What happens when an author tries so strenuously to empathize with her subject that she loses control of her own book? ... It’s a question that kept coming to mind as I read My War Criminal ... mystifying ... The problem with My War Criminal is that Karadzic — a psychiatrist who wrote bad poetry before becoming the president of Bosnia’s hard-line Serbian nationalist party — apparently knows enough about her determination to write a book about him to turn her own method against her. Karadzic gets fashioned here into the charismatic character Stern so clearly wants him to be ... During the conversations, she deliberately avoided challenging Karadzic in any way ... Stern inflates the drama of her narrative ... More disconcerting than the awkward literary affectations is how Stern writes about the actual history of the war. Stern says she isn’t trying to deny a genocide, nor is she trying to redeem Karadzic. But in her attempts to 'follow his moral logic,' she entertains his tortured excuses and grotesque fantasies ... It’s exasperating to watch a smart woman play possum like this — not just in the interviews but in the writing, especially when her conclusions don’t tell us anything we didn’t know before.
... raises the question of when it is worthwhile to give an outlet to a war criminal and what risks are involved ... The problem is that Karadzic has no interest in seeking the truth about himself or anything he was involved in. He comes across clearly as a self-mythologizing narcissist and, as Stern and others describe, a fluent liar...This makes it practically impossible for Stern or her readers to learn anything significant from what Karadzic says beyond the heroic image he is determined to project ... Stern says she was alert to the risk that Karadzic would try to manipulate her, but she fails to prevent his self-serving approach from undermining her project ... [Stern's] reluctance to question him about the atrocities that were an integral part of the Bosnian Serb war campaign, on the grounds that he is likely to lie about them, creates a gap at the center of her narrative... Stern writes about herself with what seems like unflinching honesty and is unafraid to reveal her vulnerabilities, but the effect is incongruous. Her account of letting Karadzic practice bioenergetic healing on her and of her desire to be a good student with him, as well as other passages about his charisma, sit uncomfortably with his unwillingness to accept any responsibility for his crimes. Stern’s focus on her feelings may have seemed like a way to draw readers into her narrative, but it comes across as self-absorbed in comparison to the suffering that Karadzic helped cause ... Stern’s book seems to be motivated by a genuine concern about the dangers of virulent nationalism. But in the end, Karadzic does not offer the kind of reflection or insights into his actions that would justify the attention Stern pays to him.
... intriguing ... illuminate[s] a larger story about nationalism, fear, separatism, and dissension ... Ultimately, Stern draws chilling parallels between the war criminal and President Trump, including similarities in their tactics of fearmongering and ethnocentrism, and asks us to question our own moral dexterity and susceptibility to such ethical collapses.