The post-emotional legacy of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina

The world today knows as little about the real, internal dynamics of these nations as it did about Bosnia in the 1990s.

BOSNIAN CROAT soldiers taken as prisoners 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
BOSNIAN CROAT soldiers taken as prisoners 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 that.
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 aggression.
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, “secessionism.”
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 moment.
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.
Ironically, 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 University.