What do canned beef and Susan Sontag have in common?
If I were so inclined, I think I could make a decent knee-slapper out of the question…They both have ornamental balls? I think that’s actually the punch line to a joke about a priest and a Christmas tree – in which case, you’re welcome. Alas, the answer is serious – or at least brings us to a serious subject, which is not quite the same thing. But before I tell you, let me first proffer some background on each of these subjects.
Let us begin with canned beef…
Canned beef isn’t known for being delicious. It contains more sodium than is recommended for any warm-blooded creature, and the texture is akin to wet dirt. It can be baked, fried, or, I suppose, eaten “as is”, which at least makes it a versatile thing. But it seems that its consumption is justifiable, or at least unavoidable, in but a few specific circumstances: namely, if you cannot afford, or do not have access to, fresh food or better-quality canned goods; if you are camping (not car-camping, but venturing into the woods for days on end); and, my personal favourite, if your country is at war and your city is under siege (in which case you may even get to eat the expired stuff to boot…delicious!).
To that last instance I could have added: if the international community turns its back on you. The reason for this addendum will become clear in a moment, but for now, Susan Sontag…
Susan Sontag, in some sense of the word, is known for being delicious – particularly if you take delicious to mean “flavourful.” Ms. Sontag, who died in 2004, had been a brave and active (some might say “salty”) opponent of lazy journalism and apologists for totalitarianism since before I was born. Incidentally, Kat just alerted me to an old Radiolab podcast about the search for the true story behind the world’s first documented war photograph. Apparently the picture had two disputed versions: one featuring a dramatic display of cannonballs strewn about, and one without. It just so happened that one of the featured “truth-seekers” was none other than Susan Sontag. She had written an essay on the authenticity of the two photographs, claiming that the less-dramatic, cannonball-free sample was the real one (this proved to be correct).
With introductions aside, in what context do Ms. Sontag and canned beef intersect? The answer is: Sarajevo.
Sarajevo is the capital and largest city of the now-independent state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. During the four years of conflict that erupted in the region between 1991 and 1995, the city was under siege for three of them. From 1945-1992, Bosnia was one of six republics comprising the Federal Socialist People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. Of all of the republics, it was the most multiethnic, consisting of large groups of Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks, as well as small populations of Jews and Gypsies (The media has often portrayed the region as being comprised of Muslims, Serbs, and Croats, thus downplaying the religious basis for the ensuing conflict. I will try not to mislead you in this way). Unable to stop a Bosnian declaration of independence, pro-Yugoslav Orthodox Serbs – located predominately in the north and east of the country – declared a state of their own and, with the help of Belgrade, began systematically “cleansing” their enclave of Bosnian Muslims. In the ensuing war, largely-Muslim Sarajevo was surrounded and bombarded from all sides; its citizens used for target practice from the hills above. At least 10,000 people were killed.
A visit to the beautiful capital is a heavy experience. Most of the bullet holes have been removed from buildings in tourist zones, but they are still visible in spots and are particularly evident if you take the time to visit the surrounding residential areas. Despite the clean up, Sarajevo has no intention of letting her visitors forget what happened. There are memorials everywhere. Some are conceptual, like the Sarajevo Roses – mortar craters filled with red paint to mark any place where more than three people were killed – and some more overtly solemn, as with the memorial for the thousand-plus children that died (the monument is made entirely of shell fragments).
To my mind, the most politically powerful tributes include a square in the centre of the city dedicated to Susan Sontag, and a massive replica of a can of beef located down the street. Sontag is honoured for her efforts in alerting the world to the city’s plight (she staged a production of Waiting for Godot in 1993 amid the siege) and for her part in lighting a fire under the generally spineless and politically-opportunistic ass of President Bill Clinton. The can of beef is dedicated to the international community for the outdated gruel (many claim that the dogs wouldn’t even partake) they contributed to the relief effort. They would have done just as well to commission a giant middle finger, though it might not have said “fuck you!” quite as well.
In addition to their sentimental value, these tributes serve to remind visitors of two nearly-catastrophic failings in the response to the Bosnian War: one a failure of morality and the other a failure of will. Susan Sontag Square embodies the former, because she was one of the few leftist writers who remained adamant about intervention in the face of much “liberal” opposition. I am obviously not the first to point this out, but it is often forgotten how much resistance there was to stopping the atrocities perpetrated against Bosnian Muslims by Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. If this piece were to reach the right eyes, there would undoubtedly be a flurry of masturbatory leftist rebuttals and/or realist excuses (it’s amazing how often the two coincide, if only by accident) about why intervention should not have taken place. But, when the smoke clears, the reality is this: there was an overwhelming number of “intellectuals”, from the right and left (but most deplorably from the morally-smug left) who were more wary of Western and/or international intervention than they were of another genocide taking place on European soil.
The failure of will comes in the form of those Western governments who preferred to frame the Balkan conflicts as civil wars within Yugoslavia and thus absolve themselves of any true responsibility. The United Nations was established after the Second World War (as was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), but this was its first post-Cold War mission. Rather than seize the opportunity to demonstrate clearly that it would not stand for such barbarism, it chose instead to quibble and delay and placate. The international community stood by while mothers pushing strollers were picked-off from the hills around Sarajevo; children were forced to go to school in basements for fear of walking outside; shells were launched randomly and mercilessly into the city on an ongoing basis; and, as I have already mentioned, the food was shit. When I arrived in Sarajevo, I was naively expecting genuine tributes to the United States and the international community (NATO eventually did come to the rescue). What I found were the putrid smells of too little and too late.
Probably the saddest part of visiting Bosnia is realizing how much of the recent bloodletting was done in vain. There is peace in the region this is true, but without genuine reconciliation the country will continue to exist as a “dry drunk”: divided and bitter just without the guns. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are so named because one depends on the other. In order to move forward, there must first be an acknowledgement of – if not an apology for – past wrongs (this goes for Bosnian Muslims as well).
In Sarajevo, Kat and I completed one of the best walking tours we have been on to date. Our intelligent and progressive guide was a graduate student in political science at the University of Sarajevo (not that this guarantees intelligence or progressiveness: the day before I had actually feared for my life when I joined another political science student at his home for tea and stupidly told him of my unequivocal support for gay rights and gay marriage) and offered some of the most vivid and heart-stabbing accounts of life as a child in a besieged Sarajevo. He was clear about his belief that Bosnia remains divided to the point of paralysis. Serbs rule the Republika Srpska in the north and east, and Bosniaks and Croats control the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the south and west. Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats each have their own leaders and their own political structures. There are essentially four different governments (not including provincial and municipal ones) operating simultaneously but rarely in concert – one for each of the three primary “ethnic” groups, and one for the country as a whole (Bosnia has an unemployment rate above 40% and more than 70% of those who do work reportedly do so for one government or another). Each has his own story, our guide told us. No one, it seems, wants to take responsibility for their actions, past or present.
To illustrate just how petty and obstructive the country’s divisions have become, one need only pick up a pack of cigarettes or gaze up at the flag flossing any government building. Consumer goods are required to have labels printed in three languages – Hrvatski, Bosanski, and Srpski – despite the fact that they are the SAME LANGUAGE (Serbo-Croatian). The bottom half of my box of Marlboros reads “Pusenje ubija” followed by “Pusenje ubija” and finally “Pusenje ubija.” The final line, in Srpski, is written in Cyrillic, but they are otherwise indistinguishable. We stayed with a friend from Banja Luka who spoke of how regional school boards have been fostering ethnic division and nationalism by adding new letters and different inflections to the hitherto standardized Serbo-Croatian alphabet – “Ask a Bosnian what language they speak,” he said, “if they say anything but Serbo-Croatian, you know they’re a nationalist.”
The process of creating the current Bosnian flag was a virtual exhibition in partisan stagnation. The Bosniak community initially wanted to use the flag of the ancient Kingdom of Bosnia, which contained a shield and several fleurs de lys, and, in their mind, symbolized a united land rather than any one ethnic or religious group. But Croats and Serbs were unconvinced, stating that the flag disproportionately represented Muslims. In the end, the task had to be delegated to the United Nations Special Representative. To ensure that the flag was neutral, a yellow isosceles triangle was used to represent the three major “ethnicities”, one point for each Bosnian “nation”; seven white, five-point stars (and two half-stars) line the triangle’s hypotenuse and are supposed to represent Europe; the royal-blue background is said to represent the United Nations; and yellow and blue are traditional Bosnian colours (It is interesting to note how much the European Union can actually play into the country’s ethnic politics. Despite insisting that aspiring members demonstrate their commitment to minority rights, it supported the design of a flag that emphasizes Bosnia’s three-pronged nature, thus leaving Jews, Gypsies, and other minority groups to squabble for the scraps). Even after all the trouble, the word on the street in Sarajevo is that few Bosnians choose to fly the new flag at football matches or other events that arouse national pride.
In the decade leading up to the advent of the European Union, it would have been hard not to detect a particularly Rousseauian logic on the continent. The consensus seemed to be that the path to peace and prosperity lay in the small homogenous state rather than the large multiethnic one. Perhaps to alleviate post-Cold War tensions, European countries were divided almost mitotically during this period: Slovakia for Slovaks, The Czech Republic for Czechs, Slovenia for Slovenes, Croatia for Croats, Serbia for Serbs, Kosovo for Kosovars, and so on. As regressive as this can seem to me as a Canadian, I suppose the complexity of European intra-national relations (and the instability of its “multiethnic” empires) may have warranted such fission. In any case, it seems that Bosnia and Herzegovina has drawn the worst of both hands: divided, yet unable to separate. At the very least the country should be able to agree on a new national motto: “three’s a crowd.”