A Story of War

By Peter Maass

Knopf. 205 pp. $25

THE WAR in Bosnia was rich with echoes of other wars. Those who argued that the West should long ago have lifted the Bosnian arms embargo and turned NATO's firepower on the Serbs drew the parallel to World War II, with Europe again appeasing the architects of genocide while a holocaust burned, this time in full view of TV cameras. Opponents of getting involved compared it to World War I, a conflagration begun in Sarajevo, by a Serb, that engulfed Europe.

For American journalists, however, reporting on Bosnia felt a lot like reporting on Vietnam. The parallels are not obvious -- there were no American troops there until this winter, for example -- but, from Sarajevo and Banja Luka, many reporters felt what their counterparts had felt 25 years before. At the start of a day that would be spent immersed in Serb (and, for a time, Croat) genocide against the Muslims, they attended official press conferences, at the United Nations' UNPROFOR headquarters or at peace talks in Geneva, where officials assured them no genocide was happening. Admitting that much would compel the UN, Europe or America to help the victims of genocide, and this was nobody's policy. So Lord David Owen, the chief mediator at the talks, repeatedly characterized the war as a civil war with provocations on all sides. When a mortar round left dozens dead in Sarajevo, the head of UNPROFOR would routinely announce that Bosnians should quit shelling themselves, or at least that he could not be sure which side was to blame. "Thankfully, we have not always been so circumspect, and did not demand, during World War II, that Winston Churchill provide proof that the bombs exploding in London were German rather than British," writes Peter Maass in Love Thy Neighbor.

Official denials of the inconvenient obvious were the Bosnian equivalent of the daily Saigon light-at-the-end-of-tunnel briefings that Michael Herr, in the hallucinatory and brilliant Dispatches, called "psychotic vaudeville." There were other echoes of Vietnam: Many American and European reporters began to feel that their governments were conspirators in a monstrous criminal act and that, no matter how much they described the horrors they saw, nothing changed. The difference was only that Vietnam was immoral because the great powers were involved, Bosnia because they weren't.

Peter Maass's book is far from the measured and objective account one would expect from a journalist who covered the war for The Washington Post. He has written a sardonic, passionate, searching, often surreal book that, like Dispatches, finds its bitter genius in the chasm between truth and official truth and the deadly implications of this gap. Love Thy Neighbor certainly does not lack for adventure. There is, for example, the morning when Maass awoke at 5:45 to the sound of incoming mortar shells and, after a few seconds of haze, remembered with horror that his hotel room was over a gas station. But the horror in Bosnia generally came not in battles but in ethnic cleansing's one-sided absence of battles. Maass's book does not have Dispatches' combat marathons, opium haze and Jim Morrison score, but Bosnia was not that kind of war. The strength of the book is its quiet, perfectly tuned epiphanies about the human urge for violence and the forces that allow it to be unleashed.

As his title suggests, Maass's central conundrum is how a seemingly civilized people can suddenly rape, torture and kill lifelong neighbors, students, colleagues and wives. One answer lies in Serb president Slobodan Milosevic's control of the media. "You must imagine a United States with every little TV station everywhere taking exactly the same editorial line -- a line dictated by David Duke," Milos Vasic, a reporter at the anti-government magazine Vreme in Belgrade, tells him. "You too would have war in five years." Maass's interviews with Serb officials are usually preceded by the ritual viewing of a videotape showing atrocities perpetrated on the Serbs throughout the years. "The message was Reaganesque in its simplicity," writes Maass. "The cruelties of the past awaited Serbs unless they were on the offensive and committed preemptive genocide. Twisted and sharp, the blade of history was lobotomizing them." But he saves his most acrid disdain for the American and European officials who appeased the perpetrators of genocide and tried to persuade the Bosnians to accept the Serbs' plan for the country's dismemberment; Maass calls these officials "executioners," comparing them to Mafia dons.

Finally, he quit. "I could not escape the war even in my sleep," Mass writes, "and I no longer believed that my reporting could make a difference." He was wrong about that. As in Vietnam, it did make a difference in the end -- and as in Vietnam, only after thousands more had died to achieve a result rejected years before. "The fruits of my labors were drifting into a realm of journalism that was known in the Bosnian press corps as horror porn' . . . . The agony of Bosnia was being turned into a snuff film. I couldn't see any wisdom in risking my life to help produce the final reel."

Tina Rosenberg won the 1995 National Book Award for nonfiction for "The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism." She is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School. CAPTION: A Croat soldier fighting the Muslims in Mostar in May, 1993.