20 February 2013

The ‘bloody shirt’ tactic, then and now

In light of David Lindsay’s reminder that just past is the lamentable fifth anniversary of Kosovo’s ‘independence’, I thought this piece might be a propos.

There was an excerpt from the first chapter of a book in the New York Times, The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War by Stephen Budiansky, which I had the occasion to read when it was first published, back in 2008. It is a highly journalistic account – unsurprising, given that it comes from the editor of US News and World Report, but it is a remarkably vivid account; I encourage my gentle readers to read it in its entirety.
Waving the bloody shirt: it would become the standard retort, the standard expression of dismissive Southern contempt whenever a Northern politician mentioned any of the thousands upon thousands of murders, whippings, mutilations, and rapes that were perpetrated against freedmen and women and white Republicans in the South in those years. The phrase was used over and over during the Reconstruction era. It was a staple of the furious and sarcastic editorials that filled Southern newspapers in those days, of the indignant orations by Southern white political leaders who protested that no people had suffered more, been humiliated more, been punished more than they had. The phrase has since entered the standard American political lexicon, a synonym for any rabble-rousing demagoguery, any below-the-belt appeal aimed at stirring old enmities.

That the Southerners who uttered this phrase were so unconcerned about the obvious implications it carried for their own criminality, however, seems remarkable; for whoever was waving the shirt, there was unavoidably, or so one would think, the matter of just whose blood it was, and how it had got there. That white Southerners would unabashedly trace the origin of this metaphor to a real incident involving an unprovoked attack of savage barbarity carried out by their own most respectable members of Southern white society makes it all the more astonishing.
The unprovoked attack which gave rise to the turn of phrase was an incident in Monroe County, Mississippi where the superintendent of the local freedmen’s public schools, Allen Huggins, was forcibly removed from his home by ten wealthy, ‘respectable’ white locals, and beaten mercilessly with a stirrup and threatened with murder if he did not leave Mississippi within ten days’ time. And Huggins left… but to testify before Congress about his treatment, before returning to Monroe County with the powers of a deputy US marshal to bring the perpetrators of such terror before the law. The story that his shirt was retrieved by an Army lieutenant who delivered it to Benjamin Butler, who then proceeded to wave it during his speech against the terrorism, however, was a fabrication. Senator Butler did make such a speech referring to the incident, but there is no indication that he ever so much as touched Huggins’s actual shirt, let alone waved it about on the Senate floor. Still, as Budiansky makes clear, the phrase became a stock favourite in the Southern press, and it was employed ceaselessly to make, as it were, ‘a victim of the bully and a bully of the victim’.

Even if the phrase ‘waving the bloody shirt’ is not explicitly used, a similar rhetorical tactic has been employed with every bit as much constancy and malice, against another nation which has sought to retain its union, and which has fought for the rights of its citizens to freedom and dignity through education and economic self-sufficiency, and which as thanks for its efforts has been subject to campaigns of secessionist terror and guerrilla war – and then blamed and sarcastically ridiculed for even mentioning those campaigns in its own history. Just as the Southerners crafted stories about how Huggins’ bloody shirt and other such tokens became the fetishes of Unionist and African-American mythologies against them, the media and the academies of the pseudo-West have crafted narratives of how ‘the Serbs’ make a mythological fetish of their own victimhood, the better to paint ‘the Serbs’ as ignorant and sub-rational.

The only difference is that the Serbians lost the war to save their Union, and to maintain the economic freedoms and dignities that its constituent peoples had had under it.

I was only a schoolboy at the time of the Yugoslav Wars, but they marked my first awareness of world affairs. At the time, the media were rife with comparisons of Milosevic to Hitler (I remember a Newsweek cover making that explicit comparison graphically), and images of starving, wounded and dead Bosnian and Albanian refugees, particularly old people and children – all victims of that ever-faceless monster, ‘the Serb’. I remember having an image in my head – completely imagined – of a hulking, unthinking brute in a blood-stained uniform, doing the bidding of his depraved and sadistic commanders’ orders. But I also remember my mother refusing to vote for Clinton’s second term on account of the Yugoslav Wars, and my Mennonite religious upbringing always kept urging me to look at both sides, to remember that there is always a better solution than war. It was not until much, much later that I was able to take a critical look at that war and how it was waged, and how arguments from that war went on to pave the way for the murderous folly in Iraq.

As Neil Clark wrote, bashing of ‘the Serbs’ is one of the few acceptable prejudices left in the Anglo-American West. Their great crime was not, as is popularly imagined, that they were somehow uniquely, intractably, genocidally hostile to all the other peoples of the region – they weren’t, though certainly Serbian units did commit atrocities and deliberate attacks against civilians all during the Yugoslav Wars, as did Bosnians, Croats, Albanians and NATO countries. Their great crimes were that they wanted to retain the dream of Yugoslavia, that they opposed most vociferously the ethnic-nationalist secessions of great chunks of the country they loved, and that they got in the way of the biggest bully on the block in doing the above. Milosevic, Mladic and Karadzic were familiar and ominous names to me all throughout the ‘90’s and early 2000’s, but not once did I hear a peep about Franjo Tudman and the revival of neo-Nazi Ustase ideology in his newfangled Croatia, nor anything about the genocidal Operation Storm led by Ante Gotovina (who was risibly acquitted of war crimes on appeal by the ICTY in November of last year). Never did I see a word written anywhere about the brutal crimes of the Kosovo Liberation Army against not only Serbians but also Roma and fellow Albanians, nor about their proven trade in drugs and arms (and suspected trade in human organs harvested from their victims) to finance their terrorism. (Ramush Haradinaj was also acquitted of war crimes at the same time as Gotovina et al.) Not until I was much older did I even know where to look for such accounts.

Whenever Serbians and journalists who have lived in Serbia point out the clear double standards which have prevailed in the ICTY since the Yugoslav Wars ended, or make mention of the civilian casualties they sustained, or reference the fact that breakaway portions from Serbia have invited unilateral recognition from many Western nations where other secessionist movements have not (the Kurds in Iraq, or the Ossetians and Abkhazians in Georgia, for starters), the gentlemen’s club of decent, respectable pro-intervention Anglo-American ‘public intellectuals’ and pundits (notably Oliver Kamm, Marko Attila Hoare, the denizens of Harry’s Place and, until his death, Christopher Hitchens) accuse them with depressing regularity of ‘waving the bloody shirt’. This being an age where political spin is a science, however, rather than an art, they employ much more sterile, prolix means of saying the same thing. ‘The Serbs’ have a ‘persecution complex’ and a ‘narrative of victimisation’, and the term itself is the result of conspiracy theories and nationalist propaganda. With such rhetorical tricks the victims are turned into the bullies, and all too many of the actual bullies are rendered invisible.

Serbians have no need of a ‘narrative of victimisation’. They – along with the Bosnians, Croatians and Albanians who got caught in the middle – were the victims, of a series of wars every bit as tragic and fratricidal as the American Civil War was. Two thousand Serbian civilians were killed as part of Operation Storm, and nearly two hundred thousand were forcibly evicted. Similar casualties were incurred in Kosovo during the NATO intervention there: two thousand Serbians dead in Kosovo and five hundred throughout the rest of Serbia, and one hundred seventy thousand displaced – near half of the total civilian deaths and a quarter of the total displacements in a territory where Serbs made up only about eight to twelve percent of the population. And for these crimes, they have not yet seen justice.

The truly frightening thing is, the apologists for the NATO-backed ultra-nationalist secessionists continue to stand up as brave opponents of genocide and proclaimers of truth and moral objectivity when the victims are Bosnian, Croatian or Albanian… and then they turn around and cravenly deny that Serbians can possibly be victims (except in their conveniently-typecast roles as unthinking brutes and willing executioners of their sadistic commanders and politicians), with the exact same postmodern, relativising argumentation that they project onto sceptics of the official NATO narrative of the Yugoslav Wars (whether Chomsky or Media Lens or CounterPunch), and proceed to declaim in hyperventilating terms as outrageous, monstrous and beyond the pale genocide-apologetics.

Blessedly, the neoconservative and liberal-interventionist worldviews which led to both the Yugoslav and the Iraq Wars, between which there are generally only differences in semantics rather than differences in kind, are slowly but surely losing their credibility. And the damage is almost entirely self-inflicted: the experience of Iraq shows the extent to which neocons and liberal-interventionists both are willing to deny, relativise, cover up, deflect attention from and rationalise away their complicity in the single greatest geopolitical and humanitarian debacle of the past decade, in a way which undercuts their entire philosophical raison d’être in the first place as an outgrowth of the Augustinian just war tradition. The healthy dose of scepticism which came from both left and right over Syria arguably prevented another outright intervention there and arguably also headed off multinational support of France’s Malian adventure, even if it failed to do so in Libya before it was too late.

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