Feminism and intervention, Part XXXVIII

How to parse another milestone in a very different war?

Topics: Broadsheet, Iraq, Middle East, Love and Sex,

Ten years ago yesterday, in response to international pressure and a nagging war-crimes indictment, Gen. Ratko Mladic was fired as military commander of the Bosnian Serb army. No need for a cheap Rumsfeld comparison — there’s a clear Iraq one to be made.

Slow out of the blocks, the U.S. eventually found its compass for the Balkans wars of the ’90s, and violence against Bosnian Muslim women was something of a lodestar. Mladic, among others, came to represent the organized, systematic rape — of as many as 30,000 to 50,000 women, the American press claimed at one point — that helped instigate a humanitarian intervention movement in the West.

To spend even a little time in Sarajevo is to see that terrible things did happen to helpless civilians. Through countless fictions, this truth filtered down to a great many Americans in the ’90s. Key exceptions notwithstanding, feminists were among the first to call for airstrikes.

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To truly wade into the matter of the Balkans wars would mean pulling back, looking at the myths of ancient ethnic hatreds or, say, Noam Chomsky’s position that intervention there was merely a pretext for establishing a norm for resort to force. But yesterday’s anniversary has me reflecting on our country’s more recent humanitarian intervention, and, without wanting to sound like Christopher Hitchens, I can’t help wondering: What about the Saddam regime’s own crimes against women, trotted out by the administration during the run-up to the war? By most accounts there was organized, systematic rape. How should feminists reconcile humanitarian intervention in some places and not others? Do we care more about violence against lighter-skinned women, as some have argued? Is our humanitarian impulse dwarfed by our distrust of all neocon adventures, as the right wing complains? Why did one intervention have so much more feminist support than another?

The obvious response is that Iraq and the Balkans were, well, different. Ditto the handling of the interventions, ditto the motives and the global contexts. Nevertheless, as we move toward a new chapter in the current war’s saga — rhetorically, at least — it seems worth pausing for reflection. Sad to say, future conflicts will surely bring more rape camps. The fact of these rape camps will surely be exploited by future administrations bent on other invasions. Need feminists devise some kind of universal intervention yardstick? Not to deflect tin-pot accusations of hypocrisy, but to recognize that our sanctioning of military action is powerful stuff?

But maybe talking yardsticks is accepting a fundamentally flawed premise. Universal rules are handy, but if we’ve learned anything, it’s the limits of staying any one course. Inflexibility in the foreign policy department surely causes as much harm as it thwarts.

No solutions here. Just a weird feeling as our present war turns a certain corner and other wars recede further into memory.

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

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