The Richmond Review

book review   


      home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

Unfinest Hour: Britain and the destruction of Bosnia by Brendan Simms

Unfinest Hour: Britain and the destruction of Bosnia
Brendan Simms

Unfinest Hour: Britain and the destruction of Bosnia
Brendan Simms
Allen Lane
London 2001

Merchandise Links

This book is a rarity in and of itself in that it is written in defence of American foreign policy, criticising European and specifically British policy, and written by a British academic. Amongst the wealth of literature that has appeared on the topic of Bosnia since the Dayton peace agreement of 1995 the majority has been produced by journalists and has focused on human interest stories or post-modern tracts on the nature of war and the tragedy of genocide. The blame for the failure of policy in Bosnia has traditionally been shared out among the governments involved, much as the responsibility for the war itself has been shared among the warring parties on the ground. This book is set to change all of that.

Brendan Simms, a history don at Peterhouse College Cambridge and a relative new comer to the Balkans, has produced a work that deals with the nuts and bolts policy failures of the British government under John Major and the Foreign Office in particular. Simms singles out former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd for particular criticism. His was a failure not of moral fortitude or principle but rather a tragic ‘failure of judgement’. It was Hurd – with his colleague in the MoD, Malcolm Rifkind – that propounded the idea of moral equivalence for the killing and destruction that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia. As a result the prevailing tactic among the men on the ground, to which Simms devotes an entire chapter, was to refuse to blame solely the Bosnian Serbs.

It was with this intellectual understanding of the conflict that the foreign policy machine of the Major government set out to stall and falter the attempts to lift the arms embargo on the country. Hurd refused to cede what he called the ‘level killing field’ that the Clinton administration seemed to want to create. It is on this topic of the transatlantic rift created by the Bosnian conflict that Simms is perhaps at his most interesting. The analogy of the 1956 Suez crisis arises frequently among decision makers on both sides of Atlantic. Indeed, in Simms’ opinion the debate over ‘lift and strike’ created a crisis unprecedented in the history of North Atlantic alliance and one which still has its repercussions today in the nascent European defence experiment.

Despite the restrictions on the release of official information, Simms has managed to interview nearly every major figure of the period, in Britain and the US, and amassed an impressive bibliography. This is a testament, perhaps, to the merits of non-journalist authors risking their reputations on such a notorious academic minefield as the former Yugoslavia. The mind truly boggles at what could have been produced had the author had access to the government archives.

Its academic rigour aside, Simms makes no pretence that unfinest hour is an objective historical analysis of the causes, events and consequences of the Bosnian conflict. Rather, it is a polemic. It is designed to bring to light the mistakes of perception and understanding perpetrated not only by the British policy elite but also the popular press. Unusually, and quite rightly, Misha Glenny is identified as particularly guilty of not grasping the essential nature of the war.

Unfinest hour is an important contribution to the vast and growing literature on the Bosnian war. Easy to read while maintaining its academic rigour, it is good to see Simms’ work, before confined to the Bow Group’s policy papers, reaching a wider audience. One would hope that is work such as this that might finally signal the death of the intellectually lazy myth of the ‘Balkan mentality’.

Reviewed by Michael Redman


Search The Richmond Review

Enter email address and Subscribe for updates

Product finder

Browse our network:

Visit The Big Bookshop


The Richmond Review

Copyright © 1995/2003 The Richmond Review