Book haunts readers with foreign conflict

Over the past two decades, Mark Danner has made a name for himself as a war correspondent in Haiti, the Balkans and Iraq. For his, writing Danner has received the MacArthur fellowship among many other awards. His new book, Stripping Bare the Body, collects many of his dispatches from wars to the New York Review of Books, the New York Times and other publications.

The title is a metaphor for what war does to people and communities—it strips bare the social body, revealing what’s left of humanity in the absence of social structures and moralities.

Danner’s own evolution as a writer and thinker can be traced through the book. Stripping Bare the Body begins with Danner’s 1989 writings for the New Yorker about the political violence in Haiti. This early writing shows him to be merely an eloquent reporter. From Haiti, Danner narrates the grotesque ways in which dictator after dictator used warfare and political repression to maintain his own power.

In the second section, which describes the wars in the Balkans in the early to mid-nineties, Danner devotes much more time to analysis of the broader issues and principles behind the conflict. He reports from Sarajevo during the siege by the Bosnian Serb army, but he extends his discussion far beyond the plight of the city’s Muslim majority. Danner also captures and explains the political context in the United States that made the war against Bosnian Muslims (the Bosniaks) possible.

In the final section, devoted to a discussion of our modern conflicts in the Middle East, Danner’s intellectual acuity is finally in full bloom. Here, Danner’s ideas take on an explosive character; they shake the foundations of how Americans should see their foreign policy and government.

For example, he argues that the true weapons of the Sept. 11 terrorists were not box-cutters or airplanes, but the televisions in our homes.

Al Quaeda’s terrorism has never been about killing Americans or destroying freedom—rather, it seeks to be seen to kill Americans and above all to discredit the American political system and power. The greatest threat to Al Quaeda’s vision of the world has never been our armies; rather, Danner believes our greatest weapon has always been our ideas.

Shameful as the mistakes of our government along such lines may be, they constitute a mere fraction of the injustices Danner describes. Consequently, I have never had more difficulty reading a book. The problem is not the writing. the author’s prose is elegant and clear. It is the abject stupidity and brutality of the West in Bosnia and Iraq. This book cannot simply be read sentence after sentence because no western reader can observe the United Nations and NATO trade the lives of a few dozen peacekeepers for those of many thousands of Bosniaks, despite the objections of their own military commanders, and not need a moment to swallow our moral failure.

Stripping Bare the Body, as difficult a read as it may be, is an important and valuable book. The writing is always clear and terse, and by the book’s latter third, the intellectual content is so powerful that the previous pages of relatively dry reading are easily justified.

The book is challenging because of the ugliness of the truths it describes, but the uglier the truth about our own choices and the actions of our democracy, the greater our responsibility to understand it.