Yugoslav Ethnic Cleansing Didn’t Follow the Script

Chapter four of Arne Johan Vetlesen’s Evil and Human Agency looks at the “ethnic cleansing” during the Yugoslav Wars in the light of the previous chapters’ examination of post-Holocaust philosophical, sociological, and psychological approaches to the problem of evildoing.

Vetlesen says that many of the characteristics of the Holocaust that had been identified as essential ingredients of genocide were absent in the Yugoslav genocide. In the Holocaust, there was a regimented, bureaucratized, technological manner of killing, a separation between those who ordered and organized the murders and those who carried them out, and a dehumanization and anonymization of the victims.

People who tried to draw lessons from the Holocaust in the hopes of preventing future genocide have erred by overgeneralizing from this case and claiming that these characteristics are themselves the warning signs for genocide. The Yugoslav genocide, however, did not have these characteristics: the killings and tortures were face-to-face and technologically unsophisticated and directed on a grass-roots level.

So Vetlesen tries to describe a more accurate set of conditions that lead to collective evildoing. Such things, he says, “must be regarded as the conjunction of human maliciousness with the failure of cultural containment… or, more to the point, with the deliberate and systematic production of conditions which undermine whatever positive cultural containment is in place.”

Propaganda is crucial to this deliberate and systematic production of the conditions for collective evildoing. “In all cases of genocide in , the action… typically assumes the character of self-defense.… If there is a mentality characteristic of genocidal perpetrators, it is that of self-righteousness.” In what Vetlesen calls genocidal logic, “the perpetrator group does exactly what it castigates the target for having done [or] being now about to do against one’s own group.” The collective evil “assumes the form of retaliation” or “pre-emption” and action “takes the character of self-defense.”

These excuses for collective evildoing do not have to be sturdy. They do not even have to be falsifiable, but even if they are conclusively disproved, they are easily replaced — they are not really reasons that the perpetrators rely on to excuse (or compel) their actions, but only justifications that they use when telling a story about what they do.

Vetlesen quotes Michael Sells:

In justifying the atrocities in Bosnia, Serb nationalists would point to atrocities by Croats. When it was pointed out that the Muslim population had nothing to do with the Croat army and, indeed, had been attacked by the Croat army in , the Serb nationalists shifted to generic blame of all Muslims for the acts of those who fought with the Ustashe. When it was pointed out that many of the families who suffered had fought against the Ustashe, the Serb nationalists would shift to claims of Ottoman depravity and treat the Muslims as Turks. When it was pointed out that the Slavic Muslims are just as indigenous to the region as Orthodox Christians or Catholics, the discussion would then shift to allegations that the Bosnian Muslims were fundamentalists and that Serbia was defending the West against the fundamentalist threat of radical Islam. When it was pointed out that, in fact, most Bosnian Muslims were antifundamentalist by tradition and character, the Serb nationalists would insist that this was a civil war, in which all sides were guilty, there were no angels, and the world should allow the people involved to solve their own problems.

In the Yugoslav Wars, outside observers tended to overly concentrate on this mix of stories instead of on the reality of what was going on — so that commentators would talk about “ancient hatreds” and take at face value that the ongoing genocide was just the latest back-and-forth in a feud stretching back to or earlier. This reinforced international passivity (“it’s all very complicated”) and reinforced also the idea that what was going on concerned not individual victims of an “ethnic cleansing” policy but irreconcilable groups or a sort of roiling, mutual violence.

“Until these folks get tired of killing each other, bad things will continue to happen,” said President Clinton . (, Donald Rumsfeld would use a similar, passive, victim-free description to describe Iraq: “Iraqis are being killed, as they were yesterday and the day before. At some point the Iraqis will get tired of getting killed…”)

This perspective is, crucially, the perspective of the perpetrators. Adopting it leads outside observers to sympathize with the perpetrators, and furthermore the legitimacy of this perspective is itself both an important goal and a necessary tool of those perpetrators.

A crucial preliminary to collective evil of this sort, says Vetlesen, is that group identity takes primary importance for the perpetrators. In other words, you no longer just happen to be a member of Group X, but your Group Xness becomes the essential, defining feature about you. Because of this, the most important things you have to worry about are threats to whatever is vital about Group X — which can be anything from its existence as a group to something symbolic that is thought to belong to or embody the group (perhaps a relic, a holy city, or a virtue like “freedom”).

The victims-to-be are also cast in this group-essential way, and are said to be such a threat. All the sins, real or imagined, of the enemy group or of any particular member of that group, are carried equally by every member of that group and so there is no sense of talking of the guilty or innocent — their groupness is their guilt.

This can quickly become all-or-nothing. Merely happening-to-be a Serb is not enough to make you a Serb. You have to be a Serb, which increasingly becomes defined as someone eager to defend against the threats to Serbness by killing and raping them en masse. Vetlesen recounts examples of people who happened-to-be Serbs being killed by genocidal Serbs for being unwilling to kill their non-Serbian neighbors when ordered to do so.

I found my mind was often wandering while I read this chapter, and I tended to entertain some very speculative thoughts.

I was struck by the parallels between the methods used to establish an overriding group identity in the Serbs and those used to instill the ordinary military mentality. When people join the military they relinquish responsibility to authority, they define themselves by their group (“once a Marine, always a Marine”) and deemphasize individual personality, they kill strangers based on their group identity, they elevate intra-group bonds and denigrate out-of-group bonds, they justify their actions as defense whatever their real nature, they are ideologically prepared to justify mass murder, and so forth.

And I kept seeing parallels between the propaganda that led to the Yugoslav genocide and that which led to the Iraq war — the way the guilt of got transferred as if by magic to Iraq, the way the war was billed as an act of preemptive self-defense, the way the justifications for the war kept falling apart only to be replaced by new ones, the way “our” enemies are said to be eagerly plotting their assaults on Freedom itself, the way dishonest intellectual arguments and media propaganda were used to incite the faithful and paralyze bystanders, and so forth.

The collective evil that the United States is engaged in in Iraq is not in the same register as that of the Yugoslav genocide. The United States military is up to no good, certainly, but they aren’t rounding up Iraqi women in camps and gang raping them until dead or pregnant, and they’re leaving the ethnic cleansing to the locals.

But although the nature of the collective evil is different, the similarities in the cultural gestalt that led to the Iraq War and that maintain it today are worth pondering over.

Vetlesen discusses the theories of René Girard concerning the purpose of collective violence. In Girard’s view, communities maintain unity and stability by periodically channeling internal violent impulses toward a surrogate victim in a ritual sacrifice. Vetlesen thinks that the examples of collective evil he is interested in may be varieties of this ritual sacrifice.

Girard says that not just any surrogate victim will do, but that a victim has to be selected who is “marginal” — near the boundary between being inside and outside the group — so that the sacrifice has the function of highlighting and strengthening the group’s boundary:

The victim must be neither too familiar to the community nor too foreign to it. This ambiguity is essential to the cathartic functioning of the sacrifice… The marginal categories from which these victims are generally drawn… provide the least unsatisfactory compromise. Situated as they are between the inside and the outside, they can perhaps be said to belong to both the interior and the exterior of the community.

Most recent cases of genocidal collective violence that come to mind have been of this sort: the victims have been a group that occupy roughly the same territory as the perpetrators, who may have been co-citizens (or -subjects) of the same political entity in the recent past, who may have commonly intermarried, and so forth.

By sacrificing the surrogate victim, the community is purified: that pollutant which was ambiguously part of the community is cast out of it, those inside the community reaffirm their belonging by participating in or cheering on the ritual sacrifice, and the community’s border is firmly established in such a way as to keep other pollutants at bay.

If the United States is using the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as varieties of ritual sacrifice, then in order for these surrogate victims to have been appropriately selected, the United States must have been identifying itself and its borders with the world as a whole (so that the people in Iraq and Afghanistan could be considered pollutants within it).

This is not too far-fetched given the rhetoric that accompanied the war, but it is far too ambitious. The United States can never cast all of the enemies it has identified out of the enormous borders it claims, so as to reestablish those borders with the pollutants outside of them.

The next step, then, I fear, will be either to expand the war in the hopes of accomplishing this impossible dream, or, more realistically, to repeat the ritual sacrifice on a less ambitious scale by finding some marginal group that is within the actual borders of the United States — illegal immigrants, drug users, perverts, dissidents, Muslims — and engage in a ritual sacrifice that has some hope of culminating satisfactorily.

I can’t help but wonder also, after Vetlesen’s suggestion that envy — the desire to destroy or defile what is good or admired — is at the root of evildoing, to what extent Americans are striking out against its enemies out of envy. Does America envy the Jihadists for their fundamentalist devotion, as a more forthright and consistent version of the half-hearted religion that so many of them practice? Does America envy the fearless fanaticism of the suicide bombers in comparison to our heavily-armored and green-zoned troops, or the cocky moxie of Saddam on the gallows compared to Dubya’s frightened flight? Are we trying to kill them because we can’t stand that they’re even more stupidly devoted to blowing things up for their ideals than we are?

I repeat that these are just examples of the sort of speculation that ran through my mind as it wandered away while I was trying to keep track of the (often almost as speculative) theoretical framework I was reading about.

In Chapter 5, which I’ll review next, Vetlesen will explore the bystanders — neither victims nor executioners, occasionally collaborators or even rescuers.