Review of the book by author Boštjan Videmšek 21st Century Conflicts: Remnants of War(s)

Review of the book by author Boštjan Videmšek, which was published in the journal European Perspectives, Vol 4, No 2 (7), pp. 144-148, Published by the Centre for European Perspective. Review written by Tom Hashimoto.

Boštjan Videmšek

21st Century Conflicts: Remnants of War(s) – Field Report from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, DR Congo, Somalia and Sudan

New York: Bookbaby

2012, 224 pages (including cover matter)

ISBN 9781623095918

by Tom Hashimoto

For many observers of modern European history, the Balkans often spell out military conflicts. International forces have intervened in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) as well as in Kosovo; even the basic domestic security seems to be provided by the outsiders as in the case during the Albanian unrest in 1997. Yet, the region has begun its transformation towards the role of a global security provider, most recently symbolised by the Croatian and Albanian accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). In this respect, our curiosity asks how the region perceives global security, and moreover, we wonder how such perspectives are communicated and constructed among the constituencies in South-eastern Europe. Thus, a prominent journalist Boštjan Videmšek’s field report 21st Century Conflicts: Remnants of War(s) provides us not only the information on various military conflicts in the world, but also a tool to analyse South-eastern European perspectives on global security.

Perhaps, being aware of such implication, the author states:

In-depth investigative journalism was replaced by images [...] These photographs [of wars] were the best possible reflection of the new mediated spirit of communication – reality shows and social networks – which replaced the old-school approach of informing the public. Professional ethics and authenticity are what suffered the most. (p. 7)[1]

At the same time, the author continues that ‘as a reporting witness I also reserved the right to prosecute and even pass judgment’ (p. 8). The readers then assume the normative characteristics of the book and may even deny the added academic/epistemological value of the author’s ‘judgements’. The reviewer, while acknowledging the highly emotional and sometimes colloquial writing style of the author, expresses the contrary: the author’s judgements are the essential epistemological guidance of the book. In short, the reviewer argues that how the author becomes informed of the security situation in the world and how he reacts to the reality on the field can be a miniature of how South-east Europe becomes informed and reacts. Of course, there always is a danger of over-generalisation. Nevertheless, given its journalistic quality, the book should be counted as rather a representative sample of the informed citizens in the region.

As the title suggests, the book contains five field reports, namely Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak), Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Sudan. The author admits that these regions are seemingly unrelated to each other, and that reporting them side-by-side seems inadequate, if not irrelevant. Yet, a war is a war. Irrespective to how media or the government informs people, Iraq is not the only war we are currently fighting. Thus, the subtitle ‘Remnants of War(s)’ – plural ‘s’ – suggests that how each war influenced the local community differs war by war. The rest of this review therefore recites some of the stories in the book in order to highlight the above points. In particular, due to their rich contents, the reviewer would like to focus on the first two chapters (i.e. AfPak and Iraq) in this occasion.

Chapter One deals with Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak), subtitled as ‘Graveyard of Empires’. The author does not immediately reveal which ‘empires’ he means. The chapter opens with the recent history of war in the region by theUnited States, alongside with a small reference to theSoviet Union, although neither superpowers are directly labelled as ‘empire’. The author begins a rather well-known comparison between Afghanistan and Vietnam wars, then moves to his geopolitical understanding of the region. Those who take the subject from the scholarly perspectives will find the geopolitical and historical observations presented here short of analysis. Yet, for the general public, this is an adequate introduction to AfPak.

Nonetheless, a valuable insight of this chapter comes from the author’s interview with a bookshop keeper. The author beautifully illustrates how the keeper is honoured – and even determined – to maintain the store in a time of difficulties. The then Taliban officials have raided the store and burned every books whichever seemed to be against their ideology or policies. Once the government was overthrown by the international force, the rebels can blow up the store any time as the symbol of resistance against the Western cultural invasion. Hope is held high by the keeper, but the risk never diminishes. This episode is concluded with the keeper’s quote which begins with ‘[y]es, the work I’ve chosen for myself is very dangerous’ (p.24). Life-or-death risks are not common among bookshop keepers in Western Europe. Thus, realising the other side of Taliban ideology coin, i.e. denial of non-Islamic literature, becomes so real in the readers’ mind almost to the point where it becomes surreal.

At the end of sub-chapter ‘The Americans Have Watches, We Have Time’, the author quotes the Marines who work at a checkpoint. The risk of suicide-bombing is high – that is something the readers are aware of. Then the story begins.

There could be no mistake: the car was coming straight at the Marines [...] Suddenly, the driver hit the brakes. Unleashing a cloud of dust, the car stopped mere five meters from the soldiers [...] At that moment the situation looked manageable enough to afford me the luxury of hoping none of the Marines would shoot. (p. 43)

The ‘luxury’ of hope – what a word choice! Then, a Marine was quoted: ‘I really don’t know why we didn’t shoot! We definitely should have – rules are rules! [...] [The driver] got lucky!’ To which the author replies: ‘Yeah? He [the driver] wasn’t the only one’ (p. 43). Alongside with the story of the bookshop keeper, the reviewer strangely finds a humane side of the military conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In contrast, Chapter Two ‘Iraq: The Unfinished War’ illustrates the situation in Baghdad, full of confusion, chaos, anger and frustration, many of them are directed towards the Americans. Several people are quoted that the international force led by the United States has intervened in Iraq and killed Saddam Hussein without deeper understanding of domestic and regional affairs. In other words, the intervention made the situation worse: picturesque description of corpses and violence in the city enhances such impression. The author seems to agree with many locals that strong economic opportunity motivated the American operation in Iraq. There is no academic argument here in the sense that none of the claims are supported by empirical evidence; at the same time, how people feel regardless of rationality matters a lot in a military conflict.

Speaking of emotion, the author tells us a story when he was with a military medical helicopter. While the sub-chapter title ‘Saving Private Carbajal’ reminds us a popular film few years ago, the image of military medics trying to help the soldiers reminds us another side of the coin. Whatever the intention of the country is – from oil to humanitarianism, those soldiers have their own motivations and judgements. Once on the field, those soldiers try their best to survive, and geopolitics is not a matter of great concern. This is something political scientists often forget. Citing an incident of civilian casualties in order to argue imperialistic attitude of the US is anecdotal, not analytical. Thus, journalistic approach to report and present as it is can be more comprehensive than mediocre analyses.

The chapter also contains three intriguing interviews. First, the author introduces an American soldier of Russian origin. He fought two years in Chechnya, won the US green card lottery, lost a job in the US, and then enlisted in the US Army. Chechnya was one of the bloodiest wars Russians fought since the World War II. The Russian-American soldier shows passionate affection towards a white dog during the interview, while he rather coldly admits his mass-killings in Chechnya. The order is the order: a harsh reality of the military personnel.

Second, the author tells a story of Saad al Dime Mohamed Ghieh, a ‘retired’ Iraqi insurgent who lives in Lebanon. The insurgent’s belief in the Holy War is striking due to his clearly visible hatred, but it is equally shocking to learn from him that he disapproves Muslims fighting against each other among various sectors. As is mentioned above for the US, the motivations (i.e. the Holy War) of the Muslim fighters on the ground are not necessarily shared by the Islamic authorities – they can be equally economic oriented like we generally observe from the US behaviours.

The chapter closes with the interview with Colin Powell. Powell admits that they were wrong in assuming the existence of the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but at the same time, he seems to be satisfied with the removal of Saddam Hussein. There was no regret we can observe from his replies. Then, the author questions the effectiveness of the so-called Powell Doctrine – absolute diplomatic emphasis with superior military power as the backup. The author further links the Doctrine with Afghanistan, and repeats the comparison between Vietnam and Afghanistan – the starting point of the Chapter One (AfPak). To which, Powell replies: ‘We have to be much more careful: nobody has succeed to coloniseAfghanistan, ever. And, throughout the history, there was no strong central government in the country’ (p. 135). The subtitle ‘Graveyard of Empires’ flashes back in the readers’ mind.

In essence, the interview with Colin Powell summarises the book’s premise to highlight the additional difficulties we face in the 21st century military conflicts. Throughout the book, the readers are constantly reminded of past wars such as Chechnya and Vietnam in a form of comparison. Beyond ideology and religion, the author also casts a light on individual motivations to fight. Complex mechanisms of the modern society is accurately reflected on the complexity of the modern warfare. Repeatedly, the American soldiers are quoted: we are not prepared for this. Perhaps, the world is not prepared for the complexity of the 21st century at all. Regardless of the author’s intentions and motivations to write this book beyond his pure journalistic devotion, 21st Century Conflicts: Remnants of War(s) makes the readers to think what security means in the contemporary world. This is, the reviewer believes, one of the core questions which the audience of this particular journal continuously asks within the context of South-eastern Europe and the Balkans. The book may not be suitable for citation in analysing Serbian geopolitics for instance. Although, it would be such a pity if that is the solo reason not to take a look at this emotional monograph.

[1] Quotations are from the electronic version of the book and page numbers may therefore not correspond exactly to the printed edition.