In Sarajevo in 1992, while being shown around the starved, bombarded city by the incomparable John Burns, I experienced four near misses in all, three of them in the course of one day. I certainly thought that the Bosnian cause was worth fighting for and worth defending, but I could not take myself seriously enough to imagine that my own demise would have forwarded the cause. (I also discovered that a famous jaunty Churchillism had its limits: the old war-lover wrote in one of his more youthful reminiscences that there is nothing so exhilarating as being shot at without result. In my case, the experience of a whirring, whizzing horror just missing my ear was indeed briefly exciting, but on reflection made me want above all to get to the airport. Catching the plane out with a whole skin is the best part .) Or suppose I had been hit by that mortar that burst with an awful shriek so near to me, and turned into a Catherine wheel of body-parts and (even worse) body-ingredients? Once again, I was moved above all not by the thought that my death would 'count,' but that it would not count in the least.
I realize that what happened in Bosnia could happen anywhere in the world, particularly in places that are diverse and have a history of conflict. It only takes bad leadership for a country to go up in flames, for people of different ethnicity, color, or religion to kill each other as if they had nothing in common whatsoever. Having a democratic constitution, laws that secure human rights, police that maintain order, a judicial system, and freedom of speech don't ultimately guarantee long lasting peace. If greedy or bloodthirsty leaders come to power, it can all go down. It happened to us. It can happen to you.
During the Bosnian war in the late 1990s, I spent several days traveling around the country with Susan Sontag and her son, my dear friend David Rieff. On one occasion, we made a special detour to the town of Zenica, where there was reported to be a serious infiltration of outside Muslim extremists: a charge that was often used to slander the Bosnian government of the time. We found very little evidence of that, but the community itself was much riven as between Muslim, Croat, and Serb. No faction was strong enough to predominate, each was strong enough to veto the other's candidate for the chairmanship of the city council. Eventually, and in a way that was characteristically Bosnian, all three parties called on one of the town's few Jews and asked him to assume the job. We called on him, and found that he was also the resident intellectual, with a natural gift for synthesizing matters. After we left him, Susan began to chortle in the car. 'What do you think?' she asked. 'Do you think that the only dentist and the only shrink in Zenica are Jewish also?' It would be dense to have pretended not to see her joke.
The debacle in Iraq has reinforced the realist dictum, disparaged by idealists in the 1990s, that the legacies of geography, history and culture really do set limits on what can be accomplished in any given place. But the experience in the Balkans reinforced an idealist dictum that is equally true: One should always work near the limits of what is possible rather than cynically give up on any place. In this decade idealists went too far; in the previous one, it was realists who did not go far enough.