During a recent argument, my adversary derided my past experience reporting on the wars in the Balkans. It was a heated exchange.
“I don’t care about your mumbo-jumbo Bosnia [crap],” yelled the irritated man.
We were discussing personal issues unrelated to the various conflicts that ripped apart the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, and his comment about Bosnia confused me. I had written a few articles about the conflict in Bosnia, yet doubted if the man read my work; and, while listening to his verbal tirade, I wondered if he had the capability of understanding that war isn’t analogous to a street fight.
After thinking about his words for a few weeks, I came to the realization that his reference about war was only a feeble attempt at intimidation. The ill-defined “mumbo-jumbo Bosnia [crap]” expression hurled at me by the angry man was, I believe, intended as an insult meant to bolster his self-image and denigrate mine. Instead, the phrase educated me. The man failed at fulmination, but succeeded in increasing my knowledge of language and war.
I opened my tattered copy of the American Heritage Dictionary, thumbed through the pages, and learned the various meanings of mumbo-jumbo. There are three entries listed in my paperback edition.
The first definition of mumbo-jumbo–an object of supernatural powers; a fetish–does not accurately describe the killing fields in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, and Macedonia. Although the intense religious beliefs of many Muslims and Christians did impact the conflicts, God did not drop the bombs. Men and women were responsible for the death and destruction that I observed in the Balkans.
Definition number two–confusing or meaningless activity; obscure ritual–does describe the average American citizen’s understanding of the wars in the Balkans during the last decade of the Twentieth Century, but it is also a bit off the mark. There was no mumbo-jumbo when the leaders of Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Macedonia made plans to wage war, and they certainly meant what was said and done to the Yugoslav people. It is true that, until 1999, most Americans were ignorant about what was happening in the Balkans–it was an ‘obscure ritual’ to people being titillated by President Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky. However, when Clinton bombed Belgrade on March 24, 1999, the obscure was turned into the obscene.
The third entry in my dictionary, a translation of the Mandingo word ‘ma-ma gyo-mbo’, was the definition that made sense to me–magician who makes the troubled spirits of ancestors go away. I finally understood mumbo-jumbo; I already knew about war.
Slobodan Milosevic was a magician, a mumbo-jumbo, when he used the historic 1389 defeat of the Serbs (slaughtered by Muslim Turks in a large valley in central Kosovo) to explain his actions in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Milosevic wanted the ‘troubled spirits’ of thousands of long-dead Serbs to ‘go away’ when, as the elected President of Serbia, he defended his people and territory against acts of violence perpetrated by living Muslim terrorists. Milosevic’s mumbo-jumbo war led to his incarceration at The Hague, indicted as a war criminal for killing and cleansing innocent civilians.
President Clinton was not a magician; his 1999 war against Serbia cannot be considered a mumbo-jumbo war. Americans did aid and abet the leaders of Bosnia and Croatia during the disintegration of Yugoslavia, but Clinton’s ancestors were not responsible for the killing and cleansing that bloodied the Balkan soil and soul. Clinton only wanted Monica to go away when he ordered the assault on Serbia. An obscenity for sure, but not a mumbo-jumbo war.
It was left to Clinton’s successor to conjure up an American mumbo-jumbo war.
George W. Bush is a magician, a mumbo-jumbo, and his 2003 war against Iraq fulfills my interpretation of the definition. The ‘troubled spirits’ of George H. W. Bush have undoubtedly vanished and, although the former President was unwilling to oust Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War, his son was able to make the Iraqi President go away. George W. Bush didn’t have to wave a magic wand; he only had to expend the lives of thousands of innocent Iraqis, hundreds of brave American and British soldiers, and two loutish sons of Saddam.
‘Ab-bra Cadaver’ chanted Mr. Bush and, poof, the evil tyrant disappeared.
JAMES T. PHILLIPS is war photographer and correspondent now living in Maine. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org