Michael Dobbs

Mladic and the ‘March of Folly’

Mladic and the ‘March of Folly’

Last week, I looked at Ratko Mladic’s transformation from a loyal Yugoslav communist to an equally committed Serb nationalist. This week, I will address my second question: How did Mladic’s actions in Srebrenica in July 1995, including the execution of thousands of Muslim men and boys, fit into his overall war strategy?

In answering this question, I want to emphasize again that I am not seeking in any way to justify horrifying war crimes. I am trying to reconstruct the internal thought processes of a mass murderer, based on the available evidence, including his own speeches and the statements of other Bosnian Serb leaders. From Mladic’s point of view, there was a definite logic to the madness.

The first point to make is that Mladic’s forces were coming under increasing pressure in the summer of 1995 from the Croat-Muslim military alliance, supported by the United States and NATO. After more than two years of military stalemate, the frontlines of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia were beginning to shift, to the disadvantage of the Bosnian Serbs. For the first time in the war, Mladic’s men were on the defensive and struggling to hold on to their military gains from 1991-93.

The Croatian army had swept through the Serb-inhabited enclave of Western Slavonia in Operation Flash and was preparing to recapture the Serb-controlled Dalmatian hinterland of Krajina. The Muslims were becoming increasingly well-armed and militarily effective, threatening to break out of a pocket of territory around the town of Bihac in northwestern Bosnia. The Bosnian Serb statelet, Republika Srpska, risked being chopped into two.

In this context, it made both tactical and strategic sense for Mladic’s forces to try to clean up the map and reduce the length of their front lines. At the top of their list of priorities was the elimination of the troublesome Muslim-controlled enclaves in eastern Bosnia that were ostensibly under the "protection" of the United Nations. The capture of Srebrenica and the other enclaves would free up thousands Serb troops who could then be transferred to other sections of the front. Serbs would be fully in control of both sides of the Drina river boundary between Bosnia and Serbia proper.

A glimpse into the thinking of the Bosnian Serb leadership is provided by Directive Number 7 of March 1995 that called for attacks on Srebrenica and Zepa, through the creation of "planned and well-thought out combat operations." The goal was to create an "unbearable situation of total insecurity, with no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica and Zepa."

In considering their attack on the eastern enclaves, Bosnian Serb commanders made little distinction between soldiers and civilians. Testifying before the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, the former chief of staff of the Bosnian Serb army, Manojlo Milovanvic, put it this way: "Where there is no enemy population, there’s no enemy army."

But Mladic had an additional reason for wanting to punish the Muslim inhabitants of Srebrenica. Facing near-starvation conditions, groups of armed men under the Muslim warlord, Naser Oric, had mounted a series of raids on Serb villages around Srebrenica during the winter of 1992-1993. It is difficult to know precisely how many Serbs were killed in these raids, but several hundred seems a reasonable estimate, including not just soldiers, but elderly civilians. Serb propagandists greatly inflated the figure, building it up into a major war crime.

The Oric raids helped create what Marko Prelec, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, called "a reservoir of rage" among the Serb population of the Drina valley, the "belief that they [the Muslims] will do it to us if we do not do it to them…there was a kind of desperation, a feeling that if we do the right thing with all these prisoners of war, they will join the tsunami of Bosnians breaking over our heads."

Given this rage, it was predictable that the capture of Srebrenica and the other enclaves would result in a major bloodbath that could further undermine the international standing of Republika Srpska. The Bosnian Serb president, Radovan Karadzic, had raised the specter of such a massacre back in 1993 when he gave a speech defending the decision to agree to the establishment of a U.N.-patrolled "safe area."

"If we had entered Srebrenica, those people entering would be those whose families were killed [in 1992-93]," Karadzic told the Bosnian Serb assembly on July 20, 1993. "There would be blood to the knees and we might lose the state for that."

By July 1995, the situation had changed.  Karadzic and Mladic ordered a military operation that they knew perfectly well would end in atrocities that would be condemned around the world. The question is: why? Quite apart from the moral issues involved, this would appear to be an example of what the historian Barbara Tuchman has described as the "March of Folly"-decisions that seem to fly in the face of the interests of the decision-makers themselves.

I will attempt to explain their thinking in my next two posts.