great deal of controversy. Among other tough questions, it asked about Chomsky’s relationship with what The Times (UK) columnist Oliver Kamm quite accurately described as “some rather unsavoury elements who wrote about the Balkan wars in the 1990s.”
The furor at the time centered around Ms. Brockes confronting Chomky with the fact that he had lent his name to a letter praising the “outstanding” (Chomsky’s own words) work of a journalist called Diana Johnstone. Johnstone’s 2002 book Fools' Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions (Pluto Press), argues that the July 1995 killing of at least 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica was, in essence (directly quoting from her book), not a “part of a plan of genocide” and that “there is no evidence whatsoever” for such a charge. This despite the November 1995 indictment of Bosnian Serb leaders Mladic and Radovan Karadzic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for “genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war” stemming from that very episode and the later conviction by the same tribunal of a Bosnian Serb general of aiding and abetting genocide in Srebrenica.
Johnstone also states that no evidence exists that much more than 199 men and boys were killed there and that Srebrenica and other unfortunately misnamed 'safe areas' had in fact “served as Muslim military bases under UN protection.” In 2003, the Swedish magazine Ordfront published an interview with Johnstone where she reiterated these views. Chomsky was also among those who supported a campaign defending the right of a fringe magazine called Living Marxism to publish claims that footage the British television station ITN took in August 1992 at the Serb-run Trnopolje concentration camp in Bosnia was faked. ITN sued the magazine for libel and won, putting the magazine out of business, as Living Marxism could not produce a single witness who had seen the camps at first hand, whereas others who had - such as the journalist Ed Vulliamy - testified as to their horror.
In fact, as recently as April 25, 2006, in an interview with Radio Television of Serbia (a station formerly aligned with the murderous and now-deceased Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic), Chomsky stated, of the iconic, emaciated image of a Bosnian Muslim man named Fikret Alic, the following:
Chomsky: [I]f you look at the coverage [i.e. media coverage of earlier phases of the Balkan wars], for example there was one famous incident which has completely reshaped the Western opinion and that was the photograph of the thin man behind the barb-wire.
Interviewer: A fraudulent photograph, as it turned out.
Chomsky: You remember. The thin men behind the barb-wire so that was Auschwitz and 'we can't have Auschwitz again.'
In taking this position, Chomsky seemingly attempts to discredit the on-the-ground reporting of not only Mr. Vulliamy - whose reporting for the Guardian from the war in Bosnia won him the international reporter of the year award in 1993 and 1994 - but of other journalists such as Penny Marshall, Ian Williams and Roy Gutman. In fact, Vulliamy , who filed the first reports on the horrors of the Trnopolje camp and was there that day the ITN footage was filmed, wrote as follows in The Guardian in March 2000:
Living Marxism's attempts to re-write the history of the camps was motivated by the fact that in their heart of hearts, these people applauded those camps and sympathized with their cause and wished to see it triumph. That was the central and - in the final hour, the only - issue. Shame, then, on those fools, supporters of the pogrom, cynics and dilettantes who supported them, gave them credence and endorsed their vile enterprise.
In his interview with Brockes, Chomsky stated that "Ed Vulliamy is a very good journalist, but he happened to be caught up in a story which is probably not true."
In a November 2005 column, Marko Attila Hoare, a Senior Research Fellow at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Kingston (London), wrote thusly:
An open letter to Ordfront, signed by Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Arundhati Roy and others, stated: 'We regard Johnstone's Fools' Crusade as an outstanding work, dissenting from the mainstream view but doing so by an appeal to fact and reason, in a great tradition.' In his personal letter to Ordfront in defence of Johnstone, Chomsky wrote: 'I have known her for many years, have read the book, and feel that it is quite serious and important.' Chomsky makes no criticism here of Johnstone's massacre denial, or indeed anywhere else - except in the Brockes interview, which he has repudiated. Indeed, he endorses her revisionism: in response to Mikael van Reis's claim that 'She [Johnstone] insists that Serb atrocities - ethnic cleansing, torture camps, mass executions - are western propaganda', Chomsky replies that 'Johnstone argues - and, in fact, clearly demonstrates - that a good deal of what has been charged has no basis in fact, and much of it is pure fabrication.'
Pretty astounding stuff, huh? But, faced with a relentless campaign by Mr. Chomsky and his supporters The Guardian, to its eternal shame, pulled Brockes’ interview from its website and issued what can only be described as a groveling apology that did a great disservice not only to Ms Brockes herself, but also to former Guardian correspondent Vulliamy and all those journalists who actually risked their lives covering the Bosnian conflict, to say nothing of the victims of the conflict themselves.
The caving-in focused on three points, the chief of which appeared to be the headline used on the interview, which read: “Q: Do you regret supporting those who say the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated? A: My only regret is that I didn't do it strongly enough.”
Though this was a paraphrase rather than a literal quotation, the fact of the matter was that it did seem to accurately sum up the state of affairs: Chomsky had actively supported Johnstone, who in turn had claimed that the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated and not part of a campaign of genocide. The Guardian brouhaha prompted, Kemal Pervanic, author of The Killing Days: My Journey Through the Bosnia War, and a survivor of the Omarska concentration camp, to write that “If Srebrenica has been a lie, then all the other Bosnian-Serb nationalists' crimes in the three years before Srebrenica must be false too. Mr Chomsky has the audacity to claim that Living Marxism was "probably right" to claim the pictures ITN took on that fateful August afternoon in 1992 - a visit which has made it possible for me to be writing this letter 13 years later - were false. This is an insult not only to those who saved my life, but to survivors like myself.”
Chomsky complained about that, too, forcing The Guardian to write in its apology that, ignoring the fact that it was Chomsky’s characterization of the Serb-run camps that seemed to outrage Pervanic the most, “Prof Chomsky believes that publication (of Pervanic’s letter) was designed to undermine his position, and addressed a part of the interview which was false…With hindsight it is acknowledged that the juxtaposition has exacerbated Prof Chomsky's complaint and that is regretted.”
So Emma Brockes (whom I have never met), in this instance, at least, was silenced.
But the history of what happened in the Balkan wars should not be so easily silenced and re-written. With Ratko Mladic, predator and killer, now in custody, Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Arundhati Roy and the others who have sought to deny justice to the victims of Bosnia's killing fields should apologize to those victims for working so long to make the justice they sought less, not more, likely.