Friday, February 29, 2008

Getting a Grip: Hillary W. Bush's War

by Michael I. Niman

(Excerpt) Try this one out on your friends and family. Ask them to name all the wars that we’ve fought or funded since they were born. Few Americans can do this. Think about it. So many wars and so few concerns. Why do these wars start? How do they end? Do they end? Who gives a damn? Britney’s trying to have a baby.

The 1990s were a particularly bloody period—and a downright rough time to be a cartographer. Americans learned new words, like “Kyrgyzstan” and compound appellations like “Kohistan-Badakhshan.” Suddenly the Risk board sort of made sense, but maps had the shelf lives of tomatoes. We also lost terms like “Serbo-Croatian,” while dusting off old ones like “Balkanization.”

And then there was Kosovo. This was Bill and Hillary’s war. But let’s back up here—quite a bit. In the 1350s Kosovo was the heartland of Serbia, and the population was close to 90 percent ethnic Serbs. Now remember, this is a real slow-spinning part of the globe where people have long memories and somewhat short lives, and Kosovo still has a mythic lure for the Serbs. By the 1990s, however, no matter how the Serbs remembered it, Kosovo was close to 90 percent Albanian. Albania had undergone a rough few centuries, resulting in a country that really sucked by the end of the Cold War, hence the 500-year exodus.

When I was a kid, very few Americans were aware of the existence of Albania. It was, and still is for that matter, the poorest nation in Europe. During the Cold War it was run by a tragically comical and rather peculiar dictator, Enver Hoxha, whose legacy was cemented with his government’s construction of 750,000 odd little bunkers scattered around his gray-on-gray nation. Hoxha was a Stalinist to the end, even denouncing the Soviet Union when it finally denounced Stalin in the late 1950s. By the 1970s Hoxha had broken ties with both the Soviets and the Chinese, declaring his Hoxharian regime to be the only true communist nation. He had a mélange of silly followers among upper middle class college kids in the US, but little support in his own hunger-ravaged country. During his reign, Albania’s biggest export was people. Hoxha’s bunker-laden country was a twisted parody of itself.

Next door to Albania was Tito’s Yugoslavia. They held their own pretty well resisting the Nazis in World War II, eventually developing one of the Soviet Bloc’s strongest economies and all that wonderful infrastructure we’ve subsequently seen blown to hell in a nasty series of “my accent is purer than yours” wars. The idea that Hoxha’s Albania would one day rise and seize Yugoslavia’s historic heartland wasn’t on my radar any more than the possibility that my gerbil would escape and force my neighbor’s German Shepherd to learn ballet. ... Art Voice

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