Strange end to a war: no defeat, no victory
by Gordana Kneževic
Marko Attila Hoare, How Bosnia Armed, Saqi Books in association with The Bosnian Institute, London 2004, 172 pp, paperback £11.99, hardback £25.
This book attempts to analyse a war that began as a defence of Bosnia and ended as a Bosniak struggle for survival, without recourse to the two dominant stereotypes of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and ‘multi-ethnic Bosnia’.
Within less than a decade since the end of the war, an astonishing number of books on Bosnia have been published in English. Alongside works dealing with the causes of the war, the role of diplomacy and the United Nations, or the genocide, there have been a growing number of ‘revisionist’ publications: sundry efforts of a quasi-scientific or quasi-literary nature, intent on explaining away the crimes and distorting the basic facts of the war as they pertain to the aggression, the first thrust of which came from Serbia. Witnesses are dying, while those who care for the truth are becoming demoralised. Bosnia does not have its Wiesenthal, which leaves the revisionists to advance with confidence, feeling that their moment has come. They believe that the crimes of the JNA can now be presented in a new light, on the grounds that we today live in an ‘era of crimes’, since in some zones of conflict force appears to prevail over right. But this, of course, does not alter the basic facts of the war in Bosnia. Chronology being absent from the revisionists’ imagined worlds, they insist that the Serb forces were already then fighting what they call ‘Bush’s war’ - by which they mean waging war against a Muslim threat. They thus anticipated all possible Bin Ladens, killing them well before they had any chance to appear and where they never existed. In view of such enterprises, Hoare’s book is of exceptional importance precisely because it is not part of the propaganda war that is taking place outside Bosnia’s borders about Bosnia and its recent past. Rather, it represents an attempt to explore, without succumbing to the two dominant stereotypes of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and ‘multi-ethnic Bosnia’, how and why a war that began as a defence of Bosnia ended as a Bosniak struggle for survival.
‘The Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina is one of the most enigmatic and controversial military phenomena to have appeared in recent history.’, says Hoare in the introduction to his book, adding that its life began in the spring of 1992 ‘in a position of strategic hopelessness’. Yet
‘it succeeded over the course of the next three-and-a-half years in fighting to a standstill the attempts of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s larger and more powerful neighbours to destroy it.’
First organisers marginalised
He has consulted the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Press Centre, newspaper reports, and stenographic records of meetings, as well as the testimony of war participants such as the recollections of retired general Jovan Divjak, whom he thanks for his reconstruction of the siege of Sarajevo, and Nermin Mulalić, who supplied him with information regarding the presence of foreign fighters within the Army. Basing himself on evidence about how in those turbulent times a new army arose from parts of the Territorial Army and the Patriotic League, Hoare explores what happened on individual fronts after the first attack of the JNA, and how in the course of the war the individuals who organised the initial defence came to be marginalised. He argues that the character of the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina changed in the period 1992-95 in accordance with the changing character of the war itself, but also under the influence of political decisions.
The response to the aggression was a joint defence effort on the part of all the peoples of Bosnia-Herzegovina, since the first attack was directed against a multi-ethnic nation. Later, however, the war became increasingly one directed at the extermination of one of them, i.e. a war against the Bosniaks, which changed the nature of the defence in that the Army became predominantly Bosniak. The author insists that this change was not inevitable, but was the result of political circumstances, including international pressure to partition the country, on the one hand, and the SDA’s political outlook on the other.
‘The ARB-H was in January 1993 the only one of the three principal domestically recruited armed forces on Bosnian soil not to have embarked uncompromisingly on the road to ethnic homogeneity under the banner of nationalist extremism. Predominantly Muslim in composition, it nevertheless remained at least nominally dedicated to multi-national co-existence inclusive of all of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s peoples, and an unresolved tension existed between its all-Bosnian versus its more narrowly Muslim outlook.’, writes Hoare. Referring to the cases of Safet Zajka and other commanders of the First Corps, the author points out that it was Bosnian patriotism rather than Muslim nationalism that supplied the key mobilising idea of the Bosnia-Herzegovina army. He draws a parallel between the ideological dilemmas facing the armed forces defending Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992-3 and those encountered by the Partisans in 1941-2. Like the Partisan army, the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina arose initially from the need to defend bare existence, yet both armies had become ‘party armies’ by the end of the war, the difference being that it was the Communist Party that dominated the Partisan resistance, while the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina came under the decisive influence of the SDA.
Hoare deals with all aspects of the defence: mobilisation, the oath of loyalty, the relationship between the armed forces and the police, the intelligence services, the role of KOS [the JNA’s intelligence service], and in particular the issue of treason within the Army itself. Bearing in mind the fact that Belgrade’s main concern was to partition Bosnia-Herzegovina, its main stumbling block in this regard was the multi-ethnic nature of the defence. Hoare argues in this context that certain individuals within the Army pressed for its Islamisation not out of their own personal convictions - he insists, indeed, that they were atheists - but on the orders of their former bosses. A significant part of the book deals with ‘changing uniforms’, i.e. transfers from the JNA to the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Here is one of the relevant passages: ‘Muslimović for his part claims that following the elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina in late 1990 he did his best to facilitate talks between Izetbegović and the Yugoslav Defence Secretary General Veljko Kadijević, as a way of sidelining the SDS and preventing the JNA from falling wholly under Milošević’s sway. At all events, he defected to the Bosnian side on 15 April. At the end of April, according to Alibabić and Halilović, Delimustafić and Vasiljević attempted to have Muslimović installed at the head of the Bosnian State Security Service. Though this was vetoed by Alibabić, Muslimović acquired the post of Chief of Military Security in the Republican Staff of the Bosnian TO. When Halilović became Chief of Staff of the TO on 23 May, he sacked Muslimović from his post, but Izetbegović had him reinstated.. It was through the intervention of Muslimović, says Halilović, that another KOS officer, Enver Mujezinović, was at the end of May transferred directly from Belgrade to become a security official at the Bosnian Ministry of Defence, where he was protected by Doko. Mujezinović would become Chief of the Bosnian State Security Service in May 1993. [...] Like Delimustafić, Mujezinović may have been a double agent, collaborating with both sides so as to ensure his own survival regardless of which side won the war.’
As Hoare told the April 2004 meeting of the Bosnian Institute, he wished to avoid stereotypes linked to Bosnia, especially that of nationalism. ‘In some books on the subject - for example, the books by Misha Glenny and Susan Woodward, of which I am particularly critical - there is a tendency to view nationalism almost like a sort of sickness which Bosnians caught in 1990s. Thus according to this view you had Muslims, Serbs and Croats suffering from "nationalism", and from associated things such as hatred, violence, mythology and religious fundamentalism. There is a tendency of authors to view nationalism in purely moralistic terms, [whereas] it has to be understood in relation to concrete political issues. Nationalism occupies a definite place in historical development, and serves definite political purposes. It is not simply irrational, nor is it simply an evil genie summoned by cynical politicians to stir up the masses.’
The author deals in one of his chapters with the phenomenon of the mujahedin. He begins by insisting on the irrelevance of the foreign fighters from the military point of view, and quotes Izetbegović that Bosnia did not need foreign fighters but weapons. According to his sources, some seventy foreigners gained citizenship after the war, with another two hundred at most remaining illegally in the country. He concludes that just as Milošević could not conquer Bosnia through military means alone, the mujahedin likewise failed to win the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina spiritually, and that their influence was no greater than that of the Russian and other adventurers who fought on the side of Republika Srpska or the HVO.
In his introduction to Hoare’s book Brendan Simms, author of the best analysis published thus far of British diplomacy regarding the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, says that he wishes he had been in a position to consult the work when writing his own. Hoare’s approach to Bosnia differs from that of participants in, or witnesses of, the events that he covers; but his advantage lies in the fact that, being neither, he is not a prisoner of memories. The idea that the war should end without a victory was certainly not Bosnian, but his book explains the circumstances that led it to be accepted at the very point when the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina was poised to win the war, leading to the surprising conclusion of the war ending in neither victory nor defeat. His research is important for all those who in their different ways are involved with Bosnia, but it is only a Bosnian translation of the work that will permit a critical reading of it, by counterposing the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s own image of itself with that reconstructed by the British historian.
This review has been translated from a version written for Oslobođenje (Sarajevo).