Mad dog

Milosevic: portrait of a tyrant

Dusko Doder and Louise Branson <em>The Free Press, 304pp, £17.99</

Whenever I read denunciations of Slobodan Milosevic, I am forcibly reminded of the story of Sheikh Haji Mohamed bin Abdullah Hassan, known in British imperial history as "the mad mullah of Somaliland". First raising the standard of revolt in 1899, at a time when the British were using the machine-gun to slaughter untold numbers of Africans in different parts of the continent, the mullah embarked on an Islamic crusade that kept the British at bay for more than two decades. He was finally defeated in 1920 by the new imperial weapon of the 20th century: bombing from the air. But there was nothing "mad" about Sheikh Haji Mohamed. He was simply an anti-imperial warrior - one among many - who was so demonised by the British that it became easy to justify the severe punishment he eventually received.

In January 1920, while the mullah stood in the courtyard of his house in the Somali town of Medishe, the British pilot of a lone de Havilland two-seater bomber broke through the clouds and dropped eight 20-pound bombs. The pilot then photographed and machine-gunned the target he had been given: the mullah's courtyard. Out of a small group standing beside the Somali leader - his sister, his uncle and ten riflemen - only the mullah himself survived the attack, with his white jubbah and green turban much singed; 20 other people were killed in the bombing of the town, and 20 were wounded.

The mullah took refuge in a bomb-proof cave 15 miles out of town, where he later died. Sir Geoffrey Archer, the governor of Somaliland, recalled in later life that, while "surprise attacks without warning" might seem bloodthirsty, "it must be remembered that the mullah himself was an inhuman creature, a mad dog, to be exterminated by any means possible".

Those were more colourful times. Today, when journalists and politicians seek to demonise the leaders of faraway countries, they soon run out of suitable nouns and adjectives. General Pinochet is usually referred to as "a dictator", while in a new biography of Milosevic, written by two journalists, the Serb leader is described as "a tyrant". Dictator is a Latin word whose accepted definition is rather mild, with hardly a hint of opprobrium; it simply means "an absolute ruler", someone who might so act "in seasons of emergency". Tyrant, on the other hand, a word of Greek origin, makes the absolute ruler sound additionally grim: a tyrant seizes power "without legal right" and exercises it "in an oppressive, unjust or cruel manner". In the demonising stakes, Milosevic comes off worse than Pinochet.

No one describes Milosevic as a "mad dog", though some get quite close. Warren Zimmerman, the former US ambassador in Belgrade, calls him "one of the world's archcriminals", while the veteran US journalist Georgie Anne Geyer perceives him as an "evil croupier" playing games. Others have referred to him as "the butcher of the Balkans" or "Europe's new Hitler". The writer of the blurb for the new Milosevic biography moves into fresh territory by demonising the country as well as its leader.

Dusko Doder and Louise Branson, two old Balkan hands, make little effort to dig beneath the familiar cliches. They perceive Milosevic as "a hated dictator", "the Saddam Hussein of Europe", and his wife, Mira, appears in her usual supporting role as "Lady Macbeth". Chapter headings have such titillating titles as "Faustian bargain" and "The end of the caravan of dreams", and the writing is never less than breathless. In short, this is a book that does not go beyond the headlines of a tabloid newspaper or the tittle-tattle of the diplomatic circuit, so no reasonably assiduous newspaper-reader will gain much from reading it.

Maybe a biography of Milosevic is not what we need. His life story as told here is singularly banal, and the gossipy details are largely irrelevant to an understanding of what has been going on. Publishers clearly believe that readers cannot take stronger medicine; yet, as we skim the latest reports, it becomes clear that the biographical approach contributes little to our understanding of the continuing Balkan tragedy. What becomes obvious from the portraits of other Serbian politicians that crowd these pages is that Milosevic's personal contribution to the development of the history of his country has probably been quite small. If ever someone personified the collective view of the Serbian political elite, sustained in their actions by the great mass of the people, Milosevic is that man, and it is this that provides the source of his power.

What the west needs to understand, and should have learnt from imperial history long ago, is that other societies and cultures have different interests and priorities, which they are sometimes prepared to defend to the death. We may not like their culture, and we may choose to demonise Milosevic, like Sheikh Haji Mohamed, as a mad dog, in an attempt to justify the criminal bombing of Serbia, but he is one among many in that particular kennel - dogs we still seem to be intent on exterminating "by any means possible".