IN HER BOOK "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon," arguably one of the great books of this century, Rebecca West tells of visiting Dubrovnik and other cities along the Yugoslav coast and observing how life there is lived as a public drama.
With ancient and graceful stone buildings as a background, incidents such as a sick woman being taken to the hospital or a loving reunion of family members take on the qualities of high drama. During 25 years of residence and travel in Yugoslavia, my family and I have had many occasions to confirm this and many other of West's observations.
Now as fighting goes on among the high-rise hotels and monumental buildings of Dubrovnik, the drama of the civil war in Yugoslavia is reaching new levels of intensity and provoking a feeling of outrage in the worldwide audience. Americans who have visited the tiny, well-preserved, medieval walled city that is the center of Dubrovnik can visualize the bloody struggle all too clearly, as shells fall among familiar hotels and restaurants and among beautiful cloisters and churches. Such savage behavior seems strangely out of another time, a time that belongs to ancient history.
We are reminded how little we know of the history of Yugoslavia and its predecessors. We must try to learn something about the history -- reading "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" wouldn't be a bad way to begin -- but decisions must be made, actions taken, without waiting for further study.
The rest of the world must decide whether to stand by and FTC watch the destruction of Dubrovnik and other cities and the killing of thousands of civilians or to express its unwillingness to tolerate such behavior in the middle of modern Europe. To do nothing is to face the prospect of perhaps 400,000 refugees crossing into other countries, not to speak of the suffering of the whole population of Yugoslavia.
There are many ironies in the situation. To begin with, history may lead us to the wrong conclusions. The history of Yugoslavia, along with that of the entire region of the Balkans, has been full of struggles between ethnic and religious groups, Serbs against Turks, Croats against Italians, Christians fighting among themselves while fighting Muslims. The easy conclusion is that peace is impossible in the Balkans, that trying to govern a nation made up of several nationalities is hopeless.
Yet this civil war is as much about the end of communism in Eastern Europe as it is about ethnic conflict. At least in part, it is about the incompatibility of the democratic governments in Slovenia and Croatia on the one hand, and the still-communist regime in Serbia on the other. It reflects the built-in weakness of the central government of Yugoslavia, ruled since 1980 by a committee instead of a president. It results as much as anything from the failure of an economic system that combined private enterprise with socialist planning -- ominously, the same kind of system we are urging the former Soviet Union to install.
The lesson seems to be that when a society is stressed by political and economic forces beyond its control, it breaks up along pre-existing fault lines. It happens that the fault lines in Yugoslavia were ethnic boundaries. Thus our response to the collapse of Yugoslavia should not be to say that ethnic conflict is inevitable, but to ask how it and the other nations of Eastern Europe can be salvaged.
The conflict in Romania since the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime has been as much between social classes -- coal miners against the urban middle class -- as between Romanians and the Hungarian minority. The disintegration of Poland, should it occur, might also be along class lines, and it would be no less bitter in the absence of major ethnic divisions.
We had better give some thought to ways of preventing the collapse of all of the Eastern European countries. We may not be able to prevent ethnic conflict as such, but surely we can help prevent economic collapse and political weakness. Our eyes may be on the former Soviet Union and its severe problems, but we cannot afford to let Poland and Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria go the way of Yugoslavia. Let us hope that the eloquent plea for help expressed by President Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia during his recent visit to Washington does not go unanswered.
Meanwhile, we owe it to the people of Yugoslavia to help them find a way out of their predicament. If, as it seems, Yugoslavia as a nation is finished, we may have to take the lead in recognizing the independence of the individual "republics" that it comprises. Then making peace between Serbia and Croatia would become a job for the United Nations, and we could give our attention to assisting with the task of repairing the damage of the civil war.
The first time my family and I saw Dubrovnik was in mid-winter. There were no tourists, and the narrow streets of the old city were deserted. We went fishing from the rocky shore, sheltered from a chill wind by the sturdy walls of the fortifications. We didn't catch anything but experienced a feeling of great peace. May that peace return to Dubrovnik soon.
E. Pendleton Banks is professor of anthropology at Wake Forest University.