The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina was widely covered but is still poorly understood.
The macabre drama of the dissolution of Yugoslavia began with the Serbs as the
clear and primary victimizers of other ethnic groups, and then became
grotesquely twisted into additional wars of the primary victims (Croats and
Muslims) victimizing each other. Several civil wars raged simultaneously: Serbs
against Croats, Serbs against Muslims, Croats against Serbs and Muslims, and
Muslims against Muslims (Fikret Abdic led a failed secessionist movement against
the government of Alija Izetbegovic).
The unfolding of the process by
which some victims became victimizers is horrifying from psychological,
sociological and legal perspectives. Even when well-meaning persons and
governments wanted to help stop the bloodshed in Yugoslavia, they were paralyzed
by not being able to discern clearly the victims from the victimizers,
historically, as well as in relation to events in the war of the 1990s. The
metaphor that I would use to capture the overall picture is the following: The
Belgrade regime acted as the prison guards to prisoners (Bosnian Muslims and
Croats) who tried to break out of the prison of Yugoslavia, and who then turned
on each other in the process.
The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina was chaos. An
ideal, rational observer would have expected the victims to remain allies
against the aggressor, but instead, the allies turned on each other. But very
little about the wars that raged in Bosnia or the perceptions of outside
governments, journalists and well-intended persons was rational. Instead, events
were driven and judged by emotions, and historically tainted emotions at
In my book, Postemotional Society, I refer to these as
post-emotions based upon the past, not the ordinary, human emotions based upon
reality and the present moment.
For example, the Belgrade regime claimed
– and Western media broadcast the claim– that Serbs were justified in their
fears of the Bosnian Muslims based upon the victory of the Muslims over
Christians in the infamous Battle of Kosovo, which was fought in the year 1389.
Everyone knows that, rationally, an emotion cannot last over six hundred years.
Nevertheless, the post-emotional fear of the Bosnian Muslims was repeated so
often in the media that it became an acceptable explanation for Serbian
In addition, London was quick to point out that the Serbs
were England’s allies in both World Wars. Simultaneously, the media obsessively
added to almost every news report that the Croats had been under a pro-Nazi,
Ustashi regime in World War II. Again, every rational person knows that most of
Europe had been similarly occupied by the Nazis during World War II, so that
this historical fact about Croatia is not unique.
But this emotional
misuse of history was effective in creating lack of sympathy for Croatia’s
aspirations for independence, which was redefined with the more negative term,
When Germany recognized the independence of both Croatia
and Bosnia-Herzegovina, additional post-emotions concerning Gemany’s role in
World War II were constantly discussed in the media. From the start, the
Belgrade regime’s aggression was redefined repeatedly in emotionally-laden
historical contexts that completely obscured the realities of the
But post-emotions influenced the perceptions and decisions of
outside governments as well. The United States was haunted by its collective,
post-emotional memories of the Vietnam War, which continues to be referred to as
the Vietnam “quagmire.” The spectacle of several competing and poorly understood
factions in Bosnia was enough to trigger these post-emotional memories of a
Vietnam quagmire which could never be resolved, and to kill any chances of any
sort of intervention by the United States.
The lesson apparently learned
from Vietnam by the Americans is that in order to avoid a quagmire, it must use
“shock and awe” – overwhelming military force, exercised in a short period of
time, as illustrated by the Gulf War. But the images coming from Sarajevo were
so horrifying that the conscience of the world was affected. It was French
president Francois Mitterand – whose Vichy past has been almost completely
forgotten – who in 1992 invented the post-emotion of “humanitarian” intervention
in war. From that decisive visit that he made to Sarajevo, and this decisive
shift in viewing the genocide in Bosnia as a humanitarian disaster on par with
the devastation caused by hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters –
Bosnia’s fate was sealed.
The United Nations sent in neutral “observers”
to Bosnia, who observed but would not intervene to stop the genocide. Food and
medical supplies were flown into Sarajevo, while its citizens were shelled daily
from the hilltops. The United Nations imposed a weapons embargo on all of the
belligerents, ensuring that the Croats and Muslims would be outgunned, while the
Serbs had more than enough armaments left over from the Yugoslav National Army.
It was this desperate situation in which the victims knew that they had no
chance of winning or even defending themselves that led to the many land-grabs
and their turning on each other.
The carnage finally ended with the
Dayton Peace Accords in 1995. This treaty basically allowed the Serbs to keep
the 70 percent of Bosnia that they had already seized, and allowed the Croats
and Bosnian Muslims to divide up the remainder. Over 20 years after the signing
of this treaty, the situation has not changed appreciably other than the fact
that the fighting has stopped. Serbs still control 70% of Bosnia. Despite the
cosmetic surface of a multi-ethnic society, the country is essentially divided
into three distinct de facto societies.
The international court at the
Hague (ICTY) has taken the position that all three sides are equally guilty for
what happened. The court’s trials and decisions have become so lengthy that it
has established a legal quagmire in its own right, and nobody is really paying
attention. The post-emotional legacy of the ICTY at the Hague will be nothing
like the swift and decisive legacy of the Nuremberg trials, in which Nazi
leaders were held responsible for crimes against humanity.
Bosnia has become yet another post-emotional precedent for today’s generation
and today’s international conflicts. The most recent interventions in Libya and
Syria have been framed as “humanitarian missions,” not as classic military
interventions in which governments take sides against victimizers. The recent
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were similarly framed in quasi-humanitarian terms,
as wars for bringing democracy to those nations. Journalists gloss over the
Shia-Sunni mutual ethnic cleansing in Iraq that was one of the Bosnia-like
results of these interventions.
And the rhetoric used by the West to
describe the Middle East and North Africa is not much different from the
rhetoric it used to describe Bosnia: “land of ancient tribal hatreds,” “those
people have been fighting each other for centuries,” and so on. The world today
knows as little about the real, internal dynamics of these nations as it did
about Bosnia in the 1990s.The writer is a professor at Texas A&M
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