Sarasota Herald Tribune, p.12A
18 July 1996.
PALE, The “Republika Srpska”
Driving along the winding mountain roads above Sarajevo, you can scarcely make out the ruins of the devastated Bosnian city below you. But you can see with utter clarity the Serbs’ Potemkin “war machine” that the West so gullibly swallowed for four full years.
There it stands, all the “terror” that American and European military men trembled before: old tanks, their sides packed with sand; antique mortars nearly falling off the mountainsides; artillery pieces out in the open, without even trees to hide them. One could be forgiven for thinking oneself back in World War I instead of the nuclear age.
The good news is that there is much private head-hanging among American and European military men about the analyses of this war. One of the European officers I rode up here with said with disgust, “Six helicopter gunship would have taken all of this out.” Another told me, “When I saw those primitive artillery emplacements, I was physically sick.”
One of the major American military planners here reviewed with me the strange and pervasive passivity that afflicted the Western militaries over the Bosnian war since 1991, thus handing the Serbs a free hand to wreak havoc across the Balkans. “It was the military thought process,” he said. “There was the idea that you can’t solve problems with air power alone.”
“What we didn’t realize was the (lack of) fighting will of the people on the other side. We didn’t realize that they were thugs who would be horrified by bombing. But after the bombing finally came close to being a sustained campaign, the Serbs suddenly realized that they were at war with the world — and the ‘stringing along’ of the West was over.”
Once one gets up to Pale (pronounced Pah-LEE), which is the “capital” of the self-styled “Bosnian Serb Republic,” the mood of military surrealism becomes one of political surrealism. For Pale itself is a small red-roofed ski lodge town, nestled in high pine forests. Yet it was from here that the Bosnian Serbs relentlessly slayed tens of thousands of people while the West dithered.
Meanwhile, in the ruins of Sarajevo below, there is no question that, in strictly military terms alone, the situation here has improved enormously since the arrival of 50,000 American and other troops last winter. There is a hushed peace, and many of the provisions of the Dayton Accords are finally being carried out. The United States has confirmed that Iranian fighters have left Bosnia, while $300 million in cash and equipment has been raised for arming the Bosnian army, and the long-awaited Defense Law designed to merge the armies of Croatia and Bosnia has been passed by both governments.
“We have made more progress in the military field than we dreamed of,” Adm. Leighton Smith, overall commander of troops in Bosnia, told me in his offices in Sarajevo. “Every single day, 52,000 men and women are doing a hell of a lot to make this country achieve peace.”
Then he added thoughtfully, “I’m not sure I’d describe the current conditioins in Bosnia as peace but perhaps as the absence of war leading to peace.”
Yet even while their fine technical work here should be commended, “Bosnia,” with all that word symbolizes to the world, represents for the U.S. military as well as for others, serious questions that are as yet only being posed privately.
For four years and two presidents, for instance, the top military brass in Washington essentially lied about Serb capacities. They built a bunch of thugs and rustic “mountain Serbs,” dependent on that pitiful weaponry I saw, into “super-Serbs” whom the West dared not confront. They insisted that bombing would not hurt them and seemed amazed when bombing eventually ended the whole thing with expectable swiftness.
Pertinent questions: If the military could so misanalyze this rather simple and primitive war, how can we trust them in the future to analyze other wars? To inspire future generations with courage and conviction? Or to protect us when new conflicts occur?
After the Dayton Accords of last November, the message, repeated everywhere, was that now we were going to get tough, to use power, to show this time we really mean it. No more of Serbs “stringing along” the West!
But as a matter of fact, that is not happening. Indeed, the entire mission is characterized by technocratic excellence overlaid by bureaucratized passivity, deriving from the utter horror of taking any casualties. It doesn’t, of course, take the other side very long to get onto that, and the Bosnian Serbs have done so again.
Question: How long will it take other potential mass murderers to figure out how to operate with impunity by manipulating this hesitant power?
Other questions come to mind on the road from Sarajevo to Pale, but for now we’ll stop with those few. Answers impatiently awaited.