Individualism becomes the first casualty of war

May 7, 1999

Torn between his ethnic and academic identities, Dejan Djokic finds the latter, the identity of an individual, must prevail

Academics, like everyone else, are affected by wars. The wars in the former Yugoslavia provided a challenge to western academics - a challenge they have not always answered well.

The ideal of objectivity has sometimes been, consciously or otherwise, overtaken by media reports and eyewitness accounts of ethnic cleansing, rape and atrocities. The "feeling of discomfort" described by Stephanie Schwandner-Sievers (THES, April 2) is even stronger for an academic from the region, particularly if she or he "belongs" to the ethnic community that, according to news reports and eyewitness accounts, has perpetrated most violence.

The problem is how to adjust when all the evidence suggests one's co-nationals are responsible for some of the worst atrocities of recent years, but are, at the same time, suffering at the hands of the most powerful military alliance of our age. Is it possible to remain calm and analytical when one's relatives and friends are hiding in shelters from increasingly imprecise "surgical strikes"?

My personal experience is of confusion, fear, anger, helplessness, an uncomfortable feeling of being torn between different identities and divided loyalties.

I can claim two collective identities, one ethnic, ie Serbian, and the other professional, the academic historian's.

By accepting the label of a Serb, I identify myself with ten million or so Serbs even though I personally know relatively few of them. So, I identify with a significant number of abstract people who imagine themselves members of the Serb nation. Before the collapse of former Yugoslavia I felt a Yugoslav - a Serb, but also Croat, Slovene, Macedonian. The community of historians is also imagined, not least because I know but a small number.

Yet, both my collective identities exist in a form that calls for little or no imagination. My family and friends exist. This explains a deeper concern that I feel for those suffering now in Serbia than I felt for the citizens of Sarajevo or for the Serbs ethnically cleansed from Krajina. I do feel for expelled Albanians, but I have been in Kosovo only once and I cannot easily imagine its (former?) community.

The physical survival of the small number of friends and colleagues who form my micro-community of academics is not in danger. If my ethnic identity prevails, then my academic credibility is at stake. If, however, the academic identity prevails, that still does not mean that I will not be tempted to ignore the idealistic search for objectivity.

For the sake of scholarship, unemotional distance needs to be maintained. I try to approach the conflict as I would any other within the scope of my expertise. Thus the academic identity, the identity of an individual, needs to prevail. Yet it is very difficult to maintain that identity, not least because of an almost natural need to identify with my ethnic identity, which is in danger.

I discussed with a national newspaper writing an article on how I see the war as an impartial historian of Yugoslavia. But, when I said I wanted to write simply as a historian based at the University of London, problems arose. The newspaper explained that readers recognising my Serbian name would question my neutrality and suggested I write as "a Serb" or at best "a Serbian historian living in Britain".

Even though I have never studied history in Serbia and believe I do not propagate a nationalist history of the Serbs, I am being seen as a Serbian historian, sometimes by colleagues as well as journalists.

But how many times have we heard western journalists saying "we" when talking of Nato's intervention? It is not only the collective identity of Serbs and Kosovo Albanians that is being homogenised nowadays. The same, admittedly slower, process is taking place here, in the West. Individualism, not truth, seems to be the first casualty of war.

So, what about my analysis of the conflict. I have read well-argued analyses both for and against military intervention, as well as a lot of trash on both sides. There is no point repeating them. I will have to use the old historians' escape route: we need to wait for the archives to be opened and the dust to settle. At the moment the only source remains the media reports. For a serious historian that is not enough. What is already clear, though, is that we are witnessing the largest forced population movements of recent times as well as the first aggression on a sovereign state by a military alliance since the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. I cannot but condemn both as inhuman, immoral and counterproductive, despite the claims of propaganda on both sides.

Dejan Djokic is a doctoral research student in history and a history tutor at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London. He is also a research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London.

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