The Last War of the Twentieth Century - Chapter Two
February 27, 2008 11:02 | by Jan Marijnissen and Karel Glastra van Loon
Ethnic cleansing! Genocide! Hundreds of thousands dead!
'The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, but the myth.' John F. Kennedy
Those who seek to provide insights into complex problems cannot avoid simplifications. And those who want to make war, will not avoid the use of propaganda. The question is, when does a simplification stop being a simplification and become a lie? And when does propaganda cease to be propaganda and become pure deception? Few would deny that the Serbian television station is a source of misleading propaganda - for NATO this was sufficient reason to destroy it. But what about the manner in which the conflict in Yugoslavia was presented in the West? To what extent have the media and decision-making politicians in the NATO countries been guilty of deception and falsehood? And to what extent have the immediate simplifications of the complex reality led to a flawed understanding of what is in fact going on?
We put these questions to two experts: the Belgian historian and Balkans specialist Raymond Detrez, author of a number of highly prized books on the Yugoslav conflict, and the American linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky. Chomsky, who became world-famous as a result of his ground-breaking theories of language acquisition in children, is one of the best informed and most radical critics of American foreign policy. In his book Mconsent, he took a comprehensive look at the role played by the American media in the mobilising of public opinion behind the aims of the country's political elite. But let's begin closer to home, in Antwerp to be precise, where Raymond Detrez welcomes us in an old and stately town house not far from the suburban station of Berghem. Detrez is someone who chooses his words with care and who does not allow himself to be carried away by his own emotions, precisely as you might expect from a man of science. Yet his standpoint is no less powerful for this - on the contrary. When, in our opening remarks, we present him with one of the most widespread simplifications of the Yugoslav question, the idea of the Serbs as the 'bad guys' of the conflict, he says: ' That is I think but one aspect of all these myths about the Balkans. And if we are to gain a good understanding then we must first immerse ourselves in those other myths. The myth that the Serbs acquired a dominant position in Yugoslavia, for example. The myth that Milosevic is the source of the whole catastrophe. And above all also the myth that the Balkans is an extremely violent part of the world where there have always been conflicts. Where making war is in the people's blood, or their genes. It is a myth the origins of which I, as an historian, have actually no good understanding.'
Let's then begin there. Doesn't the history of the Balkans demonstrate that it has for centuries been something of a powderkeg ?
Raymond Detrez: 'No. If you look at the history of the Balkans, the very opposite was the case. It's an area where few wars have been fought. From the end of the Middle Ages, the fourteenth century, to the nineteenth century no war was conducted in the Balkans. Which is to say that while wars were certainly introduced from outside, by the Turks, by Russia, by the Habsburg empire etc, no war was fought among the Balkan peoples themselves in all of those centuries. The first war between two Balkan peoples took place in 1885, the Hungarian-Czech war. And afterwards you had of course the great conflict of 1912-1913, the so-called Balkan war. But actually it stops there. The First World War certainly broke out in the Balkans, in the sense that what sparked this war was the assassination of the Archduke, but that was of course not the cause. No intelligent person believes that. Moreover you can see that the Balkans tried to stay out of the First World War, that no-one had any desire to fight that war. But as at the end of 1915 Hungary became involved, it wasn't possible any more to remain on the sidelines. And also the Second World War did not break out in the Balkans but in western Europe. The Balkans became involved in it without the Balkan countries themselves being able to do anything about it. So I don't really understand why the Balkans has such a bad reputation. But this myth has to a great extent determined how the recent conflicts have been viewed, telling people that what we are dealing with in Yugoslavia are totally irrational beings who go to war with no serious cause, and which you must therefore treat as you would children. And because it was assumed that the cause of the conflict lay in the fact that the Balkans was always at war, the real cause was not seriously investigated - certainly not by the media. And I believe that the media has a bigger impact on the decision-making of politicians than do serious scientific considerations.'
But when we just look at the most recent conflict, the struggle over Kosovo, then doesn't a war from centuries ago play a role in this, the so-called Battle of Blackbird's Field?
Detrez: 'Certainly, but that battle nevertheless plays primarily a mythological role. It was a battle which at the time didn't change the course of history by much. Rebellious armies, including troops of the Serbian king, were struggling against their Ottoman oppressors. What's more there were also Albanians, Hungarians and Croats fighting on the Serbian side, just as Serbs fought on the other side. But okay, at Blackbird's Field the rebels were overwhelmingly defeated, and the Serbian king lost his life. And because the Serbian royal family, in common with all European royal families, maintained close relations with the church, this king was subsequently declared a saint, and through this a certain cult was created around him. But in the centuries which followed this battle it stayed at that. Only much later did the battle acquire a mythical meaning.'
When and why did that happen?
Detrez: 'That was in 1878, following the Congress of Berlin, when Bosnia-Herzegovina was placed under an Austrian-Hungarian protectorate and the Serbian route to the Dalmatian coast, and thereby to the Adriatic Sea, cut off. At that moment in history, Kosovo was an important area, while Serbia was no more than an insignificant statelet to the south of Belgrade. For the Serbian leaders it became important to find a southern route to the sea, and thus to claim Kosovo. With that political goal in view they dug up the Battle of Blackbird's Field, in order to provide historical justification for their new territorial claims. And in 1989 this myth had new life breathed into it by Milosevic with the aim of mobilising Serbian discontent in order to strengthen his own position of power.'
That brings us to another myth that you mentioned: namely that the Serbs had the upper hand in Yugoslavia .
Detrez: 'Yes. That is once again such a sloppy representation of the matter. Yugoslavia was a communist country, and the Serbs were its most numerous people, so people think that must have been something like the Soviet Union, in which all the other peoples were also dominated by the Russians. As if everywhere that peoples live together there must invariably be one dominant people. But this is often not the case. In Yugoslavia the federal system held advantages and disadvantages for everyone. The Serbs, in addition, did not form a majority. Yugoslavia was a multinational state within which the Serbs made up about forty percent of the population. You can't either speak about real minorities. The situation of the Croats within Yugoslavia was, psychologically but also constitutionally and politically, much better than the situation of the Serbs in the new Croatia. The Croats lives at the time in a multinational state, as one of the many, while the Serbs now live in a Croatian mono-national state as a minority. That is, by the way, a bad example, because there are now very few Serbs left in Croatia. That is therefore also something to mention: the image is that the Serbs were the perpetrators and the Bosnians, the Croats and later the Kosovar Albanians always the victims. But according to figures from a Bosnian demographer, the war in Bosnia cost 355,000 lives. That is a somewhat higher figures than you usually hear, but that's because he counted a number of babies that were unborn as a result of the war, as well as the number of people who died as a result of privation and a lack of medical care. Okay, so where does that leave the relationship between the number of dead from each population group? We have 180,000 Bosnians, or Muslims if you prefer, 120,000 Serbs and 35,000 Croats. The Bosnians therefore counted the most victims, that's clear, but the number of Serb victims is not so low that you can simply put them down as the executioners and the others as victims. The figures don't allow it. Those Serbs were surely killed by someone. According to United Nations statistics there are currently around half a million refugees living in Serbia. These were thus Serbs who were driven out, victims of ethnic cleansing. Half a million! That isn't to say that there are no criminals to be found among the Serbs, but it does mean that there are certainly also victims. And that we are going to have to change our view.'
Which brings us to myth number three: Milosevic is the source of all evil in the Balkans.
Detrez: 'Yes, even in serious Dutch newspapers you read articles by serious analysts who assert that Milosevic is the cause of all of the trouble in the Balkans over the last ten years. That without him all of these wars would not have been. That's pure nonsense. In history such things never happen because one man provokes them. There are always economic and social conditions, political relations, a disturbed balance of power, which lead to situation in which what ensues is that someone such as Milosovic floats to the top. If Milosevic had not been there, then it would have been Iwanovic or Petrovic. The cause of conflicts lies always, namely, in the overall situation and overall conditions and not in individuals. You must therefore do something about these economic and social factors if you want to resolve the conflict. And not simply pull out one man and think that by doing so you have solved it. But okay, Milosovic was a communist and at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s that was of course not so good. A communist was bad, everyone agreed on that. You have to compare Milosovic, I think, with someone like Iliescu, in Romania, who is also a leader with few attractions for us. These people tried to bend to their will the whole of the process of change in which all eastern European states were caught up, so that the old nomenclature could hold on to key economic and political positions.'
And if you compare Milosevic to the Croat leader who has since died, Franjo Tudjman?
Detrez: 'Tudjman also was successful in having the transition unfold in such a way that his whole family and his whole clique seemed to come out of it well. But he had of course very explicitly distanced himself from communism and socialism, which Milosovic had not done. What also played a role in this is the fact that in south-eastern Europe you're dealing with a number of extremely weak economies. Economies within which the transition could have extremely damaging social consequences. In such states you see that the leaders present themselves more conservatively, even if only because that is more persuasive to the voters. You can't just turn up with radical reforms and privatise everything straight away. In this whole economic context that would be quite understandable. You see the same, for example, in Slovakia. We are of course much more charmed by someone such as Havel than by a man like Meciar. Havel is much more respectable, and has more to do with democracy. But also this has a lot to do with differences in the economic and social situation: the Slovakian economy is, just like that of Serbia, extremely weak - much weaker than the economies of the Czech Republic and for example Slovenia. Because of this, in these countries ex-communists with little experience of democracy have remained in power. The people know well enough that this old guard isn't suitable, but they would rather keep the certainties that they know than gamble on a radical upheaval the consequences of which are uncertain. There isn't much desire to keep them but nor is there to get rid of them. And there's a lot to be said for that.'
Now you have a number of reasons why we should begin to think differently about the Serbs, but what about the struggle for a Greater Serbia? Is that not a real danger?
Detrez: 'In the Balkans "Greater Serbia" is a very common term which does not carry the same emotional baggage as it does here. There's also a Greater Bulgaria with all of the areas which should belong there, a Greater Albania with Kosovo, part of Macedonia and a part of eastern Greece. There is a Greater Croatia to which the whole of Bosnia belongs, and a Greater Romania and a Greater Greece. This has everything to do with the nineteenth century idea of how the ideal state must be seen. The most serious interpretation of the idea of Greater Serbia is a Serbian state which consists of those areas which are inhabited principally by Serbs. But that does not differ from what the Croats want, or the Slovenians. That's what everyone was aiming for in Yugoslavia. Now as far as Slovenia was concerned this wasn't such a problem, because that was ethnically completely pure since way back. But in Croatia, for example, you had areas where a large majority of the population was Serbian. So there it was said by these Serbs that if Croatia secedes then our region will secede from Croatia. And constitutionally that was perfectly sound. The Yugoslav constitution gave the rights of secession to peoples, but not to republics. The Croats could therefore certainly walk out, but that did not mean that the whole of Croatia could do so. When Yugoslavia collapsed, new borders had to be determined. Because if you took the old borders of the Yugoslav states as your starting point for the new states, then that would have been extremely favourable for some and unfavourable for others. For example, a third of the Serbs who were in Yugoslavia would remain outside Serbia. And the Serbs found that unacceptable."
But is the idea of a mono-ethnic state desirable or not?
Detrez: 'Personally I believe that the whole idea of national states should disappear. But that people who belong to one people should in principle live in one state is also still always a popular idea in our part of the world. It is no coincidence that in the same period that nationalism was raising its head in Yugoslavia German reunification was achieved, and that you had nationalist disturbances throughout Europe. In Scotland, for example, and in Spain, where it also always played a role.'
But German unification was of course judged in a very different fashion from the struggle for national states in the Balkans.
Detrez: 'Yes, if the Germans want it, we find that completely normal, and if the Balkans want it we find it nationalistic. Just as we also see the genocide committed by the Germans as an incident in German history, although when it comes to the Serbs we think it's in their genes..'
In the Yugoslav conflict two concepts cropped up more often than they had in the whole of the preceding century of bloody war: the concepts of 'ethnic cleansing' and of 'genocide'. In Chapter 1 we showed how Dutch politicians regularly made use of these words when speaking of the horrific events in Kosovo. In a television appearance, former Defence Minister Joris Voorhoeve went, shortly after the outbreak of the war, a step further, by comparing the fate if the Kosovars to that of the Jews in the Second World War. 'This is an Endlösung,' said the ex-minister, using the German word for the "final solution". 'There is a holocaust happening in the heart of Europe. Over ten days, Kosovo has emptied. Many tens of thousands of people have already died. Mass executions are taking place.' And such rhetoric was not confined to the Netherlands. On 22nd March 1999, two days before the first NATO bombs rained down on Yugoslavia, British PM Tony Blair told the House of Commons that it was imperative to 'save thousands of men, women and children from a humanitarian catastrophe' from death and barbarism, and from ethnic cleansing at the hands of a 'cruel dictatorship', adding a month later that it was 'sometimes necessary to use violence against a bloody dictator' guilty of 'making a policy of racial genocide'. Three weeks after that US President Bill Clinton declared on television that 'Although Milosevic's ethnic cleansings are not the same as the Holocaust', the two things were indeed related because both were horrific, well-planned, systematic examples of oppression, 'fed by religious and ethnic hatred.' Naturally these powerful accusations were accompanied by the necessary statistics. The American Defence Secretary William Cohen stated that probably 100,000 had died. When the government in Belgrade decided to release three American prisoners of war, he said also that the gesture of good will "cannot obliterate or overcome the stench of evil and death that has been inflicted in those killing fields in Kosovo." This reference to Cambodia, where hundreds of thousands of Pol Pot's victims had been consigned to shallow graves, had not been dreamed up by Cohen himself. On 1st April, his British homologue had declared that his country would increase its attacks on the Serbs in 'the killing fields of Kosovo.' while the British Defence Ministry estimated a month and a half later that the number of dead was 'around 10,000' and these had died in more than a hundred instances of mass murder.'
When we first made contact with Noam Chomsky, via the Internet, he told us immediately that he had great difficulty with the expression "ethnic cleansing", as he did with the word "genocide". 'They have been so misused in the last decade that they have become meaningless', he wrote to us. When he eventually agreed that we could interview him by e-mail, our first question to him was therefore the following:
Where and when have these two concepts lost their meaning, in your view, and with what aim are they being misused?
Noam Chomsky: 'The term ethnic cleansing was as far as I know first introduced in the first years of the Balkan wars, at the beginning of the 1990s. The term was used selectively to indicate those acts of ethnic cleansing (in the literal sense) which served as justification for western intervention. So no-one speaks of "ethnic cleansing" when the Croats, supported by the United States, drove hundreds of thousands of Serbs out of Krajina. Or when in the same period the Turks, once again with the support of the United States, destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages, through which tens of thousands of people lost their lives, and millions of others were driven from house and home. Still less is the term "ethnic cleansing", in its propagandistic meaning, applied to the many actions of the United States at the time of the terrorist wars in central America, which in the 1980s brought into being enormous flows of refugees. Or even earlier, at the time of the war in Vietnam, which later spread to large parts of Indochina. or the driving out and flight of 85 percent of the population of Palestine in 1948 and of still more hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1967 (who according to the United States have no right of return or of any form of compensation). None of these is any form of 'ethnic cleansing' in the propagandistic sense. Ethnic cleansing is unfortunately already very old as a political instrument: the country which is at the moment the world's most powerful, for example, came into being via ethnic cleansing, to give just one obvious example. But as a propaganda instrument the term is quite recent, and its selective use does not deserve imitating.
As for the term "genocide", this has been in the last few decades so misused that it has become almost meaningless. There are cases where the word is applicable: Nazi Germany, for example, Rwanda, and perhaps a few others. But it is now used for enormities which for whatever reason you are against. In 1999 the propagandistic use of this word assumed wellnigh pathological forms. The NATO bombing of Serbia was generally justified by referring to the genocide which had taken place in Kosovo - at least according to NATO. By this what was meant was the two thousand who had died on both sides as a consequence of the violent Serbian reaction to what in Washington not so long before was described as the "terror" of the UCK. To talk about "genocide" in such a case is in fact a form of Holocaust revisionism. But already well before 1999 the term "genocide" had become so wellnigh meaningless through careless and selective use, that it is an insult to the victims of real genocide.'
Did it surprise you that two government leaders who could be described as representatives of the Sixties generation, the anti-Vietnam generation as it is called, have taken the lead in adopting a harsh approach to Yugoslavia?
Chomsky: 'I don't know much about Blair's background, but I don't see how Clinton can seriously be described as a member of the "anti-Vietnam generation". He was not involved in actions against the war, and only spoke out against it on the grounds that it was a failure and too costly - not out of principle. In that he was no different to the overwhelming majority of the American political elite. In opposition to that were the some 70 percent of the general population who eventually came to see the war as "fundamentally wrong and immoral" and not as "a mistake" - a fact that in all these years has not changed, although it's rarely mention in the media and rarely brought out in discussions within the elite in general.
The fact that people who studied during the sixties conduct largely the same policies as their forerunners (by for example bombing Serbia and at the same time leaving similar crimes in Turkey and Indonesia unpunished and even supporting them) does not provoke surprise. The movements from the 1960s led amongst other things to the human rights movement (which is often cynically misused by the powerful), to the feminist and environmental movements, to a great resistance to state violence (in the propaganda often misleadingly indicated by the term "Vietnam syndrome") and to a great number of other developments which in general have had a civilising effect on the West. But we cannot attribute these positive developments to everyone who by coincidence belongs to that generation. Not for nothing are they still ridiculed and marginalised by that part of the political elite which feels itself threatened by them.'
On the question of the use of the statistics on the numbers of victims for whom the Serbs were responsible in Kosovo having been used as a propaganda tool, Chomsky was dismissive in his reaction, writing that he had "no desire to get involved in the discussion over whether two thousand corpses, or however many it is which have been found since in Kosovo, do or do not justify the NATO actions. It is too easy in this discussion to create the impression that the Serb outrages weren't as bad as thought - which is of course in no sense the case. The enormities in the Balkans, whoever carried them out, should not in any way be smoothed over. The arguments above concerning the selectivity of the indignation seem to me a more advisable contribution to the discussion.'
Raymond Detrez is, however, less reticent, saying that 'We can assume that NATO did worked extremely hard to look for victims, and the UCK even harder. Yet after six months of looking, 2108 corpses appear to have been found in Kosovo, of whom the identity and the way in which those involved lost their lives has still not at all been established. But okay, let's for the sake of convenience assume that all of these were cases of murdered Albanians, and let's then observe a wide margin and estimate that just a third of the real number of mass graves has been discovered - the definition of a mass grave, according to NATO, is a grave in which more than one person is buried. So then we arrive at six thousand dead. Of course that is terrible, but is it genocide? The association with the Holocaust seems to me rather exaggerated. It seems to me that the number of dead doesn't differ a great deal from what you might expect in a war against a guerilla movement, where things such as those we have seen now in Kosovo always happen. The imputation of planned genocide thus falls away. And with it a little of NATO's credibility.'
You could also say that it proves that the NATO action has been a success. According to NATO the Serbs had had a plan, the Hoefijzer Plan, to put all the Albanians to flight from Kosovo or to kill them. It's possible that they managed to prevent the execution of this plan.
Detrez: 'The point is that there is a lack of any historical-analytical framework for the part of people who make this sort of assertion. If you are not well-informed, the conclusions you come to will be disjointed. In the event of lack of proof of the existence of the Hoefijzer Plan, you need to look who might have had an interest in it. What interest could the Serbs have in such an operation? They could surely never really have thought that they could run all of the Kosovars once and for all out of Kosovo? If they had in practice been in a condition to do that, then wouldn't they have been given pause by consideration of the international reaction which would have followed? They were already threatened with bombing and so would they have done something which they could with certainty have foreseen that the whole world would have condemned - that seems improbable.'
It has been suggested that they wanted to put the hundreds of thousands of refugees now in Serbia into the houses and villages which have been emptied.
'Sure, but the fact that these villages had been burnt to the ground provides evidence to the contrary, it seems to me. And moreover, it wasn't only the Albanian Kosovars who were put to flight by violence, but also Serbs. Once again, I don't see what interest the Serbs could have had in the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. And NATO says that they have proof of this Operation Hoefijzer, but I've never seen it.'
All of the horrors taken together, those which occurred in Bosnia and those in Kosovo, before, during and after the war, appear to confirm the image that we are dealing here with barbarians who have no hesitation in murdering old people, women and children in cold blood, before, during or after the war, Doesn't that at least make the people in the Balkans different to us?
Detrez: 'No. The holocaust remains, as far as horror is concerned, unsurpassed. The way in which people are killed in wars is in the end a mere detail. What has happened in Yugoslavia could have happened anywhere. We had here in Belgium this business involving a few of our UN soldiers in Somalia. They were there for only a few weeks or months, and you hear stories of children being hung over a fire. It therefore doesn't take much before such things begin to happen. It is no excuse, of course, but it's also not that unusual.'
But what then what allows such behaviour? What are the conditions which make people resort to such horrors?
Detrez: 'To begin with, not everyone who dies in a war is put to death in an horrific fashion. A lot of people fall victim also to what I would call "ordinary" war violence. In exchanges of fire. They are hit by grenades. Truly horrific acts, the torturing of people, throat cutting, that sort of thing is done by only a limited number of persons. These are diseased minds which you come across also in a peaceful society, but which in a situation of war can go about their business unhindered. Most violence results however from fear. From the fact that people feel their continued existence threatened by others. In Bosnia everyone felt threatened by others. And in Kosovo the Albanian Kosovars felt threatened by the Serbs, because they were the ones with the power, while the Serbs felt threatened by the Kosovars because they were growing in numbers far more quickly than they were themselves, and because moreover the position of the Serbs in general in what had formerly been Yugoslavia was becoming ever more troubled. And what you see as a consequence, and what in the in the Balkans has been on various occasions well-documented, is that in such a tense situation certain people deliberately and determinedly provoke a conflict. It's also not so difficult to guess what would happen here in Antwerp if a few Flemish people were murdered by Moroccans, simply and only because they were Flemish. I think that we would quickly have a comparable situation. People feel themselves called on to take revenge, and so things escalate. The only manner in which the situation in the Balkans possibly differs from that here in Antwerp, is the conviction on the part of many Serbs and Croats that they were oppressed for five centuries by the Muslims, during the time of the Ottoman Empire, and that the roles are now reversed. This belief means that no sound moral barriers exist when it comes Muslims. That does play a role, I think. But other than that I don't see any difference.'
If Western interference in the conflict in Yugoslavia is really based on a number of myths and false views of affairs there, as you assert, must we then decide that we are completely ill-equipped to intervene in this kind of question? That we simply don't have the analytical resources, the understanding or the knowledge to do so?
Detrez: 'I don't really know, as things stand. Does the international community, which is to say NATO, the US, now perform as it has because they had really come to the conclusion that this was the best procedure? Was the analysis therefore faulty? Or are there objectives here which have less to do with Kosovo or with Bosnia and which have now indeed been realised? And has the matter thus actually been rather well executed? We can state that the Dayton Accord was for Bosnia a complete failure. No part of it functions well. The situation of the refugees remains hopeless. But all of this means that a military presence will be absolutely necessary for a very long time. Was the performance then so bad, to pin everything on a military presence, or was that precisely what was sought? That's the question I ask myself.'
But why would anyone want that?
Detrez: 'Because it's an important area. Let's begin with the idea that things unfolded the way they did in Bosnia by accident. Then we see that subsequently things went precisely the same way in Bosnia. One again a solution which was in fact no solution. A high degree of autonomy for Kosovo, with which the Serbs would not be happy, but no independence, which is what the Albanians want. So here too a military presence is needed. Furthermore there's a military presence on the fringes of the area of conflict in Albania and Macedonia, and there's a corridor forced out of Bulgaria and Romania, and so on. Did that all simply happen by accident, from stupidity? Or is that the strategy? There's surely enough brains in NATO to think this sort of thing through. It's not my speciality, it has more to do with international politics, but I have the impression that NATO is expanding in two ways: in a more or less legal manner, with Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and in addition in a rather underhand fashion, as in the Balkans, by making itself indispensable. And perhaps that is indeed what they want: to be indispensable."