Selected Longer Reviews

The Serbian Project and its Adversaries: a strategy of war crimes

By Gow, James

Hurst & Co. London , 2003, 309 pages,
Shelf mark: 949.71

The incriminating evidence linking Miloševic to murder by Brendan Simms Review The Serbian Project and its Adversaries: a strategy of war crimes by James Gow, C. Hurst & Co., London 2003, £16.50 pp288 To the casual observer, the expulsions and massacres that took place in Croatia and Bosnia in 1991 and 1992-95 seemed like the spontaneous eruption of long-standing ethnic hatreds. This was certainly a picture that the principal perpetrators of these horrors - the radical Serb ethnic cleansers controlled by Radovan Karadžic and Ratko Mladic, and supported by the Serbian president Slobodan Miloševic in Belgrade - were happy to promote. It was also an explanation that many elements of the international community (in particular the British government) wanted us to believe, and for much the same reason. It suggested that the Balkans was an irredeemably dark place, prone to periodic bouts of senseless blood-letting. There could thus be, the argument went, ‘no good guys’ and by extension no effective outside military intervention to bring the violence to an end. However, as James Gow shows in his extremely important, well-researched and highly persuasive book, the violence that hit Croatia and Bosnia in 1991-92 was far from random. Rather, it followed an entirely coherent pattern and was deployed in support of rational, albeit reprehensible political ends. Gow's interpretation is based on his pioneering work as an expert witness to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague. His book is written to scholarly standards, but it is sufficiently uncluttered with reference to secondary literature to be accessible to the general public. Gow is well aware, of course, that the Serbs had no monopoly on violence, but he demonstrates beyond all doubt that the Serbian project was the ‘primary and defining element in the war’. The purpose of the campaign of murder and destruction visited upon the non-Serb populations of Croatia, Bosnia and, later, Kosovo was nothing less than the creation of an ethnically pure, territorially contiguous state out of the ruins of communist Yugoslavia. The killing of civilians was thus no regrettable by-product of armed conflict, but an integral part of the whole strategy. Here Gow restores a crucial element of rationality to such events as the shelling of the Croatian architectural masterpiece of Dubrovnik in 1991, or the widespread mutilation of corpses, which had once seemed merely spiteful or barbaric; in fact, they made eminent sense as part of a strategy based on enforced demographic shifts. The Serbs, to borrow Gow's graphic phrase, were engaged in a form of ‘reverse Maoism’ - they sought to eliminate opposition by removing the population that might sustain it. Usually this could be achieved through intimidation and expulsion; sometimes, as in northwestern Bosnia and eastern Bosnia in 1992, or most notoriously at Srebrenica in July 1995, when some 7,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered, wholesale massacre was needed. And, Gow argues, far from being spontaneous, ‘the scale, range and consistency of the methods used to terrorise the non-Serb populations ...required significant coordination and planning’. This high level of preparation was evident in the early deployment of military units, the distribution of weapons to local Serb radicals, the disarming of their Croat and Muslim neighbours, the mobilisation of transport to facilitate the expulsion, and even in the official letter-headed paper on which ethnic cleansing was ratified and victims signed away their property. If the outlines of this project are already well known, Gow makes many distinctive contributions to the picture. He takes us through the stages by which the Serbian leader Miloševic turned the Yugoslav People's Army (the JNA) from a genuinely pan-Yugoslav entity into an almost entirely Serbian force (the VJ) subject to his authority. This process was finally completed only in August 1993, but it was already well under way by the beginning of the Bosnian war in April-May 1992. In fact, as Gow points out in some of the most fascinating passages of the book, the JNA and its sucessor, the VJ, ran what was ‘effectively a common officer corps’ with the Serb rebel enclaves in Croatia and links to the Bosnian army were almost as close: many officers remained on Belgrade's payroll and were rotated between Bosnia and Serbia, and prisoners taken among the forces of the Bosnian army were sometimes incarcerated in Serbia itself. In short, as Gow shows, the trail of ethnic cleansing in 1991-92 leads directly to the Serbian capital and to Miloševic. Gow also makes a convincing case that the decision to ‘cleanse’ Kosovo was taken as far back as 1997, long before NATO came on the scene or even the start of sustained Kosovar Albanian guerrilla activity. In the end, as Gow demonstrates, the ‘Serbian project’ was frustrated by Western military intervention. It was NATO air power that forced the Serbs to suspend the siege of Sarajevo in early 1994, and to back off from the safe area of Goražde in April of that year. Likewise, it was NATO air power that shattered the Bosnian Serb army's command-and-control capability once full-scale bombing finally got under way in August-September 1995. Four years later, it was the impact of sustained strategic bombing on the Serbian infrastructure, the increasing effectiveness of tactical air strikes on VJ forces in Kosovo itself and the shock of his indictment for war crimes by the Hague tribunal that finally induced Miloševic to cut his losses and give in to Nato. All this, of course, renders more problematic the behaviour of those British statesmen, such as Douglas Hurd, John Major and Malcolm Rifkind, who had blocked all attempts to confront the Serbian project early on with NATO air power. To that extent it is a pity Gow somewhat pulls his punches in his treatment of the international context. But this is a relatively minor quibble. It certainly does not alter the fact that he has written a book that should be read by all those seeking to understand the ‘Serbian Project’ and, particularly, the political-military structures that Miloševic put in place to implement it. Brendan Simms is the author of Unfinest Hour: Britain and the destruction of Bosnia. This review appeared in The Sunday Times, 4 May 2003

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