Gavrilo Princip: Man of the Century

GEORGE F. WILL

May 10, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- And so in the second 100 days the United States may go to a war. That may mean the United States will go to war.

This nation, most of whose citizens could not locate Belgium (home of the ''European Community,'' a work of contemporary fiction) on an unmarked map, is going to ''keep,'' with many thousands of its troops, the peace in Bosnia. That is, if there is a peace brittle enough to need bolstering by troops but durable enough to last long enough for the troops to arrive.

And there may be more war. A savage civil war of tribalism, the most recent effusion of blood in a centuries-long tableau of savagery, may have been ended by words negotiated by a British peer and backed by the threat of some U.S. bombs. But we had better anticipate U.S. soldiers ''keeping the peace'' amid at least low-intensity warfare.

Ten ethnic enclaves, with 900 miles of borders, in the middle of one of the most densely militarized spots on the planet, will require a lot of policing to contain the furies of aggression, revanchism and revenge. If this is humanitarian intervention, where do the troops go next? The roving eyes of TV cameras can trouble our sleep from many places. If this is intervention for pedagogic purposes, to teach aggressors a lesson, why do we think they are ready to receive the lessons of our didactic foreign policy?

The Gulf War was, in part, pedagogic. It was fought so that potential aggressors, bent on changing borders and even swallowing nations by force, would be taught the futility of their plans. But Serbia seems to have skipped school during that lesson. And even Iraq seems uninstructed.

But, then, if exemplary wars against those who seize territory were efficient teaching projects, why did not Iraq learn from Argentina's experience with the Falklands? Syria's unmolested, and almost unprotested, absorption of Lebanon into Greater Syria may have been more instructive for the architects of Greater Serbia.

Americans wonder why America must try to solve a problem in Europe's back yard when Europe is so loath to try. Americans ask: Is it not time to take the training wheels off Europe's bicycle and let that continent learn to ride on its own? But European reluctance is rooted in a sense of the long sweep of things, a sense of the durability of animosities -- a sense strong in spite of facile rhetoric about a new era on the old continent.

Seventeen months ago, when the supposedly epochal year of 1992 dawned, there was much chatter about the new, soon to be United States of, Europe. That delusion is a casualty -- a fatality -- of Europe's first civil war since the one in Greece in the 1940s, and a civil war even more savage than the one in Spain in the 1930s.

Writing in The Atlantic last November, Conor Cruise O'Brien, the Irish diplomat and man of letters, noted that in Sarajevo, ''perhaps the most ominous place-name in the history of the world,'' there is a Princip Bridge. It is named in honor -- yes, honor -- of Gavrilo Princip, the young assassin whose killing of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo lit the fuse that led to two world wars, the Cold War and back to Sarajevo today, where snipers shoot at civilians on Princip Bridge.

Mr. O'Brien believes that the glorification of Princip, the precipitator of so much European agony, ''suggests that Bosnians feel little more solidarity with their fellow Europeans than -- to their present misfortune -- their fellow Europeans feel with them.'' The phrase ''fellow Europeans'' falsely suggests a shared civic identity. Actually, Europe remains a merely geographic, not a political expression. The idea of Europe is too watery to cause Europeans to feel their fates deeply implicated in the Balkan tragedy.

The United States -- a nation defined by political doctrine rather than ethnicity and tribal memories -- is a nation strange to European experience. Hence Europeans, much more than Americans, find it ''natural'' for war to result (as the First World War, and to some extent the Second, did) because political borders do not fit the distribution of ethnic groups.

The cold comfort we can take from current events is that our sleep can still be troubled. We have not been entirely calloused by this century's coarsening effects. But it takes more than it once did to trouble the world.

The Encyclopedia Judaica says of the pogroms of the 1880s: ''The last great outburst occurred in June 1884 in Nizhni Novgorod . . . where the mob attacked the Jews of the Kanavino quarter, killing nine. . . . '' Just nine, and yet the world was scandalized. Today it takes rather larger numbers to move the world made by the events set in train by Gavrilo Princip.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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