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When History is a Nightmare is an ambitious book.
In Part One, entitled "Surviving Ethnic Cleansing," Weine explores the recollections of a few victims of ethnic cleansing and comments on their ways of coping with the horrors. Each of these chapters begins with a 'conversation' between Weine and a survivor, and then seamlessly develops some of the cultural, historical, and social issues that underlie and complement the survivor's recollection. Although Weine's psychiatric skills of listening and questioning are evident in these conversations, he manages to avoid casting these stories in a sterile, clinical light. In this sense, the author's writing is highly readable although the subject-matter itself is painfully horrific in its realism. The project is much more humanistic than psychiatric.
In Part Two, entitled "Producing Ethnic Cleansing," Weine studies Jovan Raskovic and Radovan Karadzic, two psychiatrists-cum-leaders of the Serbian nationalist movement. We learn about their biographies, motivations, conflicts, and even delve into a rather lengthy discussion of Karadzic's amateurish poetry. In the third chapter of this part, Weine scathingly attacks a pair of books written by contemporary Serbian psychiatrist-apologists as being too uncritical of the perpetrators and of 'trivializing' the ethnic cleansing.
In Part Three, "Remembering Ethnic Cleansing," Weine explores the roles of testimony and art for uncovering memories, communicating history, and for developing a social intelligence that can learn from these past experiences. Weine argues that holding and dealing with such memories is crucially important for resolving and preventing personal and social pathologies.
In each of these three parts, Weine works less as a scholarly, professional psychiatrist and more as a personal guide leading us through some very ugly terrain that has for him already become familiar. And, there is a welcome feeling that our guide is in a hurry - perhaps that there is much to see and little time to dally with too much scholastic trivia. When we are led into a café in which B. is recounting his days as a prisoner in a Serbian concentration camp - replete with castrations, hunger, and fickle, murderous guards - we stay only long enough to hear his most striking memories. Then, just as we are beginning to grasp the subtleties in his story, we are ushered away towards some other victim's narration.
Along the way between these stops, our guide gives us helpful commentary that transforms the bare, almost incredible facts into a meaningful story. Yet this commentary is an unclear mix of personal interpretation and professional evaluation. For example, after one encounter, Weine gives us:
"Youngsters are forced to come up with answers that really are no answers at all. The Second Yugoslavia is dead. And Bosnia-Herzegovina can not be what it once was. Is there a way these young people's refusal to identify with a particular ethnic ground can have any validity or consequence? The young may be the only ones brash enough to actually say it, or fluid enough to actually change their identity. The fate of living memories of multi-ethnicity and merhamet depends in large part on the younger generation, vulnerable yet powerful, as a bridge to the future." (21)
Poetic? Yes. Compelling? Definitely. But, correct? Well, I think so. But I am left with the feeling that whatever truth is in this passage may be little more than superficial - perhaps gleaned too quickly and easily. Of course, other authors will give us entire books about multi-ethnic children and their unique issues. Weine here gives us two pages.
Weine's strategy is not accidental, however. In his preface, he explains his technique.
"The narrative and the biographical structure are capable of supporting a reality, a complexity, and a truth often lost in the more analytical forms of discourse common to my profession. My intent is to give the reader direct access to actual voices, and to better show how ethnic cleaning has worked its way into people's lives and memories." (x)
He later offers that, "I am searching for meanings that emerge indirectly. The approach is as literary as it is scientific; dialogic not monologic." (xi) Yet, some of Weine's more 'literary' renderings seem themselves to be monologic - standing as pat, singular interpretations, rather than as the result of a more comprehensive, scientific dialogue. We are not offered multiple interpretations to entertain and choose amongst, as we might in a more analytical work.
Rather, Weine sometimes writes almost impressionistically - hoping that by merely experiencing the survivor's stories vicariously through his narrations, the readers will naturally come to his interpretations and conclusions. And frankly, he is right. I came away persuaded. I feel that I now have some grasp of the lives, hopes, and crises of the former Yugoslavia and its survivors. It is just that I also have a nagging conscience reminding me of the narrowness of my experience. I am afraid that for an issue as trenchant as ethnic cleansing, it may be more dangerous to have confident but unfounded conclusions than to have no conclusions at all.
Weine's book is by no means narrow in its subject-matter. He touches on: inter-ethnic marriage, criticisms of the United Nations, memory as a ground for social morality, the challenges of refugees in America, the construction of psychoses, the social deification of doctors, urbanism, the identity of Europe and the Balkans, the impact of communist cultural censorship, fundamentalism, the social responsibilities of psychiatrists, the need for a permanent UN war crimes court, and discontinuities in the lifepaths of trauma survivors. Any one of these issues could have been the topic for his relatively short 230 page book. But together, they paint a picture of the multifaceted chaos that is ethnic conflict. We get the sense that nothing here is simple, that everything is interconnected, and that the ethnic cleansing is not a psychiatric, geographic, military, or political issue, but fundamentally a human problem of persons.
So if you are looking for a deep and careful study of the psychological issues that afflict ethnic cleansing survivors, then I suppose that this book is not your source. If you want, on the other hand, a compelling and touching tour through a recent crisis of human history and a casual chat with a knowledgeable, connected, and compassionate person, then Stevan Weine's book is the perfect choice.
Christopher Robertson is a graduate student and fellow at the Philosophy Department at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri. He works on philosophical approaches to practical problems of morality, governance, and international affairs.
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