Britain's low, dishonest decade
by Marcus Tanner
Unfinest Hour: Britain and the destruction of Bosnia by Brendan Simms, Allen Lane, London 2002, £18.99
This is a book about grovelling: that is, a book about how the British establishment – Parliament, Army, Foreign Office and Fourth Estate – grovelled before Serbia's murderous dictator Slobodan Milosevic and his storm troopers in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995. Let's start with a photograph. It shows General Sir Michael Rose, British head of the UN peacekeepers in Bosnia, having what looks like a fantastic time with a mass murderer, Ratko Mladic, later indicted as a war criminal by the Hague tribunal.
Rose is a central character in the book. He epitomized everything that was rotten, wrong and plain wicked about British policy in the Balkans. The book shows him to have been a mean-spirited bully towards the Muslims, and obsequious when it came to dealing with Mladic. Such was the climate of philistine Islamophobia at Rose's HQ that when he chanced on President Izetbegovic listening to classical music, he wondered how a Muslim could possibly appreciate its ‘Christian sentiments’.
As Simms makes clear, Rose was not isolated in his doltish prejudices. All the departments of the British state and the two main political parties were as good as united in the belief that helping Bosnia (and Croatia) survive the Serb onslaught meant subscribing to some mysterious German conspiracy to take over the world. This phobia informed Britain's hostility to the American proposal to ‘lift and strike’, meaning lift the arms embargo on Bosnia and strike the Serb armies encircling Sarajevo.
This opposition took Britain far down the road towards condoning Serbia's genocidal war aims. Listen to this. ‘The Serbs are one of the bravest, fiercest, most patriotic races on earth and always have been – Greater Serbia is a dream that will never die.’ The voice of Milosevic? No, this is a British MP, Sir Peter Tapsell, in May 1995, three years after the gigantic massacres in the Drina valley and two months before Mladic exterminated the entire male Muslim population of Srebrenica, all 7,000 of them.
And here is Tam Dalyell, the revered Labour ‘Father of the House’, coming up with the strange remark that the Serbs could not be guilty of ethnic cleansing because the Bosnian Muslims were not an ethnic group; they were the grandchildren of apostate Christians who had betrayed their faith under the Turks. Where did Dalyell get this tripe from? It sounds just like history according to Tanjug, Milosevic's ‘news’ agency, which churned out mountains of pseudo-historical rubbish throughout the war.
There is a happy ending of sorts. In 1995 the Americans put Britain back in the box. They did what all the British generals and their smart-arsed media allies said was certain to bring the house down: they lifted and they struck. And no, there was no new Nazi German Reich and no Third World War. What happened was that the Greater Serbia that Tapsell had confidently prophesied fell apart, and Sarajevo's miserable three-year siege ended.
Some books are hard to put down. This one is hard to pick up and read for any length of time, so excruciating are the remarks and actions it records. Talk about a low, dishonest decade! Reading it made me want to throw my passport on the nearest rubbish heap, so total is the indictment not merely of the British state but of the British intelligentsia, too, from top to bottom and left to right. And how curious that two of the handful of parliamentarians to emerge with any credit on the business were David Trimble and Iain Duncan Smith.
Here we are, a few years on, and wondering why so many Muslims round the world – not to mention here – distrust and despise our much-proclaimed ‘values’. Want to know why? This book provides part of the answer.
This review appeared in The Independent (London), 13 November 2002