Mladic and the ‘March of Folly’

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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.

To read the full blog post on Foreign Policy, click here.

How a Yugoslav communist became a Serb nationalist

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In my last post, I outlined four mysteries surrounding Ratko Mladic that need to be resolved in order to explain the atrocities he committed during the 1992-95 Bosnia war. My first question — How did a man indoctrinated in the Titoist ideology of “brotherhood and unity” turn into a Serb nationalist waging brutal war against his neighbors? — may be the easiest to answer.

First, a little background. Prior to the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, Mladic had served with distinction in what was then known as the “Yugoslav People’s Army” for 26 years. Trained as an infantry officer, he passed political loyalty tests with flying colors, rising to the rank of colonel. He described himself as a Yugoslav (literally a “South Slav”) in responses to official questionnaires, not as a Serb. People who knew him at the time say that he never talked about “Serbdom,” the “Serbian military tradition,” or “Serbian interests.” If he was a closet nationalist, it was very well disguised.

In explaining Mladic’s ideological transformation, it helps to know a little bit about the nature of the regime he served. During his final years in power, the legendary Marshal Tito became the West’s favorite Communist leader. He refused to accept orders from Moscow and developed his own brand of communism, based on the utopian idea of “workers’ self-management.” A bon vivant himself, he encouraged his people to share in the good life (made possible by large western loans), and permitted them freedom of travel.

Beneath this liberal façade, however, the Titoist system was based on the hard-baked Communist principles of class divisions and “us versus them.” In order to consolidate and maintain his power, Tito fought an uncompromising war against his political enemies, both at home and abroad. The prison camp at Goli Otok (“Naked Island”) in the Adriatic resembled camps in the Soviet gulag. (The Bosnian leader, Alija Izetbegovic, was one of the early inmates.) Tito’s followers developed a siege mentality that was particularly pronounced in the army, the inner bastion of the regime.

To read the full blog post on Foreign Policy, click here.