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The Historical Context of The Kosovo Conflict

Dr. William R. Forstchen  
professor of history at Montreat College.
* * With permission of Dr. William R. Forstchen, This is a repost of his December 2008 paper * *

Those of you old enough to remember might recall the anti-war song from the 1960s called "The Big Muddy." The song is supposedly based on a true incident about a group of army recruits who are sent into a swamp called the Big Muddy by a crazy drill sergeant.

The drill sergeant keeps ordering them deeper in. The recruits tell him its nuts and the refrain of the song declares "and the damn fool said to move on." In the end they all drown. The song was supposed to be an analogy for Viet Nam. I fear it's an analogy for our war in Kosovo. In order to understand Kosovo in the spring of 1999 we have to go back more than sixteen hundred years. So please bear with me and read on. Early in the 4th century Emperor Constantine of the Roman Empire decided to administratively divide the Empire in half. It just so happened that this dividing line cut straight through the region now in question. As Christianity came into the region those east of the line became Orthodox and used the Greek alphabet, those west of the line Catholic who used the Roman alphabet.

In 1389 the Ottoman Turks arrived. The Serbs made a heroic stand in Kosovo and went down to bloody defeat. In Serbian historical tradition this defeat is the stuff of mythology, as important to them as the story of the Alamo is to Texans and Masada to the people of Israel. The survivors and their families retreated north into the mountains of what is now modern Serbia. They would continue to resist for the next five hundred years.

Five hundred years. Not a two week bombing campaign, or even a four year Civil War, it has been a five hundred year long war of resistance, guerilla action and bitter reprisals.

Some of the Slavic people, however, eventually converted to Islam, these are the ancestors of the modern day Bosnian and Albanian Moslems of the region.

The Turkish advance was finally stopped in what is now modern Slovenia, Croatia and northern Bosnia. Here was the other battle front, a centuries long conflict pitting the Austrian Hapsburgs, who were Catholic, against the Turks, and their new allies the local Slavic population converted to Islam. What resulted was a three way war of Catholics, Orthodox and Moslems.

The next layer of complexity is Russia. In the late 17th century, under the rule of Peter the Great, Russia emerged as an international power. The Russians came to believe in a two fold mission that will become known as "Pan-Slavic Nationalism." First, they saw themselves as the defenders of the Orthodox faith since the holy city of Constantinople was under Turkish rule. Second, they came to believe that they were defenders of the entire Slavic race.

Three centuries ago Russia went to war against the Turks with the stated goal of freeing the Serbians from the infidels. They lost that particular war but the defeat did not dampen this spirit of a "Slavic brotherhood," and from Peter the Great to Yeltsin, the Russians believe themselves to be the defenders of Serbia.

I hope this isn't sounding too much like a boring history 101 lecture, but what I'm trying to demonstrate here is that there is no easy answer to this crisis nor is this a black and white situation. Anyhow, let's move into more modern times.

By the early 20th century the power of the Ottoman Turks was waning. The Serbs who had fled the Kosovo region centuries earlier had finally won their independence in the northern mountains of the region and established the nation of Serbia. As the Turks retreated, however, it was now the Austrian-Hungarian Empire that moved into the power vacuum, seizing Bosnia-Herzegovina in an outright display of imperialism.

Resentment in this region was boiling over. The people of Bosnia were divided into Orthodox, Catholic, and Moslem, all three groups sharing a mutual bitterness that dated back for centuries. It was like a Hatfield and McCoys feud gone amok and a hundred times worse.

In 1914 the Austrians, in an incredible display of stupidity, sent their heir to the throne to Sarajevo for some foolish civic function and a Bosnian Serb nationalist put a bullet in him. You might recall from your history classes that this triggered World War I.

The Austrians used the incident as an excuse to go after Serbia, the Russians, pumped up on pan-Slavic nationalism came to Serbia's aid, the Germans allied with the Austrians, the French and British allied with Russia and we finally got dragged into the fight as well and lost over 100,000 men before it was over, "over there."

Now comes the next step in the mad folly. President Wilson, a former university president, perhaps our most idealistic (and thus unrealistic) President in history sat down with a map at the Versailles peace conference of 1919 and drew up some boundaries. Lo and behold a new nation emerges. . .Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia, well; as far as nations go, it's like a Yugo car, something that never should have been allowed off the assembly line. It bunches together Croatia and Slovenia. Adds in Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo, and combines them all with Serbia. Thus under one roof we have three different religious groups and a half dozen ethnic groups, all with profound hatreds for other groups dating back for centuries. By comparison it would make a merger between the Klan and Louis Farrakhan's group look like a Sunday school picnic.

How the nation even held together from 1919 to 1941 is a mystery.

The next step. . .1941. When Americans think of World War II there is almost a hazy nostalgia to it now. It was a time when we were all united to a common cause that we knew was right. I teach a course on World War II and believe me, when I have veterans speak to my class my students sit in reverent awe. It is the war of "Saving Private Ryan." Here in Asheville we look at men like Captain Morgan of the "Memphis Belle," and know that we are in the presence of moral giants who actually saved the world from tyranny. It was, as the author Studs Terkel put it, "the good war."

World War II in Yugoslavia, in contrast, was the lower depths of hell. My graduate school mentor is a German Jew who fled to Palestine in 1940. There he was recruited by the British army and eventually became a commando and was dropped into Yugoslavia. The only time he ever spoke of it to me he said it was a war of barbarism, something out of the dark ages. He often told stories about North Africa and Italy but on the subject of Yugoslavia he was silent. He fought there for over a year, serving as part of a liaison team to Tito's communist partisans. He said that after Yugoslavia his future adventures fighting in Italy, and later in the Israel War of Independence and Korea were mild in comparison.

The Germans and Italians invaded Yugoslavia in 1941 and immediately the old animosities exploded, this time fracturing not only along ethnic lines but also along ideological fault lines as well.

Basically two groups formed, the Chetniks and the Partisans. The Partisans, who we eventually came to recognize and support were the communists led by Tito. The Chetniks, who were the real losers in this conflict, were Serbian nationalists and supporters of the now defunct monarchy which had ruled Yugoslavia during the inter-war years. In addition some of the Bosnian and Albanian Moslems came to ally themselves with the Germans.

Yet again we had a three way war. At times the Chetniks and Partisans were at each other's throats, and would even ally with Italian or German forces against their local foes. A little known but truly bizarre incident was the formation, in 1944, of a Bosnian/Albanian SS Regiment. Yes, the SS recruited a Moslem regiment in the region. It was disbanded months later. The reason? Excessive cruelty and lack of discipline!

Excessive cruelty results in the disbanding of an SS regiment; one of the most surreal events of World War II. Imagine Satan himself one day going out into the pits of the infernal regions, dragging a group of devils aside and telling them they're fired, the reason. . .they're being too cruel to the clientele of hell.

On all sides torture, rape, impaling, castration, became the accepted tools of war. This was no war of "Saving Private Ryan." This was war as it was fought in the Stone Age.

Hitler would eventually commit over thirty divisions into the region, including armor and elite Waffen SS divisions. After four years they literally crawled out of Yugoslavia and suffered over half a million casualties. Uncounted millions of Yugoslavians, both military and civilian died as well. Thirty divisions of the Nazi war machine were defeated, in comparison a couple of hundred planes and cruise missiles are nothing but an annoying pin prick.

I should add that part of what is being played out today is pay back for that war. It is the old madness that my father, a Serbian Chetnik, was murdered by your father, a Moslem SS soldier and now its time to get even.

But back to the historical narrative. Its now 1945. Tito, a communist supported by us is in control. Even Stalin fears this region in spite of old dreams of pan-Slavic nationalism. Tito makes it clear that Soviet troops can move through the region in pursuit of the Nazis but if they should decide to linger too long. . .well it will be time to hunt some Russians as well.

Yugoslavia is the only European country to successfully liberate itself from the Nazis and avoid occupation by allied troops, Western or Soviet.

And Tito takes over with an iron hand. Its estimated that at least a half million citizens were executed immediately after the war, an action which our government knew about then, yet did not see as reason to intervene over at that time. Some of our government officials even declared support for this round of ethnic cleansing. Tens of thousands of Moslem supporters of the Fascists die, as do nearly every Chetnik who had fought against the Fascists as well.

Tito will rule for nearly forty years. He was very much like the school yard bully, who once he has clawed his way to the top of the heap then imposes an uneasy peace, banning all fighting. Even Stalin did not want to tangle with him and though defined as communist Yugoslavia was usually that "pink" country on the map in our school rooms surrounded by a sea of red.

Now we're finally getting up to modern times with this brief tale, and this is indeed a brief run down, the full story of the region would take up this entire paper and every issue for the next year. An analogy I've been using a lot over the last couple of days is that trying to understand the Balkans is like watching one episode of "Days of Our Lives," and then claiming you know every plot detail for the last ten years.

After Tito's death back in the 1980s Yugoslavia managed to hold together for several years until finally Croatia and Slovenia broke away. Since we're in to modern times I think we can all recall how the nightmare fully explodes in Bosnia, yet again the three way struggle between Catholic, Orthodox and Moslem.

Something that seems to be forgotten though is that originally our foreign policy for the region was to impose an arms embargo. This rendered a fair part of the population defenseless and ironically in the end meant that UN forces would intervene to protect the supposedly defenseless Moslems of the region. So much for gun control.

The additional irony was that the Moslems we were defending were, at the same time "secretly" receiving aid from Iranian trained terrorists groups. . .yet again the region makes for strange bedfellows.

You might recall that "ethnic cleansing" became a hot button issue in the 1992 elections, with Clinton declaring that Republicans were soft on the issue. We should recall that ethnic cleansing also included Croatians and Slovenians driving out ethnic Serbs as well.

That reminds me . . . This little side story though worth a laugh, scares me for it shows just how incredibly stupid some of our policy makers truly are. Shortly after the 1992 Democratic sweep, "Spy Magazine" called up forty newly elected members of Congress and asked them a series of questions about their political opinions.

One of the questions was. . ."how do you feel about the problem of ethnic cleansing in Freedonia?"

Every single one bitterly denounced this horrible crime. A number of them even declared they'd vote to send our military in to stop this outrage. There's only one little problem here. . . Freedonia doesn't exist, except in the imagination of the Marx Brothers and their black comedy movie about Balkan politics, "Duck Soup," made back in the 1930s. Think about that when you consider our current foreign policy. Many of the bozos who fell for the Freedonia scam are still in office and even now are cheering on the bombing raids.

(No joking, that story is true. A Democratic Congresswomen, from Florida, when asked about her level of stupidity, which was worthy of a Darwin Award, angrily replied that she felt that compassion was far more important that a knowledge of geography.)

So, it seems that in our government, compassion is far more important than a knowledge of geography, or history.

Serb nationalists see Kosovo as land that was once theirs and still is.

They can point to our support of Israel and ask why we agree that after two thousand years we support the idea that Jews have a right to return to land that the Romans drove them out of in the 2nd century.

The Serbs could also ask why we support the Turks in spite of their continued war of genocide against the Kurds who lived in that region long before the Turks came tearing in a thousand years ago. Or even more recently the bitter tribal warfare in central Africa where millions have died in a barbaric cycle of ethnic cleansing, why are we not bombing there? I am not stating here that I support the Serb actions in Kosovo, but on the other side of the coin I do have to ask is what we are doing an answer?

There's an old saying that in Europe a hundred miles is a long distance, while in America a hundred years is ancient history.

Our current policy seems to have been formed without a true grasp of the historic depth behind this war. It displays, as well, a remarkable arrogance that we can toss around a few bombs and by doing so defuse animosities that date back not just centuries, but across milleniums.

It is also a frightful display of recklessness when it comes to our own foreign policy. The purpose of our federal government, as defined in the Constitution, is to provide for the common defense. Is our military involvement in Kosovo truly providing for that common defense?

We have committed military forces into a region that Russia sees as its front porch. Turn the table around and look at it from the other side. We nearly went to nuclear war over the Russians moving in on Cuba. We fought a bitter twilight war in Central America to combat communist expansion in that region. We seem to have forgotten how Clinton and his current followers branded Reagan's action in that region as criminal, and that Reagan was a warmonger gone berserk. From the Russian side of the table, is Kosovo any different than El Salvador was for us?

I haven't even thrown in here yet the other variables. What if the Russians fly military equipment into Serbia? What about the Russian military units in Bosnia who are part of the peace keeping force there? Lets now add in the Greeks who have eyes on Macedonia which adjoins Kosovo and the potential Turkish response if Greece is dragged into the conflict. Now add in Islamic radicals eager to support the Albanians. And don't forget that the Albanians in Kosovo and their military force, the KLA, aren't exactly innocent doves. . .a fair part of their funding comes from drug dealing.

I guess you can see what I'm driving at here.

And there is yet another irony, that its the old draft dodger himself who is leading this policy. What ever happened to all the weeping rhetoric about "give peace a chance," and the posters declaring that "war is bad for children and flowers?" What ever happened to the solemn absolutes of the 60s liberals crying that all war is evil? I guess when it comes to liberals all war is evil unless they themselves start it. I find, that as I wrap this article up that I've violated one of the cardinal rules I set down for myself. . .if you are going to criticize, have a solution. That rule was formed after having to endure decades of liberal whiners who when you finally cornered them never had an answer for what they were whining about.

Well on this one I have to confess I just don't know. If I had the magic answer to peace in the Balkans believe me I'd write it up, send it to the New York Times and then buy a tuxedo in preparation for receiving my Nobel Prize. I wish that stupid Beatles movie, "Yellow Submarine" was true, that we could broadcast "All You Need is Love," to the region via satellite and the following day Albanians and Serbs would sit down and eat granola together. Folks it simply isn't going to happen. All I do know for certain is that history shows that it is a region of madness. The Turks tried for five hundred years and were finally driven out. The Austrian-Hungarians lost an entire empire when they tried to move in on the place. The Nazis crawled out leaving a trail of blood. To think we can do any different goes against all that history has taught us. I just hope that Clinton gets us the hell out of there, the true mother of all "Big Muddies" before it swallows us up as well. Perhaps they should erect a sign over Kosovo. . ."All hope abandon, ye who enter here."

* * With permission of Dr. William R. Forstchen, This is a repost of his December 2008 paper * *

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