Spoils Of Victory


Samanth Subramanian in Caravan:

DURING THE 1990S, the ethnic wars in the crumbling Balkans were often ascribed to what the media called “ancient hatreds”, a self-feeding cycle of fighting and vengeance with its roots deep in history: the Serbs were said to have detested the Croats since World War II and the Albanians since 1389. Deriding the theory, the journalist Stephen Schwartz joked that one might as well trace the animosity back 2,000 years, to a raid described by the Roman poet Ovid, in which the Sarmatians, notionally distant ancestors of today’s Slavs, brutally crushed the distant ancestors of today’s Albanians. So tenuous were the extrapolations that the Balkan wars could even be seen as a natural sequel to the millennia-old battle of which Ovid wrote:

Swift, on horseback, the barbarians ride to the attack;
an enemy with horses as numerous as their flying arrows;
and they leave the whole land depopulated.

The theory provided convenient historical ballast for the nightly news, Schwartz argued; even more dangerously, it suggested that the violence was inevitable. Soon after he won the presidency, Bill Clinton read Balkan Ghosts, a Robert Kaplan book that subscribed to the “ancient hatreds” model. From Balkan Ghosts, the Sarajevo journalist Kemal Kurspahic wrote in his 1997 book As Long As Sarajevo Exists, Clinton drew “the comforting thought that nothing much could be done in Bosnia ‘until those folks got tired of killing each other.’” Santayana’s maxim was turned on its head: the Slavs remembered their past too vividly and were thus condemned to repeat it.

Like a show pony, the “ancient hatreds” argument is trotted out of its stable and walked around the paddock during every ethnic conflict. The warring parties themselves are happy to shoehorn their stances into this model, buffing their credentials by claiming to be part of some grander historical purpose. So it was during the civil war in Sri Lanka. Sinhalese nationalists and Buddhist extremists—and these two groups overlapped more often than not—pointed accusing fingers to the past, when armies from Tamil kingdoms in India invaded this peaceful island, their haven of Buddhism. On the other side of the divide, Tamil nationalists contended that many of their ancestors had arrived as merchants and fishermen—perhaps even before Buddhism reached Sri Lanka—and that Sinhalese kings had repeatedly slaughtered Tamil communities and grabbed their land. Living in Sri Lanka, I frequently got the impression that the Sinhalese and the Tamils had fought two wars: the terrestrial one, which began nominally in 1983 and ended in 2009; and an abstract one, which began centuries ago and is not quite finished yet.