Images Worth a Thousand Lies

Given the pervasiveness of mass entertainment in the United States, and the dominance of US-made entertainment in the world markets, one should not underestimate the impact American popular culture has on world events. History may be written by government-paid scholars and crooked journalists, but its vastly simplified form is burned into the minds of the masses through movies and television.

Prejudice vs. Prejudice

For example, the image of Arabs as terrorists has long been a staple of Hollywood fare, so ubiquitous during the 1980s that cult classics such as Back to the Future and E.T. featured terrorist plot elements or references. Muslim terrorism was also the key element in the early 1990s techno-thriller books, such as Larry Bond’s Enemy Within or Tom Clancy’s Sum of All Fears.

In 1998, Edward Zwick (Glory, Courage Under Fire) made The Siege, an exceptional drama dealing with a series of deadly terrorist attacks by Islamic militants in New York, and the horrific assault on civil liberties by the US government that followed. It was eerily prescient, given what would occur on Black Tuesday 2001 and afterwards. Yet the film was immediately protested by Arab-American advocacy groups. They had become so used to images in popular culture that depicted Muslims solely as terrorists, they attacked Zwick’s film without even seeing it. A film that was fair to Arabs, for a change – especially compared to, say, James Cameron’s True Lies (1994) – was thus subject to controversy and boycotts. So alleged prejudice was fought with unjustified prejudice, and (not surprisingly) prejudice won.

Had there not been so many images of Muslims as terrorists in the popular culture, the American Arabs may not have reacted to The Siege with a knee-jerk rejection. Had the lessons of The Siege been taken even halfway seriously, September 11 might not have happened. Fate, as always, plays cruel tricks on those who mock it.

Through The Looking-Glass

During the 1990s, with the wars in the former Yugoslavia all over the headlines, the entertainment business rushed to cash in on the mysterious carnage on the other side of the world. Added to images of Arab terrorists were now images of Balkans terrorists – as it happens, almost exclusively Serbs. Real events that were first misrepresented in the press, then embellished by pundits, now became embellished again by professional purveyors of illusions. Through books, movies and TV shows, the Balkans that never was came alive in the minds of American audiences…

Nonexistent Nukes

Before Nicole Kidman could have a tragic love affair in Moulin Rouge, she first had to save Manhattan – with George Clooney’s help – from a Serb with a backpack nuke in Peacemaker (1997). The villain was no less than a member of the Bosnian Serb parliament, who first killed a colleague to ensure he’d have a spot on the New York-bound delegation. His motive? Vengeance on the UN, because snipers killed his family and the peacekeepers had done nothing to help.

One doesn’t have to know much about the Balkans to see the problem. First of all, Bosnian Serbs never had nuclear weapons, nor is there any evidence that they tried to obtain them. Secondly, the motive ascribed to the "terrorist" was bogus. Bosnian Serbs never expected the UN to help – the Muslims did. And it’s not as if Bosnian Serbs didn’t have real grievances against the UN and the Empire; they did help their enemies, after all – sometimes, as it turns out, through some real terrorists. But one should never let accuracy get in the way of a good story, right?

The Bosnian Serb nuclear-smuggling angle was revisited by a UPN series Seven Days (1998-2001), as its time-traveling hero fought Serbs who sought to purchase some weapons-grade plutonium from domestic US terrorists. Seven Days went back to Bosnia in one more episode, to rescue American hostages from evil Serbs.

To Bomb And Judge

Most frequent visitor to Bosnia has certainly been the CBS hit drama, JAG (Judge Advocate General). One of the first episodes saw the indomitable lawyer-pilot Harmon Rabb Jr. going on a bombing raid over Bosnia. Afterwards, he helped rescue US pilots, went on to bomb Kosovo, and even rescued US intelligence operatives from the Serb-paid Italian Mafia…

One episode has Commander Rabb defending an overzealous fellow pilot, who bombed Russian peacekeepers thinking they were Serbs committing atrocities. Indeed, the pilot claims he saw atrocities before, and vowed not to let them happen again. Even as a flight of fancy, this is too much. Never have any atrocities been witnessed by any US or NATO personnel, let alone pilots. They were more apt at committing them, as bombed-out trains, bridges, schools, hospitals, marketplaces and TV stations testify throughout Serbia.

Only someone completely ignorant of the Yugoslav Army could assume that it uses the same troop carriers as the Russians. It doesn’t, thus making the key plot point completely moot. Furthermore, no Yugoslav (or Serb) troops were in Kosovo by the time the "peacekeepers" showed up. There were few Serb civilians left, for that matter. The only atrocities NATO’s occupation troops witnessed – and did nothing to stop – were those of the Albanian KLA. It is, of course, never mentioned. Might complicate things, you see…

The Man With Two Wrong Names

Such colossal blunders are more the rule than an exception in TV-land. Fox’s hit "real-time" series 24 features Dennis Hopper as villain Victor Drazen, accused of atrocities in Kosovo. Of course, everyone knows there were mass atrocities in Kosovo, even though none have ever been established as anything more than fanciful speculation. But it is surely a supreme irony that Fox’s "Serbian terrorist/warlord" has a Croatian name, and an impossible one at that.

Drazen, as reality would have it, is a Croatian given name, not a surname. Like "Bob" in the US. Actually, there’s a higher probability to run into someone with the last name of "Bob" in the US than anyone in the Balkans being surnamed "Drazen." And of course, Victor (or Viktor, as Croats would write it) is Latin for "winner," and thus pretty popular among the Catholic Croatians. So, not only did they give poor Dennis Hopper the wrong surname, they also gave him the wrong name and the wrong ethnicity! To be that ignorant takes more than talent; it takes effort…

Here is another interesting question: why are Serb villains routinely played by non-Serbs? In all the above examples, in all the examples still to follow, and in quite a few others, the Serb villains are always played by someone else. Perhaps Serb actors – unlike their political leaders – still have some dignity.

Rescues From Truth

Among the most mendacious sub-genres dealing with the Balkans is The Rescue. It was used as a plot point for 1997’s Welcome to Sarajevo, supposed to be an indictment of journalists who practiced indifference in the face of murder. In reality, it was the "advocacy journalism" – not indifference – that made the Bosnian War so dirty, with suffering and death deliberately provoked with the purpose of feeding Western cameras. This is not the only cliché Welcome to Sarajevo peddles shamelessly: there are massacres and "concentration camps" as well. Finally, the focus of one reporter’s crusade – a young orphan he fights to rescue from the besieged city despite the policy banning all evacuations – is a Muslim. Yet the real girl, on whose story the movie is (very) loosely based, was a Serb.

Perhaps the greatest offender, however, is 2001’s Behind Enemy Lines. A pathetic dreg of recycled propaganda, it tries to put a touch of Hollywood on the most embarrassing story of Lt. Scott O’Grady. The results are predictably atrocious.

In the summer of 1995, O’Grady’s F-16 was shot down by a missile while he scouted Bosnian Serb positions for the planned NATO bombing campaign. He ejected, hid in the mountains for several days and was retrieved by a company of Marines, without interference. Losing a multi-million dollar aircraft to an obsolete missile system in broad daylight, trekking in the mountains of Western Bosnia for a few days, then getting airlifted out by a company of Marines is not particularly heroic. It became so when the US government needed heroes to shut up critics of its Balkans intervention.

Point is, O’Grady’s real story was a yawner, even when embellished by the military and the press. So Hollywood came up with a new one. This time, the "hero" was a navigator, who survived while his pilot was brutally murdered by psychotic Serbs (unsurprisingly, again played by non-Serbs). He then had to make a run for his life, through a hail of bullets, fireballs, landmine pellets and multiple explosions, to be rescued by a maverick commanding officer. Oh, and did anyone mention he was a "witness to Serb atrocities" (not that again!) and brought back evidence to that effect?

The real O’Grady was shot down a hundred miles away from any war zone, and nowhere near the places alleged to have seen atrocities. Yet at the end, Behind Enemy Lines claims that the retrieved "evidence" was used at war crimes trials! Knowing the ways of the Hague Inquisition, taking evidence from movie scripts might not be that unusual, but still…

The Solitude of Truth

To properly document all the instances of grossly distorted Balkans realities in just the US popular culture would take a lot of time, effort and money. These are just some of the more conspicuous examples. Finding other, more accurate depictions is much easier; there are almost none.

One notable exception is Ralph Peters’ novella, There Is No War in Melnica. Standing out in the otherwise bland Combat anthology (vol. 3) edited by Stephen Coonts, the novella describes the grisly character of the chaos in Bosnia, with misrepresented atrocities and staged executions for the sake of provoking a foreign military intervention.

Peters was in Bosnia, unlike most screenwriters and their producers, so that could be partially responsible for his accuracy. However, as many other Westerners have also been in the region, yet chose to tell lies and half-truths instead, the bulk of the credit should really go to Peters himself: a small, solitary voice of truth amongst the roaring sea of foolish lies. Truth, after all, is often more interesting than fiction.

But fiction, especially bad fiction, is so much easier to produce.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.