Yugoslavia, the Avoidable War


A few years ago, during an anti- NATO rally in Daley Plaza, demonstrators wore photocopied posters decorated with big bull’s-eyes and the legend “I am proud to be Serbian / Kill me.” A similar if less histrionic sense of victimhood suffuses George Bogdanich’s 165-minute video documentary Yugoslavia, the Avoidable War, which details the breakup of the Balkan state between 1991 and 1999. Funded in small part by Milan Panic, a Serbian-American industrialist defeated by Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia’s 1992 presidential election, the video, showing this week at Facets Cinematheque, depicts the Serbs as oddly passive bombing targets who were smeared by American public relations firms, demonized by the international media, and scapegoated by Bosnian Muslim soldiers who blew up their own civilians in Sarajevo. Bogdanich, former executive director of the Serbian American Media Center in Chicago, concludes by charging that a “conspiracy of 19 NATO governments” violated international law when it bombed the Serbs. He dedicates his video to “all the victims of the war in and against Yugoslavia.”

Bogdanich is a dogged researcher but hardly a documentary stylist. His video unspools like a daylong seminar in a windowless briefing room, with talking heads, newspaper headlines, and archival video of diplomats and corpses illustrating a methodical time line of international intervention in Eastern Europe. It’s not so much uncinematic as anticinematic, its plodding tone a counterweight to the civil war’s escalating “battle of images, staged events, [and] false numbers,” which smack of Hollywood. “I was raised on American cowboy movies,” explains Bosnian filmmaker Ademir Kenovic in David Rieff’s 1995 book Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West. “In those films, the cavalry always comes at the end. And it may sound stupid to you, but when I look up at the sky and see the NATO planes flying overhead, I keep thinking, ‘Those planes are our modern cavalry, and yet they do nothing for us.'”

Bogdanich’s video argues that Americans bought into that myth as well, which allowed President Clinton to send in the cavalry in March 1999 when NATO began its aerial bombardment. David Owen, former European Union mediator for Yugoslavia, tells Bogdanich that Americans prefer dualities like “cowboys and Indians, good and bad….They like to see things in simple terms, there’s no doubt about that.” David C. Hackworth, a former military correspondent for Newsweek, concurs: “This is a part of our history, part of our culture. It’s promoted by the entertainment industry….We had a good guy and a bad guy, and we like to have a victim. So it was very easy to say, ‘Wait a minute–the Muslims are the victims, the Serbs are the bad guys, the Croatians are sort of the good guys because they’re like us,’ and so on.” John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s, adds: “It’s a simpler story if it’s a Serb holocaust against the Muslims than if it’s a civil war with atrocities on both sides.”

Bogdanich, appearing at Facets Friday, Saturday, and Sunday along with his video, thinks the Bosnian PR campaign against the Serbs, orchestrated largely by the D.C. firm Ruder Finn, included ghastly photo ops. According to the video, Owen, posted in Sarajevo, “quickly learned Muslims routinely staged incidents to turn world opinion against the Serbs.” Internationally broadcast massacres of civilians in the city on February 5, 1992, May 27, 1992, and August 28, 1995, were promptly blamed on Serb forces, but Bogdanich insists they were carried out by Bosnian Muslims. “The oldest trick of war,” Hackworth notes with admiration, “and we fell for it.” Anti-Serb forces in the media, Bogdanich argues, perpetuate this myth because the Serbs lack the PR apparatus to publicize the truth. “The Bosnians had a better press operation, pure and simple,” says MacArthur. “Serb public relations was so poor they weren’t doing what they need to do to get Serbs on television.”

Yugoslavia, the Avoidable War never tries to exonerate the Serbs for their transgressions, but it does insist on a more complicated history than we’ve been given, one in which Germany, the United States, NATO, and to a lesser extent Croatia, Slovenia, Albania, and Bosnian Muslims all contributed to the bloodshed. Early in the video the narrator asserts that “the obsessive attention of the press [toward] Milosevic served to divert the attention of the Western powers in making an avoidable war inevitable.” Predictably, Bogdanich has had no luck getting his video broadcast in the U.S. It can’t help that Milosevic, charged by a United Nations criminal tribunal with 66 counts of war crimes and genocide, screened a 45-minute excerpt of Yugoslavia, the Avoidable War at the Hague this past February in his defense. Bogdanich complained that his video had been hijacked. “Personally, I do feel bad about it,” his coproducer, Martin Lettmayer, told the Associated Press. “We didn’t make a film to defend Mr. Milosevic.” Yet video salvos, like smart bombs, can miss their intended targets.