Catherine Baker

Introducing ‘The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s’: why like this, why now?

After a little bit more than two years of preparation, my introduction to The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s is about to be available (at least in Europe, where it’s being published on 7 August; North America has a publication date of 21 August) – much more quickly than I’d originally expected when I submitted the manuscript in December 2014, but Palgrave were keen to make it available in time for the new academic year and with hard work from their editors and typesetters that’s what’s happened.

Cover of 'The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s'

Now in a bookshop near you! Or at least I hope so.

I’ve written before on this blog about how I went about planning the book and what it contains, but now readers are about to be able to use it for themselves I ought to say something about what I hope the book will make it possible for people to do.

It might be counter-intuitive in an introductory text, but for me the most important rationale of writing the book has been: make it a book that encourages people to read more books. I really hope this won’t be the one and only thing somebody reads – and I hope I’ve conveyed the importance of following up books that sound as if you’ll disagree with them, as well as books that sound as if they’ll confirm your point of view or your way of looking at the past.

That said, there are people for whom it might be the first book on the Yugoslav wars that they read, or for whom it’ll be the first one with academic authority that they turn to in order to fill in the context behind what they’ve heard about the wars through news, entertainment or travel. This is a huge responsibility, but it’s the same one that I face multiple times a year along with anyone else who finds themselves structuring a course of learning: defining a subject of knowledge (what is there to be known about? what is and isn’t relevant?), ordering that into a coherent structure so that readers or learners are progressing through something, and doing that in such a way that they’re able to articulate their concepts of the topic and what kinds of questions they can ask about it. Only this time, it’s scaled up.

There’s also the question of who the hell am I to write this book – someone whose own specialist research has been on potentially tangential aspects of the wars and their aftermath (like national identity in popular music, or the international politics of the Eurovision Song Contest, or how peacekeeping forces get their translation and interpreting done). My research monographs haven’t been on questions of hard political and military fact that have to be established in determining individual guilt and responsibility, and I’m still earlier in my career than many of the people whose books are in the bibliography. (Yet I’ve been able to have the confidence that this book came about because the series asked me if I either knew anyone who could write the book or could do it myself, and I’d spent too long (ever since my first academic year of teaching in 2007-8) thinking about ‘what I’d want an intro text on the Yugoslav wars to do that no available book actually did’ to pass up the opportunity to try and tailor one to all the potential kinds of users that I was aware of.

And in a way, maybe it’s a strength of the book that it isn’t written from a position where the author takes ultimate academic authority about all aspects of the topic on themselves (even though the book still has to have the authority of organising this knowledge, which is a profound form of power to be exercising). I’m at the start of my career, not the end; I can’t take that position anyway. On most topics I need to cover, the experts are someone else more than me; I’m actively participating in taking research in south-east European studies forward (so I’ve been able to write the book with a feel for what’s happening in the subject area right now), but so are most of the people who are cited in the 400+ entries of the bibliography. And moreover, I don’t want a reader’s answer to ‘How do I know this?’ to just be ‘Because she said so.’

(Even if that’s still a novelty compared to ‘Because he said so.’ There are 35 other books in this series listed on the inside front cover of Yugoslav Wars, including people whose books were set texts for me when I was studying (Jeremy Black, William Doyle) or whose modules I took (David Stevenson), and apart from Karin Friedrich and Mary Fulbrook the authors of all the other books are male. It’s an eminent and almost disconcerting set of names to look at, especially when your surname is Baker and until the series commissions a book by someone whose name begins with A you’re going to be alphabetically top of the list – directly above Black, T C W Blanning, John Breuilly and Peter Burke, to make the list of contributors even more dizzying.)

But then, the most difficult parts of the book have been where I need to steer the reader towards evidence about what can be stated as fact – for instance, the horrific forensic evidence from mass graves around Srebrenica, as painstakingly collected since 1996 by the International Commission on Missing Persons (and despite the efforts there have been to interfere with their work by trying to argue down the number of casualties or even disturbing the graves). There’s an awful lot of misinformation around: being able to understand how narratives and interpretations are made to compete with each other is one thing, but will the reader be better equipped to see through deliberate attempts to mislead after they’ve read this book?

And another strength of the book is maybe that, of course, I don’t think the topics I’ve researched are marginal to understanding the Yugoslav wars at all – or rather, that I’ve been able to demonstrate they all have something to say about the much wider question of what is relevant to know about war, conflict and identity. Understanding how musicians, journalists and the public dealt with issues of national identity in popular music helps to show how far the struggles to redefine Croatian national identity during and after the Yugoslav wars reached into everyday life as well as the more obvious communicative sites of political speechmaking and the news. Suggesting why the national broadcaster of newly-independent Croatia was so intent on participating in the Eurovision Song Contest can help in understanding how people actually apply and create discourses of national and European identity and how these might have been transforming after the Cold War. Emphasising how dependent peacekeeping forces were on locally-recruited language intermediaries and how interpreters negotiated the aftermaths of war and the collapse of Yugoslav socialism reveals power relationships in wartime and post-conflict society that had been taken for granted even in earlier peacekeeping research.

So the book has a chapter on ‘Culture and Languages During and After the Wars’ not just because rounding up the key debates on this topic automatically makes the book more useful in languages and literature departments (it does, though!) but because my position as a researcher has always been we can’t understand the full reach of the wartime politics of nationalism without going into these areas. There’s a chapter on ‘The Past on Trial’ not just so that the book might appeal more to scholars who are planning a comparative research project on transitional justice and need a quick introduction to the Yugoslav Wars (although that’s still a need I hope it meets), but because as someone who wants to understand the political lives of narratives, I can see (along with the historians whose very recent publications on the ICTY made this chapter possible) the contested findings and processes of the ICTY and national courts raise profound questions about the production of historical knowledge itself.

I could fall back here on many historians (in social history, cultural history, gender history, global history…) who have striven to take the study of war beyond the battlefield and the negotiating table, or (to take one very recent statement of a position like this) on Christine Sylvester’s position in War and Experience that ‘war should be studied as a social institution’, the kind of thing that ’emerge[s] over time and dominate[s] alternative ways of living to such a degree that they seem normal and natural, or at least unavoidable’ (p.4): to paraphrase Sylvester’s list, it’s the myths and the narratives and the peacetime practices and the weapons research and the religious teachings and the popular cultural representations, as well as the troop movements and the consequences of combat. All this would be part of a whole layer of texts that space prevented me fitting into the introduction yet that have shaped how I wanted to approach writing the book – in other words, works that have shaped my understanding of what things are worth knowing about war.

Nevertheless, the book has limitations, beyond the ones that I can re-cast as perverse strengths, such as the restricted word count – books in the series have a limit of 50,000 words, but then knowing I wouldn’t be able give an exhaustive account of any single aspect of the conflicts was counter-intuitively what made it feasible for me to think about writing it at all. I can’t cover the minutiae of any of the many disputes in the literature that there have been; the best I can do on that score is try to indicate where works have been in direct conflict with each other.

In order to make the word count, I also cut back the long-term historical background by almost a half at a late stage, and compressed the complexity of a lot of my discussion of interpretations of the past before 1918, so that the rest of the chapters would fit. So there’s exciting new work on, for instance, nationalism, ethnicity, language and religion in the late Ottoman/late Habsburg period; or the politics of the first Yugoslav state between the World Wars; or on the history of socialist Yugoslav feminism and its implications for understanding women’s movements worldwide; that the reader isn’t going to get to hear about or where I haven’t been able to let the writing slow down and ask the reader to think about what these historians might be trying to do.

No doubt it’s also going to dissatisfy specialists in other ways. Almost every sentence of the book relates to something that there are whole books about; I’ve had to condense arguments and pick out details while striking a balance between what existing publications have collectively constructed as important and what I can add in order to suggest how frameworks for understanding the wars could still expand. None of this is innocent or value-free work. I go back, again, to David Campbell’s 1998 review article ‘MetaBosnia‘, which compared how many of 32 events between 1990 and 1992 a number of published books on the Bosnian conflict had mentioned or left out. (And those 32 events were themselves the active selection of an author, of course.) Campbell suggested the deepest understanding of the past would have to come from reading multiple accounts, and I tend to agree even though it’s always possible to say (within the framework of the political and intellectual standards anyone has acquired) that some accounts are more comprehensive or rigorous than others. Nevertheless, part of understanding the past is seeing how disagreement about interpreting it works, and one has to look at multiple accounts in order to be able to do that.

There’s a politics of knowledge behind everything I choose to mention or omit – when I say to myself ‘that has to be in there’ because the account would be incomprehensible without it, or it would simply feel unethical (except that ethics aren’t ‘simple’) to leave it out; when I say to myself ‘put this in because most accounts wouldn’t think to mention it and it will help to make this my book’; when I choose to take one recent publication as a worked example of how researchers try to create new historical interpretations from fresh evidence, rather than another; when I don’t even view something as relevant enough to add it to my notes at planning stage, or when I reluctantly decide one week from deadline that it’s just going to have to go. I’ve at least tried to be transparent about where and how I have simplified – though I could drill down into almost every sentence and show that something more ought to be there.

The limitation I’m most conscious of, and where I still don’t think I’ve done a good enough job, comes from the politics of translation that have structured what work I was able to cite for an anglophone reader. If the reader can only be expected to have access to sources written in English, there are too many occasions where I could only cite an article or book chapter by someone whose book-length research published in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian has been agenda-setting, and one or two occasions where the citation I needed wasn’t available in English translation yet at all. This isn’t good enough. In future I need to see what I can do to help make more research from the post-Yugoslav region available in translation – I’ve brought this up as a problem for years when writing book reviews, but maybe I’m getting to be in a structural position where I could help change that. I didn’t centre the untranslated work enough in this one, and I think I got it wrong.

All that said, it still offers something that other books don’t – beyond, hopefully, what comes simply from having been written now, rather than in the late 1990s or immediately after the Kosovo War. (Although there is that too.) It shows how the contestation involved in historical research and representation is woven together with the very act of trying to be able to say something of what happened in the past; and using an authorial voice which is sometimes openly uncertain with the reader about how best to approach something still feels relatively unusual for an intro text, which I think is something distinctive about the book as well. For instance, how radically can or should one try to ‘deconstruct’ the idea of ethnicity or ‘denationalise’ history when people who have been persecuted as ethnic subjects demand to be recognised on that same basis? I don’t think it has a simple answer – indeed in different publications I’ve gone about it different ways myself – and the book certainly hasn’t found one, but I hope it’s something that the reader will be able to close the book and think about.

This ought to be leading up to a promotional message of ‘read the book’. But what I want to say is: read the book, and then read other books, and do things with the book, and recognise where limits of the book are (both the ones I’ve told you about and the ones that I was still too close to it to see). Don’t let me have the final word for you.

All right. Now read the book.

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Written by bakercatherine

7 August 2015 at 10:04 am

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