The Veneer of Civil Society and the Hidden Roots of War

The Veneer of Civil Society and the Hidden Roots of War

By Tench Phillips

How does a civilized society disintegrate into civil war and murder within a short span of time? Throughout the last century, state backed violence has been waged time and again by modern industrial societies against their own citizens. Germany’s descent into fascism is the most notorious example but there’s been many more descents into barbarism by governments whose institutions were hijacked by their military, by tyrannical dictatorships, or by corporate forces.

Critical analysis reveals that the roots of war are firmly embedded within the Western tradition of political liberalism, the socio-economic system controlling the world today. Liberalism is the worldview based upon the writings of John Locke and Adam Smith. It is the belief that the enlightened values of democracy, human rights, freedom, and justice are only obtainable through the economic system of finance capitalism. Their mantra that is sounded ad nauseam is for free unregulated markets, privatization of the public commons, and increased economic growth.

Liberalism has two separate tracks. The rightward current of liberalism has evolved over the years into the libertarianism of today. It’s the belief in unfettered, unregulated markets to achieve the greatest social good. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan–big government can’t solve the problems, it is the problem. This sentiment against the abusive power of government has justified the ongoing conservative attempts to dismantle social welfare, cut taxes for the wealthy and corporations, and divert greater funding to the military.

Some simple-minded libertarians still cite the bad writing of Ayn Rand as sound economic philosophy–consider the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. I would recommend that he should quit his post and go back to school, but even if he did, the education he’d receive in most colleges in this country would be the same old backward looking neoclassical economics.

And then there is the leftward current of liberalism that has ebbed and flowed through various periods of New Deal social programs. These are government attempts to create a more equitable and just society by expanding social programs and regulating unfair corporate practices. And yet any hard-won legislation really only succeeds in placing Band-aids on the gaping wounds inflicted by a rigged capitalist system that enriches a wealthy elite at the expense of the working class. And since the two political parties are beholden to Wall Street, any effective social program like universal healthcare can’t ever get out of the starting gate. All the while the semblance of a people’s democracy is maintained by the Democrats.

The fallacies inherent within liberalism can’t be perceived within the system that created the problems to begin with. But the outcomes of global finance capitalism are painfully obvious: a diseased populace, ecological disasters, mass incarceration, income inequality, unpredictable climate change, and massive perpetual war. And yet immense corporate profits can be reaped from all of the misery that’s inflicted on the planet.

The most recent war in the long barbaric history of Western Europe took place in the early 1990s. The seeds of sectarian warfare sprouted after the death of Tito, the long-time communist dictator of Yugoslavia who had held the various factions of the country together–all the while walking the line between the communist block and the western powers.

The final collapse of the socialist federation of Yugoslavia in 1991 led to the complete break-up of the country into separate republics. Soon ethnic tensions were exploited by domestic leaders as well as by western governments that pumped military arms into the escalating conflicts.

The Bosnian War began in 1992 in Sarajevo, the very city that is attributed to be the start of World War I–the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. Over the decades, Sarajevo developed into a modern European city, a beacon of music and culture, and a multi-ethnic stew of Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats.

So what forces orchestrated the disintegration of civil society within such a short time? A new documentary by filmmaker Roger Richards attempts to shed light on the various issues that led to the Bosnian War. Sarajevo Roses: A Cinematic Essay will show on Wednesday, June 7 with the Norfolk filmmaker in attendance.

Richards took an international photojournalism assignment in 1992 and traveled to Sarajevo on the outbreak of the Bosnian War. The city was already being bombarded under a siege by the Bosnian Serbs and the former Yugoslav Army. An average of 300 mortars-a-day were lobed into the city from the surrounding higher elevations.

The war lasted for four long years, killing some ten thousand residents of the city. The war in Bosnia triggered the worst mass killings and ethnic cleansing of civilians in Europe since the Holocaust in World War II. The genocide continued as the world watched on TV.

Target bombing by NATO finally silenced the Serbs, and peace talks were later held in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995. The negotiations resulted in a federalized Bosnia and Herzegovina being divided into a Croat-Bosniak federation and a Serb Republic. Several political leaders were put on trail in international courts and found guilty of war crimes.

Sarajevo Roses draws from the voices and experience of those residents who lived through the catastrophe. They recall a life before the war of a tolerant pluralistic community. They could not envision how fast the nationalistic forces were able to use the mass media to terrify, corrupt, divide, and manipulate their fellow countrymen.

Richards has compiled and edited Sarajevo Roses from footage he filmed over a period of 24 years throughout his numerous journeys back to Bosnia during and after the war. He has chosen to narrate the film himself in a sober and poetic manner. But mainly he lets the film’s subjects speak for themselves. There are five survivors of the siege that are featured in the film. In ongoing interviews, they recount their lives during the siege and then through their continuing struggles to recover from the trauma in its aftermath.

One of the film subjects is a medical doctor who tirelessly treated the wounded during the war without necessary medical supplies. He testifies in the film that the capacity to commit acts of extreme violence against our fellow humans is not limited to any particular ethnic group or nationality. War brings out the irrational beast that lies just beneath the surface in all of us, and only when we are aware of this dark side, may we have some hope of conquering our base impulses.

Richards has captured some of the most iconic images of the war, including that of  a cellist with the Sarajevo Opera. On the days following a deadly mortar barrage, he would bravely play in the streets dressed in his tuxedo. Amazed by his performance, terrified people would briefly stop and listen as they ran between buildings to avoid snipers. “I play, I cry, people cry around me,” he says in the film. “I hate when journalists talk and say, ‘Your weapon is a cello,’ ” he says. “Cello is a music instrument, especially when national concert hall is destroyed, when national theater is destroyed. You take an instrument and you play on the street.”

The title of the film comes from the numerous craters from mortar shells that remain on the concrete walkways and streets. They would sometimes create a fragmented pattern that looks like a floral arrangement when filled in with red resin.

Richards says that Sarajevo Roses may not have answers, but that the film provides many instructive warning signs. It’s sobering to learn that even in societies as integrated as Bosnia’s, ordinary citizens can be convinced by politicians and propaganda to accept, condone, and participate in genocide. “It has happened in Bosnia and in the Middle East. It has happened in the United States,” Richards asserts.

Europeans are paying attention to the lessons of Richards’ film where it premiered last year at the Sarajevo International Film Festival and was showcased for members of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium.

If the citizens of the world don’t soon learn the tragic lessons from past brutal transgressions by governments and to demand the social and economic reform for the common good, it will soon become too late to do anything in the face of violent authoritarian regimes.

However the biases of liberalism don’t allow for a clear-headed critique of global finance capitalism. As a result the seeds of fascism, nationalism, class warfare, and racism go undetected. Historically, when these oppressive forces are manipulated by those in power, it is invariably blamed on an elected leader such as our current President and not on the system that propelled his rise to the top. Liberalism has failed us. We have a pathological system that promotes self-interest, hyper-individualism, competitiveness, and wealth accumulation at the expense of  a healthy civil society.

There’s a war on the planet being waged today by governments and corporations. It’s imperative for people around the world to confront the war cartels and the corporations that are profiting from the global arms trade. A revitalized anti-war movement on a global scale would be a good start.


Upcoming Film Events at Naro Cinema



Composer/producer Scott Freiman takes Beatles fans young and old into the studio with The Beatles as they create their seminal 1966 album, Revolver. Shows Tuesday, May 16, 20 & 21.



In the midst of the Egyptian Arab Spring, Bassem Youssef who is known as ‘The Egyptian Jon Stewart’, created a weekly satirical show that quickly became the most viewed television program in the Middle East. In an authoritarian country where free speech is not a legal right, Bassem’s show became as revolutionary as it was popular. Until he had to flee the country for his life. Shows Wed, May 17.



Pierre-Auguste Renoir is known and loved for his impressionist paintings of Paris in the late 1800s. This stunning film – based on the remarkable collection of 181 Renoirs at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia – examines Renoir’s later, often misunderstood works and their influence on such 20th century artists as Picasso and Matisse. Shows Tues, May 23 presented with Chrysler Museum.



In 1960, Jane Jacobs’s acclaimed book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ sent shockwaves through the architecture and planning worlds. Jacobs was also an activist, who was involved in many fights in mid-century New York, to stop developer Robert Moses from bulldozing the city. Her legacy lives on. Shows Wed, May 24 with speakers and discussion.



Martin Scorsese presents the first full-length documentary to explore one of the most influential musical groups of their generation. The film reveals the untold history of the Dead and the freewheeling psychedelic subculture that sprouted up around it. Shows Thursday, May 25.




A look at Lynch’s art, music, and early films, shining a light into the dark corners of his unique world and giving audiences a better understanding of the man and the artist. Shows Tues, May 30.



Focusing on the legendary team at The New York Times, the film invites some of the most essential questions we ask ourselves about life, memory, and the inevitable passage of time. What do we choose to remember? What never dies? Shows Wed, May 31 with speakers and discussion.


CHASING TRANE: The John Coltrane Story 

Coltrane’s incredible story is told by the musicians that worked with him: Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, and Reggie Workman; as well as by those musicians who were inspired by him. Shows Tues, June 6 with introduction by celebrated jazz musician, composer, and radio programmer Jae Sinnett.



Journalist John Pilger’s (The War On Democracy) new doc reveals the ongoing build-up to war on more than 400 U.S. military bases that encircle China in a ‘perfect noose’. Pilger’s film discloses America’s secret history in the region–the destruction wrought on the people of the Marshall Islands by the testing of nuclear bombs for 12 years. Pilger’s film challenges the American propaganda of China being the new ‘enemy’. Shows Wed, June 7 with speakers and discussion.



A major culinary revolution is taking place in Israel. The Israel-born, award-winning chef, Michael Solomonov, offers up a tour of 70 plus diverse cultures of Israel sampling from remarkable food traditions as diverse as Moroccan, Persian, Lebanese, French, Italian and Russian. Opens Friday, June 9.



Local photojournalist and filmmaker Roger Richards experienced the collapse of civil society in Sarajevo, Bosnia from the beginning of the war in 1992. He has filmed the city and its inhabitants for the last 24 years. His new film is a cinematic essay told by five citizens who survived death and unimaginable horror and have struggled since to rebuild their city and their lives. Shows Wed, June 14 with filmmaker Roger Richards.


FlickIt! presents the following film events


DONNIE DARKO (Director’s Cut)

The 15th anniversary of Richard Kelly’s cult classic stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a troubled high school student in possession of an imaginary friend, a six-foot rabbit named Frank, who tells him the world is going to end. Shows Friday, May 19.



Based on the novel by William Goldman and directed by Rob Reiner, this fairy tale adventure has become an enchanting classic. Shows Friday, June 2.



Set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, Spike Lee’s comedy/drama chronicles the events on the hottest day of the year that lead up to a race riot. Shows Friday, June 16.