Ratko Mladic was sentenced yesterday to life imprisonment for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Under his military command, Bosnian Serb forces massacred 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995. Mladic’s paramilitaries also laid siege to Sarajevo for longer than the Nazis blockaded Leningrad, and shelled and shot the city’s civilians as they struggled for the very means of subsistence.
It would surely be inconceivable to find anyone offering extenuation for such depravities outside the racist and anti-Muslim far right. That would be to reckon, however, without the defection of parts of the purportedly anti-imperialist left to irrationalism and rampant xenophobia. Edward Herman, an academic at Pennsylvania University, was an extreme example of this phenomenon and stands as a terrible warning about the influence of bad ideas.
Herman died last week at the age of 92. Though he received a kid-glove obituary in the Washington Post, he was hardly a well-known name. He was, however, a longstanding co-author of a very famous intellectual figure indeed, the linguist Noam Chomsky, and he exemplifies a perverse phenomenon on the Left. Herman’s animus against the United States was so great that, from his study in Philadelphia, he assiduously whitewashed the crimes of the worst thugs and dictators in the post-war world provided only that they defined themselves against America.
Herman set out his thinking in a review in 2004 of a book titled “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power (who went on to serve as US ambassador to the United Nations in President Obama’s administration). The book recounts in pitiless detail how, from the fate of Armenians in Turkey in 1915 to the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, “the United States has consistently refused to take risks in order to suppress genocide”.
Power’s conclusion underlines a brute fact about an anarchic international order. For all the errors, inconsistencies, sins and sometimes crimes of US foreign policy, the world is not a better place if America withdraws from it (as is happening under President Trump) rather than seeking to influence it.
In his review, Herman condemned Power for “her spectacular bias in case selection”. Yet as you read his protests, you realise his case is not about bias at all. It is instead that Herman denies the horrors of which Power wrote. He asserts: “It is truly Orwellian to see the [UN] Yugoslavia Tribunal struggling to pin the ‘genocide’ label on Milosevic and to have done that already against Bosnian Serb General Radislav Krstic.”
Krstic played a leading role in the Srebrenica massacre. He is now serving a 35-year jail sentence for aiding and abetting genocide, murders, extermination and persecutions. Ultimate responsibility for those atrocities lay with Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb president, who launched a deranged racist campaign to create a Greater Serbia and shipped arms to the Bosnian Serbs to achieve that end.
For many years, I’ve done what I can to aid the cause of commemorating and publicising the victims of genocide, through the charity Remembering Srebrenica. One irritant, to put it no higher, is the persistence of a handful of ideologues who deny the facts of Srebrenica and other crimes. Herman was the leading figure in that small world, labelling the Srebrenica massacre “a gigantic political fraud”. I won’t trouble to recount his case, which is egregious bilge, except to note that it involves the same techniques as Holocaust denial: bogus demographics, calumnies against the victims, minor facts shorn of context, and remorseless lying.
On Srebrenica, Herman wrote that “the claims of 8,000 executed have never been verified by forensic or credible witness evidence of anything like this scale of killing”. I liken this to Holocaust denial but in fact the fraud is even more blatant, for in the case of Srebrenica the bodies have been found.
After the massacre, the victims’ corpses were widely scattered, commingled and buried in order to hide the evidence. The International Commission on Missing Persons, an NGO, has done the harrowing work of locating the mass graves, exhuming the body parts and (using DNA analysis, with samples taken from the victims’ blood relatives) identifying the victims. In a letter to me, the ICMP say they have recovered the remains of around 7,000 victims and estimate the total number of victims, with high confidence, as between 7,980 and 8,030.
Forgive me for going through these facts in detail. It’s a subject I’m close to. My uncle, the former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell, gave evidence for the prosecution in the trials of Mladic and the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic (now serving a 40-year jail term). The role of journalists in uncovering these depravities was crucial. Hence the deniers mounted a campaign of harassment.
Penny Marshall and Ian Williams of ITN and Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian uncovered the camps at Trnopolje and Omarska, whose emaciated inmates resembled images of Auschwitz. These journalists were libelled by a small-circulation newspaper called LM that claimed they’d faked the evidence. For the rest of his life, Herman repeated these lies, even though the High Court in London had found them to be libellous.
Among the themes of Vulliamy’s reporting from the Bosnian war was the campaign of mass rape committed by Bosnian Serb forces as an instrument of terror against women and girls. The victims included girls not yet in their teens, who were abducted and tortured at “rape houses”.
With breathtaking indecency, Herman fulminated: “Vulliamy of course gets on this Serb rape bandwagon.” Such tactics weren’t an idiosyncrasy in Herman’s politics. In an article for The Nation in 1977 titled “Distortions at Fourth Hand”, Herman and Chomsky rubbished the refugee accounts then emerging of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Those accounts were of course true.
Herman also turned his attention to denying the genocide in Rwanda. Scholars of Rwanda conclude, on the basis of evidence such as census data, that around 800,000 Tutsis (out of a total population of 930,000) were massacred within three months in 1994. Herman called these figures “genocide inflation” and condemned “the Western propaganda machine [which] succeeded so well in making the Hutus the villains and killers”.
If you’re so minded, you can read this preposterous thesis in a book titled The Politics of Genocide (2010) co-authored by Herman with an obscure blogger called David Peterson. This volume (which carries a foreword by Chomsky) has, to the say the least, not been reviewed kindly by scholars of genocide or of Africa.
Herman is an appalling case of a radical leftist who embraced the bigotry of the far right, not least in denigrating Muslims. Lest you think I’m attacking a man who is now safely dead, be assured I said the same when he was alive. It would be a pity if the Washington Post description of him as a “soft-spoken, cat-loving pianist” were the last word on his ignoble output.
Let me therefore conclude, soberly and without rancour, that Edward Herman was a racist, misogynistic fraudster who had the good fortune to live in comfort and liberty till he died peacefully in his sleep in old age, unlike the victims of genocides whose very existence he denied. The Left, where I stand, has a moral responsibility to guard against charlatans like this.