Suddenly staring defeat in the face

Many Bosnian Serbs believe they have unwittingly become the victims of a clever political collusion

Share
Related Topics
All through the week, as the news has come in of the dramatic gains by the Croats and Muslims in Bosnia, reporters have been mentioning the theory that the Bosnian Serbs might have been abandoning certain towns and positions because they know that, if the American peace plan is adopted, they will have to give them up anyway. It is easier, according to this theory, to lose a town on the battlefield than at the negotiating table. What the Serbs have been doing is pretending to have been defeated in order not to have to suffer the humiliation of actually yielding territory at the negotiating table.

I am not saying for a moment that this policy has not been in operation, but if it has been then it is an extraordinary policy. One associates the Yugoslavian conflict in general with passionate attachments to territory, passionate appeals to history. Passionate lapses into hypocrisy or cynicism seem, at a distance, an unlikely part of the psychological mix.

Can one imagine, as it were, an Israeli general saying: "Let's pretend to have been militarily defeated on the Golan Heights"; or "Let's give the impression of having been outgunned on the West Bank"? Can one imagine what the purpose of such a ploy might be?

If the Bosnian Serb leadership, or the Serbian leadership, is to be understood as realising that it has been already bombed to the negotiating table, why should it rush to divest itself of its assets? Why should it act with characteristic obstinacy and dilatoriness over the question of its heavy weaponry around Sarajevo, while at the same time niftily divesting itself of huge amounts of territory in the north-west, along roads leading inevitably to Banja Luka?

In times of rapid defeat, in times of rout, it is not only a matter of so many soldiers, so many civilians running away and trying to regroup. So many understandings are also on the move, so many intelligences, so many habits of thought. And it inevitably happens, if the defeat in question is the defeat of something really big, that the habits of thought have a hard time keeping up with events. Catching up with reality is not just a question of getting up in the morning and redrawing the front lines on the map. It is a question of responding to a massive assault on pride, self-respect, honour. It is a question of unlearning a whole way of thought.

We saw the process at work most vividly, in the heart of Europe, at the time of the collapse of East Germany, at the time when the crowds in Leipzig and Dresden began to change the slogan from "We are the people" to "We are one people". Reunification was on the way. It was inevitable. It was logical. And yet it took months for many of those most intimately involved to adapt their understandings to this fact. Those who welcomed what was happening (for whatever reasons, whether they were a Brandt or a Kohl) could understand it. Those who did not welcome it took longer to take it in. Some still have not.

In Saturday's Independent, Robert Fisk quoted a Serbian journalist asking, "Why did our people leave Krajina without a fight? Why did we let so much of western Bosnia fall? How come our army, which was unbeaten in the field, retreated from Jajce and Sipovo in a couple of days with the refugees in front of them?" And he said that Serbs believe that Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman had arranged all this through the Americans - that is, Croatia and Serbia are arranging a cynical carve-up between them.

This may be true; but even if it were not true, even if the fact of the matter was that the Serbs in Krajina simply recognised themselves to be outgunned and had no stomach for the fight, and that from this first retreat sprang the demoralisation which caused all the subsequent losses, the Serbs would still be searching for a reason, searching for a theory, searching for a culprit. It is like the Germans asking why they lost the Great War ("because we were stabbed in the back") or the Americans over Vietnam ("because we were fighting with one hand tied behind our backs").

Vietnam has been much in my mind all week, as every day brought news of the fall of some Serbian-held town. Twenty years ago, South Vietnam did indeed unravel as a result of a military policy of partial withdrawal. It was called "Light on the top, heavy on the bottom" and the idea was that the Saigon regime would give up the towns in the Central Highlands in order to concentrate its forces on the coast and in the Delta. But not only did it prove impossible to get the army out of the area without heavy casualties. The very fact of their abandoning the cities proved fatal to South Vietnamese morale, and in the end the North's army had to rush to keep up with the South's retreat.

After yesterday's fall of Sanski Most, a Serbian commentator was asked on the radio about the news that General Ratko Mladic was in hospital in Belgrade for his kidney stones. He said no doubt the general's disease was political, that Milosevic, who was close to Mladic, wanted to keep him out of the way for a while, so that Radovan Karadzic could be held to blame for the eventual fall of Banja Luka. Milosevic, he was saying, had never been a true Serbian nationalist - he had only posed as one for a while, and now he was simply selling the Bosnian Serbs down the river.

The fact that Banja Luka, the last key Serbian possession in the north of Bosnia, was being more or less written off by such a source - he was asking why the United Nations did not declare it a safe haven - was striking enough. But on the same programme Chris Gunness, the UN spokesman in Sarajevo, was saying that the demand for the removal of the heavy arms around the capital was absolute and there was no linkage to be made with anything that might or might not be happening elsewhere in the country.

Linkage is, of course, a piece of diplomatic jargon and you could argue that, technically speaking, what Mr Gunness said was true. But it sounded as if he was insisting that there was no connection to be made between what the Muslims and Croats do on the ground and what Nato may or may not do from the air. Whereas the fact of the matter is that the predictions of the Bosnian Serbs have come true - their defences, their supplies, their communications were bombed, and then the Muslims and the Croats attacked. Did anyone seriously suppose that the Muslims would obey instructions not to take advantage of the chance they were thus offered?

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (ASP.NET, F#, SQL, MVC, Bootstrap, JavaScript)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Payment Developer (Swift, FOX, Vigil, .NET, SQL)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Payment Dev...

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Barclays are reducing the number of staff in their branches - and giving those remain ipads  

A bag? In the bagging area? Whatever next?

Andrew Martin
Pablo Zabaleta celebrates Argentina's World Cup semi-final penalty shootout win over the Netherlands.  

Who is the winner of this World Cup? Twitter

Dom Joly
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?