In Bosnia, the war was massively obscene, grotesquely intimate. In Washington, it was an issue to be worked, a moral choice to be sidestepped. For a time, a junior State Department official tried to close the gap. Time would diminish the act, and the actor, but there was a moment of rare clarity in the conduct of the Bosnian war. It came in August 1992, from a junior State Department official whose resignation on principle and plea for action poked a sharp stick in the side of a passive White House, and illuminated the heart of a confusing and murderous war. It seemed as bracing, and as necessary, as a smack to the face of a soldier stalling on the edge of battle.

George Kenney, a 35-year-old desk officer with a premature paunch, bright blue eyes and a paintbrush mustache that gave him the look of a querulous Captain Kangaroo, waited until late on a hot August Sunday afternoon to make his stand. Leave on a Sunday, you take them by surprise. Leave on a Monday, your bosses can explain away your departure. So on August 23, 1992, he borrowed his father's blue Buick and drove down from Chevy Chase to pack up his things.

Into a mail room cart went the mementos of his four-year Foreign Service career -- a small silk rug, an African mask from his posting in Zaire, his cigars. He scribbled out a brief note to his boss, promising a longer explanation later.

"I can no longer in clear conscience support the administration's ineffective, indeed counterproductive, handling of the Yugoslav crisis," he would write in his formal letter. "I am therefore resigning in order to help develop a stronger public consensus that the U.S. must act immediately to stop the genocide in Bosnia and prevent this conflict from spreading throughout the Balkans."

Genocide. There, he had said it. In plain English. Genocide. Not "casualties," not "combatants," not "participants," not "the parties" to "the conflict." None of the bloodless, diplomatic language the State Department had been using to describe the mayhem that had broken out four months earlier when nationalist Bosnian Serbs in the Sarajevo Holiday Inn opened fire on a peace demonstration.

Genocide. The soft, insinuating "g." "Gen" from the Greek genos for race, a people. Or as in genuflect, as in kneeling, as in humiliation, as in doing what you are told, at gunpoint, waiting to die.

Followed by "no" -- a cry, a plea. The slippery "c" of "cide." Like the floor of the white house on the side of the road from Kozarac, the Bosnian Muslim village where, in May of 1992, Bosnian Serb irregulars supported by Yugoslav army tanks stood on a balcony, after four days of uninterrupted shelling, and separated men and boys from the columns of civilians shuffling past. And pulled out anyone they saw as potential leaders in a newly independent Bosnian state. So the lawyers and engineers, the doctors and politicians were shoved into the white house, where their throats were cut, and where the walls and the floors and the sinks grew slick with blood.

Just a few days, just one town, as the Bosnian Serb army carried out its campaign of expulsion and mass murder against the Bosnian Muslims, creating 750,000 refugees and tens of thousands of corpses.

"I can no longer in clear conscience . . ."

Conscience. How unusual. How startling. How . . . quaint! Who ever resigns in Washington anyway? How many? A capital parlor game! Let's see.

Elliot Richardson. Um. Elliot Richardson. Bernard Kalb, over Libya. Who else? Cyrus Vance over . . . who can remember? And in the Nixon years, hadn't there been a cluster of young foreign policy officials who quietly resigned over Cambodia?

So much easier to think of who didn't. The Robert McNamaras. Staying on and then, years later, writing bestsellers to preempt the judgment of history.

Bomb the Serbs, said George Kenney. Arm the Bosnian Muslims.

So unlike official Washington, the realm of cool, cordial schemers. A city-state that plans wars but does not fight them, and where policy positions are shown off on Sunday talk shows but shed long before they threaten a career, much less cost a job.

Reporters gathered to inspect the bureaucratic curiosity. Photographers snapped his picture. Bureaucrats all over Washington, and especially inside the State Department, speculated on his motives. Who was George Kenney? This minor State Department figure emblazoned on the front pages, taking the Bush administration to task. And what was he up to anyway? Was he grandstanding? Or worse, for an aspiring Washington player, was he naive?

It didn't matter at first.

Kenney was greeted as a hero by those who believed the United States had a moral responsibility and a strategic interest in bombing the Serb army's gun positions and stopping the killing. In the brief flare of celebrity, he personalized what to many Americans was still an incomprehensible war in a distant corner of Europe. If his resignation did not change U.S. policy, it turned up the heat, and ripped a hole in the Bush administration's facade of policy unity.

His decisiveness, his nerve, was a mocking counterpoint to the traveling circus of diplomats, Eurocrats and United Nations pooh-bahs gathering in London that August on the first round of what would become a two-year mobile peace conference on Yugoslavia.

The London Conference and the meetings that followed were the West's primary response to the Yugoslavia crisis for the next two years, a decorous, fruitless and embarrassing response to the worst violence in Europe since Hitler. Allied intervention, late-20th-century style. A conscience-salving exercise girded by three-star meals and four-star hotels that produced volumes of complicated peace plans and toothless ultimatums, a face-saving screen designed to give the appearance of action while allowing the Western powers to avoid military confrontation with the Serbs.

In the meeting halls, on the ground in Bosnia, against the backdrop of mass murder and mass rape, the "peace process" played like black comedy. Like the old Smothers Brothers routine in which a cringing Tommy Smothers gathers up all of his nerve, retreats a safe distance from the schoolyard bully and shouts, "Y-y-you do that again and I'll be sorry!" MOVE AHEAD NOW.

It is late on a sleepy Indian summer afternoon, October 1995, three years after George Kenney's resignation. After three years of marketplace bombings and hostage-taking and broken cease-fires, the war is winding down, thanks to a late-summer combination of NATO airstrikes, Croatian military gains against the Serbs and the belated but aggressive Clinton administration negotiating that will result, a month later, in the Dayton peace accords.

I sit in an office deep in the marble heart of the State Department, gazing across an empty desk at an analyst with long experience in the Balkans, a respected and thoughtful man. Outside the dusty window, traffic sounds are faintly audible -- sedans full of bureaucrats and lobbyists, rolling home to barbecue grills and back decks in peaceful suburbs.

It is a new office, and temporary. The analyst has kicked around in a few jobs since 1992, when he, like dozens of other Balkan area specialists at State, backed away from Bosnia in frustration and protest. It was either that, or quit. Lots of people wanted to quit, he says, would have, except for the kids, the mortgage and other responsibilities of middle-aged life. He was part of a behind-the-scenes rebellion in the State Department by those who believe the United States allowed genocide in Bosnia in 1992. Tempers flared, careers buckled, friendships sundered and sank. The wrangling was so divisive and scouring that even four years later, the score of diplomats interviewed for this story will not be quoted by name.

"Yugoslavia," says the analyst, shaking his head. "Yugoslavia was huge. And everyone who got involved became disoriented. The higher you went, the more you found people tied up in knots -- unable to make decisions. Not because they were incompetent. It was more that decisions that looked fairly straightforward on the ground were impossible here . . ."

Across town, the same day, at one of the State Department's de facto satellites, the head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Morton Abramowitz, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and an assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research in the Carter administration, agrees.

"That whole period -- that whole last year of the Bush administration on Bosnia -- was a disaster for anyone who worked the problem," he says. "This issue was the most intellectually divisive and emotionally charged one since Vietnam. Because it raised a fundamental moral question -- it went to the heart of what you believe happened there, and what sort of principles ought to prevail in the world, and to what degree the U.S. should respond."

Now, in 1995, there is a quiet but growing consensus in the foreign policy community that this summer's three weeks of airstrikes could have been carried out just as successfully three years earlier. A horrified, oh-Christ hindsight that the whole war could have been snuffed out three years ago in exactly the same way. That the military planners and assistant secretaries who looked at Bosnia and saw Vietnam and Somalia, who saw quagmire, got it wrong. That the hands-off policy conducted by the United States and its European allies for the better part of three years was a huge miscalculation, as well as a moral failure that can be partly explained but not quite excused by post-Cold War disorientation.

In the fall of 1995, I have my own disorientation to deal with. Three years later, the memories of what I saw covering the war for this newspaper are still strong enough to derail me. Place names, photographs, a certain kind of rain, a particular sky, send me back there. Questions about my own decisiveness, my own analysis, still entangle me. So I have come calling this afternoon to ask about the man who briefly seemed one of its most heroic actors, whose impatience with a passive policy and disingenuous doublespeak drove him to act when Washington failed to.

George Kenney, whose policy prescription, had it been followed when he made it, might have stopped the war in its tracks. Crisscrossing Bosnia in a balky Russian jeep in the fall of 1992, I had heard stories about George Kenney. So I am surprised to find that the once high regard has curdled. That Kenney is now dismissed by many former admirers in Washington as a puzzle, a disappointment, and worse, by colleagues who once applauded him.

"George is a man of principle, I'm just not sure what the principle is," says one former colleague.

"A demoralizing and depressing footnote," says another, "to a sad and depressing war."

A footnote. Yes. But an instructive one. BY NOVEMBER 1992, seven months into the war, reporting in Bosnia is beginning to seem like an obscene exercise in voyeurism. Tell us everything, we say to the refugees, accosting them in dank barracks and overcrowded school buildings. Tell us so we can tell the world, and watch as the world politely asks the Bosnian Serbs to please, please behave like European gentlemen.

Violence fractures time. It slows it down and speeds it up, cracks it into shards, frames of action, so that if you are in the middle of it, you cannot take it in entirely. Certain images are burned into the brain, others lost.

So when the Bosnian Serb militias swoop down on Kozarac (pronounced KOZE -uh-ratz), in northwest Bosnia, people who are standing in the same place at the same time will remember different parts of the afternoon. As in the rest of Bosnia that spring and summer, the violence is grotesquely, surreally intimate. Families are lined up in the front garden and cut down by machine guns propped up among the geraniums. Villages are massacred and buried in the local soccer fields.

A young boy has a premonition, and without being told, scampers behind a wagon wheel at the first sign of soldiers, and lives to see his family shot dead.

A woman, with her own children to protect, sees her brother led around the side of the house to the back garden. She herself is then hustled down the front path and cannot see anything after that. She strains to listen, but soon she is led away.

The family reunites in a refugee center in Croatia. But for months, they do not speak of these details. Incredibly, they do not compare notes. Instead they shuffle up and down the halls of their refugee barracks, to the common sinks and back again, with shallow pans of water for cooking and washing the babies' clothes.

Until we show up one rainy afternoon to ask what happened that day, pressing for details of the "ethnic cleansing" of one town.

So the sister-in-law, a tiny blond-haired woman with huge green eyes, sits on the edge of a rusted bunk and begins to talk. She says that she has heard from a neighbor that the brother who was taken behind the house that afternoon was made to kneel in the garden beside the summer lettuces in the late afternoon sun. A soldier grabbed his hair and yanked his head back and slit his throat. He screamed when he saw the knife.

When he was dead, or maybe before, she doesn't know, the Serb soldiers tied his feet together and tethered him to the back of a tank. Then they dragged him through the village, his body bouncing gaily over compost heaps and snagging on fence lines.

Hearing this, the man's sister, who has been sitting nearby, suddenly stands up. Her face contorts, then seems to crack open. She opens her mouth and a scream flies out. It is a barnyard sound, an animal screech that freezes everyone in the room and hallway. It bangs around the room like a trapped bird, and finally it falls. After it has faded, the room still vibrates. The blond woman -- her name is Olga -- looks startled. In this moment she realizes that her sister-in-law, her dear friend and neighbor, had not yet heard how her brother died. In the acrid, iron silence they sit and experience the death all over again.

I put my notebook away. I say I am sorry. I wonder if there is anything that I can possibly do with this information that would justify the pain inflicted in the getting of it.

Later that evening, I try to put myself in these people's place, I wonder what they were thinking about. I can't know, of course, but I decide it may have been an intense, unimaginable loneliness, knowing that he knelt and waited for death alone, just on the other side of the yard, while they lived, breathed, survived out front, unable to save him.

In the same barracks, there is a middle-aged man, a survivor of the Serb-run detention camps where sexual sadism and beatings and murder have been carried out on Bosnian Muslim prisoners since mid-summer.

The man is calm, but urgent. He has something he wants to say. The life of a man who has seen what he has seen will never be the same, he says. It is as if he has seen a terrible film, a terrible pornographic film that no one must ever see. And now that he has seen it, he is alone in some horrible way that he doesn't even really understand. He is alone, he repeats, less calmly. He begins to cry. He apologizes for crying. He shrugs, and sighs. A big sigh. He wipes his eyes. Smiles. And starts crying again.

A few weeks later I meet a Norwegian child psychologist. He has studied post-traumatic stress disorder in World War II survivors, and now he has come to Bosnia to study and counsel the traumatized children of Sarajevo. He believes that to really listen, to hear and understand, you have to absorb some of the grief yourself, lift it onto yourself like an ink blotter.

I don't know. Maybe. I do know that after months of listening, of haring through besieged Bosnian towns, of weighing unweighable risks and parsing incalculable odds, of crouching as incoming shells whistle just overhead, and feeling my jaws snap, my knees buckle, as outgoing shells whomp and crack nearby, I feel deeply tired, almost singed. It is as if someone has run over my nerve endings with a hot iron. At night, in freezing makeshift rooms, listening to the pop of machine-gun fire somewhere outside in the dark, I lie awake still soaked in the day's adrenaline. I am a car engine whose idle is set on a permanent, scorching high. The faces and stories of the refugees flit across my consciousness.

We do not know it yet, but we are in the middle of what will later be seen as the most brutal six months of the war, unmatched until the close in the summer of '95. In Bosnia, the Serbs are "cleansing" Muslim territory of Muslims, and carving out an ethnically pure mini-state.

At the time it just feels as if all of the revolutions that I have covered since 1989 -- Poland's Solidarity revolution, Czechoslovakia's velvet revolution, Romania's pseudo revolution, and the days and weeks of crowds and violence and the threat of violence in Albania and Bulgaria -- as if all these currents have swirled to meet in Bosnia, in an insane vortex of rain, mud, blood and fear.

A gruesome travelogue. Eastern Europe by night. A corpse face down in a cornfield in eastern Croatia in 1991. Crossing the Danube under Croat gunfire, in a rubber raft with a laughing Serb. Highways lined with blackened, gutted houses. Earlier, in Romania, rolling under the front stoop of a hotel to get out of the way of a sudden firefight on Christmas morning. A mysterious mass grave -- 20 blue and naked corpses -- men, a woman with an infant on her belly -- nestled in a clay pit, ankles bound with hanger wire. The shards of my hotel window letting in the freezing air. A teenage girl, in shock, limping down to the hotel lobby on Christmas afternoon -- her calf a spongy red hole. Snipers. Or Romanian secret police. Or both. Across the street. Shooting at her room. Just below mine.

I think of the smug Romanian Communist Sylviu Brucan, a canny survivor of his country's revolution, laughing in his office in Bucharest in 1990, two weeks after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, as thousands of euphoric young Romanians parade in the streets of the capital. They want freedom, he says with a cold smile. Just wait, he says, just wait and see what revolution will bring.

And now Bosnia, the last bloody spasm of Eastern Europe's rebirth. Bosnia, which back in 1989, from other side of the border in Romania, seemed a haven of sanity, although the Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, was already preparing for war. Bosnia, a conflict so complicated and confusing that late at night, after filing their stories, reporters sit in bars and laugh themselves silly at the impossibility of explaining it in a few paragraphs.

Who in his or her right mind would send America's sons and daughters to fight in this fogbound nightmare? World War I started here, but this is not 1914, and European peace and security are no longer tripwired through the Balkans.

Bosnia, the military and political analysts in Washington are saying, presents the West with many choices, all of them bad. IN WASHINGTON in the winter of 1993, Bosnia is urgent. Bosnia is horrific. Bosnia is chic, a romantic cause, a moral compass. It will be our Spanish Civil War. Susan Sontag is going to Bosnia to direct "Waiting for Godot." There are panel discussions at the Holocaust Museum, photo exhibits, bumper stickers. Bosnia is the main course at Georgetown dinner parties, and recent returnees are on the A list. Television's talking heads, having boned up on Bosnia and its complicated roster of combatants, are crafting sound bites. Bosnia! In or out? Worth risking the lives of American boys? What's the strategic interest? Quickly!

Candidate Clinton has taken office vowing that genocide will not be tolerated. But President Clinton, confronted with a deeply cautious military establishment, a reluctant Congress, and hobbled by his own lack of military service, backs off his ringing campaign promise. After a brief, unsuccessful attempt to talk the Europeans into launching punitive airstrikes against the Serbs, Washington sinks back into what will become a prolonged policy muddle.

The Powell Doctrine -- articulated by Gen. Colin Powell, forged in Vietnam and Kuwait and Somalia -- insists that you don't go in unless you're prepared to go in with overwhelming force. There is no lobby for sending 500,000 troops to Bosnia. Bosnia is not the Kuwaiti desert. What if we start bombing and the Serbs don't quit? What then? How much bombing are we prepared to do?

To bomb or not to bomb: Washington and Western Europe aren't the only places where the answer isn't clear. In northwest Bosnia, stronghold of nationalist Serbs, where mosques and Muslims are being blown up nightly, even the victims of Serb terror aren't sure. In Banja Luka, a Bosnian Muslim who has seen his family destroyed says no, not unless the bombers are prepared to unleash Armageddon. Anything less, he says, would feel great for 10 minutes. "Then the Serbs would come back and kill us all."

Arriving in Washington fresh from Bosnia and hitting a wall of confident opinion-making is like returning from a trip and being told where you've been and what it all means. The level of abstraction is unnerving.

In the place you have just left, ordinary people sitting in ordinary living rooms much like yours are still being blown into red mist by Serb guns. The smells, sounds and sights of the carnage are a visceral video that plays in your head. But in official Washington, the war is an "issue," and issues exist to be worked -- bloodlessly, professionally, placidly. Like a cow chewing her cud.

In this frame of mind I find myself wondering about George Kenney, who issued his plea for intervention and then seemed to drop from sight.

We meet soon enough, by chance, at a panel discussion at American University's School of Communications. Kenney is out of the diplomat's uniform, wearing a string tie, a gray tweed sport coat that is a little tight. He is articulate, unpretentious and irreverent. As a fellow panelist drones on about how the Croatian newspapers have been a much more valuable source of information than the Western news media, Kenney rolls his eyes, leans over and scribbles, "long-winded academic type."

Not especially eager for publicity, he nonetheless agrees to meet for coffee. At the Java House, a neighborhood joint near Dupont Circle, he is open, guileless. He arrives on a red Honda 750, wearing a black leather motorcycle jacket. Desk man turned road warrior. Life after the State Department has not been lucrative. He's living in his parents' basement in Chevy Chase, ducking bill collectors, riding the bike because he can't afford a car.

He orders oatmeal. It arrives topped with a circle of banana slices. He looks at it, takes a small taste, and suddenly tosses the spoon down.

"Take it back," he snaps.

The waitress looks startled. Take back oatmeal?

"It's not right," he insists.


"It's not right," he repeats flatly.

The waitress stares, shrugs, then slides the bowl away.

"I hate it when they make it like that," he says.

Like what, I want to ask, but don't. Never mind. He is a type, I decide tentatively. A whistle-blower type. Truculent. Self-confident. Demanding. A bit arrogant. And stubborn.

At our second meeting, he agrees.

"I think of it as an Irish trait," he says amiably. "I'm very persistent, and I'm not afraid of confronting things I don't like. I mean, I'll just keep doing what I think is the right thing until I get it done. People have commented on it all my life."

His "quarters," as he calls them, are two white-walled rooms. Spartan, monkish. The bookcases are filled with textbooks from his master's degree in the history of economics at the University of Chicago. The contents of his old State Department office decorate the walls. On the floor by the bed, there is a book on teaching yourself to juggle.

The center of the room is a small, neat desk, fitted out with a fax, a computer, Internet user manuals and a phone. These are the tools of his new trade.

Less than a year after raising the cry of genocide in Bosnia, Kenney is making his living as a Bosnia pundit, a talking head.

When asked, he does interviews for C-SPAN , National Public Radio, Canadian radio, CNN, "Nightline," always identified as the State Department official who resigned to protest U.S. policy in Bosnia.

Toiling in his basement cell, he has produced and sold a stream of opinion pieces for newspapers -- The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Times. He takes calls from national political columnists looking to pick his brain on the latest twists in Balkan policy.

He has become a public speaker, often a keynote speaker, at annual meetings of historians, retired diplomats, Bosnian Americans, college students.

The talking head business is not exactly lucrative -- $75 to $100 a sound bite, more for his written pieces. Immediately after the resignation, he had so many requests he had to pick and choose. Now the TV and radio work tends to come in clusters around Bosnian catastrophes that are beginning to seem as regular as the tides -- marketplace bombings, attacks on Muslim enclaves, discoveries of mass graves.

The appearances have maintained his hero's Q-rating.

"It's the oddest feeling for me," he says. "I'll be somewhere in the country with a group or something and I'll mention what I did, and people will know it. They'll say, thank you, congratulations to you. I get that all the time. And I'm never sure how to react."

Upstairs and down, chez Kenney has a comfortable, bookish feeling. It is a Foreign Service house, filled with the gleanings of different postings. In the kitchen a housekeeper prepares lunch for a party of retired diplomats expected this afternoon.

Kenney's father putters around the first floor. He retired from the State Department in the mid-1980s, after a successful career that took him and his family to Algeria, Paris and Brazil, before he finished up as minister counselor (the equivalent of a two-star general) in New Delhi. He disapproved of George's resigning at first, but has since come around, and has even become his son's archivist, keeping a scrapbook of articles by and about him. The son's career -- postings to Marseille, Zaire -- was something to brag about while it lasted.

"My mother was heartbroken when I resigned," says Kenney. "I don't think she ever recovered."

For Foreign Service families, life overseas can be an opportunity and a crucible. Some children thrive. Others, once they return, are dogged all their lives by feelings of dislocation and internal exile. Kenney was a reluctant Foreign Service brat. He doesn't even like the children of diplomats as adults. "I'm not quite sure why that is," he muses. "They are very obnoxious and then, of course, I'm afraid that I'm just like them, so that I hate them even more."

He was a C-minus high school student. He spent two years at the American College in Paris, then headed back to the United States to the most provincial place he could find: Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, Mont., a school that he chose by looking at a map. He discovered he liked academics, headed to the University of Washington for Japan area studies, then to Chicago.

He entered the State Department in 1988, and, once in, established a pattern that would hold throughout his brief career: Impatience with the bureaucracy, and a willingness to act on it. A tendency, in his words, "to do things in a way that my bosses didn't like."

Posted to Marseille for the mandatory Foreign Service officer stint of visa-stamping, he annoyed his boss by doing political reporting on the side. Bored and frustrated in an overstaffed consular office where he had less than three hours of work a day -- "How long does it take to stamp 30 visas? Can you imagine? It's a ridiculous waste of resources" -- he took it upon himself to make the efficiency changes he'd proposed to visiting State Department inspectors, and was ordered to change everything back when his boss returned.

"I got out of there, but on my record, basically, you know, they said, this guy's not fit to be a Foreign Service officer."

He rebounded during a stint in Washington working on energy policy during the Persian Gulf War. But then, promoted for his next assignment, as an economics officer in Zaire, he clashed with his new boss about everything from the character of the continent to office management.

"She was really stubborn . . . It was getting to the point where I had gone to the DCM {deputy chief of mission} a couple times to complain and say, you know, somebody had to settle this stuff because we weren't getting along."

An embassy drawdown during Zairean army pay riots -- "I was glad to be evacuated, because that got me out of the whole mess" -- deposited him back in Washington in the middle of the two-year rotation. He was rescued from bureaucratic limbo by another Foreign Service brat, the senior Yugoslavia desk officer, who had been Kenney's childhood babysitter when both families were posted to Brussels.

Kenney signed on as a Yugoslavia desk officer and took up the work of drafting memos and telegrams, taking notes at meetings. He also had responsibility for helping produce the "guidance," the daily situation report used by the department spokesman at the midday press briefing.

He had been promoted regularly, he had made tenure, and now, in the spring of 1992, he had achieved "a nice little office, no window, but it was big." From which Kenney the skeptic and contrarian asserted himself again. BY THE SPRING of 1992, there were two dominant schools of thought on the Bosnian war. Because this was the Balkans, they were of course mutually antagonistic, vituperative, contentious, competitive, potentially career-making or career-busting.

Somewhat simplified, but not by much, the first school viewed the Balkans, and the Bosnian conflict, as the product of ancient ethnic hatreds that the United States and Europe could do little to stop, or even referee. This is Eastern Europe, not Europe. It is the Balkans. A place where justice does not prevail. They're all crazy, they're all unreliable. A different standard applies.

This was the Bosnian war as forest fire, best managed by standing back and letting it burn out. It was the Bush administration view, and the view of its European allies. In the words of David Owen, the European Union's chief negotiator in the Balkans, Bosnia should be handled with "the skill of masterly inactivity" -- inactivity seasoned, whenever the situation or public opinion demanded, by the judicious application of humanitarian aid or U.N. peacekeepers.

To the other camp -- the interventionists, among them many mid-level State Department officials and analysts, as well as some senior officials close to Secretary of State James Baker -- ancient ethnic hatreds had little to do with the conflict. This camp saw the war as a clear-cut case of aggression engineered by Serbian President Milosevic and his Bosnian Serb proxies, Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic. The war, a deadly assault against an unarmed civilian population, could only succeed as long as the Western allies lacked the resolve to stop it.

In this view, Milosevic had been quietly preparing for a Bosnian war since the mid-1980s, when he took control of the autonomous Yugoslav provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo, and began turning Yugoslavia into Serboslavia.

By mid-1991, when Baker traveled to Belgrade to say that the United States wanted Yugoslavia to stay in one piece, Yugoslavia, the old Yugoslavia, the post-World War II mosaic of balanced ethnic power built by Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, was already gone. By 1991, Milosevic controlled four of the eight seats in Yugoslavia's collective presidency and had been quietly purging the Yugoslav army of officers more loyal to multi-ethnic Yugoslavia than to him and his plans for a greater Serbia. Milosevic's power grab, in turn, triggered a surge of nationalism in Slovenia and Croatia and their secession that summer. Bosnia followed in February of 1992.

The Bush administration had been warned by the CIA months earlier that the breakup of Yugoslavia was inevitable. Critics of the Bush policy saw Baker's 1991 warning in Belgrade as the preparation of a policy exit ramp: We told them to stay together. If they start fighting, we won't be held responsible.

The tension between those two policy camps within the State Department was escalating when Kenney arrived in the spring of '92. The Bush administration policy, say State Department officials, was "hands off." The interventionists believed that the only way to deal with Milosevic was diplomatic pressure backed up by the credible threat of bombs.

Throughout the department, in the European bureau, in policy planning, intelligence and research and the office of the secretary, a policy war was being waged, with the interventionists pushing the administration to take a harder line against the Serbs. Kenney's was the worm's-eye view, but reflected a struggle at the highest levels.

The State Department's preferred language was neutral. It treated the war like a soccer match. Muslims and Serbs were "the parties." If overnight cables brought news that Serb shelling had killed 45 civilians in Sarajevo the day before, the question was: How close would the department actually come to saying exactly that?

Kenney started as a skeptic -- how do we know they're Serb guns -- but came around. Shepherding the press guidance through the offices of half a dozen assistant secretaries, he says, he buttonholed his superiors and argued for a more aggressive U.S. response to the Serbs. (The reaction, he remembers, was cool, as if he were a diplomat from a not very important country. "They would get this distant expression, and spit the party line: We've studied it, we don't think it will work, don't bother me with this sort of thing.' ")

He caucused on the phone with the embassy in Belgrade, trying to fill the guidance with the most dramatic stories he could find. Starving Sarajevans eating weeds. The family trapped by shelling in the Sarajevo suburb of Dobrinja who had to chip the walls and pack their grandmother's corpse in plaster. Any material that might increase public pressure on the administration to act.

In May, those who wanted a harder line allowed a new, incendiary phrase into the guidance, Kenney says. The embassy in Belgrade reported that the Serbs were using a special phrase for the mass expulsion and murder of Muslim civilians. "Ethnic cleansing" was not a term new to the Balkans. It had been used in World War II, and it was again in use in the Serb press. But it was new to Washington. Kenney heard it in conversation with the embassy in Belgrade, and slipped it into the guidance the same day. "You know, The U.S. again condemns the Serbian self-described practice of ethnic cleansing.' "

He was certain that somewhere up the line, someone would strike it. "Because it was a red flag, a real red-button term. Ethnic cleansing, Nazis, the whole thing."

It sailed through. Every office that the guidance had to clear let it pass. Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler used the phrase at the midday press briefing.

The reaction, Kenney says with pride, was extraordinary. The term had been used before in the Western press, but its utterance by the State Department turbocharged it. "It would not be the term of art it is today if Tutwiler had not used it," he says. "I felt it was one of the best things I ever did."

In early August, anguish in the department crescendoed with press reports of Serb-run detention camps.

Confronted with the first reports in Newsday, followed by television footage four days later of skeletal Muslim men behind barbed wire, pictures reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps, the State Department appeared to waffle. One day it confirmed camp atrocities. Two days later, it took the confirmation back, saying it had no information other than published press reports.

The passive response inflamed critics on Capitol Hill. But the real scandal, to those inside the department, was that the U.S. government had had indications and reports for at least five months that something terrible was happening in Bosnia, and had not investigated them.

The situation dismayed and disheartened many officers working the issue.

"It was a heart-rending, soul-destroying struggle -- a lot of people just flamed out over Bosnia. Folded their tents and moved on," says an analyst. "They could not take the knowledge that we had knowledge and we did nothing. And that for me became the crime -- our knowledge. Our complicity. Many, many people in the department working the issue wanted to get away."

The department's eventual response was to churn out half a dozen human rights reports and call for a peace conference -- the London Conference -- whose main effect was to forestall any military action, because it is awkward to carry out a bombing campaign against the Serbs at the same time you are inviting them to the negotiating table.

"We were still sort of fumbling with the idea that if we talk enough to the Serbs, that somehow we'd get a resolution," Kenney recalls. "I don't think they understood that what they were doing was an exercise in complete foolishness. The problem really was that nobody was thinking."

On that Sunday in August, Kenney thought things through one last time, gave up trying to massage the language, and quit.

He had been thinking about resigning for several weeks, canvassing family and friends. "No one thought there was any hope of me having any influence over the policy if I left," he says.

He was motivated less by moral outrage over the killing and the camps, he says, than by the conviction that Serbian aggression unchecked would act like a cancer on European security, encouraging would-be aggressors in the region.

And he also was exasperated with the process of diplomacy itself, by the State Department's calcified layers of overachieving, underemployed Yale and Princeton graduates.

"I think from the outside, people must assume that somehow there's a lot of thoughtful work going on at the State Department," he says. "But in reality, there's this incredibly frantic paper chase going on. There were deputy assistant secretaries who would spend half their time with pens sort of filling in empty circles on forms, to fit the {memo} format requirements. People were completely obsessed with doing everything according to book."

He timed the resignation to coincide with the start of the London Conference. His plan was to "throw a couple of bombshells," do what he could to keep Bosnia on the agenda of the fall presidential campaign.

His first bombshell was to notify The Washington Post of his resignation. He called reporter Don Oberdorfer. The story made the front page, with a picture.

The reaction in the department was annoyance and embarrassment. In a well-tuned bureaucracy, everyone is supposed be singing from the same music. In London, Acting Secretary Lawrence Eagleburger called his team together to ask, "Who knows Kenney?"

"There were people in his own bureau who wanted to go after him," says a former colleague. "He made them look like monkeys."

Publicly, the State Department tried to dismiss him as a minor functionary who had never made his views known while at State. Thomas Niles, the assistant secretary for European and Canadian affairs -- whom Kenney saw every day, and argued with over Bosnia -- described him to a congressional hearing as a nice young fellow who, unfortunately, had never done anything to indicate unhappiness with American policy. There were jokes in-house that he'd resigned because he wasn't able to handle his in-box.

In fact, Kenney hadn't used the department's formal dissent channel. He'd left so quickly he had no idea how quitting would affect his health insurance, his savings plan. In the first days out, he sat at his girlfriend's apartment in Glover Park, receiving reporters but worrying about "disappearing without a ripple. You know, how do I pay my bills? How do I survive?"

Admirers stepped forward to ease the transition. A former U.S. ambassador offered Kenney use of his office at the Union of Concerned Scientists. A speech at the Carnegie Endowment yielded an invitation to write an analysis of the turning points in Bosnia policy. Carnegie offered $4,000 for the paper, and gave him an office, a budget and a phone.

He began writing strongly worded op-ed pieces.

"Bosnia -- Appeasement in Our Time," in The Washington Post, argued that U.S. passivity in the face of Serb aggression would give a "green light to Serbia's thuggish leaders to implement their plans for a greater, ethnically pure Serbia. Their method: genocide. The U.S. reaction: feckless diplomatic negotiations."

He argued in favor of massive airstrikes against the Serbs -- a one-time barrage that would halt the war the way detonation of a bomb will suffocate a forest fire.

He was embraced by the Bosnian government's representatives in this country. "They put me on a pedestal, no question," he remembers.

By mid-1993, the former functionary on the Yugoslav desk was being described on the New York Times opinion page by no less an eminence than the managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine as perhaps the most influential interventionist in the United States. APRIL 1995. George Kenney and I are cruising south out of Washington, heading to the Quantico Marine Corps Base.

The Marines have invited Kenney to join in a roundtable discussion on Bosnia for selected brass and guests -- academics, congressional aides.

The idea is to pick the brains of the experts and come up with a briefing paper that will help the Marines plan for possible U.S. military intervention in Bosnia. Three years after the Bosnian Serbs opened fire in Sarajevo, the Clinton White House is edging toward intervention. There is talk of sending U.S. ground troops to Bosnia, if only to rescue the hapless U.N. peacekeepers who have been occasional hostages and targets during two years of Bosnian Serb attacks on U.N. safe areas.

Outside the car window, the early morning Virginia scenery is peaceful and green. Mist rises off the soft hills. It is eerily similar to the landscape along the highway between Zagreb and Belgrade. Except that highway is still closed, its toll booths melted by rocket fire.

I think about the war, the intimate savagery of a war conducted among neighbors in a country the size of Tennessee. As we drive, I imagine the conflict transferred here. An ethnic group, choose one, Irish Americans, say, or Italians, or Germans, quietly arming themselves, and stoking their brains with myths and misinformation and grievances that date back 50 years.

One morning you wake up, they've taken the police department in Rockville, they're flying a weird flag. They've always been irritating, different, temperamental, thin-skinned, paranoid, but everybody put up with them. Now they're out of control.

They've got the police station in Upper Marlboro, too, and they've barricaded the firehouse, and the elementary school.

Open trucks full of bearded soldiers in ski masks appear in your neighborhood the next morning. They jump out near your driveway and six of them -- hey, isn't that the guy who was in your high school chemistry class? -- run into your house. Everyone out. They force your father and oldest brother into a stolen school bus. Your younger brother, the strong one, resists. He is dragged out behind the house, to the pool. You hear a high, piercing scream, then a splash. "We taught him how to swim!" the soldiers say, laughing, when they come back. One of them is wearing your brother's watch. You stare, then realize what you are doing and avert your eyes. The soldiers are drunk, or drugged, you can't tell which.

They march you off to the local playground. On the way you see your neighbor face down on her lawn. Legs splayed. Her dress hitched up around her hips. For a minute you are confused. What on earth is she doing lying down? Hiding? She does not move as you pass. It is hot even for June. In a few hours her body will begin to bloat.

At the playground you take your place in the middle of a silent, wild-eyed mob. The sky is blue and clear. A breeze ruffles the trees. A dog barks. Everything here looks like it always did. But everything is different, and it will never be the same again. In the distance, beyond the treetops, black smoke is rising. You are terrified that you will scream.

You look up in time to see a soldier careen by in your neighbor's new BMW. You hear the soft pop of distant machine-gun fire. Someone is shouting. You can't make out the words. You stare across the soccer field at the empty school building. For the first time you panic. Where are the children? you say. A soldier curses at you and shoves you face-down to the ground.

Or maybe you are sitting in your row house in Tenleytown, huddled over the shortwave radio. As you listen, there is a huge explosion and the TV towers up on Wisconsin Avenue come crashing down in slow motion. A shell slams into the Channel 5 building. There are reports of heavy shelling in Tysons Corner. The Cabin John bridge has taken a hit but is still standing. The Wilson Bridge is barricaded, and there are cars on fire at checkpoints in Fort Washington. Snipers are picking off pedestrians in front of the MacArthur Theater.

The click of my tape recorder brings me back. We are halfway to Quantico, riding now in companionable silence. I have checked in with Kenney on and off for two years. I still tend to think of him as an underdog, the hero of a running saga titled "The Price of Principle."

But lately, the more I see of him, the more I wonder. Because for the past two years, the country's most influential interventionist has been energetically arguing against the position that made his name.

In one of the stranger intellectual odysseys in Washington, the man who once was passionately in favor of U.S. military intervention in Bosnia is now dead set against it. Since leaving the State Department, Kenney has tracked U.S. policy in an inverse arc. The closer the United States moved to airstrikes, the farther away George Kenney went. And in the process, he has made a new name for himself -- as a curiosity, a pariah, an outcast from the community he once inspired.

By February 1993, six months after his resignation, Kenney was already backing away from advocacy of airstrikes and a lifting of the arms embargo against the Muslims. On radio and CNN he argued that the best way to stop the war was to blanket Bosnia with as many as 100,000 Western ground troops who would disarm everyone -- Serbs, Croats and Muslims. The time for a massive intervention on behalf of the Bosnians had passed.

In May 1993, as the Bosnian Croats and Muslims began fighting each other, Kenney abandoned lift and strike entirely. Why arm the Muslims? It will only encourage them. They can't win. The war was lost a year ago. The ideal of a unitary, multi-ethnic Bosnian state is dead.

Two trips to Sarajevo helped turn him into a harsh critic of the Bosnian government. Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and the Bosnian army, he said, had taken a turn toward Islamicization, intolerance and fundamentalism. Izetbegovic was incompetent and untrustworthy, an unworthy ally who was cynically prolonging the war in the deluded hope that the West might intervene.

Kenney seemed to have conceived an intense dislike for every Bosnian official he'd met below the rank of minister. And he blamed the government for failing to adopt what he considered "realistic positions."

"They have not known from the very beginning how to conduct themselves in international diplomacy," he said. "All of them subscribe to conspiracy theories. They're incompetents. They're not educated. They're very, very narrow-minded politically. There's no staff work to speak of."

On his trips to Bosnia he was treated like a visiting head of state, hustled into interviews with Izetbegovic, the encounter filmed by Sarajevo TV. He made what he called his own "private demarches" and then was offended when Izetbegovic failed to heed his advice.

Private demarches? How did he view his own role? Self-appointed ambassador-at-large? When I asked him, he laughed and suggested a figure out of ancient myth: a hero who does something extraordinary, then travels the world.

Critics in Bosnia and Washington speculated that his arrest and detention for several hours by Bosnian Muslim police in Sarajevo for photographing a munitions factory, as well as his getting a pistol shoved into his bulletproof vest during a shakedown at a Serb checkpoint in a Sarajevo suburb, must have jaundiced his view of the war. Kenney said the trips just supported his view, formed in Washington, of a strong Bosnian Muslim trend toward intolerance.

In 1994, he wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Times proposing that the United States and Europe cut off humanitarian aid. Or rather, use the threat of a cutoff to force the Bosnians to the peace table.

The piece infuriated the non-governmental organizations that were distributing the aid, and drove a further wedge between Kenney and the interventionists, including three junior State Department officers -- Marshall Harris, Stephen Walker and Jon Western -- who had resigned a year after him.

Harris, a Bosnia desk officer, Walker, a Croatia desk officer, and Western, an analyst in State's bureau of intelligence and research, left quietly and have shunned publicity. Harris and Walker made a formal dissent, and went on to found a pro-intervention lobbying group and grass-roots network. Western, who had been sifting through atrocity reports as part of the State Department's effort to determine whether Bosnia fit the legal definition of genocide (it did), left to study Balkan history at Columbia University.

Now, as we drive on, Kenney is talking enthusiastically about his next article. It will be the ultimate recantation.

The piece, which will appear shortly in the New York Times Magazine, will assert that there was no genocide in Bosnia after all. It will accuse the Bosnian government, the Western news media and the United Nations, among others, of grossly exaggerating the numbers of dead and missing.

Citing official but anonymous sources at the Pentagon, the State Department's bureau of intelligence and research and European military officers with extensive experience in Bosnia, and analyzing and "extrapolating" from estimates by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the piece will set the number of Bosnian war dead, on all sides, at somewhere between 25,000 and 60,000 -- far short of the 200,000 figure used by most media at that time.

He will accuse the Bosnian government of deliberately exaggerating the numbers in a cynical ploy to win international sympathy and force allied military intervention.

And most curiously, the man whose ringing cry of genocide in 1992 helped clarify and illuminate the debate will now draw an odd distinction. Between genocide with a big G, and genocide with a little g.

"Bosnia is not the Holocaust," he will write, ". . . or Rwanda. It's Lebanon."

"Counts count . . . magnitude matters," he will write. "A relatively large number of white people have been killed in gruesome fashion in the first European blowup since World War II. In response, the United Nations has set up the first international war crimes tribunal since Nuremberg. But that doesn't mean the Bosnian Serbs' often brutal treatment of Bosnian Muslims is a unique genocide."

"Mea culpa," he will add. "I used the figure of 200,000 dead for a while in 1993." (The piece will not mention his own use of the word genocide.)

Kenney spent long hours on the Times piece, he says, working the phones, scrutinizing news stories, charting and analyzing what he regarded as implausibly sudden jumps in the casualty figures.

It is an interesting idea. Wartime casualty figures are notoriously unreliable, and in the Balkans maybe even more so. During the Romanian "revolution" in 1989, casualty figures -- ascribed variously to Hungarian radio, the BBC and the International Red Cross -- swung from 4,000 to 60,000 and back to a few thousand in a matter of days.

But something about the conversation is repellent. The cheery tone. The matter-of-factness. I look at Kenney and I suddenly feel dizzy and nauseated. Yes, we are juggling death counts as we motor toward Quantico. Become a pundit, teach yourself to juggle.

After the piece appears, the Serbian media in Belgrade will pick it up and praise Kenney lavishly. The piece will also be used by press critics here who accuse the Western press of pro-Muslim bias.

For interventionists, including former colleagues, bafflement over Kenney's changing views will now turn to withering disdain.

"I think he's vile," one former colleague will say, echoing the view of others.

The New Republic ("Kenney Be Trusted?") will catalogue Kenney's flip-flops, cast him as naive moralist turned amoral opportunist and suggest that his changing views have less to do with conviction than with a need to remain marketable as a pundit, to distinguish himself from the growing crowd of interventionists.

And respected analysts will dispute the piece's numbers and its central argument. They will point out that the International Red Cross's casualty counts are famously conservative. That any count is premature because parts of eastern Bosnia are still sealed by the Serbs, no-go areas for U.N. human rights investigators.

Kenney's figure of 25,000 to 60,000 dead is absurdly low, they will say, because there are 10,000 graves in Sarajevo alone. They will point out that even Bosnian Serb analysts -- including two senior advisers to the Belgrade government and the U.S. peace negotiations -- use numbers of 250,000 to 280,000 dead and missing for the war.

And above all, Kenney's critics will ask, what is the point of doing hard analysis of death counts in the middle of a war? Fifty thousand or 200,000 dead doesn't change the basic fact that tens of thousands of unarmed civilians have been slaughtered in the middle of Europe in the last decade of the 20th century, 50 years after the war that was supposed to have taught us never again.

On the other hand, though his central argument -- that the inflated numbers might lure us into the war -- has proved wrong, his narrower point is valid. The numbers did jump implausibly. Reporters, myself included, did use Bosnian government and U.N. casualty counts. And after his piece appears, the number used in boilerplate will drop. The use of the 200,000 figure will tail off.

With his bright blue eyes and insistent skepticism, Kenney has waded into an area that no one else had the stomach to touch. He is annoying, he is irritating -- but he has a point. I don't think his numbers are right, either, and I am even less sure that they matter. But I have a grudging admiration for his willingness to take on an odious task.

Still, as he talks, I tune him out again. The faces of people I've interviewed swim into view. Children especially have a way of lodging in the brain.

A tiny, tangle-haired girl, barefoot and alone, wandering bewildered up the street against a stream of adults one frosty dawn in the mountain town of Jablanica. A 6-year-old boy at a refugee camp on the Bosnia-Croatia border. He saw his father shot by the Serbs, then was forced aboard a bus at gunpoint, where different Serb soldiers stole the watch his father had given him. By day, he cowers at the sight of soldiers in camouflage. At night, he relives the shooting in his dreams, shouting warnings that his father never hears.

Big genocide, little genocide. Mea culpa.

A few thousand dead in Kozarac. A few thousand in Brcko. But what are a few thousand deaths, or tens of thousands? One mass grave does not a Holocaust make. Does that justify U.S. intervention, putting American troops at risk? Bosnia, up or down? Quickly!

If in foreign policy we have no friends, but only interests, at what magnitude, at what count, am I my brother Bosnian's keeper? If there was no clear U.S. strategic or security interest in Bosnia, was there also no moral principle at stake in Bosnia? What happens to a country when its policy treats moral principle as a luxury, expendable?

We roll onto the base at last. The Marines' conference center is beautiful -- red brick, vaguely Romanesque, it looks like the city hall of a prosperous hill town in Tuscany. Inside there are name tags, coffee and croissants, overhead projectors. And a list of rudimentary talking points: "How important is religion to Yugoslavians?"

At the end of the day it is difficult to see how the document we have produced would be of any use to anyone. But it doesn't really matter. We're just chewing on the Yugoslav crisis. Juggling ideas. Staying in the loop.

We are as far from Bosnia as the moon. IF BOSNIA PRESENTED bad choices to policymakers on the macro level, it could serve them up on the micro level, too. Reporting trips regularly produced surreal dilemmas that could make one sympathize with paralyzed policymakers in faraway Western capitals struggling to get their bearings in the Balkan fog.

One of the last trips I make in Bosnia, in December 1992, is to a Serb-run prison camp in the snowy mountains outside the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Banja Luka. There, at a place called Manjaca (pronounced Mahn YAH -tcha), 2,500 Bosnian Muslim men have been held since August in two large, unheated concrete barns.

Since the camps made headlines in August, horrific stories have continued to trickle out. In November, some camps closed, and their survivors offered up tales that again stirred public outrage in the West. Stories of humiliation, sexual sadism and death: prisoners forced to copulate at gunpoint. Sons forced to chew testicles off fathers. Men who refused to do the same and were slowly, publicly hammered into sodden pulps with sledgehammers, tire irons and rifle butts, as examples to the rest.

Manjaca, especially since the International Red Cross was granted access in the past month, is considered to be one of the less hellish, not as bad as the notorious Omarska or Keraterm.

The weather is brilliant. The sky a bright blue, the air clean and cold. On the dirt track up to the camp, a peasant woman nudges dairy cows along the road. Bright copper stills sparkle in the winter sun alongside carefully kept mountain cottages.

Inside the gate, Lt. Col. Bezidor Popovic, a gray-haired, barrel-chested former Yugoslav army officer, stands at attention beside a camp yard studded with land mines. Vain and blustery, he scrutinizes my travel documents and those of two fellow journalists, declares his camp open to all visitors and then winds up to deliver a paranoid rant.

Did we not realize, he roars, his breath rising in furious white puffs, that the men held here are Islamic fundamentalists? Yes! Who want to create an Islamic state in Bosnia, a state in which Serbian women, including his own daughter, would be forced to live in harems? Yes! Europe should thank the Serbs. The Bosnian Serbs are doing the thankless dirty work they've done for centuries, protecting Europe's flank from the encroaching Arab hordes.

My God, he shouts, spittle flying. What would you do if someone wanted to rape your daughter?

This last is all the more odd because at the time it is, of course, the Bosnian Serbs, not the Muslims, who are conducting a campaign of mass rape and murder against Bosnian Muslim women and girls.

The colonel's rant closely tracks propaganda the Milosevic regime has been beaming from Belgrade since before the war began, shrewdly exploiting fears that go back to World War II, when extremist Croats slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Serbs with the help of some Muslim collaborators.

Popovic has just heard that he's been placed on the list of suspected war criminals by the U.N. commission gathering evidence of war crimes. He is bitter about that. I am not a war criminal, he says. This is a good camp. A military camp. The Serbs were U.S. allies in World War II. "Same side!" he cries. "Same side!"

He subsides. Yes, we can enter. Anyone is welcome at his camp, he says, talk to whomever you like, he says, as he staples two hulking Serb guards to our sides.

There is one condition for entry, however. Under no circumstances are we to tell the prisoners of the agreement, brokered by the International Red Cross, to close the camp in two days and set the men free.

Inside the barns, thin, sickly men sit on the floor on thin gray blankets and shiver, still dressed in the clothes they were wearing when forced out of their villages in the spring and summer. All ages, all professions. Veterinarians, mechanics, truck drivers. The lucky ones. Survivors.

In a small, round shed, we find a makeshift hospital, where a few dozen gaunt men lie on pallets around a wood stove. These are tuberculosis cases, dysentery. They are receiving some kind of treatment. But in hopelessness it resembles something. What? I remember. The photographs of Auschwitz and Treblinka. Prisoners weak from hunger and cold and disease, lying on wooden bunks, staring into the camera's eye. Who took those pictures?

Two young Bosnian Muslim doctors, also prisoners, approach, ostentatiously ignoring the guards. Is it true? one asks, his face pinched and desperate and fierce. Is it true we are going to be released?

Silence as we all stare at one another. Twist the possible consequences like a Rubik's cube. What would be the penalty for telling? Could the doctors be arrested and separated from the group? Hustled out of the shed and what? Shot? Unlikely. Beaten? Would the commandant detain us? For how many hours, how many days? Would telling delay the camp closure?

Not knowing what to say, I lie.

"I don't know," I say.

The doctor's face collapses in disappointment. I try to meet his eye, in the absurd hope that he will guess that I have lied, but his eyes are far away, and he sinks back onto a bunk. Visit over, we trudge back to Popovic's office, where the commandant dispenses European Community oranges and foil-wrapped chocolate bars from crates of EC booty intended for the prisoners.

Within the week, more or less on schedule, the camp is closed, and the prisoners are released to the International Red Cross. But not all of them. The night before the release, 539 men are separated from the group at gunpoint, marched onto buses and trucks and driven away, disappeared. When I hear about it later, I wonder if my doctor was among them, and whether the information I withheld might have made it more difficult to separate the unlucky 539 from the others.

It seems only logical that 539 men might not have been so easy to load onto buses if they had known, and their captors had known they'd known, that they were to be released in two days' time. You can shoot one or two or even 10 prisoners, but you can't shoot 539. Not if the International Red Cross is on the way.

IT IS APRIL 1996. George Kenney's stationery now reads "George Kenney Consulting."

I know this because I have received a copy of a letter on his new letterhead. It is an angry letter. It threatens legal action against a former State Department colleague with whom Kenney has had a bizarre encounter during a small Dupont Circle lunch hosted by the German government.

Kenney was talking to a German diplomat when the former colleague, overhearing the conversation, began shouting, "You're a liar! Everyone in Washington knows you're a liar!"

Kenney says later that he was discussing the wisdom of the Western allies' diplomatic recognition of Bosnia in 1992; the colleague is equally certain that he objected when Kenney began suggesting, falsely, that he had suppressed dissent within the department that year. After their exchange, Kenney went home and fired off his letter, to the former colleague's new boss at a foundation doing development work in Bosnia. The tone is aggrieved, indignant, fragile: "I am not a liar," the letter asserts. It demands an apology and threatens a court injunction if one is not forthcoming.

There are two ways to resign over policy differences in Washington. There is the quiet, gentlemanly exit, made with obsessive care not to embarrass the boss. This is followed by a retreat to a Dupont Circle think tank where you bide your time, await a change in the political weather, and plot reentry.

That was the path of national security adviser Anthony Lake, who quietly resigned as a young aide to then national security adviser Henry Kissinger to protest the invasion of Cambodia, went on to run a private volunteer organization, and eventually returned to government as head of the State Department's office of policy planning in the Carter administration. "People who resign like that," Kenney says, "stay in the club."

Then there is the Kenney way. Resign noisily. Alert the media. Become the media.

Four years after the Bosnian war began Kenney is still speaking out, still writing, still opining -- he's had nearly 50 op-eds and articles published so far. But the speaking engagements and invitations are fewer, and he is struggling to make a life on the fringes of the club.

People are cordial, but cool. And some senior officials, like former U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia Warren Zimmerman -- a senior player in the Bush administration's handling of the war -- back away, Kenney says, "as if I had a communicable disease or something."

There are weeks where he has two or three Bosnia-related events to attend every day -- a reception at the Embassy of Croatia, a meeting of former White House fellows. Sometimes he is invited. Sometimes he wangles an invitation. Sometimes he just slips in quietly and stands in the doorway.

In February he decided to skip a panel discussion hosted by two of the State Department interventionists who resigned after him. He wasn't invited, and didn't crash. "I didn't want to show my face. Those people hate me," he explains. "It's sad, but why should I subject myself to being insulted, and reviled, or possibly just ignored?"

Kenney is not the only one whose views on the Bosnian war have changed or evolved. There has been flux in almost everyone's position. Some who were adamantly opposed to intervention in 1992 were just as adamantly for it by 1995. There has been a lot of jostling. But some have moved more easily between the competing camps than others. "People more diplomatic than me, who don't arouse the animosity I do," he says.

Not everyone disapproves of his flip-flop. At State, a desk officer in the region finds Kenney's changing views "helpful and interesting," his analysis "cautious and thorough" -- and more honest than those whose position on the war stayed frozen at intervention.

Others, who disagree with his conclusions, nonetheless admire his persistence. His stubbornness.

But to many former colleagues and others who consistently pushed for U.S. action to stop the war, George Kenney is a man who has focused on the details and lost the larger picture. They disagree with his facts and disdain his analysis.

His criticisms -- of the Bosnian government's competence, of its gradual radicalization after years of punishing assault -- strike these people as naive and ludicrously puritanical. Part, perhaps, of what some observers and analysts see as a larger, psychological syndrome peculiar to all wars -- that of punishing the victim, blaming the underdog, feeling contempt for the annoying Muslims who won't ease our own guilty consciences by giving up.

"Kenney had a fine moment -- not without guile, but it was guile constructively applied," one says. "But now he's a guy roaming around Washington without perspective or prospects, revising his positions every five minutes."

"He's irrelevant," says another testily.

The suggestion that he changed his views to enhance his marketability brings a derisive snort from Kenney. Since his shift away from advocacy of airstrikes and military intervention and toward coercing the Bosnians to settle, his modestly lucrative college speaking invitations have dried up. The Bosnian president's personal representative in Washington cornered him at a State Department reception and called him a turncoat. The nongovernmental organizations that distribute humanitarian aid mistrust him.

Two years ago, he was asked to leave his Carnegie office. It had nothing to do with policy differences, Morton Abramowitz says. "I just thought we had better things to do with that space than support George."

Well-wishers still stop him and congratulate him on his courage. But in bureaucratic, professional settings, a man who suddenly, publicly resigns is suspect. Even in consulting outfits, where, he says, the tolerance for a certain level of flamboyance -- "some of those guys are weirdos, but in the good sense" -- is higher. "In the back of people's minds you know they're thinking, Well, if you would do this to the State Department, how can you be trusted?' "

Four years. In Bosnia, the war is over, for now.

Last summer, in July, the Bosnian Serb assault on the U.N. safe area at Srebrenica and the Serb massacre of as many as 8,000 Bosnian Muslims finally moved the Clinton administration and the French and British to agree on airstrikes.

The bombing lasted three weeks and aimed not just to punish the Serbs but to weaken them militarily. Antiaircraft guns were hit, communications facilities, weapons depots. By September, the Bosnian army and Croatian forces, strengthened by more than a year of secret arms shipments from Iran, were advancing on the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Banja Luka. The Serbian president and the Bosnian Serbs moved to the peace table and into talks that would produce the Dayton accords two months later.

The accords are not perfect: They give 49 percent of Bosnia to the Serbs, and 51 percent to the shaky Muslim-Croat federation. But interventionists and noninterventionists concede they may be the best anyone is going to get.

Looking back, Kenney says he's been on a learning curve on Yugoslavia ever since he resigned. He's told the truth as he has seen it, no matter what the consequences. He didn't change his views lightly.

He waves away the call to arms of his resignation letter and his early op-eds on Bosnia, the cry-of-genocide writings. Bosnia wasn't a moral issue for him, he insists. It was a political one. Strategic. He never said when he resigned that we had forever to intervene in Bosnia. He figured we had five or six months, a year at most. By the spring of 1993, when the Croats and Muslims were at war with each other, the moment had passed.

"I want to be judged for the quality of my arguments -- have I raised the quality of op-eds having to do with the Balkans? That's important to me," he says. "I wouldn't matter at all if what I had to say didn't resonate and persuade and cause people to think."

He made mistakes, he admits. His notion of putting 100,000 ground troops in Bosnia to disarm everyone was wrong, as was his Cassandra-like warning, in September 1992, that Bosnia could lead to a wider European war involving Albania, Greece, Turkey and the Islamic countries. But about the larger issue -- whether in 1993 he gave up on the Muslims too soon, erred in advocating that the war was lost and the Bosnians should settle -- he gives no ground.

In fact, the man who once cried genocide has traveled so far in the opposite direction that he no longer accords the Bosnian Muslims any victim status at all. Instead he draws a rough equivalency. The Serbs have rights, too.

Take the discussion we have about Srebrenica last November, as details about the extent of the massacre continue to emerge.

Srebrenica, a U.N.-protected Muslim "safe area," finally fell in July after five days of bombardment by combined Bosnian Serb and Serb forces. Three thousand of the town's Muslim men and boys were executed by the Serbs and buried in mass graves. An additional 5,000 are missing and presumed executed. It was the largest mass execution in Europe since the Nazi era.

A month after the massacre, before-and-after satellite photographs showing soccer fields first crowded with prisoners and then empty and marked by what appear to be bulldozed grave sites were used by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright to persuade the French and British governments to authorize the late-summer airstrikes that marked the beginning of the end of the war. On August 16, David Rohde of the Christian Science Monitor, the first Western reporter to visit Srebrenica grave sites, discovered fields littered with blindfolds, bone fragments and scraps of clothing.

But this day in November, Kenney is skeptical. On the micro and macro levels.

"Polling data show the American public believes there's some kind of genocide going on in Bosnia, but the numbers don't add up," he says.

The news media's and the Clinton administration's handling of Srebrenica has been sensational, he complains. How do we know it was a massacre of civilians, he demands. Yes, it is reasonable to conclude there are mass graves, but we don't know how many people are buried in them. And we don't know they're civilians. They could have been Bosnian government soldiers killed in straightforward fighting with Serb troops. All we have are aerial photos of some bulldozed burial sites. His sources in the intelligence community, he says, are part of a minority who want to stick to what we know factually.

Why hasn't anyone been in to check? he asks with exasperation. The uproar over Srebrenica is part of mistaken Western eagerness to make martyrs out of the Bosnian Muslims, "when what we ought to be doing is saying they're all crazy and we should stop them all."

I look at Kenney and it is as if I am looking at him through the wrong end of a telescope. He is sitting at the table, but he has gotten very, very small. No one has been in to check ? The Serbs have sealed the area. For months after the executions, no one -- not U.N. investigators, not the International Red Cross -- has been allowed in. Rohde was arrested and detained by the Bosnian Serbs in late October, three months after the massacre, for attempting to reenter the area. No one is getting in.

Kenney blinks in surprise. Really? he says. Are you sure?

In the weeks and months ahead, Kenney will be proved narrowly right about the presence of Bosnian soldiers among the Srebrenica dead. He will also be proved very wrong.

When Serb tanks rolled into Srebrenica at 3:15 a.m. on July 6, they found a deserted town. The enclave's 40,000 residents and refugees had fled. A group of about 25,000 went to the U.N. base at Potocari, two miles due north. There, they met the Bosnian Serb commander, Gen. Mladic, who demanded of the United Nations and was granted -- despite the pleas of the Muslims -- the right to transport them out of Serb territory. As they had in other ethnic cleansing operations, Mladic and his lieutenants separated the able-bodied men and boys from the group. The men and boys were loaded onto trucks, and have never been seen again. They are missing and presumed dead.

Fearing Mladic, another group of between 12,000 and 14,000 men and boys -- among them Srebrenica's force of 3,000 lightly armed Bosnian government troops -- headed west in brigade formation, hoping to reach safety in the Bosnian-held town of Tuzla. They didn't get far. Near the village of Lehovici, about a mile northwest of Srebrenica, this group came under rocket and tank attack from Serb forces. Only half survived. Some died during ambushes. Others followed Serb orders to surrender and were executed afterward. Intercepts of radio communications, published later in Newsday, reveal that Serb commanders ordered field officers to surround and disarm the fleeing Muslims, and kill them.

The aborted trek to Tuzla might remotely be called a military operation, all of its members potential soldiers. But according to reports of survivors, it was more like a scene from the "Inferno," with Muslim men and boys hallucinating, turning on each other in panic and confusion.

You see, Kenney says later, skepticism "is not the same as saying nothing happened at all."

Four years immersed in Bosnia. Right or wrong, up or down, he is growing weary of it.

He's nearly 40 now, with no job, no health insurance and about $18,000 in savings. Time to start thinking about socking money away for retirement, he says. Time to think about making a living.

One morning, during a phone conversation, he breaks to take another call. "It's Saks Fifth Avenue," he says, back on the line. "They want their bill paid. They know I'll {deal} with it. This has been going on for years."

He's spent much of the past year drawing up proposals for development projects in Bosnia. One idea -- a multimillion-dollar plan to place several thousand retired U.S. military officers in Bosnia, directly under NATO command, to build housing and other infrastructure -- has been circulated by friends at the Pentagon and the White House, but so far has found no patrons.

He'd like to make his living as a writer. He has no intention of being a lifelong scholar of Bosnia, but he has been thinking about writing a book. It would be a way to achieve closure. He even has a title in mind. Above the Tide of Hours. From a Yeats poem, "The Rose of Battle."

"It's about people who die in wars for meaningless reasons," he says. "And it's about the feelings people have toward that kind of tragedy. In a metaphysical sense it's about how we understand the meaning of life." FOUR YEARS. The war is over in Bosnia. Water closes over the past. Grass grows over graves. In Sarajevo, the coffee bars are open, the streetcars run. In The Hague, war crimes trials for the handful of the indicted begin. In Belgrade and Bosnia, the top war criminals -- Slobodan Milosevic, Ratko Mladic, Radovan Karadzic -- are free men. The Americans and their allies debate whether to arrest them, whether there can be free and fair elections held in September. U.S. troops are scheduled to leave in December, but senior Defense Department officials admit privately that at least 5,000 are likely to stay behind. No one knows for how long. A U.S. government poll finds that war crimes trials are a distant last on the list of priorities for a majority of the Bosnian population -- Serb, Croat and Muslim alike.

The war loosens its grip on me, too. It recedes in memory, and in my bones. I don't jump at the sound of backfires anymore. Place names once as familiar as my own begin to elude me. And why not? No one in my family was killed. I did not see anyone's throat cut, I did not pull any triggers. That was there, then. I am here.

But it is not really over. One day, sifting through notes for this article, I come across a booklet of war crimes evidence. Names, places, stories. As I sit at my desk at The Washington Post in the middle of a fluorescent afternoon, a green wave of fatigue and grief curls up out of nowhere and washes over me. My eyes sting, the page blurs. A weight of water holds me down.

That is how it is. Just like that, the war can roar up out of the past and plant itself in the road like one of those Serb tanks, massive and implacable, menacing and accusatory. Its gun swivels toward you. You stand before it. There is no talking to it, no bargaining with it. It is not interested in explanations, or excuses.

Fall 1995. I am standing with a resignee on the corner of Pennsylvania and 20th. Another former State Department analyst -- an interventionist, a refugee from the Bush administration still toiling away on the Bosnia issue. After lunch. He has been going over the past, over the policy, the players. What could have been done, what wasn't done.

"Bosnia happened here," he says, jabbing the air in the direction of the State Department and, across the river, the Pentagon. Bosnia came to matter so much precisely because we tried to pretend it didn't matter, "that we didn't have to be involved. That these were inferior people."

It wasn't Vietnam, it wasn't Somalia. "It was a lousy little few days of airstrikes," he says, shouting above the cold damp wind and the traffic. "It was tin pot war criminals with big hair. The Bosnian Serb republic was a shabby suburb with a ski resort for a capital. The Bosnian Serbs weren't the Red Army. It's 500,000 people, for God's sake. And we can't deal with it?

"This policy came from the most established, expert, authoritative voices in the U.S. government: James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger, Scowcroft, Zimmerman. It was Carrington, Vance, the solons of Western policy. It was the adults who did this, not the children. This was the Powell Doctrine. This was Washington's wisdom distilled.

"These people should all be fired," the man says, angrily. "It could not have been a worse policy. It would be hard to gather a group of sophomores at a second-rate community college and come up with a worse policy. Every official above the level of deputy secretary in this town has blood on his hands."

Nobody will be fired, of course. Nobody will fall on his sword. The most visible faces of our early Bosnia policy -- the Bakers, Eagleburgers and Zimmermans -- have faithfully discharged their public responsibilities. They are safely ensconced now in law firms and think tanks and consulting firms.

The real war is over. But another war is still being waged. In policy journals. At panel discussions. All over Washington, there is a quiet festival of recrimination, regret, revisionism. A senior State Department officer recalls a briefing in May 1992 -- at the height of ethnic cleansing -- by U.S. government satellite-imagery analysts. The analysts arrived with blowups showing Serb artillery around Sarajevo in extremely exposed positions, including six to 12 artillery pieces in the middle of a large field. Most of the guns, they said, could be destroyed in a single day of airstrikes. The officer wrote a memo to his superiors, he says, and received no response. Warren Zimmerman, the former U.S. ambassador to Belgrade, now at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, is quoted in a British newspaper as saying he supported preventive peacekeepers for Bosnia in 1991, but was overruled by Cyrus Vance, the U.N. mediator in the Balkans. "Had I been smart enough, I wouldn't have taken no for an answer," Zimmerman explains.

Inside the State Department on that sleepy Indian summer afternoon, after the NATO airstrikes, the soft-spoken Bosnia analyst sums up. "We all know that a bombing campaign like this one back in 1992 would have stopped the war in its tracks," he says. "But no one wants to talk about it. Very few people in positions of authority stand to gain from that."

Instead, we stayed out, for all the eminently reasonable reasons. Because it was too expensive, because it was too risky, because it wasn't our fight. Because we didn't want to get sucked into committing ground troops. Because there were no guarantees that bombing would work. Because recent history taught Washington that ideological and moral crusades lead to quagmires. Because the lessons of Vietnam and Somalia overrode the lesson of Nazi Germany and Munich, that it is costly to appease aggressors. Because the Cold War was over, with all the old assumptions swept away, and new ones refusing to be born.

The analyst sighs. It has been a long, depressing afternoon. Oh, what's the point? Whatever you think, whatever you write, he tells me, in the end will be just be another stack of paper on the Bosnia shelf.

Don't be too hard on the players, he says. Hindsight is 20/20. In Washington in 1992, you could only go so far if you wanted to be taken seriously and remain part of the gang making decisions. There were relatively few people who thought there was an American interest involved in Bosnia. And maybe it's a good thing that the huge U.S. military and political establishment is cautious, slow to react. Maybe it's designed that way, to keep us out of wars we shouldn't wade into.

The lessons of Bosnia will be debated for years to come, in foreign policy journals. Not to assay blame, but because Bosnia is connected to a lot of fundamental issues: what American interests are in the world, what the purposes of our foreign policy are, how European security can be ensured.

Outside the traffic hums. Oh, what's the point? Then the analyst recovers. It did matter what people in high places thought. It does matter if people in positions of power looked at Yugoslavia and saw the Soviet Union and believed the answer was keeping it together. Looked at the raggedy Bosnian Serbs and thought they were invincible. Looked at Milosevic and Izetbegovic and the rest and thought, they're all crazy, they're all liars.

We stayed out. When we might have gone in. And tens of thousands of people, maybe more -- choose whatever number works for you -- are dead. CAPTION: Three years after George Kenney took his stand, Serb forces sacked the village of Lehovici, right, and ambushed Muslims leaving Srebrenica. CAPTION: Senad Medanovic, left, and his brother visit the remains of their family home near Prhovo in 1995. Serbs killed their sister and three brothers in a 1992 onslaught. CAPTION: AMONG THE SERB-RUN prison camps was Manjaca, where 2,500 Muslim men were held in two large, unheated concrete barns in August 1992, four months into the "ethnic cleansing" campaign. CAPTION: FIVE-YEAR-OLD IRMA Hadzimuratovic, wounded by a Serb shell that killed her mother, lies in a Sarajevo hospital in August 1993. Airlifted to England, she died of a blood infection at the age of 7. CAPTION: HUMAN RIGHTS INVESTIGATORS for the United Nations found this field littered with skeletons, pieces of clothing and burnt ID papers of Muslim refugees outside Srebrenica in early February 1996. CAPTION: IN THE BITTER winter of 1993, new graves were added daily to what had once been a Sarajevo soccer field. CAPTION: Bush: a hands-off policy. CAPTION: Baker: the war as forest fire. CAPTION: Eagleburger: "Who knows Kenney?" CAPTION: Kenney: a learning curve.