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The Bloodshed in Sarajevo, 78 Years Later

SARAJEVO: I am haunted by Sarajevo. Is the city to stand as a not-so-silent commentary, as bookends to a violent century? Has nothing changed in the world since 1914? Have we, the literate classes of the "Great Powers," learned anything since then? What can we do, oh, what can we do?

Was it only 20 months ago that we saw the United Nations stand resolute against aggression in the Persian Gulf? I felt so hopeful that a new era of effective collective security was about to dawn. I do remember, though, a conversation with an older, wiser observer of world affairs. "The 20th century is drawing to a close," said ambassador Robert G. Neumann. "It looks as though it will be followed by the 19th."

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At the time, I thought him too curmudgeonly. Now, I am not so sure.

But wait! There are some important differences between the Sarajevo of 1914 (ultimate product of the 19th century, as the reference books all at great length explain) and the less reflected-upon Sarajevo of today:

* First, the willingness of the world's most powerful societies to consider major war against neighbors a valid means to attain national goals has radically decreased. In 1914, six large empires rubbed against each other, vast tectonic plates of brute ambition within the narrow confines of Europe. Much of their publics thought war a glorious thing.

The publics of today's great powers have a much more hesitant attitude toward war. Horror at the losses incurred in that first great wasting of the century - as triggered in Sarajevo in 1914 - was one big reason for the change. The development of weapons of mass destruction was another.

* Second, there has been another technological revolution - in the means and reach of mass communications. This has contributed to a public understanding of the horrors of war. And, along with the intertwining of the world's major economic blocs, it has contributed to the growth of a sense of supranational, global responsibility.

* Third, we have at hand in today's Sarajevo an organization called the United Nations. True, the UN may not be working miracles. But it is making some difference. And in its conception - how bold! That nation states may pool their military resources to advance the common good: How folks in the Sarajevo of 1914 would have marveled at this possibility!

In sum, then, Sarajevo in 1992 is very different from Sarajevo in 1914. Then, it was a volcanic break point from which erupted worldwide waves of war. Now, it is nasty, very nasty, but still (luckily for the rest of us) essentially a sideshow. There is no hair-trigger in place between today's great powers.

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If today's Sarajevo is a precursor to anything, it is not to another worldwide cataclysm at this time. Rather, it raises the possibility of further "local" wars roiling unchecked, over the years to come, across vast areas of what used to be called "the third world."

Yet even that prospect should worry us. I spent seven years chronicling the civil war of Lebanon. I watched the destruction of that lovely country, and of so many of its people's hopes. I saw the evil of terrorism grow in the heart of bitter and impoverished communities. All humankind was diminished by what happened there, as all are diminished by what is happening today in the former Yugoslavia.

But this time around (unlike in 1914) we do have the time, the knowledge, and the resources to do something about it. Maybe the world community will not end up doing enough in Yugoslavia in 1992. But we have to be able to rally the resources - the peacekeeping forces, the money to back them, and the needed level of global statesmanship - to do much better next time.

Because next time, or the time after that, we may be seeing the horrors of today's Sarajevo somewhere - India? Ukraine? Russia? - where the battling militias have nuclear weapons as well as tanks. That's why, learning from the experience of Sarajevo today, we have to figure out how to make international peacekeeping work. For that might be humankind's only hope for surviving to see the 21st century.

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