Triumph of the Lack of Will:|
International Diplomacy & the Yugoslav War-
by James Gow,
The Political Lives of Dead Bodies:
Reburial, & Post-Socialist Change
by Katherine Verdery,
Politics of Serbia in the 1990s
by Robert Thomas,
Kosovo: A Short History
by Noel Malcolm
Kosovo: How Myths And Truths Started A War
by Julie A. Mertus
Crossing Kosovo: American Ideals Meet Reality On The Balkan Battlefields
by David Fromkin
The Battle of Kosovo
by John Matthias, Vladeta Vuckovic,
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|The Immaculate War
by Christopher Merrill
No one knows who won the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. But certainly the myths that grew out of the Saint Vitus Day clash between Serbian and Ottoman forces continue to reshape the international order. When the armies of Serbian Prince Lazar and Sultan Murad met on the Field of Blackbirds, both sides suffered heavy losses, including Murad’s assassination and the beheading of Lazar. But since most of the Serbian noblemen were either killed or driven into exile—the prelude to five centuries of Turkish occupation—medieval Serbian poets transformed the battle into the myth of a great nation strangled at its birth. Here was an epic poetry rooted in loss. “The image of disaster of the Battle of Kosovo has lived for centuries in Serbian literary and oral traditions with the elusive vividness of a hallucination”—a hallucination which will haunt the world into the new millennium.
For Kosovo, which boasts not only important Serbian Orthodox shrines and monasteries (hence the Serb denominator of Kosovo as its Jerusalem), but also large deposits of bauxite, copper, gold, lead, and silver, is also home to Albanians, whose settlement of the region may predate by several centuries the Slavic migration into the Balkans. “What has never been can never be,” a Serbian poet wrote. “One land only but two masters”—the theme of the latest war of Yugoslav dissolution, the fourth this decade. Tito contained the tensions between Serbs and Albanians (with the help of the secret police and public works projects), but his death in 1980 left a vacuum in Yugoslav politics. By 1987, Kosovar Albanians outnumbered Serbs nine to one, thousands of Serbs having emigrated from the province in search of better economic opportunities; and the Serbs who remained in Kosova (the Albanian spelling) resented their second-class status. A Communist apparatchik named Slobodan Milosevic, visiting the capital of Pristina, recognized a potent new political force in the Serbs’ anger. No one should dare to beat you, he told them. On 28 June 1989—Saint Vitus Day—he returned to give a stirring speech to several hundred thousand Serbs gathered at Blackbird’s Field. “After six centuries, we are engaged in battles and quarrels,” he said. “They are not armed battles, but this cannot be excluded yet.” What was once a poetic subject became his call to arms.
The Yugoslav crisis began in Kosovo, and it will end in Kosovo, went the popular saying. And it is true that Milosevic precipitated Yugoslavia’s breakup by revoking Kosovo’s autonomous status in 1989, then imposing a form of apartheid on the Albanians. He stripped them of their jobs, closed down their schools, hospitals, and media outlets, and began to systematically harass civilians. The Albanians responded by setting up a parallel system of institutions, and for nearly a decade, under the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova, an enigmatic literature professor, they pursued a nonviolent campaign to recover their autonomy, documenting Serbian abuses and seeking to counter the nationalist frenzy whipped up by Milosevic’s henchmen in the media, in Kosovo and Serbia.
In The Political Lives of Dead Bodies, Katherine Verdery details one of the stranger episodes in the fomenting of Serbian nationalism. In 1987, Lazar’s bones were taken from the patriarchate in Belgrade and displayed in monasteries in Bosnia and Croatia before being reburied in Kosovo. “Prince Lazar’s skeleton thus set the boundaries of Greater Serbia,” Verdery writes, “on the principle ‘Serbian land is where Serbian bones are’—even if the overwhelming live majority is Albanian.” The past was literally dug up in Yugoslavia, with tragic consequences. Even as Serbian forces attacked Croatia, the bones of Serbs killed by Croatian Ustase in World War II were unearthed from caves in Herzegovina and reburied in Belgrade—to much fanfair; and soon after the Dayton Peace Accords were signed, Serbs departing from Sarajevo dug up their dead and ferried them to Republika Srpska and beyond—yet another hideous sight in a war of unimaginable grotesqueries, which has provided victims on all sides with more evidence of perfidy with which to rewrite history to their liking.
An altogether more judicious version of events may be found in Noel Malcolm’s Kosovo: A Short History, the most reliable guide to the region. As in his acclaimed history of Bosnia, Malcolm brings to the table a long acquaintance with the Balkans, a grasp of the relevant languages, an eye for telling details and stories, and a superb prose style. He does not mince words about the ways in which Serbian intellectuals and politicans have deluded their people: “Not everything the Serbs have been told about the history of Kosovo is false; what is needed, however, is an ability to accept that there are other truths which they have not been told.” And this: “When ordinary Serbs learn to think more rationally and humanely about Kosovo, and more critically about some of their national myths, all the people of Kosovo and Serbia will benefit—not least the Serbs themselves.” If Malcolm’s nuanced and balanced account of this problematic history could not prevent the latest war, perhaps at some point in the future it will be the compass to the next reconfiguration of the Balkans.
But what of the international community’s response to the wars of succession—or dissolution, as James Gow calls them in his perceptive study of international diplomacy and the Yugoslav War, Triumph of the Lack of Will? Gow remarks that “[r]arely, if ever, in history can so much time, energy, manpower, finance and diplomatic attention have been applied to a conflict with so little reward.” He identifies four features of what he calls the “chastening failure” of Yugoslavia’s breakup: “bad timing, poor judgement, a lack of cohesion [among the Great Powers] and the absence of will to implement policies involving the use of force.” Gow marshals abundant evidence of “diplomatic dereliction” in the management of the Yugoslav crisis, and while his book concludes with the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords, it is clear that little changed in the runup to the war in Kosovo.
Preventative diplomacy is the watchword in foreign policy circles, yet very little preventative diplomacy was exercised toward the Kosovar Albanians. The failure to address their long-standing dispute with Belgrade at the Dayton peace negotiations convinced many Albanians that the West respected only force; the emergence of the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA), a shadowy band of guerillas who saw no hope of change through non-violent means, was a logical consequence of the flawed peace treaty. And KLA attacks against Serbian policemen provided Milosevic with an excuse to distract his people, who were suffering from the effects of a mismanaged economy, an influx of refugees from Bosnia and Croatia, and economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council.
Three wars were fought in Kovoso. The first began in February 1998, when Serbian police mounted a counter-offensive against the KLA, which then numbered in the hundreds. As James Gow reminds us, timing is everything in war, and it was no coincidence that Milosevic cracked down on the KLA just after the Monica Lewinsky scandal came to light. By its own admission, the Clinton administration did not recognize the gravity of the situation in Kosovo—an excuse that proved hollow by the summer of 1998, when hundreds of Albanian villages were razed and hundreds of thousands of Albanians were on the run, hiding in the mountains or fleeing to neighbouring Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro—but with impeachment looming, the president was in no position to take decisive action against Serbia. The truce negotiated by Richard Holbrooke in October was an exercise in realpolitik: neither the Serbs nor the KLA had much interest in fighting over the winter.
After besieging Vukovar, Dubrovnik, and Sarajevo, ethnically cleansing eastern Bosnia, and slaughtering 8,000 Muslim men in Srebrenica, it was not hard to see what Serbia was planning when it massed 40,000 troops on the Kosovo border last March, including vicious paramilitaries from the wars in Bosnia and Croatia. The collapse of the Rambouillet peace talks and the evacuation of UN verification monitors gave Milosevic (the Butcher of the Balkans, as he is known in the region) a free hand to brutalize Albanians. “We act to prevent a wider war,” Clinton said in a speech to the American people justifying the first NATO attack against a sovereign nation, “to diffuse a powder keg at the heart of Europe that has exploded twice before in this century with catastrophic results.” He rightly cited national interest in explaining the need to ward off a regional war. Likewise the moral imperative he invoked to stop genocide. But the time to have acted was in the early days of the conflict, when Milosevic had far fewer troops in Kosovo. For the seventy-eight-day NATO air campaign that ended on June 3rd only hardened his resolve to ethnically cleanse the province; and before long his forces had succeeded in expelling or killing almost every Albanian. This was the war that, as Ivo Dalder and Michael O’Hanlon point out in their forthcoming Kosovo: Anatomy of a Crisis, NATO lost. The proof? The refugee camps, rape victims, mass graves, gutted houses, ravaged fields, dead livestock, and poisoned wells—the final tally of which may never be known.
In the third war, which took more than 33,000 NATO sorties over Serbia, 14,000 bombs and missiles, an indictment by the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague, and a concerted diplomatic effort (augmented by Russian pressure) to bring Milosevic to heel, only three NATO soldiers died, all in accidents; perhaps as many as 5,000 Serbian soldiers were killed. Albanian refugees returned to their towns and villages before UN peacekeepers could secure the area, and a new wave of ethnic cleansing ensued, this time directed against Serbs, some of whom will surely want to fight their way back home. No doubt the peacekeepers will remain in Kosovo for at least a generation.
For the first time in history, a war was won by air power alone. This, then, was an immaculate war (the term is Bob Shacochis’s), waged largely by American forces, which leaves the sole superpower in a peculiar position, according to David Fromkin. “Unlike dominant powers in the past, the United States did not defeat its rivals,” he writes in Kosovo Crossing;
for the most part they fell by the way. Americans, instead of seizing power, have had it handed to them, first by the British, then by the Soviets. History has not taught them lessons in power, for the United States rose to the top by surviving rather than winning. This has been a dangerous omission in a country’s education.
For now, in defining their country’s role and mission in world affairs in the coming era, nothing is more important for Americans than to appreciate the extent, limit, and the uses of their unprecedented national power.
Fromkin distrusts Wilsonianism in any guise—a troubling view for those, like me, who believe the West had a moral stake in stopping the bloodshed. Nevertheless, Fromkin raises important questions about the uses of force in a world increasingly given over to ethnic conflict.
Only Unity Saves the Serbs was the graffiti that Serbian soldiers scrawled on houses and buildings throughout Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. And Serbs are, sadly, winding up in one state: Serbia, where Milosevic has so contaminated political discourse and criminalized the culture that it is difficult to imagine a bright future for any Serb. The country is in shambles, the sanctions remain in place, the economy has been destroyed, the opposition is hopelessly divided. Aleksander Tijanic, a former Serbian Minister of Information, recently said that Milosevic had turned Serbian society into a high-school graduation exercise: “nothing you do is punishable”. And he added that his countrymen’s dirty little secret was that most of them not only did not care about Kosovo, they had watched its destruction impassively, as if it were foreign territory. Serbs want a new leader, according to Tijanic, so long as he does not force them to grow up. And just as it took Germany more than a generation to begin to reckon with its legacy of Nazism, so it may be a very long time before Serbs confront the myths—the lenses—through which they watched the dismemberment of their country and a decade of tragedy.
No one can say what will become of Serbia: whether Milosevic will wreak more havoc or be deposed, perhaps in a violent fashion. But this much is certain: the bloodiest century is ending as it began—with the Great Powers mired in the Balkans and no lasting peace in sight. •
Christopher Merrill’s latest book is Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars. He is a visiting professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.