The Bush Administration in 2002 was warned by the White House's top lawyer Alberto Gonzales (soon to be attorney general) that top administration officials could be prosecuted for war crimes as a result of its actions in the war against terror. During the 1999 bombing of Serbia, President Bill Clinton was accused by some of committing war crimes.
Two years after the Balkan wars I became entangled in a campaign to keep the president of Croatia from being prosecuted for war crimes.
"Critics: Bush's PR was propaganda"
In a twist on the Armstrong Williams scandal (where a columnist was paid by the Education Department to promote public policy), I bit that hand that paid me.
In 1997 I was asked to write the "official" biography of the President of Croatia, who at the time was the controversial and authoritarian Franjo Tudjman. I am not an historian, and I have only one published book to my name, "The Official Alien Abductee's Handbook", a humorous self-help look at alien abductions. So why me?
That was the question I posed to the man who offered me the job. Jakov Sedlar is Croatia's most famous film director, Tudjman's personal filmographer, and the man known as "The Leni Riefenstahl of Croatia," but without the German woman's talent. Jakov informed me that this biography was to tell Tudjman's story to America, and that my lack of historical understanding of the Balkans was in fact a plus. "You tell from Amercian viewpoint," he excitedly encouraged me, "to tell how great a man Tudjman is!"
"I don't know, Jakov, I don't know anything about Tudjman or Croatia. Can I get back to you?"
I quickly research the man, the war, and the war atrocities. With each atrocity a blister appears in my mouth, followed by another, and another, until they crowd each other for space. After a while I begin naming them after Balkan cities plagued by war crimes: Gospic, Ahmici, Stupni Do, Krajina... I knew then I would turn down the assignment. My body was rejecting it, even though my landlord would have lobbied for it. I was two years out of a divorce from my ex-wife who was also my ex-business partner. When we broke up, I bought out her half of our small production company. I was deep in debt and on a heavy rebound. The idea of an all expense paid trip to a war-torn country populated with tall women hungry for anything American thrilled me. But I didn't want to become a propagandist.
“I can’t write this book, Jakov.”
“No, but Joe, you must. Only you must write book.”
“I can’t write a glowing book about Tudjman. And even if I could, I wouldn’t. I’d have no credibility. Why don’t you hire a PR agency? There’s lots in New York.”
“No, Joe, you just write what you have to.”
“But I can only do that if I have creative control over what’s written.”
“Yeah, of course. We give you.”
“Are you sure? Do you know what you’re saying? I want you to know that it won’t be uncritical.”
“I know, but you can make great job, Joe. And we pay you up front.”
“When do I leave?”
The party then ruling Croatia, Tudjman's HDZ party, was involved in a massive public relations effort to refurbish the tarnished President's image after the war of the '90s produced the largest number of atrocities and death since WWII. When Jakov hire me he thought I would take the party line, Americanize it, and hand in a book that would paint Tudjman as "the Croatian George Washington." I rationalized taking the money, writing the unvarnished truth, and thinking that I could actually discover anything closely resembling the truth.
Once in Zagreb, Jakov parades me before government officials, one after another after another. Never have I been lied to by so many people in such a short period of time. And they all want to explain, very politely, the true cause of ethnic rivalries that started only recently -- if you call the 11th Century recent.
Surreptitiously I meet with opposition leaders, harassed dissident journalists and human rights activists in an attempt to uncover the story of Tudjman's reign. In Sarajevo I meet with a high-ranking official in the Bosnian-Croat government who claims to possess documents linking Tudjman with the Croat death camps in Bosnia.
Though I never secure the alleged documents, it does become clear to me how many resources the Croatian government was deploying into keeping Tudjman from being called to The International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. The day before I interview Tudjman, October 6, 1997, a deal is announced where ten Bosnian Croat war crimes suspects voluntarily surrender to The Hague. This announcement is followed by the release of a $40 million credit to Croatia by the International Monetary Fund, an amount much less than my literary advance.
Many of the Serbs, Croats and Muslims I meet in the Balkans express outrage over the crimes committed against their own ethnic group, but few would ever name any of their own as guilty. Tudjman personally tells me that his own soldiers cannot be blamed for any alleged crimes they committed; that after suffering at the hands of the Serbs, they "could not control their feelings of revenge, their wishes to retaliate."
After months of research and travel, I complete a 400-page manuscript titled "In Tito's Shadow". Very quickly I'm asked by Jakov to make "small minor changes."
"Please not to mention anything from old Communist time."
"Well, that would make it substantially shorter."
"And please not to mention war crimes."
I refused to make the changes, and the book remains unpublished.
Jakov had hoped to co-opt an authentic American voice, to lend the biography more credibility. Instead, the author bit the hand that fed him. In December of '99 Tudjman dies, escaping The Hague unlike his fellow Balkan leader Slobodan Milosevic, who every day writes his own biography on the stand.
What is a writer's obligation to history? Whose history? If history is written by the victors, who speaks for the vanquished -- and in whose voice?
Shortly after Tudjman's death, I send the information and interviews I recorded to The Hague. I could no longer in good conscience hide the identity of some particular anonymous sources. At a certain point, it was time for me to come out from the cold.