Article by Peter Maass

Lesson for a Younger Generation

The Washington Post  |  April 20, 1994

BUDAPEST—When politicians and generals discuss Bosnia, they often have Vietnam on their minds. Their warnings about quagmires, mission creep and the shortcomings of air strikes relate to Vietnam and the lessons that we should have learned from it. But they are ignoring the most relevant lesson of all: A government that is deceptive and acts immorally will undermine its credibility with the governed, particularly the younger generation.

Every generation has its watersheds. For George Bush’s generation, it was World War II and the Cold War. For Bill Clinton’s, it was Vietnam and Watergate. I am 33 years old, which nestles me amid the Xers and Yuppies, and for us Bosnia is turning into a watershed of disillusion. By opening himself up to justified criticism about hypocrisy and appeasement, President Clinton is deepening the apathy of younger Americans who want a government they can respect and believe in.

It might be true that most members of my generation couldn’t find Bosnia on a map, let alone Gorazde. But you don’t need to understand Balkan politics to realize that our government has failed to accomplish the bare minimum, which is to do what it says it will do—not what it should do, but what it says it will do—on an issue that it has defined as one of good vs. evil. The goal of rolling back the Serbs was long ago abandoned, but at least, we were assured last year, America and its allies at the United Nations would protect six “safe areas”—Gorazde, Zepa, Srebrenica, Sarajevo, Tuzla, Bihac.

Now it’s one down, five to go.

The sad story of Bosnia’s demise, presided over by America and its allies, is not new. The imminent fall of Gorazde, a U.N. safe haven that is now one of the most deadly places on earth, is just another nail in its coffin, hammered into place by the Serbs and observed by the rest of the world. But because Gorazde’s fall is so spectacular in the amount of media coverage it is receiving, and in the obvious disarray of President Clinton’s laughable policy for containing the Serbs, Americans of all ages are getting a subversive, though perhaps accurate, message on the evening news: Their government is incompetent and immoral.

Disillusion is not new to my generation. We’ve had Watergate, Ollie North and Iran-contra, some bad times in the job market and, more recently, Whitewater. But even during my hypercritical days a decade ago as editorial page editorof the student newspaper at the University of California at Berkeley, I thought the government could do good things.

But now Bosnia. The allied response to two years of aggression and murder is to drop a half-dozen bombs on the Serbs, three of which don’t explode. We knocked out one tank, a couple of armored personnel carriers and a tent. The foreign policy experts talk about America’s loss of credibility on the global stage. I tend to worry about something more intimate, about the loss of credibility between America’s government and governed. An important bond is being frayed, and this increases my worries about the future of my country.

My hometown, Los Angeles, has endured sufferings in the past year that are almost biblical—fire, floods, earthquake. Its non-biblical tribulations include high unemployment, gruesome crime, race riots and urban decay. Is America in a tailspin? I don’t know. Nobody does. But we all know that it needs to get moving again. That can’t happen unless people have hope, and unless they have a government that they trust.

I am living overseas, so it might seem unwarranted for me to talk about “my” generation. But I visit America often enough to stay in touch. And thanks to the wonders of satellite television, I watch American network news before going to sleep—I probably see it more often than my peers in the United States. I’m also part of the cyber crowd, so every day I log on to Compuserve and browse through the “Global Crises” bulletin board, a computer talking shop for important world issues, such as Bosnia.

When people post messages on the “Global Crises” bulletin board, they have undramatic headlines such as “Serb Attack on Gorazde.” The messages are often interesting and provocative. Over the past few days, I noticed that new people, not the “regulars,” are posting messages. Gorazde has touched them. Today there was an unusual headline on a long message posted by a newcomer who couldn’t believe America was standing on the sidelines. The headline was simple: “Pain so Deep in the Soul.”

The failure to protect Gorazde crystallizes and deepens the American government’s failure over the past two years (a failure that was nursed into life by a Republican administration). President Clinton could have stood up to the Serb attack on Gorazde and, in a small way, re-fired our trust in government to do the right thing, or at least try to. He managed to regain a bit or credibility by staring down the Serbs over Sarajevo earlier this year. But with Gorazde, he has fallen flat on his face. Our disillusion grows with each Serb shell that hits Gorazde’s hospital.

The writer reported on the Bosnian war for The Post in 1992-1993. He is on leave to write a book about the conflict.