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The Mascara of War

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, August 6, 2004; Page C03


War Criminals on Trial in the Hague

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By Slavenka Drakulic

Viking. 207 pp. $22.95

This book is for people who already know a good deal about what they're reading. The first paragraph sets up some of the basic confusions for those not yet in the know: "Once upon a time, in a faraway part of Europe, behind seven mountains and seven rivers, there was a beautiful country called Yugoslavia.

"Its people belonged to six nations, and they were of three different religions and spoke three different languages. They were Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, Macedonians, Montenegrins, and Muslims, yet they all worked together, went to school together, married each other, and lived in relative harmony for forty-five years. But because it is not a fairy tale, the story of this beautiful country has no happy ending."

To a person who does not know the particulars, that paragraph looks like a trick question on an SAT exam.

1) Does living under a communist dictatorship constitute living in "a fairy tale"?

2) Identify the three faiths practiced by the people. Then name the three languages.

3) Although six groups are listed above, one of them is not a nation. Name it, and explain why.

Because the author, Slavenka Drakulic, hails from Croatia and grew up under the communist regime, she knows this material inside and out. But many of us who didn't, don't. I looked up the Balkans in my old but serviceable atlas and found the information inadequate. I then bought the best atlas that money can buy, and still found myself confused. After reading "They Would Never Hurt a Fly" twice, I can say that this book is about the trials of Serbian war criminals after the civil war in the '90s, after Marshal Tito had died and various bureaucrats scrambled for power, leaving communism behind and taking up the tattered banner of nationalism as their dubious standard.

Slovenia seceded first, with relatively little problem. Slobodan Milosevic, legally elected president of Serbia three times, then decided to make himself dictator of Serbia and, if I read Drakulic correctly, to "rescue" Croatian Serbs and Bosnian Serbs. Civil war erupted, all hell broke loose, and Susan Sontag did her part for the war effort by producing "Waiting for Godot" in, as I remember, Sarajevo.

Again, according to Slavenka Drakulic, 7,000 unarmed Muslim men were executed in Srebrenica, Bosnia, and 30,000 women and children deported. By the end of the war, 200,000 people were dead. In 1999 NATO bombed Milosevic into submission. The war was over, sort of. It was decided (and this is a perfect place to use the passive voice) to hold war crime trials in the Hague. Better there, certainly, than in the Balkans, where the Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians, etc. tended to take the position that they had all been in the right, fighting "just" wars -- and weren't rape, murder, looting and pillage part of the game (i. e., war) they were playing? You don't play baseball without bats.

The author sat through several of these trials, trying, in the great tradition of Hannah Arendt when she observed the Nazi trials, to make sense of what happened and to define the nature -- and the banality -- of evil.

But Slavenka Drakulic is no Hannah Arendt. Watching the wife of Milosevic being interviewed on television, Drakulic tells us that "she looks so far from stylish or even tasteful. Perhaps she is not aware of how old-fashioned she looks, or perhaps she doesn't care. But I can't help wondering why she chooses to dye her hair so black and wear it in a style that looks more like a helmet or a wig than a hairdo? The severe color only hardens her face and makes her wrinkles look deeper.

"She can read in any women's magazine that strong, dark colors make you look older and that the older a woman becomes, the lighter she should color her hair." Strong words, Slavenka! But I suppose civil war permits incivility.

Later, the author describes Serbia's number one female war criminal, Biljana Plavsic, as looking "very good for her age . . . she uses very little makeup, only some mascara for her eyelashes and discreet lipstick. Pastel or jewel-toned outfits are her usual form of dress, her trademarks."

As for evil? "It seems to me that brutality in war is more the norm than the exception, and [has] more to do with circumstances than with character." She's saying that evil in men is ordinary, and that there are no "monsters." How's this for an even simpler explanation: Men carry an itchy gene (nine out of 10 murders in America are committed by men). Sometimes they get riled up. As an American I've been called upon in my life to think of Japanese, Germans, Italians, Russians, North Koreans, North Vietnamese, Iraqis (and all their ilk) as the Devil incarnate. And I can't even repeat what my southern dad thought of the odious Yankee. Men get riled up. And then, miraculously, they get over it. Slavenka Drakulic doesn't even begin to get to the beginning of an explanation of why this is so.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company