What’s the (noncrass, noncommercial) point of collecting war essays? Vindication? That would presume an argument ever ends. Artifact? Histories do a better job. Voyeurism? No, the point has to be recontextualization. We compile and reexamine war essays to learn what an old crisis can say about a present one. Mark Danner, one of the finest war essayists working, offers something even rarer in Stripping Bare the Body, a collection that builds a critique of the American view of war through aggregation, connecting the horrors of the world that the essays seek to rectify.
The book’s reportage is divided into three sections: post-Duvalier Haiti, the atrocities of the Balkan wars, and the permanent emergency, in Iraq and beyond, that Danner memorably termed the “forever war” in a 2005 New York Times Magazinepiece. Each period shows Danner’s maturation: In Haiti, he gave a reporter’s tour, but by the time he reached Baghdad, he was primarily a polemicist and a social critic. What has captivated him, and what he has used as a lens to view an ever-bleaker world, is justice, and the all too permeable divide that separates it from vengeance.
Haiti in the late 1980s set the template. The departure of a strongman acted like a pin pulled from a grenade, as official corruption merged with demagoguery and shattered a veneer of social unity; the nearby Americans did little and understood less. Caught between a weak civilian government and a fractured army, Haitians looked to “agriculture, working the earth,” for salvation, a priest told Danner. But the Americans, who offered meager aid, “saw it as inevitable that impoverished, peasant Haiti would become an ‘urban country.'” The result was protracted dysfunction and exploitation, leading to the crisis that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 and prompted US military intervention.
Bosnia forged Danner’s perspective. He expressed outrage in his dispatches over the unwillingness of the world to stop the Serb elimination of Bosnian Muslims. Most writers who documented the Balkan wars romanticized a lost cosmopolitan Bosnia. To Danner, Bosnia was concentration camps, forest death marches, alleged safe areas, Christmas reprisal raids, and racial epithets. He provided lengthy descriptions of Omarska, the camp where grinning Serbs butchered men’s genitals as a cautionary display. Glory-hound French generals were outwitted by Bosnian Serb commanders. All this occurred because no one had the courage to recognize evil, least of all the Clinton administration. There was no lost cosmopolitanism in Danner’s Bosnia, only predators and prey.
There is a phrase Danner used during his Balkan years, meant as an indictment—he noted that this or that Western power chose “between supporting peace or supporting justice.” While he was never quite explicit in laying out the policy implications of this dilemma, Danner clearly hoped that the international community would support justice and wage war to roll back the Serbs. In contrast, most coverage of the Balkans focused on how to end the wars. While he had no illusions about brutal Muslim reprisal attacks on Serbs, Danner aimed most of his fury at the international unwillingness to kill Serbs in order to protect—and, in certain contexts, avenge—Bosnian or Kosovar Muslims. “The peace of Dayton was a half-peace,” Danner wrote, “as it left Bosnian Muslims with half a country.” In Danner’s telling, NATO’s war in Kosovo, prosecuted exclusively from the air, yielded not an ambiguous success but a national blemish: “How might [a democracy’s] citizens—used to rousing themselves to an interest in world affairs only during wartime, and lethargically even then—be persuaded to send its sons to fight in battles far away, in places apparently unrelated to the country’s defense?”
Recontexualization time: Those words, after eight years of ceaseless and counterproductive wars, are appalling. It would be too much to say that they led directly to Bush’s Iraq war. But sentiments like Danner’s did lead a swath of liberal intellectuals to view an unprovoked war of aggression as a humanitarian crusade. To his great credit, Danner was never one of them. Liberal hawks bought Bush’s rhetoric about democracy. But Danner learned in Haiti and Bosnia how to recognize the difference between principle and pretext. His denunciations of the Iraq war mirror his denunciations of US inertia in the Balkans. The moral of Danner’s Iraq writings is that Bosnia should have taught Americans not to invade Iraq. Whatever the benevolent intentions of US leaders, American troops would become the sort of destabilizing force they’d sought to remove from the Balkans.
The other great parallel Danner drew came from his voluminous exploration of the Bush administration’s torture apparatus. Danner can be a florid writer (“the first time I was killed, or nearly so, came just past dawn”), a flaw that can quickly make a war correspondent look like a trauma tourist. But his great narrative strength is an antipathy to euphemism, so when he obtained a Red Cross report on conditions at the CIA’s secret prisons, he bypassed quasi-clinical verbiage such as “stress positions” and “walling” and described vulnerable men being hung from ceilings, forced to wear diapers, and slammed by their necks against cold concrete walls.
Recontextualization works twice here. First, it connects the torture to the Iraq war in indirect ways, as a symptom of the dehumanization that occupation inflicts. And then it links the torture the US has committed to the broader depravities Danner has chronicled, from Port-au-Prince to Omarska. The point is not moral equivalence. It’s something darker: a recognition that there is no immunity against atavistic vengeance and no juncture at which people stop cloaking their baser instincts in the language of justice. Reading twenty years of Danner at once is that raw.
Spencer Ackerman writes about security issues for the Washington Independent.