Watching the Discovery Channel's "Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation" is like cramming for a final exam: So many names are thrown your way, so many dates and places and numbers are invoked that it becomes nearly impossible to keep track of them all.
Don't give up. This is a superior piece of work, a five-night, five-hour documentary that tries to make sense of this latest Balkans war by interviewing nearly all of the major players -- including presidents Miloban Milosevic of Serbia, Franjo Tudjamn Croatia and Alijah Izetbegovic of Bosnia. CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour provides narration.
It's a remarkable, if sometimes nearly impenetrable, documentary that should be required viewing for anyone who questions why the U.S. is sending troops there. By the end of the five hours the question may change from "Why now?" to "Why not five years ago?" -- especially when a Serbian command suggests that 5,000 NATO soldiers could have stopped the Serbs dead in their tracks three years ago.
"Death of a Nation" is not easy viewing. Your best bet is maybe to tape all five one-hour episodes, beginning at 10 tonight with "The Cracks Appear" and continuing on successive nights through Saturday. That way, you'll be able to stop the tape when things get confusing, back it up to replay key moments or even refer back to previous episodes.
The series does one thing very well, however. It makes clear that the break-up of Yugoslavia was not about ideology or economics, but simply racial hatred. It has been a war started by men who knew how to fan the flames of mistrust, who knew that the surest way to power was to push for a Serb or a Croat homeland.
"Death of a Nation" struggles valiantly to explain generations of hatred in a few hours. It shows how Croats stoked Serbian fears by embracing the checkered flag of a regime that massacred hundreds of thousands during World War II. It shows how Milosevic's embrace of Serbian nationalism, in a country that had long recognized it could only survive by ignoring the idea of nationalism, caused Yugoslavia to explode, and not coincidentally, Milosevic to rise to power. And it shows how neither the Serbs nor the Croats cared about wreaking havoc on the Moslems.
But best of all, it shows the confusion behind it all. The politicians and generals responsible for all the chaos knew exactly what they were doing. They knew the best way to do it was to prey on the fears of people ready to believe the worst about their fellow countrymen.
"Death of a Nation's" most remarkable accomplishment, however, is getting just about everyone involved in the conflict to sit down and talk about it. Milosevic's closest adviser, Borisav Jovic, calmly explains how Serbian leaders were able to justify using the Yugoslav army against the Croats, even after the country's governing body -- back when there was still a country to govern -- had voted down such a proposal.
"We had to change our tactics," he explains as nonchalantly as if he were explaining how best to win at Stratego. "What we had to do was station army units all over the Serb lands in Croatia. Then the Croats would provoke a conflict. And that would enable us to secure those lands."
Even more chilling is Serbian paramilitary leader Dragoslav Bokan justifying his men's murder of 47 Croat civilians from the village of Vocin.
These men and women were not simply killed, however: They were left on display as a warning to other Croats.
Many had been shot in the face and had their eyes blown out. Some had been bludgeoned with axes, others burned.
"It's important to know where you stand," he tells the filmmakers, whether you have been defeated or have won; are you a hero or a coward? Will the world say you are a war criminal, or a righteous warrior?"
Centuries ago, a Rumanian warrior tried a similar tactic. He became known as Vlad the Impaler, for his fondness for leaving his victims impaled on wooden stakes. Most remember him today as Dracula.
The series is filled with such horrific moments -- precious few that resemble anything heroic. A Croatian police chief who repeatedly put his life on the line to maintain peace is one of the few exceptions; for his trouble, he was threatened by a Croatian cabinet minister and murdered a few days later.
This is television that deserves to be watched. Certainly it's confusing, and would have benefited from better use of graphics to explain troop movements and geography.
But occasionally a moment of stunning clarity finds its way to the surface, a moment that puts everything else in context. One such moment here reminds us that this isn't simply a story of power-hungry dictators and ineffective foreign policies. Rather,
it's a story of human suffering on a scale civilized society simply should not allow.
That moment comes during the third hour, "The Collapse of Unity." The Bosnian city of Vukovar has collapsed and been overrun by the Serbs. As the narrator notes that more than 15,000 people died during the battle, the camera puts viewers inside a bus driving through the streets of what has become a ghost town.
Not a living soul can be seen, only bodies and wreckage, gutted buildings and burned cars. There's no voiceover, no music, only the rhythmic squeak of windshield wipers trying desperately to clear the glass of dirt and rain.
That image, of a once-vibrant city almost literally bombed to hell, is one that haunts you after all the words, all the maps, all the generals and politicians have faded into memory.