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America and the Bosnia Genocide

As George Bush, “the foreign policy President,” knew, and as Bill Clinton would soon discover, such an ideology, taken as faith by a Vietnam-haunted officer corps, severely limits a president’s freedom of diplomatic action. If the State Department “tends to be more willing…to threaten, deploy, and employ military forces,” Kanter says, this is because diplomats view “the threat and use of force as a key instrument of US foreign policy….”13

In late September, as the debate set off by the concentration camp pictures raged, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Colin Powell summoned to his office a New York Times reporter and gave a remarkable interview, which the Times ran on its front page under the headline “Powell Delivers a Resounding No On Using Limited Force In Bosnia.” Powell declared:

As soon as [politicians] tell me it is limited, it means they do not care whether you achieve a result or not. As soon as they tell me “surgical,” I head for the bunker.

Insisting he did not believe the military must apply “overwhelming force in every situation,” the general said leaders must “begin with a clear understanding of what political objective is being achieved,” then determine whether the objective is “to win or do something else.”

Preferably, it is to win because it shows you have made a commitment to decisive results…. The key is to get decisive results to accomplish the mission.14

The simplicity is deceptive: for Powell the opposite of “to win” is not “to lose” but rather to fail to achieve “decisive results.” If a military action does not prove “decisive,” it has failed. And if a proposed mission cannot be virtually guaranteed to produce such results, it should not be attempted.

One might think the responsibility for determining what such “results” should be would properly fall not to Powell but “above his pay grade.” If the president, having decided that he could define success as something less than what military officers deem to be “decisive results,” chooses to employ “limited force” to strike, say, the rail lines or roads leading to Omarska—or to destroy the Drina River bridges in order to cripple the Bosnian Serb supply system—then this decision belongs to him, not to senior officers.

And so it comes as no surprise that the State Department spokesman’s first response to the faces from Omarska had been the forthright one. Of course the American government had known about the Serbian camps, long before the pictures and stories had come out. The only question was exactly when. As John Fox, an official in the State Department’s policy planning office, told ABC News, “The US government had in its possession credible and verified reports of the existence of the camps, Serbian-run camps in Bosnia and elsewhere, as of June, certainly July, 1992, well ahead of media revelations.”15 To the public, Bush officials had said nothing of the torture and the killing; for the outrage that would greet such news was predictable. And the administration, now as before, was determined to do nothing at all.

As it happened, though, the public revelations of the camps in August 1992, and the political controversy that followed, were mirrored within the government by a quieter struggle: over the meanings, and implications, of genocide.


In early April 1992, little more than a week after officers of the newly christened Bosnian Serb Army launched their campaign of limited conquest in Bosnia, officials in Washington began receiving reports of atrocities, among them mass executions, beatings, mutilations, and rape. Jon Western, at the State Department, then working on human rights in Bosnia, recalls that

many of these atrocities looked an awful lot like what we had heard and read about during World War II—the Balkans historically produce a lot of disinformation—and we were trained to look at them critically and decipher what was real. But as reports continued to come in…, it became apparent that they weren’t just propaganda.

In fact, we were getting reports from a number of sources: eyewitnesses who had been incarcerated in concentration camps begin filtering out in summer 1992 and began giving accounts of atrocities that we could cross-reference with those from other eyewitnesses….16

As the Serbs prosecuted their “lightning campaign”—the Bosnian Serb Army of eighty thousand men, which had come fully equipped from the Yugoslav National Army, conquered 60 percent of Bosnian territory in scarcely six weeks—State Department officials compiled testimony of increasingly shocking and gruesome atrocities. Jon Western recalls that children were “systematically raped”:

There was one account that affected me: a young girl was raped repeatedly by Serb paramilitary units. Her parents were restrained behind a fence and she was raped repeatedly and they left her in a pool of blood and over the course of a couple of days she finally died, and her parents were not able to tend to her; they were restrained behind a fence. When we first heard this story, it seemed very hard to believe but we heard it from a number of eyewitnesses …and it became apparent there was validity to it.

Western and his colleagues were struck not only by the cruelty of these abuses but by their systematic nature; they very rapidly came to understand that though the Serb soldiers and, especially, the “paramilitary” troops responsible for “mopping up” were committing wildly sadistic acts of brutality, often under the influence of alcohol, their officers were making rational, systematic use of terror as a method of war. Rather than being a regrettable but unavoidable concomitant of combat, rapes and mass executions and mutilations here served as an essential part of it.

The Serbs fought not only to conquer territory but to “clear” it of all traces of their Muslim or Croat enemies; or, as the notorious Serb phrase has it, to “ethnically cleanse” what they believed to be “their” land. Of course making use of terror in such a way is probably as old—and as widespread—as warfare itself:

Houses and whole villages reduced to ashes, unarmed and innocent populations massacred en masse, incredible acts of violence, pillage and brutality of every kind—such were the means which were employed by the Serbo-Montenegrin soldiery, with a view to the entire transformation of the ethnic character of regions inhabited exclusively by Albanians.

This account is drawn from the Carnegie Endowment’s Report of the International Commission to Inquire into the Cause and Conduct of the Balkan Wars, published in 1914.17 Substitute the word “Muslims” for “Albanians” and the sentence could have been composed in spring or summer of 1992. Not only was the technique of “ethnic cleansing” identical, its purpose—“the entire transformation of the ethnic character of regions”—was clear to all.

The motive force driving Serbs to fight to achieve a “Greater Serbia”—or “all Serbs in one country”—depends however on a fortuitous conjunction of factors: a set of powerful historical legends combined in a cherished nationalist myth; the advent of economic hardship and the uncertainty brought on by the end of the cold war; and the rise of an ambitious, talented, and ruthless politician.

On the nationalist myth in particular Tim Judah writes splendidly, briefly describing the Battle of Kosovo of 1389, and discussing its transformation into the founding epic of the Serbian “exile.” The story he tells does much to explain both the Serb obsession with the treachery of outsiders and their quasi-religious faith in the eventual founding, or rather reestablishment, of the Serbian state.

It was at Kosovo that King Lazar and his Serb knights rode boldly out to take the field against the Turks under Sultan Murad and defend Europe against the infidel. The Serbs lost this battle—although, as Judah shows, the evidence for this is ambiguous, as it is for much of the story; they later came to blame the defeat on the (probably imaginary) treachery of Vuk Brankovic, one of Lazar’s favorite knights. As Petar Petrovic-Njegos, prince-bishop of Montenegro, wrote in his 1847 epic The Mountain Wreath:

Our Serbia chiefs, most miserable cowards,
The Serbian stock did heinously betray.
Thou, Brankovic, of stock despicable,
Should one serve so his fatherland,
Thus much is honesty esteem’d.

Judah argues that the “myth of treachery was needed as a way to explain the fall of the medieval state, and it has powerful seeds of self-replications contained within it,” which have sprouted into an obsession with betrayal. (During the 1991-1995 war, Judah notes, with “monotonous regularity losses were always put down to secret deals—and treachery.”)

In the last supper the night before the battle, Brankovic plays Judas to Lazar’s Christ; in causing the Serbs to lose the battle, and thus their country, to the Turks, Brankovic’s betrayal made way for the crucifixion of the Serb homeland itself. But, as Judah writes, Lazar’s “idea that it is better to fight honourably and die than to live as slaves” not only “provided for Serbs an explanation for their oppression by the Ottomans,”

it also identified the whole nation with the central guiding raison d’être of Christianity: resurrection. In other words Lazar opted for the empire of heaven, that is to say truth and justice, so that the state would one day be resurrected. An earthly kingdom was rejected in favor of nobler ideals—victimhood and sacrifice—and this choice is to be compared with the temptations of Christ.

As Jesus would be resurrected so Lazar would be: and so, as well, would Serbia. This becomes a holy certainty, premised on the Serbs’ heroism and their sacrifice in losing to the Turks. “That is what people mean when they talk about the Serbs as a ‘heavenly people,”’ Zarko Korac, a psychology professor at Belgrade University, tells Judah.

In this way the Serbs identify themselves with the Jews. As victims, yes, but also with the idea of “sacred soil.” The Jews said “Next year in Jerusalem” and after 2000 years they recreated their state. The message is: “We are victims, but we are going to survive.”

Milosevic himself exploits this powerful ideological view of history—Professor Korac believes that for most Serbs “it is not a metaphor, it is primordial”—as a motivating force; but he has not let it limit his own tactical flexibility. Judah rightly emphasizes that Milosevic plainly did not always believe armed conquest and ethnic cleansing central to carrying out his project in Bosnia, for example. Well before the Bosnians declared independence and war broke out in the spring of 1992, Milosevic tried hard to woo Bosnia into remaining in what was left of the Federation—which, of course, Slovenia and Croatia having seceded (and the Serbs of the Krajina now “liberated” from Croatia and loosely tied to Serbia), was now politically dominated by the Serbs.

The Bosnians referred to Milosevic’s planned state derisively as “Serboslavia” and it is no wonder they wanted no part of it; but the Serb leader’s tenacious attempts to persuade the Bosnians not to follow the Slovenians and Croatians in seceding show him to be much more a ruthless political tactician than an ideologue, a distinction he would confirm by his behavior four years later when he abandoned to the “ethnic cleansing” of the Croatian army the very Krajina Serbs his National Army made such a show of “liberating” in 1991.

  1. 13

    See Arnold Kanter, “Intervention Decisionmaking in the Bush Administration,” in US and Russian Foreign Policymaking with Respect to the Use of Force, pp. 168-169.

  2. 14

    See Michael R. Gordon, “Powell Delivers a Resounding No On Using Limited Force in Bosnia,” The New York Times, September 27, 1992, p. A1.

  3. 15

    See “While America Watched,” p. 3.

  4. 16

    Drawn from an unbroadcast section of an interview with ABC News, “While America Watched: The Bosnia Tragedy,” January 1994.

  5. 17

    Republished as The Other Balkan Wars: A 1913 Carnegie Endowment Inquiry in Retrospect with a New Introduction and Reflections on the Present Conflict by George F. Kennan (Carnegie Endowment, 1993), p. 151.

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