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NEWS ANALYSIS : Faced With a TV War, Europeans Switch Off : Bosnia: Bloody images disturb the Continent's psyche much as Vietnam eroded America's, but public remains silent.

March 19, 1994|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRUSSELS — For most Europeans, the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina is a remote conflict that starts and ends with the evening news.

The images of hunger, death and destruction beamed from Sarajevo and the many faceless smaller towns elsewhere in Bosnia begin their nightly rounds with the early evening television news in Germany and roll through millions of living rooms on the Continent before the night's final summaries conclude in Britain several hours later.

It is an unpleasant but shared experience--Europe's first television war.

In some ways, the war in Bosnia has parallels with America's first television war nearly a generation ago: Vietnam.

Much as Americans once did, Europeans each evening confront a relentless, deeply disturbing conflict whose very ugliness flies in the face of the values they profess.

Much as the Vietnam quagmire fed American self-doubt and eroded national self-confidence, so has the war in Bosnia had a corrosive, demoralizing impact here, mocking the dreams of those who yearn for a united Europe and undercutting their influence.

Along with the deepest recession since the 1930s and other worrisome uncertainties in the former Communist East, the Bosnian war is a key contributor to the climate of pessimism and uncertainty that hangs over much of the Old World today.

"One has to question the state of Europe today if 350 million Europeans can't save the 350,000 inhabitants of Sarajevo," France's former minister of humanitarian affairs, Bernard Kouchner, wrote in a commentary in the European weekly newspaper.

Summed up Peter Ludlow, director of the Center for European Policy Studies here: "It's thoroughly demoralizing in just about every way."

In the struggle between those pushing for greater economic and political integration and those working to reignite the long-dormant flames of nationalist hatred--a struggle that many see as the great drama of post-Cold War Europe--the war in Bosnia stands as a symbol of the power and destructiveness of nationalistic passion.

Despite all this, however, the European public seems eerily silent.

The electronic images from Bosnia have yet to shake any European government to its foundations. Nor have they ignited violent anti-war clashes such as those that chased the Democrats from the White House and threatened to tear the United States apart in the late 1960s.

Indeed, the biggest split of public opinion in Europe about the Bosnian war is whether to become involved at all.

Even the leaders of Western Europe's potentially powerful peace movement, who mobilized millions to oppose the deployment of U.S. nuclear missiles during the 1980s and marched again in early 1991 to protest the Western attack against Iraq, have all but ignored the first major war on their continent since 1945.

"The sense of non-involvement is most worrying," Oxford University historian Williams Wallace said. "Sure, there are small groups sending food and clothing, but that's really it. I get no sense of public urgency."

Wallace noted that this mood of non-involvement exists despite the reality that before the breakup of Yugoslavia, Adriatic coastal resorts in the region were among the most popular of all vacation spots for sun-starved northern Europeans.

"Suddenly, everyone switched off," he said.

Of all European governments, only France has so far openly pushed for military action to back up the futile diplomatic threats to end the war.

In part, the public apathy reflects the inability of many Europeans to relate to a conflict that, although less than an hour's flying time from Vienna or Rome, has little impact on their daily lives.

Another factor is that--unlike what happened in Vietnam--very few "outsiders" are dying in Bosnia.

It is true that France and Britain are the two largest contributors of manpower to U.N. peacekeeping forces in the region. But the 77 peacekeepers killed in the former Yugoslav federation make up a number dwarfed by the casualties that helped motivate opposition to the Vietnam War, which claimed more than 50,000 U.S. lives.

Another important factor is that Germany, Western Europe's largest and richest power, a country that has taken in more than 200,000 refugees from the war region and where public sentiment runs high "to do something," remains paralyzed by its history and its own constitution.

Privately, German leaders admit that even if their country's constitution were amended to permit the country to engage in military action outside the Western Alliance area, the lingering memory in the Balkans of Nazi-era atrocities there would make it impossible for Bonn to deploy forces there.

Robbed of the Franco-German partnership so crucial for mobilizing multinational action, the 12-nation European Union has instead been limited mainly to issuing empty diplomatic threats and offering a political settlement that it cannot impose on its own.

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