A close friend told me years ago that I was the only person he knew from college who was actually doing something with your college degree. This was 1992 and I was a newly-minted graduate of American University’s School of International Service. I even had a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Service to prove it—more importantly, an actual paying job in my field, working at a prestigious think tank. I barely paid the rent, had a crummy social life, but was having an incredible ride.
I started as a “policy analyst” (really a research assistant) focusing on the former Yugoslavia as it was tearing itself and its people to pieces. It was my crusade, my chance to shake off the complacency of a middle-class American life. I was angry as hell over what was happening, and mesmerized by the madness that mocked all we were taught about human dignity, tolerance and reason.
I leapt. Head first.
Over the next three years, I was obsessed my obsessive thirst for learning, disciplined commitment made me a minor expert by Washington standards—I was published in international journals, and interviewed for the BBC, VOA. Of course my affiliation with a leading think-tank didn’t hurt, but since I was interviewed over the phone, my age wasn’t an issue.
My first (and only) television interview, for Australian TV, was a disaster.
I was already off to a bad start once the journalist saw how young I was (I was a mere twenty-four). I wasn’t even wearing a sport coat. But deadlines were deadlines, and he had a job to do. Along the way to becoming a wonk I was also becoming a media hound.
On camera, I made a point—I was getting good at sound bites—about Western inability to intervene in Bosnia when the journalist asked, “Caution being the better part of valor, right?”
Never having heard that phrase before, I responded with feigned confidence, perhaps an equivocal hand gesture to go with it. “Absolutely,” I said. I’m sure they never used the tape. Even if they did, I had no plans to set foot Down Under anytime soon. They never even paid me the customary fee, nominal as it was, and the non-US media outlets almost always threw some money your way.
But I was on top of my little professional world. My drive to work harder pushed me into hours when it wasn’t a good idea to walk home alone.
The highwater mark came in 1994 when I managed to attend a conference in Bosnia, during the war. I rode a bus from Zagreb to Tuzla, careening down the Dalmatian coast, barreling over Bosnia’s hills. Thirty hours of my life were spent on that bus. Each way. I unknowingly brought back a little present in the form of an intestinal infection. The return trip could have been thirty years. After that, nothing scares me. Except buses, unshaven men, and crappy Balkan tobacco.
Of the conference I remember very little—it was a hodge-podge of anarchic rants and starry-eyed proclamations. I spent my time trying to bribe Bosnian soldier to take me to the front some fifteen miles away (all part of the Crusade, you see).
But eventually I lost the peace, or rather, the peace lost me. In 1996 Dayton was born and Bosnia just wasn’t cool anymore. Now it was the time for the election observers, bureaucrats, consultants, the engineers, and social workers to come and put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
A few months after Dayton I returned to Bosnia, this time Sarajevo, as a reluctant follower of the Reconstruction. My irrational hunger for war and depravity, now denied me thanks to The Peacemakers (fuck them, no thanks), was abruptly brought up short. I met one of the only male survivors of Srebrenica, a bright man my age who by all accounts should have met his end at the bottom of a mass grave among the surrounding hills. But because he was a UN interpreter, he had the protection of the Dutch battalion deployed there. His family, whom he last saw through the fence of the UN compound days before the town’s collapse, had no such guarantee.
Policy analyze this.
Flip over to side b here.