Last week, I looked at Ratko Mladic's transformation from a loyal Yugoslav communist to an equally committed Serb nationalist. This week, I will address my second question: How did Mladic's actions in Srebrenica in July 1995, including the execution of thousands of Muslim men and boys, fit into his overall war strategy?
In answering this question, I want to emphasize again that I am not seeking in any way to justify horrifying war crimes. I am trying to reconstruct the internal thought processes of a mass murderer, based on the available evidence, including his own speeches and the statements of other Bosnian Serb leaders. From Mladic's point of view, there was a definite logic to the madness.
The first point to make is that Mladic's forces were coming under increasing pressure in the summer of 1995 from the Croat-Muslim military alliance, supported by the United States and NATO. After more than two years of military stalemate, the frontlines of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia were beginning to shift, to the disadvantage of the Bosnian Serbs. For the first time in the war, Mladic's men were on the defensive and struggling to hold on to their military gains from 1991-93.
The Croatian army had swept through the Serb-inhabited enclave of Western Slavonia in Operation Flash and was preparing to recapture the Serb-controlled Dalmatian hinterland of Krajina. The Muslims were becoming increasingly well-armed and militarily effective, threatening to break out of a pocket of territory around the town of Bihac in northwestern Bosnia. The Bosnian Serb statelet, Republika Srpska, risked being chopped into two.
In this context, it made both tactical and strategic sense for Mladic's forces to try to clean up the map and reduce the length of their front lines. At the top of their list of priorities was the elimination of the troublesome Muslim-controlled enclaves in eastern Bosnia that were ostensibly under the "protection" of the United Nations. The capture of Srebrenica and the other enclaves would free up thousands Serb troops who could then be transferred to other sections of the front. Serbs would be fully in control of both sides of the Drina river boundary between Bosnia and Serbia proper.
A glimpse into the thinking of the Bosnian Serb leadership is provided by Directive Number 7 of March 1995 that called for attacks on Srebrenica and Zepa, through the creation of "planned and well-thought out combat operations." The goal was to create an "unbearable situation of total insecurity, with no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica and Zepa."
In considering their attack on the eastern enclaves, Bosnian Serb commanders made little distinction between soldiers and civilians. Testifying before the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, the former chief of staff of the Bosnian Serb army, Manojlo Milovanvic, put it this way: "Where there is no enemy population, there's no enemy army."
But Mladic had an additional reason for wanting to punish the Muslim inhabitants of Srebrenica. Facing near-starvation conditions, groups of armed men under the Muslim warlord, Naser Oric, had mounted a series of raids on Serb villages around Srebrenica during the winter of 1992-1993. It is difficult to know precisely how many Serbs were killed in these raids, but several hundred seems a reasonable estimate, including not just soldiers, but elderly civilians. Serb propagandists greatly inflated the figure, building it up into a major war crime.
The Oric raids helped create what Marko Prelec, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, called "a reservoir of rage" among the Serb population of the Drina valley, the "belief that they [the Muslims] will do it to us if we do not do it to them...there was a kind of desperation, a feeling that if we do the right thing with all these prisoners of war, they will join the tsunami of Bosnians breaking over our heads."
Given this rage, it was predictable that the capture of Srebrenica and the other enclaves would result in a major bloodbath that could further undermine the international standing of Republika Srpska. The Bosnian Serb president, Radovan Karadzic, had raised the specter of such a massacre back in 1993 when he gave a speech defending the decision to agree to the establishment of a U.N.-patrolled "safe area."
"If we had entered Srebrenica, those people entering would be those whose families were killed [in 1992-93]," Karadzic told the Bosnian Serb assembly on July 20, 1993. "There would be blood to the knees and we might lose the state for that."
By July 1995, the situation had changed. Karadzic and Mladic ordered a military operation that they knew perfectly well would end in atrocities that would be condemned around the world. The question is: why? Quite apart from the moral issues involved, this would appear to be an example of what the historian Barbara Tuchman has described as the "March of Folly"-decisions that seem to fly in the face of the interests of the decision-makers themselves.
I will attempt to explain their thinking in my next two posts.
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In my last post, I outlined four mysteries surrounding Ratko Mladic that need to be resolved in order to explain the atrocities he committed during the 1992-95 Bosnia war. My first question -- How did a man indoctrinated in the Titoist ideology of "brotherhood and unity" turn into a Serb nationalist waging brutal war against his neighbors? -- may be the easiest to answer.
First, a little background. Prior to the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, Mladic had served with distinction in what was then known as the "Yugoslav People's Army" for 26 years. Trained as an infantry officer, he passed political loyalty tests with flying colors, rising to the rank of colonel. He described himself as a Yugoslav (literally a "South Slav") in responses to official questionnaires, not as a Serb. People who knew him at the time say that he never talked about "Serbdom," the "Serbian military tradition," or "Serbian interests." If he was a closet nationalist, it was very well disguised.
In explaining Mladic's ideological transformation, it helps to know a little bit about the nature of the regime he served.
Michael Evstafiev/AFP/Getty Images
In my last post, I talked about the "explicability of evil." Let me explain what I mean by that phrase. We should all be able to agree that the massacre of thousands of unarmed prisoners at Srebrenica in July 1995 was an evil act for which there can be no possible justification. But that does not mean that it cannot be explained -- both as an act of state policy on the part of the Bosnian Serb leadership and as a rational decision on the part of Ratko Mladic, the man who ultimately determined the fate of the people of Srebrenica.
The Srebrenica massacre belongs to a special category of war crimes so monstrous that it defies the imagination of decent people. It has been described as "genocide" by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Whatever you want to call it, there is no denying that it was the most heinous crime of the wars that tore the former Yugoslavia apart between 1991 and 1995, the worst massacre to occur on European soil since the end of World War II. This is why I have paid so much attention to the Srebrenica events in this blog, as a particularly horrifying example of the evil that human beings still inflict on each other.
In the case of former United Nations "safe area," the evil was compounded by the fact that it occurred a short plane ride away from the great European capitals, at the end of the 20th century, on the continent that created the slogan "Never Again."
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My post entitled "In Defense of the Serbs" has drawn a lot of debate and controversy, and has been widely picked up by the press in both Bosnia and Serbia. Judging from the comments on this blog, I have succeeded in antagonizing champions for both sides. If you insist that the fault lies exclusively on one side, then clearly you will be offended by someone who tries to understand multiple points of view.
Bosniak spokesmen have accused me of "legitimizing genocide" by daring to suggest that the international community failed to pay sufficient attention to the grievances of the two-million strong Serb minority in Croatia and Bosnia. Apologists for the other side view my explanation of the "Serb point of view" as an inadequate attempt to demonstrate my impartiality following a long chain of posts detailing atrocities committed by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by General Ratko Mladic.
I am struck by the ad hominem nature of many of these attacks.
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My last posting, "In Defense of the Serbs," has prompted a protest letter to Foreign Policy from Hamdija Custovic, Vice President of the Congress of North American Bosniaks. The letter is too long to reproduce in full here, but I will summarize its contents in the spirit of free and open discussion. You can read the letter in full at his organization's website.
Custovic accuses me of "appeasing the Serbs" who have been critical of my coverage of the Ratko Mladic trial by seeking to "spread the blame" for the Serbian "aggression and genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina." He compares Milosevic's project for a "Greater Serbian state" to Hitler's attempts to "consolidate all Germans into a single state." According to Custovic, the Serbian "war of aggression finally prompted a NATO intervention in the fall of 1995 in Bosnia and again four years later in Kosovo." He fears that we are now witnessing a revival of the "same nationalist rhetoric" that caused the Bosnia war in the first place, as evidenced by the election of Tomislav Nikolic to the presidency of Serbia.
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The off-and-on war crimes trial of Ratko Mladic got underway again this week in The Hague after a month-long summer break. As the prosecution outlines its case, I am planning a series of posts that will attempt to explain the mindset of the former Bosnian Serb military commander. By way of introduction, I want to look at the terrible war in the former Yugoslavia from the viewpoint of the Serbs, widely viewed in the West as the aggressors.
My focus in this blog has been the crimes of a single individual, and in particular Mladic's decision to kill or deport the Muslim population of Srebrenica in July 1995, which has become the centerpiece of the genocide charge against him. While I have inevitably talked a lot about Mladic's crimes against Bosnian Muslims, I do not mean to imply that Serbs were the only people committing war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, or that Serbian leaders were exclusively responsible for the war.
In fact, Serbs had some perfectly legitimate concerns both prior to and during the war that are often overlooked by western commentators who have painted an excessively black-and-white picture of the conflict.
Just attended a fascinating symposium organized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on what Western governments can do to prevent genocides and mass atrocities. The consensus among the speakers, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (see photograph above), was that the most effective kind of intervention is long-term preventive action. Once the killing starts, whether in Bosnia or Rwanda or Syria, it is virtually impossible to prevent it.
Of course, on one level, the sudden interest in long-term genocide prevention on the part of the Obama administration is a way of deflecting the criticism that the United States is doing very little to stop atrocities that are taking place right now. Nevertheless, it is self-evidently true that American policy-makers face a series of bad options in a country like Syria, and risk making the situation worse by blundering into a conflict that they do not fully understand.
Ratko Mladic was an archival packrat, documenting his own life meticulously through diaries, videos, and photographs. Many of these records are now in the hands of Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, to be used in his genocide trial, which adjourned today until August 21. The materials provide unique insights into not just Mladic: the war criminal, but Mladic: the family man -- a loving husband, doting granddad, and grieving father.
At the top of this post, you will find a photograph of Mladic with his beloved daughter, Ana, taken from a video recorded in October 1993, at the height of the war in Bosnia. A medical student, Ana killed herself with her father's pistol five months later on March 23, 1994. The following two photographs show Mladic weeping over her coffin at the funeral in Belgrade, and being consoled by his wife, Bosiljka. I have described the Ana suicide, and the devastating impact that it had on Mladic, in a previous post.
Ratko Mladic has been described as "one of those lethal combinations that history thrusts up occasionally-a charismatic murderer." What drove the Bosnian Serb military commander to order Europe's deadliest massacre since World War II? Could it have been prevented? Michael Dobbs, a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum fellow, investigates.