Parallels, Contrasts and Questions

As revolting images of torture and degradation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib flooded the media, it was only a matter of time before someone would invoke the comparison with atrocities (allegedly) committed in the Balkans. But unlike the lurid Balkans stories peddled by activist journalists all too eager to embrace local propaganda, the Abu Ghraib atrocities were documented by their perpetrators, who apparently thought not only that they weren’t doing anything wrong, but seemed to enjoy it tremendously.

Predictably, reactions to the photos in the US range from shock and outrage to defensive rationalizations. But in the Balkans, one might wager that not a few souls are smiling weakly at the dubious joy of being proven right about the sanctimonious Americans and their insistence on “war crimes trials.” Well, who’s a war criminal now? As the Iraq drama unfolds, it is increasingly obvious that many things routinely practiced by the occupation troops have been called “atrocities” and “war crimes” when allegedly practiced by Balkans belligerents in the 1990s.

There are more parallels with the Balkans, obviously. After all, it was the Balkans interventions – notably, the 1999 occupation of Kosovo – that made the 2003 invasion of Iraq politically palatable. Kosovo created a precedent for naked aggression based on lies and flimsy excuses, which nonetheless went unchallenged.

Failures and Hypocrisies

The prison abuse has already been called a “failure of leadership.” But was it, really? Was not the entire Iraq war such a failure? Was not the mad march to Empire, in the first place? Coverage of Iraq reveals a consistency underlying the actions of US and British personnel: the natives are barbarians, sub-humans, and anything they do is vile; while they are virtuous liberators, and everything they do is blessed with goodness. In other words, it’s not a question of deeds, but of doers – a sure recipe for hypocrisy. As with everything under the “new logic,” the nature of the action rests on the identity of perpetrator. Thus Americans – presupposed to have noble motives – can do whatever they please, while lesser peoples get put on trial.

The same issue has cropped up in the Balkans. Actions that ought to have been universally condemned – such as, say, ethnic cleansing – were ignored or excused when practiced by “allies,” and whipped up in a frenzy of demonization when allegedly practiced by “enemies.” Siege and artillery attacks on civilians were considered “genocide,” but terror-bombing from the air was deemed “humanitarian.” One head of state has been accused of a “criminal conspiracy” for all the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and is considered guilty by fiat despite the utter lack of evidence, while the very real conspirators in Washington and London remain unmolested. Indeed, the US and its allies set up an entire elaborate kangaroo court in order to prosecute “war crimes” in the Balkans, while asserting their own immunity from such prosecution.

It comes in handy when breaking into churches and clubbing priests nearly to death.


Allegations are now emerging that Abu Ghraib abuses involved rape of women inmates. If true, would this make Abu Ghraib a “rape camp”? Some may recall that accusing the Serbs of setting up “rape camps” was a major part of the propaganda war in Bosnia and Kosovo. Whole books have been written on the subject, as if it has been proven beyond reproach. Yet there is no evidence whatsoever that rapes in Bosnia or Kosovo went beyond the extent commonplace in wartime (illustrating its inherently criminal nature). In fact, reporters determined to find evidence to fit their pet propaganda theories went so far as to see it in pornography found at abandoned military posts, as Scott Taylor memorably describes in both “Inat” and “Spinning on the Axis of Evil.” But at Abu Ghraib – and how many other such camps? – there is no need to look for porn. Much of the evidence is already public.

A Thought on Justice

Following traditional logic and morality, both the alleged atrocities (if proven) in the Balkans and the abuses in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere would be considered criminal, and liable to be prosecuted in a real court. Of course, prosecuting war crimes (ius in bello) without criminalizing the initiation of war (ius ad bellum) is meaningless. Modern war crimes prosecutions are simply a tool of the “politics of guilt.” That is not to say that things that happen in wars – and wars themselves – aren’t atrocious; they are, by their very nature. But how can one expect an institution founded on coercion to decide how much of that coercion is unacceptable, and condemn it fairly? As well expect a sadist to decide how much pain is enough!

Contrast: The Missing Insurgency

While US and NATO troops traipsing through Bosnia and Kosovo prefer the term “peacekeeping,” reality is much closer to occupation. This is particularly true of Kosovo, a province of Serbia which has been forcibly separated by NATO intervention in 1999. But while Sunni and Shia Iraqis both rebelled against their US occupiers, there was no such reaction in the Balkans. Why?

One could argue that in both cases the occupiers were invited in, albeit under duress. Bosnia was embroiled in a nasty civil war, one the United States stopped (albeit self-servingly). Even though US warplanes and military advisors helped the Croat-Muslim alliance, recognition of their autonomy in Dayton went a long way to convincing the Serbs the settlement was fair.

Certainly, there have been plans for continued violence by people whose war aims remained unrequited, but they currently seem to be satisfied with eagerly pursuing those aims politically, under the aegis of sympathetic Imperial viceroys.

As powers of the viceroys grew, so did the revisionism of Dayton, intent on “reinventing” Bosnia as a centralized state. If NATO or EU forces (scheduled to replace them later this year) are ever seen as an obstacle to the centralization project, it is entirely possible they would become targets of terrorist attacks – but not a full-scale insurgency. That would bring Bosnia too close to open warfare, which few people have the stomach for after the horrors of 1992-95. In a few years, however, children who’ve been nursed on hatred during and after the war may not be so reticent.

Much as it would make sense to resist the invaders, in the post-1999 Kosovo Serbs have had to rely on their occupiers for protection from Albanian militants. This explains why KFOR has not been under Serb attack, despite attempts to fabricate one. Albanians, on the other hand, have come to see KFOR as an obstacle to their irredentist desires. The pogrom this March was not the first instance they have attacked KFOR, either, although it has been the most violent one so far. Even then, they focused on Serbs and their property, offering KFOR a chance to get out of the way. Some troops took it, yet others did not. But Albanians don’t really aim to force KFOR to leave; once they’ve expelled all the Serbs, there would be no point in NATO mission staying, anyway. What they want is for KFOR to get out of the way of their next pogrom, when (not if) it happens. Whether KFOR shall do so, remains to be seen.

Whither Next?

“Remains to be seen,” in a way, is a sentiment that best describes the moment. The fallout of Abu Ghraib may undermine the entire occupation of Iraq, or it may blow over, distracted by another scandal somewhere. Certainly, the Western public has displayed a baffling tolerance for actions of their rulers that rightfully ought to have provoked outrage many times over in the past fifteen years. It happened in the Balkans, and it has been happening regarding Iraq since last spring.

Certainly, for as long as it can get away with it, the Empire will act as it has in Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia, and dozens of other places. As for where that might happen next… who knows? While massive displays of military power such as Iraq play well with the masses at home (as long as they appear successful, anyway), far more damaging and sinister are takeovers of regions and nations by subterfuge. From the fishy “revolution” in Serbia, to its clones in Georgia and Adzharia, and even the non-subtle meddling in Macedonia, the hidden hand of Empire does its work unmolested even as the mailed fist seems to be tied up in troubles. Information points to the Caucasus and Central Asia, a strategic region from where the Imperium may threaten Russia, China and India, not to mention control natural resources. On the other hand, the area is inhabited by some very disagreeable and hostile folk, who might prove a challenge. No doubt, along these new frontiers of intervention the bloody precedents of the Balkans and Mesopotamia will be “improved” upon.

Of course, the Iraqi insurgency could provide enough trouble by itself to stall the Empire’s Drang nach Osten. As humanity’s history has demonstrated unequivocally, anything is possible.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.