Dreaming of Peace in Bosnia

A strange thing about human beings is that we fall into fantasy so often. A friend of mine who is in AA likes to quote the optimistic, humane AA saying that in order to lie to others, we must lie to ourselves first. Which reminds me of T.S. Eliot's "Go, go, go said the bird: Humankind cannot bear very much reality."

An old story recounts that combatants on the Republican side in the Spanish civil war made wooden tanks, as charms that might summon real ones. Salespeople promise the customer anything; really savvy salespeople ally themselves with implementation organizations that, they hope, will figure out how to do what they promised. Tax shelter promoters, before the tax laws changed in '87, created something which, on paper, looked like a real corporation, with a product and staff, but which were in reality just placeholders to justify tax deductions. I type a few pages once a month, ftp it to a web site on someone else's server, call it The Ethical Spectacle and believe that something exists, outside myself and my words, an institution with that name.

Humans are plain wishful, and the wish is often the template for a reality that comes later, and sometimes is the substitute for the reality. Yeats said, "Soon enough the dream had all my thought and love, and not the thing it was an emblem of." Zola said of the protagonist of one novel, "All his virility was wasted in dreams." Proust was ambivalent about dreams; he said, "If a little bit of dreaming is dangerous, that which cures it is not less dreaming but more." But then again he said, "It is rare that a fulfillment exactly meets the desire that summoned it." And Herzl, father of the modern idea of a Jewish state (though he wasn't sure if he cared whether it should be in Uganda or Israel) said, "If you will it, it is not a dream."

Mark Twain said there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics. I think there are three kinds of dreams: frauds, self deceptions, and blueprints. Which kind of dream is the peace agreement just announced for Bosnia?

Hemingway said that a writer should have a 99% infallible shit detector, and of course the advice is good for all human beings. Like Hamlet, we are but mad north by northwest, and when the wind is in the south, can tell a hawk from a handshaw. We can usually, not always, use our radar to tell when something has the feel of reality and when it is woven of dreams. Lets compare the Bosnian peace agreement to the Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

In the latter, you have two strong personalities, with a great deal of control over their respective peoples, who concluded it was time to stop fighting. In Bosnia, you have multiple players on the Serb side with limited control over one another, and the will to stop fighting is far more equivocal. Another way of saying this is that in the Middle East you have good faith, and in Bosnia you have none on the Serbian side of the equation. You also have outsiders, the mujahedeen, on the Moslem side who do not want to end the bloodshed. In the Middle East, you have a plan to separate, to yield land to form another country with its own borders, which will co-exist in security with Israel as long as good will exists on both sides. In Bosnia, you have a fantastical arrangement where all these factions, including the genocidal one, will live together as part of a single country, sharing power. In the Middle East, the two sides, when ready, approached and made peace with each other; in Bosnia, you have a brokered peace where the brokers decided almost everything and where some of the interested parties were not permitted to sit at the table.

The single most emphatic thing you can say about it is that a peace based on a plan as complex as a Rube Goldberg machine seems doomed to fail. This is not a matter of drawing a line between two factions. It is, instead, a complicated fiction, like one that you generate to control your own anxiety during an unsettling nightmare. These dream structures usually fail to preserve your sleep; when the United States wakes up, it will be deeply enmeshed in a Bosnian war as murky and as complicated as Vietnam, which we also entered in a dream state.

It is hard to say whether this peace is a fraud or a self-deception. Perhaps the president thinks it is the precursor, the template, for a real peace that will follow later. Perhaps it is the effort of a self-deluded amateur to appear to be a master of foreign affairs. Perhaps it is even electioneering. Whatever it is, it will lead to more bloodshed after we have been there a few weeks or months.

I believe we should be involved in Bosnia. It is hard to say it. The most alive I ever felt in my own life was when I opposed the Vietnam war in the seventies, so how can I advocate this intervention now? It is only because of the genocide; it would be hard to say what we stand for if we did not do something to stop it. Our self respect is deeply rooted in the idea that we will not see murder done and unpunished. It seems perverse to say that entering the war would have been better than fostering this peace, but it is true. It would have been both more honest and more effective. Lifting the arms embargo and engaging in more air strikes might have created the conditions for a real peace, not a dream one, later on, and at a smaller cost to American lives. Putting American troops on the ground in a dream state is insane, like sending them into Beirut was in 1982; they will be targets, lightning rods, when the conditions hardly exist for them to do any good. They will die for nothing. If the President really saw clearly--if he was possessed of Hemingway's shit detector--I don't think he would have sent troops to Bosnia to ensure this Byzantine and meaningless agreement.