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Mediterranean Quarterly 11.1 (2000) 141-144
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The Wreckage Reconsidered:
Five Oxymorons from Balkan Deconstruction
P. H. Liotta: The Wreckage Reconsidered: Five Oxymorons from Balkan Deconstruction. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 1999. 251 pages. ISBN 0-7391-0012-2. $50.00. Reviewed by Walter John Silva.
P. H. Liotta's tour de force of scholarship is not for the average reader, political scientist or not. However, a specialist who has closely followed events in the Balkans over the past decade, especially in the former Yugoslavia, will find it a mine of detail and a veritable encyclopedia of source material. Indeed, the book is a torrent of quotes and references, culling everything from the Hindu Mahabharata to the Yankees' Yogi Berra. Before he sets down his first line of text, Liotta offers his reader no less than seven epigraphs. Thereafter, each section of the work is preceded by several quotes, and hardly a line goes by without at least one reference to sources ranging from the obscure to the renowned. Fifty of the 211 pages that form the body of the book are devoted to footnotes. All of which tends to make for slow going and is reminiscent of some Ph.D. theses I have seen. Nonetheless, Liotta is a polymath with solid credentials, a professor at the Naval War College, Fulbright scholar in Yugoslavia, military attaché in Athens, frequent traveler to the Balkans and Eastern Europe, and prize-winning and prolific author in a wide variety of areas, including foreign policy, international security, education, and poetry. In short, he is a kind of renaissance man, passionate about a part of Europe that did not have one.
Europe, according to the Liotta view, extends from Washington to Vladivostok; in addition to its traditional members it includes the United States, Russia, Turkey, the former Soviet republics, and the Balkan countries. Liotta reminds his readers that Byzantine emperors considered Greece, Macedonia, Thrace, Illyria, Bulgaria, Montenegro, and Serbia to be European provinces. (Of course, earlier Roman emperors considered much of the Middle East as Roman provinces, which I suppose does not disturb Liotta's criteria.) The Islamic incursion created what he refers to as an Islamic cultural fault line that runs through the center of the Balkans. However, the line is hardly clear and unbroken. Each of the unhappy offspring of the former Yugoslavia entertains significant minority populations identified with other entities. Yet Liotta asserts that "Yugoslavia was a European nation with an identifiable geography and ethnic composition. Croats, Serbs, Bosnians, Slovenes, Montenegrins, and Macedonians--all violent denials to the contrary acknowledged--are an ethnos (nation); they are one ethnos. And Yugoslavia's tribes lived far more peaceably together under the oppression of Marshal Tito than they have thus far lived (and many died) in the shadow of democracy." Nostalgia for Tito is, of course, not unknown among some of his former subjects, although it may be unseemly in a former U.S. military attaché in Athens, where memories still live of Tito's support for the communist-inspired civil war. [End Page 141]
Liotta's notion of a Balkan ethnos would not offend an anthropologist, although it might upset an historian. If the term is used in its Homeric sense as referring to a people or a nation, it is only somewhat problematic. But Liddell and Scott's Oxford Lexicon provides a definition--"a number of people accustomed to living together"--that is less apt and is indeed part of the Liotta oxymorons. The number of Balkan upheavals in this century alone is not suggestive of a "people accustomed to living together." The nature-versus-nurture conundrum may provide useful exercises in pediatrics, but in history nature is the product of nurture. There is probably greater genetic homogeneity among the peoples of the Balkans than most of them would admit, yet there are cultural divisions between close neighbors in the region that have transformed fear and suspicion into murderous hatreds.
The onus for the conflict in former Yugoslavia and the divisions within the former Yugoslav states is usually, in politically correct fashion...