Members of The Royal Anglian Regiment meet Bosnian villagers, 1993 Image from British Army Museum

The horror versus the farce

25 years on from Srebrenica and our Balkan interventions

Artillery Row

By the time I arrived in Kosovo in 2002 as a peacekeeper it was hard to identify the pleasant country I found with the darkest days of the Balkan conflict when pregnant women were crucified with their stomachs slit open.  

If any shots were fired, it was usually because of Operation Mutley, a military initiative that aimed to limit the feral dog community. Soldiers patrolled the Kosovar streets in berets without body armour and with rifles slung down by the side in the most unaggressive posture. There was little to catch the scanning eye other than what appeared a propensity for washing lines festooned with an inordinate number of colourful bras.  

Most patrols ended up being drawn into the thriving café scene. After rifles had been deposited in a heap under a café table, the friendly young Kosovar waitresses took our order of Cokes and Sprites. Occasionally conversation turned to war criminals on the run or a sting operation that had caught one, but otherwise it was clear that Kosovo had turned a corner. The international KFOR peace-keeping force had successfully restored peace and stability after turbulent years of strife and conflict, and I arrived just in time to see the fruits of this alchemy before Iraq and Afghanistan swallowed up the rest of my time in the army and displayed the other darker side of the interventionist coin.

The Kosovo intervention that began in 1999 with a NATO air campaign against Serbia was preceded, twenty-five years ago this July, by one of the worst crimes on European soil since World War II. In the Bosnian village of Srebrenica, Serbian militias massacred over 8,000 unarmed Muslim Bosniaks, mainly men and boys, an evil compounded by UN peacekeepers failing to intervene, proving Edward Burke’s maxim about what happens when good men do nothing. 

The killings, soon followed by the indiscriminate shelling of Sarajevo, provoked a NATO intervention that shaped a generation of Western policymakers—Samantha Power, who served President Obama as an aide and then as UN Ambassador, made her reputation through her Pulitzer Prize-winning book “’A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide,” inspired by her journalist experiences reporting in the Balkans—as well as some of us at the lower rungs.

I grew up watching images on the television news of British Army Warrior vehicles—the same we would use in Iraq—painted white as part of the United Nations force and British soldiers patrolling streets and protectively shepherding local women and children during Bosnia’s 1992 – 1995 conflict, and during the follow-on NATO-led mission. I watched similar images repeated in Kosovo. I couldn’t see much argument against the need for, and worthiness of, that type of soldiering in support of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine of humanitarian intervention championed by the likes of Power, and which held that wealthy powerful countries like the US and UK had an obligation to defend threatened populations around the world.

In the welcoming letter penned by the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst commandant that I received before I started my officer training, I read how I would be “performing a vital and demanding role, classic examples of which we have all seen unfolding in front of your eyes in Kosovo, East Timor and most recently Sierra Leone.”

There wasn’t much that was vital about my personal role in Kosovo, admittedly, with me filling the humblest of jobs for a newly commissioned second lieutenant: watchkeeper in the battle group’s operations room. This involved me overseeing two soldiers manning radios monitoring the battle group net, keeping a log of events and providing direction to patrols on the ground in the event of minor incidents. If anything serious actually happened, my unofficial job description entailed running off to get the operations officer, a more senior captain who knew what he was doing. 

On a personal level,  I felt like I contributed absolutely nothing of import whatsoever

The most dramatic incident I oversaw involved a patrol commander radioing in breathily the discovery of a potential improvised explosive device. I began grabbing papers, report cards and aide memoirs, wildly gesticulating at the radio operators, as I debated whether to get the operations officer or even call it through to brigade. After more breathy updates over the radio, it finally turned out to be remains of a lawnmower engine, a strangely benign foreshadowing of the IED horrors that occurred in Afghanistan seven years later. I spent much of the rest of my Kosovo tour representing the regiment at the behest of my adjutant in myriad sporting events put on by the military authorities around the country to distract its thousands of restless soldiers. At one stage, I and the two other young officers I joined the regiment with found ourselves deep in a forest banging in fence posts at a decrepit donkey sanctuary the adjutant had tasked us with repairing. 

I finished my Kosovo tour with two concrete impressions. The first was that on a personal level I contributed absolutely nothing of import whatsoever. The second impression, however, was that despite my seemingly pointless involvement, I had, nevertheless, been part of a military force that had deployed to Kosovo to establish a safe and secure environment, had resoundingly achieved that—while I was running around at sporting events and banging in fence posts, other soldiers were being used in a more obviously constructive way providing guards at churches and mosques to ensure their protection—and was continuing to achieve tangible improvements for the country and its people. It appeared that military invention was indeed a credible method—and one that was backed by the locals affected.

During the initial NATO airstrikes against Serbian targets that preceded the Kosovo ground invasion, British Prime Minister Tony Blair emerged as the most forthright of NATO’s leaders in support of the ground option for intervention. Today, while vilified by many of the British populace for his getting Britain involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, Blair is revered in Kosovo for having helped the country achieve independence. A visit he made to Kosovo in 2010 resulted in streets crowded with locals waving Kosovar and British flags. The gratitude of the Kosovars was still there in 2019, during a football game between England and Kosovo in Pristina (where, after coming off one watchkeeping nightshift and clambering into the back of a Bedford 4-tonner to get to the start line, I ran in the “Pristina Run for Peace” as Kosovars loyally lined the route enshrouded in early morning dank wet fog that refused to lift). Local fans in the packed Fadil Vokrri Stadium held up the likes of placards bearing the English flag’s St George’s Cross as a mark of respect. 

I even received my own strange form of Kosovar validation just before I left the army in 2010. I was in London bouncing between friends’ apartments. One morning, as my host headed off to work, he mentioned that an electrician would be coming around to the apartment to fix an electrical fault and asked me to let him in. When the man arrived, we exchanged a few words of greeting—I detected a slight eastern European accent—before he got to work. Just before he left, my curiosity got the better of me and I asked him where he was from (which it seems you aren’t meant to do these days due to such a gesture, apparently, being steeped in a mixture of passive racism and xenophobia). Kosovo, he said (I was glad I had asked!).

After initially hesitating, I told him that I had been there with the British Army. Immediately he stuck out his hand to shake mine and began thanking me profusely. I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to say. Fresh from the maelstrom of Afghanistan, my mind reeled at the incongruity of it all. I could barely keep it together as I showed him out the door and we bid each other farewell. Part of my discombobulation came from an awareness that there was a part of me that felt happy, full of pride, as the long dormant vanity of the young subaltern out to save the world once again rose to the surface. The moment passed quickly, though, as I stood in the empty apartment and its silence seemed to echo with accusations. I felt such a fraud for taking his thanks. Worse was how I knew there could never be such an exchange with someone from Iraq or Afghanistan.

A smattering of articles marking the Srebrenica anniversary managed to break through onto the media’s docket, though not for long. The BBC touched on it before swinging back to its mushrooming coverage of Winston Churchill and his statue and legacy, while tag teaming with the Guardian on what appears the Leviathan that is the UK’s neglect and scornful treatment of one and all throughout history (when it comes to showing compassion to the weak, vulnerable and non-British, based I what I have seen, there are few more exemplary than the—going off appearances and habits—astonishingly un-politically correct, jingoistic, sexist and often poorly educated working-class British squaddie; Brits and people in general seem to be complicated beasts: you think they will go one way based on what they say but then they behave in a totally different and better way; who’d have thought).

One assessment of the legacy of Srebrenica by Will Collins in The American Conservative, an interesting US-based publication that encouragingly often comes across as less conventional than its namesake might suggest and which does a good job of cautioning against the over flexing of America’s military muscles while actually engaging in a conversation about what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, argued that the success of the Balkan interventions was a fluke and “made possible by a unique confluence of favourable circumstances.” 

I’d disagree. Admittedly the evidence isn’t on my side, and perhaps we should always assume the unlikeliness of success, thereby assessing and thinking enormously carefully before committing: the UK’s Afghanistan intervention—which, like Iraq, wasn’t a humanitarian intervention (though I feel the invasion of Iraq could have been justified on humanitarian grounds)—was all but doomed to failure in Helmand Province given that region’s particular history that we didn’t pay enough attention to, and the way we went about it. But our intervention in Iraq, leaving aside the controversial and flawed non-humanitarian-based justification given for the invasion, could have worked and left the people and country a far better place. We also could have intervened much more successfully in Libya and Syria—both of which might well have not unravelled so badly if we hadn’t let Iraq disintegrate and destabilise the surrounding region—had we and our allies had more compunction and by then not lost our collective nerve and ability for international consensus around intervention and cooperation, which is another part of the tragic fallout of our involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan.   

Those interventionist disasters and their wrecked societies we bestowed, along with hundreds of thousands killed and maimed for life, totally undermined the “responsibility to protect” form of intervention, and our self-confidence in being able to do it, let alone consider it. We have, as a result, been left totally risk averse—a growing trend in many areas, it seems—and every year another foreign crisis is met with what appears the new doctrine: taking minimal responsibility accompanied by responding in the least burdensome way possible, thereby always ruling out anything tangible on the ground as we spout diplomatic platitudes. 

I don’t lay the blame just at the feet of our politicians. They take the mood of the public and respond accordingly. They see us bickering, still, about Brexit, and about JK Rowling and menstruation, correct pronouns to use, no platforming and cancelling people, the apparent limitations on what can be said and written, the systemic racism and white privilege and hidden biases and prejudices that might be woven into the fabric of the country and each and every one of us, and whether this is all enshrined by an entirely nefarious and rampant colonial past and malignant British Empire.  

All the while, foreign disasters come and go, sometimes generating headlines but usually with little public discussion in response or outpouring of genuine and sustained compassion that might move our politicians to more action: Libya, Syria, Yemen, Eritrea (admittedly a slow burner, with the country suffocating for decades as its youth and vitality flee away, which doesn’t lend itself to catchy headlines), the persecution of millions of Christians across the Middle East—sometimes amounting to genocide, according to a 2019 report commissioned by the then British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt—as well as across sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, and now China, with its government appearing to commit genocide against the Uyghurs, hundreds of thousands of whom, perhaps many more, are reportedly suffering in modern-day concentration camps, the logical conclusion of the type of cancel culture that some now in our supposedly enlightened and liberal societies seem to find so appropriate.

It’s odd, and worrying, that so few see the connection, which perhaps goes some way to explain all the Srebrenicas that have happened back through the arc of human history that is blighted by so many calamities when good men have stood by and done nothing—conscious of the anti-male zeitgeist we are living through, it perhaps should be noted that whenever good men have stood by, it was often attended by members of the matriarchy whispering Iago-like into their ears—and why they keep on happening. 

“Given the affront genocide represents to America’s most cherished values and to its interests, the United States must also be prepared to risk the lives of its soldiers in the service of stopping this monstrous crime,” Power wrote in her book.

Indeed, well said, Samantha—and we in the UK should be right behind you. But then, as I ponder on the glorious interventionist capacities of an A-10 Thunderbolt jet dipping out of the sky to put check to tyrannical power, the likes of Leo Tolstoy stick their oar in and give one pause about the rights of interfering in another country in defence of the principle of humanitarianism and remaking the world into a better place.  

“Understand then, all of you, especially you young ones, that to dedicate your lives, or even to occupy yourselves with the forcible construction of other people’s lives, according to your own ideas, is not just a primitive superstition, but a vile, criminal affair, destructive to the soul,” Tolstoy wrote in his essay The Law of Love and the Law of Violence

“You must understand that no activity aimed at the organisation of other people’s lives through coercion can enhance people’s welfare, but is always a more or less consciously hypocritical deceit used to cover up men’s basest desires: vanity, pride and self-interest, under the guise of personal dedication to mankind.”

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