Theatre of War in the Former Yugoslavia: Event, Script, Actors
Ed. note: TDR invited Branislav Jakovljevic, a dramaturg from the former Yugoslavia, to write this issue’s Comment. In the early 1990s he worked as a theatre critic for the Belgrade independent daily Borba and the independent weekly Vreme. He was the Editor-in-Chief of the daily !DOSTA!, published during the two-month-long Belgrade University student demonstrations in May/June 1992. Jakovljevic is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at Tisch School of the Arts/NYU.
I am convinced that the dangers of acting are far outweighed by the dangers of not acting—dangers to defenseless people and to our national interests.
Our reality, that is the problem. We have only one reality and we have to save it. Even under the worst slogan. “We have to do something, we can’t afford to do nothing.” But, doing anything for the only reason that we can’t do the right thing has never been the principle of action nor freedom. It is only a form of vindication of one’s own impotence and compassion for one’s own destiny.
In January 1991 Akademie Theater in Vienna opened Rolf Hochhut’s play Sommer 14. ein totentanz (Summer 14. A Dance Macabre). The thesis of Hochhut’s play was that unlike a beast, war cannot burst out. War does not erupt, claimed Hochhut, it is always designed as industriously as it is desired. His analysis of the preparations for WWI resonated strongly with the political turbulence that was going on less than a hundred miles south of Vienna, in the former Yugoslavia.
A year later, I used Hochhut’s thesis to talk about theatre and war on the pages of the Belgrade independent daily newspaper Borba. It was the interim between the two wars, or between the two acts of the same war. The war in [End Page 5] Croatia started the previous summer, raged for six months, and then suddenly stopped. The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina was desired by many and feared by many more. The epoch recognized itself in theatre, and, even more importantly, theatre recognized itself in the current epoch: the ongoing events seemed at the same time well-organized and chaotic. There was nothing that could stop the ongoing performance of politics and war.
Now, seven years after the publication of my article on the theatricality of war, I am in New York, and the article still has an eerie relevance to the ongoing events. It is the third week of NATO air raids on Serbia-Montenegro and the eighth year of war in the former Yugoslavia. If I were in Belgrade at this moment, I could not publish the article that I easily published in 1992. The media opposed to Slobodan Milosevic’s government have been shut down. My friends from Belgrade tell me that theatres are still open and giving performances free of charge. Once the stronghold of political opposition, theatre became a part of the war effort. The small gains that opposition parties made over the years have been erased in one night of bombardment. At one point, liberal and democratic parties from Belgrade and liberal and democratic parties of Kosovo Albanians started negotiations, which opened up the possibility of a joint effort of Serb and Albanian opposition parties. The votes of ethnic minorities, mostly Albanians, had a profound influence on recent political events in Macedonia and Montenegro, and that could have been the case in Serbia too. Now, one more chance for the peaceful removal of Slobodan Milosevic has been lost forever.
The virtual war in Western mass media does not even acknowledge that such an option once existed. The television news networks would like to see a rerun of the Gulf War. Complaining about the lack of live footage, a CNN reporter observes that this war is “perfect” for the internet. In the daily news briefing, a NATO spokesman calls reporters’ attention to spectacular shots made of missiles approaching their targets. This kind of footage turned the Gulf War into a high-tech spectacle. Finally, Yugoslavia is a virtual place. The name of that country does not exist in, say, the United States Postal Service database, nor in the United Nations Organization phone book. A letter addressed to Yugoslavia cannot reach its destination, but a NATO missile can (Yugoslavia is listed as Serbia-Montenegro in the U.S. Postal Service database).
However, the theatre of war in Yugoslavia resists virtualization of events. It has been around for too long, and it is too real. The Yugoslav theatre of war is neither a metaphor nor a media event. It did not erupt, it could not erupt, and it is not going to cease by itself. In order to be stopped, it has to be analyzed within its real, not virtual, time and space, with its underlying script and the human performances involved in it.
Event and the Theatre of War
According to Brassey’s Encyclopedia of Land Forces and Warfare the term “theatre” slipped from the vocabulary of performing arts to military language through geography: there was “one short step” from the Renaissance collection of world maps Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570) to the military concept of theatrum belli (war theatre), first used in the 17th century (Margiotta 1996:1064). In the age of reason, the theatre of war was limited to the arena of the battlefield. There were no spectators. In premodern warfare civilians were auditors who heard the tales and distant echoes of the battlefield (in this way the Battle of Kosovo, which occurred on 28 June 1389, became an ever-present event for peoples of south and central Balkans). Contemporary military doctrine sees a theatre of war as “a large geographic section (i.e., land, sea, and airspace) in which major military activities are carried out by large bodies of troops, such as [End Page 6] the Pacific and European theaters of war in World War II” (1996:1064). The modern theatre of war is not limited to the battlefield. It is a total experience, participatory theatre, in which the demarcation line between front and rear combat zones has been blurred and erased. Civilians are involved in this kind of war not as distant auditors, but as participants and victims.
According to Baudrillard, postmodern war preserves this participatory quality of the modern theatre of war, but the event itself has been lost. The battlefield has been displaced by or to a large degree absorbed into the simulacrum of live or recently replayed television broadcasts. Using the example of the Gulf War, Baudrillard challenges the corporeal/incorporeal duality of events. Promoting this understanding of what an event is, Foucault says that it is nonmaterial, “neither substance, nor accident, nor quality, nor process,” while at the same time always remaining on the level of materiality: “events have their place, they consist in relation to, coexistence with, dispersion of, the cross-checking accumulation and the selection of material events” (1972:231). Postmodern warfare is exemplified by the Gulf War as the media event which completely effaced the material side of the event and turned it into a nonevent, a nonwar, a game of deception and the complete eradication of the actual by the virtual (Baudrillard 1995:30). The limits of the war in time and space have been lost; the depth of duality has been reduced to the flatness of the television screen and logorrhea of talking heads.
One of Baudrillard’s favorite allegories of simulacrum is Borges’s story of ambitious cartographers who devise a map that matches exactly the territory that has been mapped. The object disappears in its representation. When President Clinton appeared on national television on 25 March 1999 pointing to the map of Serbia-Montenegro, he disclosed his membership in the club of Balkan cartographers who had been zealously remapping the former Yugoslavia since the end of the Gulf War. In his address to the American nation, he emphasized that the conflict in Kosovo “is not war in the traditional sense” (Clinton 1999). Later, he repeated in his address to the citizens of Serbia-Montenegro that NATO is not at war with them, that this is not a war. That is precisely the attitude that Slobodan Milosevic maintained during the conflicts in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Baudrillard, Milosevic, and Clinton know the power of nonwar. They all learned from the Gulf War that nonwar is more destructive than “war in the traditional sense.” On 24 March 1999, the first day of NATO air strikes, Serbian-Montenegrian authorities proclaimed a state of war. In the twisted language of postmodern warfare, it meant that Milosevic wants peace. Military and political analysts have asked in vain what is the endgame and objective in the theatre of war in Serbia-Montenegro. The endgame does not exist because, perhaps, the objective already has been achieved.
Script and Objective
So the space and time limits, the geographical and historical boundaries of the war in Serbia-Montenegro have been displaced to match the proclaimed objective of NATO intervention. According to a scenario widely circulated, the Kosovo crisis escalated in the spring of 1998. One year later it reached the proportions of a humanitarian disaster, which prompted NATO to intervene. The intervention was supposed to be yet another “clean war”: NATO missiles would cleanse Serbia-Montenegro of ethnic cleansing.
The war in Kosovo did not start in the spring of 1998 or some 10 years earlier when then communist aparatchik Slobodan Milosevic delivered his first mildly nationalistic speech in Kosovo Polje (suburb of the capital of Kosovo Pristina). Strictly speaking, the civil war in the Socialist Federative Republic [End Page 7] of Yugoslavia started on 10 March 1991 in Belgrade, when Yugoslav authorities for the first time used the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) against its own citizens. This incident was prompted by large and violent anti-Milosevic demonstrations, which occurred the day before and in which one protester and one riot policeman lost their lives. In the following months, the Yugoslav National Army intervened in clashes between Serbian minority paramilitary forces and Croatian police in Croatia.
The Yugoslav National Army engaged for the first time with (technically) foreign armed forces after the proclamation of independence of the Yugoslav republics of Slovenia and Croatia on 26 July 1991. The Slovenian war for independence lasted 10 days, and some 30 people perished (mostly inexperienced infantrymen of the Yugoslav National Army). That was the first act of the war theatre of Yugoslavia. From then on, each act brought an arithmetical progression of violence: the destruction of Vukovar and the bombing of Osijek and Dubrovnik in Croatia (1991); the butchering of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992–1995); clashes between the Kosovo Liberation Army and Serbian forces which culminated with NATO air strikes and the refugee crisis (1997–1999). All along, the intensity and violence of the atrocities has been explained as expressions of ethnic hatred among the peoples of Yugoslavia. Even careful and well-informed writers such as Misha Glenny, author of the acclaimed book The Fall of Yugoslavia (1992), fell into the trap of “Balkan hatred.” It became an empty signifier, a huge receptacle of everything inexplicable in the Yugoslavian theatre of war. The concrete space and concrete events tended to disappear into the indefinite past, into the complicated history of the Balkans. Vague concepts of “history” and “hatred” are the main tools for virtualizing the war in Yugoslavia.
The history of the Yugoslav region of the Balkans is neither longer nor more complex than the history of any other region of Europe. As in the rest of Europe and the world, there are animosities among the different ethnic groups. Yet, an army of “experts” is trying to convince the Western public that the Balkans is a special case. A former professor of history at Columbia University kindly asked a television audience to explore the limits of its own thought and try to imagine Balkan reasoning according to which everything is turned upside-down. This particular form of racism reached its highest points in the statement of Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who, on the Charlie Rose program on the local PBS, exclaimed that the Serbs and Albanians of Kosovo carry ethnic hatred in their genes. He even mentioned the ultimate court evidence: DNA (1999). Stupidity and evil often cloak themselves as “scientific” discourse.
Genocide and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia are not the products of bad genes in the bodies of Slovenians, Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Albanians, and Macedonians. They are the products of the bad politics of their leaders and the bad politics of the heads of Western countries. Before it became terror itself, the Socialist Federated Republic of Yugoslavia (1945–1991) was perfectly accustomed to the balance of terror of the Cold War. It was the only socialist country in Europe that didn’t belong to the Warsaw Pact (“Eastern Block”). On a strategic level, the Yugoslav National Army did not belong to NATO either. However, according to sources close to military circles in the former Yugoslavia, the JNA figured prominently in NATO tactical plans for an eventual conflict with the Warsaw Pact countries (every private who served in JNA knew that rocket launchers were positioned along Yugoslavia’s borders with Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria—not on the borders with neighboring NATO countries Italy and Greece). Most importantly, Yugoslavia was, with Czechoslovakia, one of only two multinational and multiethnic countries in Western or Central Europe. [End Page 8]
There are two patterns in the unraveling of the script of what Misha Glenny calls the “wars for the succession of Yugoslavia” (1992). First, already mentioned, is the progression of violence; the second is the reversed proportion of this violence in relation to efforts to unify Europe. In his lament over Sarajevo, Baudrillard characterized European unification as the unification of white, ethnically and ideologically “cleansed” nations. The Bosnian Serbs who besieged Sarajevo “as vectors of ethnic cleansing were actually the arrowhead of the emerging Europe.” According to Baudrillard, in Sarajevo the theatre of war turned into the “theatre of the transparency of Evil” (1993:6). As recently as the 18 March 1999 issue of the New York Review of Books, Timothy Garton Ash conceded that the new European Union is a union of nation-states, and that the republics of the former Yugoslavia had to go through the process of ethnic cleansing in order to qualify for this kind of European community. There is a corpse in the basement of the Common European House.
The politics of nation and ethnicity in Yugoslavia in the late 1980s were very fragile. The country was going through the most dangerous economic and ideological crisis in its short history. Milosevic stepped onto this stage with the blind ambition and force of a bull in a china shop. He was soon joined by his colleagues in other republics of Yugoslavia, and by distinguished foreign ministers of the United States and western European countries. In the early 1990s, it was clear that the secession of Slovenia and Croatia would lead to carnage in Bosnia and in Kosovo. The most endangered ethnic groups were those left without their mother-republic. Milosevic of Serbia supported the Serb minority in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina; Franjo Tudjman of Croatia supported the Croatian minority in central Bosnia and western Herzegovina. Together, they slaughtered and persecuted those who had nowhere to run: Muslims and Yugoslavs. Genocide in Sarajevo and other Bosnian cities was not prevented by the intervention of American and European diplomacy. The Muslims and other people who remained in besieged Bosnian cities simply refused to die until the belated aid arrived. The Yugoslavs fared much worse.
Before the beginning of the wars for succession of Yugoslavia, roughly two million people, 10 percent of the country’s total population, declared themselves ethnic Yugoslavs. This new ethnicity in the former Yugoslavia was the product of intermarriage between members of various ethnic groups and also of ideological conviction. It was not uncommon for many people to identify themselves as Serbs or Croats, but also as Yugoslavs. The Yugoslavian idea emerged long before the state of Yugoslavia was formed after WWI in December 1918 out of parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire inhabited by southern Slavs and the independent states of Serbia and Montenegro. The idea of Yugoslavia was attacked and repressed by nationalists in Croatia and Serbia almost simultaneously. It was literally bombed out from Bosnia, which was the stronghold of the Yugoslavian idea. People who declared themselves as Yugoslavs in Croatia and Serbia were humiliated, molested, persecuted, and often physically attacked. Many Yugoslavs died in Bosnia. Even more Yugoslavs were forced to leave Croatia and Serbia. In short, there was a genocide of Yugoslavs in the former Yugoslavia. This was a well-kept secret of the Yugoslav war. Two million people who declared themselves as Yugoslavs are either dead, hiding, or in exile. They constitute a landless nation, a floating community of crypto-Yugoslavs. The resurgence of nationalism in Serbia-Montenegro provoked by NATO bombing will finish off the few surviving Yugoslavs in this part of the former Yugoslavia.
The hypocrisy of the primary goals of NATO intervention (prevention of humanitarian disaster and ethnic cleansing) does not end here. Kosovo is not the only region of the former Yugoslavia that is on the road to being reduced [End Page 9] to an unpopulated wasteland. There are already such regions in Croatia. Anyone who cares to look at the New York Times of August 1995 can learn that the Serbian ethnic minority was cleansed from Croatia. The images of the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo and the Krajina region in Croatia are tragically similar: empty villages and towns, burning houses, elders who remained behind to die “in peace.” Over 200,000 ethnic Serbs were forced out of Croatia in less than a week. The United States not only ignored this incident, but private military consulting agencies helped Croatian armed forces devise the so-called operation “Storm.” In the former Yugoslavia, there was a delicate balance of minorities in Serbia and Croatia: the safety of ethnic Serbs in Croatia was a guarantee for the safety of ethnic Albanians in Serbia. Milosevic’s Serbia did not move a finger to stop the expulsion of Serbs from Croatia. After the Dayton agreement, which brought peace to Bosnia, left them out of the picture, it was clear to Albanian nationalists in Kosovo that they had to engage in the armed struggle for independence (see Judah 1998).
In actions of protection and prevention, the first goal is to protect the weakest, not to harm the strongest. The Clinton administration and NATO knew very well that their attack on Serbia-Montenegro would cause heavy reprisals on Albanians in Kosovo. They could not avoid knowing that the first missile that reached its target in Serbia would cue Milosevic to unleash his war dogs. Their choice of civilian targets in Serbia reveals that the nature of NATO’s mission is essentially to take hostages. Destruction of bridges in Vojvodina, the breadbasket of Serbia and Montenegro, blowing up of the power plant in New Belgrade, and the bombardment of factories throughout the country effectively turned the entire population of Serbia-Montenegro into hostages of the Western allies. This coming winter their lives will be entirely in the hands of international relief organizations that can easily choose to ignore them. In exchange for food, they will have to topple Milosevic and fight his police and paramilitary forces. Of course, Milosevic knows the rules of the hostage game. He seals and unseals the borders between Kosovo and Albania according to changing strategies.
This “clean war” is as dirty as they get. The script is tragic, the effects disastrous, the goals undisclosed. The last act in the war theatre in Yugoslavia depends solely on the principal actors. Without them, the war would be much less of a spectacle.
Best of Enemies
During the first 16 days of NATO air strikes in Serbia-Montenegro, American and British military forces bombed Iraq twice. These are the finest hours of the post-Cold War imbalance of power. Allied (mostly Anglo-British) forces are simultaneously and effectively running two theatres of war and battling two different adversaries. One of Baudrillard’s fulfilled predictions is that the Gulf War will never end. The open-endedness of the Gulf War, said Baudrillard in 1991, comes from the essential miscommunication of the antagonists:
[Americans] see Saddam as he should be, a modernist hero, worth defeating (the fourth biggest army in the world!). Saddam remains a rug salesman who takes the Americans for rug salesmen like himself, stronger than he but less gifted for the scam.(1995:65)
For President Clinton, Saddam Hussein is an inherited enemy, another’s other, thoroughly dehumanized and kept at a distance by a long and strong pole—a dancing bear. Slobodan Milosevic is the complete opposite of Saddam [End Page 10] Hussein. He understands his adversary all too well, and his adversary understands him. The Yugoslav war is a tragedy of communication.
Since the beginning of the air strikes in Serbia-Montenegro, Milosevic has been portrayed by American media as the last communist leader in Europe, a junior Hitler, an unscrupulous pragmatist, butcher of the Balkans. In fact, he is much worse than all of that, and he is much more dangerous than any one of the ideological specters that haunt Europe.
The war in the former Yugoslavia is more ideological than religious or ethnic. Over a decade in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, politicians from the ranks of the Yugoslav Communist Party who espoused a radical nationalist platform came into power in all six republics of the former Yugoslavia, defeating the proponents of liberal, democratic, and above all Yugoslavian ideas. The main power source of each nationalist leader was the imminent sense of danger that came from other nations in the country. This helped the leaders of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and, to a lesser degree, Macedonia to shift the political focus from liberalizing the economy and democratizing society towards the question of “national survival.” It is significant that all the leaders from that period are still in power. It is equally significant that during the war in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina there weren’t any significant military and political alliances. Everybody fought everybody, everybody was everybody’s enemy. In other words, the national leaders devised the concept of the “best enemy.” This concept is very important for understanding the war in Yugoslavia. It establishes the relation of simultaneous sameness and difference. Best enemies understand each other, they can talk to each other, they can rely on each other, and they can deal with each other. The entire dramaturgy in the theatre of war in Yugoslavia came to depend on the vicious circle of best enemies.
Milosevic is the dynamo of the best enemy machine. Stopping him would mean disrupting the avalanche of war in Yugoslavia. At every turn in the Yugoslavian war there was a chance of seriously hurting or completely destroying Milosevic’s power. Even before the war began, the IMF refused a loan request from the last Yugoslavian Prime Minister, Ante Markovic, who claimed that his economic reforms could stop the nationalist leaders and prevent the destruction of the country. American monetary and political support for Milosevic’s first and dearest best enemy, Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, was always greater than for Milosevic’s ideological opponents in Belgrade. Perhaps the best chance to stop Milosevic came with the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Clinton administration had been aware for years that the blood trail from Sarajevo and Srebrenica led directly to Milosevic. The indicted Bosnian war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic collaborated closely with Milosevic. These men are still at large and nobody is doing anything to bring them to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Milosevic was never indicted for war crimes, although that was precisely the way to stop him. 1 “Why?” cry the victims from Belgrade, Vukovar, Sarajevo, Srebrenica, and now Kosovo. What makes Milosevic invulnerable?
In the context of the former Yugoslavia, Milosevic was the first nationalist and populist leader who, as it were, elevated himself above the laws of the country. He was the first to establish a sense of urgency and pressure, or in other words, the rule of institutionalized and controlled lawlessness. He was the first to change blatantly the unwritten laws of political conduct and the first to openly break and then change the laws of the former Yugoslavia. He broke conventions, and in the theatre of politics, as in dramatic theatre, breaking conventions tends to unleash an enormous amount of energy and power. In short, he epitomizes lawlessness itself. His best enemies followed, [End Page 11] risked, took blows, but also profited enormously from this strategy. The only thing that is currently sure about President Clinton is that he now has joined the band of best enemies. The NATO air strikes on Serbia-Montenegro broke the UN charter. NATO’s unilateral military action also represents
a clear breach of NATO’s own founding document, the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty. Articles 1 and 7 of the treaty explicitly bind NATO countries to act within the UN charter, and Article 5 endorses the use of force only to repel an armed attack against a NATO member.
Instead of being an attempt to implement international law, the NATO intervention is an escalation of lawlessness. This dangerous precedent may be the unstated goal of NATO’s intervention. By the second week of air strikes, members of the Clinton administration, NATO officials, and military analysts were talking more about NATO’s credibility than about the original goals stated by Clinton in his televised address on 24 March. If the purpose of the first phase of the air strikes was to render international regulations null and void, the second phase was intended to prove the existence of NATO. The war in Yugoslavia is the test of the alliance’s actuality. Unlike the Gulf War, the war in Yugoslavia does not lead towards deterrence and seeming de-escalation. Quite the opposite, the war in Yugoslavia is a war of progressive acceleration and total consumption.
The war between George Bush and Saddam Hussein was, as Baudrillard put it, a war between a virtual warrior and a rug salesman. The present war in Yugoslavia is a war between the impeached president of the world’s only superpower and the least popular national leader in post-Cold War Europe, a war of losers. Both Clinton and Milosevic want to prove something.
It is late night on 11 April 1999. I am proofreading and correcting my article on the theatre of war in Yugoslavia. I just received an email from a life-long friend and colleague from my days at Borba who still lives in Belgrade. He tells me that the former editor-in-chief of Borba, Slavko Curuvija, was murdered in broad daylight on the steps of his apartment building. The NATO intervention gave to nationalist thugs a license to kill.
There are rumors, unconfirmed but quite plausible, that the ultra-nationalist Kosovo Liberation Army also used the chaotic situation to get rid of its ideological opponents among Kosovo Albanian politicians. This only proves that the best enemies’ vicious circle is running full force. Is it going to reach across the Atlantic?
* Milosevic was indicted by the international tribunal at The Hague on 27 May 1999, one month after I finished writing this article. The indictment is not only some seven years overdue, but the prosecutors do not show any signs that they are ready to stop dealing with a war criminal.
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