War in Croatia and Bosnia
by Matthew Schwonek
Branka Magas and Ivo Zanic (ed.), The war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina 1991-1995, Frank Cass Publishers, London and Portland 2001, 416 pages, £19.50 / $26.50 (paperback)
The military history of the recent wars in the former Yugoslavia is yet to be written, but for the next decade this volume of essays is likely to be the starting-point for both academic researchers and military professionals. This collection is based on the proceedings of a conference in Budapest, sponsored by The Bosnian Institute and the Central European University, in September 1998. The essays redress the ‘systematic inadequacy’ of Western scholarship, which largely discounts military affairs, the war on land, and war termination. War may well be ‘an extension of politics by other means’, but as the authors rightly point out, this should not imply that military matters are irrelevant. In fact, the situation on the ground is of critical importance from the perspective of military professionals, considering the problem of intervention.
The collection’s strongest essays and great contributions deal with the weaknesses of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA); Croatian military preparations, including Operations Flash and Storm; and the defence of Bosnia-Herzegovina. These contributions demolish many myths, especially the belief in the invincibility of Serb forces waging ‘people’s war’. Despite the immense destruction and atrocity, these were limited wars, pursued for limited (and often poorly conceived) ends. The ambivalence of ordinary Serbs toward the war and the Greater Serbia project is striking. And for all the conceits of the military commanders, these wars are revealed to be contests of very small, often irregular, forces.
Bosnian Serb forces, in particular, appear to have been a ‘paper tiger’, the figment of Serbian propaganda and Western imaginations. Fighting is characterised as mostly World-War-I-style positional battles. War termination is among the areas specifically addressed in the essays. Norman Cigar’s analysis of war termination from the Serbian perspective is particularly insightful although readers will still find it necessary to consult Col. Robert C. Owen’s Deliberate Force: A Case Study in Effective Air Campaigning (Maxwell AFB, Ala. Air University Press, 2000) for NATO’s contribution to bringing the war to an end.
One important feature of this book is that it brings the voices of Croatian and Bosnian scholars, political leaders, and military men to the attention of Western audiences. These authorities refute the ‘ancient hatreds’ and other simplistic arguments that abound. Here, Rusmir Mahmutcehajic reprises his powerful analysis of a war to destroy the multi-ethnic fabric of Bosnia. Such well-grounded and realistic assessments are made all the more convincing by military leaders’ presentations on the conduct of operations. Under close scrutiny, these wars resemble any other, being fraught with miscalculation, leaders’ naiveté, and civil-military conflict. Dusan Bilandzic’s conclusions regarding Croatia’s Pyrrhic victory are especially thought-provoking. Serbian voices are mostly absent, although the editors have included an arresting report by Belgrade journalists on the ‘call-up crisis’, which underscores the widespread evasion of military service in 1991 and 1992.
The quality of essays is uneven, with the section on the international community’s response being disappointing; and the inception of the book in 1998 means that Kosovo and Macedonia are excluded, not having become theatres of major armed conflict by that date. Nevertheless, the book’s strengths are far greater then its weaknesses, and include excellent translations, a meticulously edited text, a useful chronology, and a full index. In sum, this volume is recommended reading for scholars and military professionals interested in small wars in the Balkans and the problem of intervention.
This review appeared in Aerospace Power Journal, Spring 2002