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The Dutch at Srebrenica

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This is a story I did not know.  It came up in the Bourgeois Virtues book, and I’ve been walking around it ever since.

On July 15, 1995, a Dutch force under the command of the United Nations handed over 8,000 Muslim men and boys to the Bosnian Serbs–without firing a shot.  They did this even though the Dutch forces were where they were to prevent just this sort of thing.  And, when it was over, the resulting inquiry found that they did it because their commander did not want to incur any Dutch casualties, which would have been inevitable if the Dutch forces had resisted the Serb demands.

Okay, I know, you all probably knew all about this.  All I can say is that in 1995 Bill was sick and I had a child under the age of 2 in the house.  I wasn’t paying attention.

But what actually struck me about this story isn’t something I would have known about if I’d been paying attention to the news at the time, and that I might never have heard about except in the way that I did, by chance.

In the aftermath of the massacre–and there was a massacre, of those 8000 men and boys plus some women and some children and infants in arms; the largest massacre in Europe since WWII–the Dutch army and a vast majority of the Dutch people were not only not ashamed of themselves, but positively vociferous in their insistance that it wasn’t their fault.

It was the fault of the Canadians, who had had control of Srebrenica for a couple of years, but had pulled out to let the Dutch move in.

It was the fault of the French, who had failed to provide air cover.

The Dutch commander had done the right thing, because he knew that if he opened fire some of his men would be killed, but he had the word of the Serb commander that none of the men and boys would be killed, they would just be examined to find the ones among them who were war criminals. 

Since the Dutch commander knew that he could get some of his forces killed by resisting, and he couldn’t know that the Serbs would slaughter all those 8,000 people, he’d done the right thing.

Now, there are a few obvious things I could say here.  The Serbs were not known for their honesty, and they’d been carrying out “ethnic cleansing” raids all over the area for years.  Anybody who’d thought about it for thirty seconds could have figured out what the Serbs were going to do.

This was especially the case since the UN forces were in Bosnia to begin with precisely because of the possibility of precisely this kind of thing. 

The attitude of the Dutch commander seems to have been that the worst possible scenario was not a genocide of the Bosnian Muslims, but any harm at all to Dutch forces, who were–what?  Armies sustain casualties in war.  If this army wasn’t supposed to sustain any casualities, maybe it wasn’t actually an army?

The first thing I thought of was that, if this army had been commanded by an American, a number of things would have happened that didn’t happen in the event.

First, the entire world would be outraged.

Second, the American people would have been outraged, the commander would have been court martialed, and the term “heads will roll” would not have been metaphorical.

But, you know, let’s get past that for a minute.

What really gets me here is this:  I’ve talked a lot on this blog about how we all live inside narratives.  I’ve always felt that we have to live inside narratives in order to live at all.   We tell ourselves stories to explain ourselves to ourselves.

From this side of the Atlantic, the contemporary European narrative seems to be:  we’re the ones who will stop the genocide forever.  We had it in WWII, and as a result, we’ve built the first truly anti-racist society on earth.  We’re better than the Americans and the Russians and the Chinese because of it.

What strikes me about the actual events and their aftermath in Srebrenica is that there doesn’t seem to be any narrative at all in it.  There’s no story there, just the kind of sullen, self-righteous excuses  you get when you catch a petty thief shoplifting pantyhose.

There’s no there there, as Gertrude Stein said.  There’s no shape.  There’s no arc.  There’s nothing. 

I spent a couple of hours yesterday evening looking around with Google, trying to see if the Dutch had ever come up with a cohesive narrative for this, but they seem not to have. 

I kept wondering if I looked long enough if I would find a kind of metanarrative for pacifism–some story that would justify the idea that no matter what the consequences to other people, it is important for you to make sure your own are not in danger of any harm.

It can’t be impossible to come up with such a narrative, or another narrative that would explain away the same facts.  The Germans have managed to come up with two or three to encapsulate Naziism.

It doesn’t even have to be true.  As far as I can figure out, the French managed to invent a brave resistance movement nearly out of whole cloth, and to place in it men and women who were seen to collaborate during the occupation–and nobody has ever really and definitively called them on it. 

The lack of a narrative–the seeming lack of a need for a narrative–I find really astonishing.  It seems to me to speak to something very deep rooted, a conviction that self preservation is all that matters and that everybody must feel that way, that there is no other way to feel, that everybody really feels that way, and ought to, and lies when they say they feel differently.

That it is wrong to feel differently.

I’m probably blithering here.

But for years I’ve heard that the US went into Bosnia and did what they UN did not, and now I know what all that is about.

And I must admit, I’m feeling very glad to know that we did, in fact, think differently.

Because that thing–that lack of a need for a narrative to explain what should have been an obvious horror–that seems scarier to me than Fascism and Communism put together.

I’ve got work to do.

Written by janeh

July 12th, 2011 at 7:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

13 Responses to 'The Dutch at Srebrenica'

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  1. Well, I vaguely knew that the NATO forces had abandoned a lot of men and boys to be massacred; it was right up there with the Rwandan business in horror, but I didn’t know the details. That situation was all so confusing that I tended to get the ethinicities and factions mixed up. But that there had been a massacre, sure, and that little or nothing (except maybe talk) had been done to prevent it, I knew that. Of course, I didn’t have a sick husband and small child to absorb my attention at the time.

    I suspect that if there is a narrative, you’d need to read Dutch to find it, because they’d be the ones to create it and use it, and the outside world isn’t much interested in the internal workings of small countries.

    What happened was not pacifism, though. Pacifism is not fighting because violence is wrong, it`s not not fighting because we might get hurt and it`s better if someone else does.

    There was probably a lack of political will – obviously the commander either didn`t expect support from his superiors to get his men killed or did expect he`d end up his career running the Dutch equivalent of Camp Permafrost if any of his men stubbed a toe following his commands.

    The bit about everyone feeling the way you do is pretty well universal. I think it`s innate, and although most of us, with age and experience, do manage to realize, intellectually at least, that people do feel differently. Hence all the wives who get power tools for Christmas presents and the passionate political or religious convictions that are dismissed because after, all, everyone thinks the way I do about things, and therefore no one believes in Marxism or Atheism or Christianity or Republicanism.

    If I had to come up with a narrative, I`d suggest a combination of ‘No distant people are worth the deaths of one of ours’ and ‘We, being decent people, treat others as we expect to be treated, and therefor we can’t insult proud representative of a noble people by acting as though they’re lying through their teeth.’

    It also seems to me that the much vaunted International Courts which are supposed to reduce the evils of war by bringing to justice the perpetrators are very limited and particular in which perpetrators they go after. I’m not at all sure that criminal courts – especially those in distant lands – are an appropriate way to deal with wartime atrocities, even if it did seem fair when I read about Nuremburg. Which was, of course, not half a world away, and not limited to one or two nominal figure.


    12 Jul 11 at 8:03 am

  2. This might seem a bit like being wise after the event, and perhaps it is to some extent, but way back in the early 1970s, I was riding up to the Officers’ Mess with my CO and my immediate boss for lunch. We were chatting about the then recent announcement (made the previous day, IIRC) that the Dutch army had just relaxed its grooming codes so that henceforth its soldiers could wear beards and long hair which was the then latest fashion for young men in western civilian life.

    At that time, at the direction of the high command, we officers at the coal face in the RAAF (and the other services) had been fighting a longish guerrilla war against those fashions, and not exactly winning. The pressure on and from the young guys to crack the traditional short back and sides and, except for a tightly regulated moustache, clean-shaven grooming standards was intense. So when the Dutch announcement became common knowledge, the pressure intensified dramatically.

    In the end, some minor concessions were made to appease the monster in case it came to have an adverse affect on recruitment and retention, and the thing blew over in a bit. But what has stuck in my mind since hearing about the later capitulation of the Dutch in Srbrenica were the words of my WWII veteran CO talking about the Dutch decision who simply said words to the effect: “Why should we even think of following the Dutch in this or any other military matter? Their army is not exactly famous for its military prowess, and this sort of thing is probably why.”

    While I am certain that our current generation of Australian politicians of all political shades could cut and run from a Srbrenica-type situation without a backward glance, I think our soldiers would sooner stand and fight as they demonstrated in East Timor not so many years ago when the Indonesian Army-backed militias tried to force them to abandon the East Timorese to their tender mercies.

    The Dutch displayed craven cowardice in the face of what was almost certainly a huge bluff. I very much doubt if the Serbs would have attacked the Dutch at all, because not even the digustingly corrupt and spineless UN could have ignored such an event, and the retribution would have been swift and sure.

    The shame of it all is that, these days, a very large minority of civilians in the English-speaking world, if not a majority, would see nothing at all wrong with what they did.


    12 Jul 11 at 9:30 am

  3. The impression I have is that the Dutch military isn’t really military. I base this on not much at all, but I know a Dutch man who served in the Dutch Navy for four years and the only time he set foot on a ship was to have his picture taken.

    I don’t know how you get from the fighting in WWII to standing on the sidelines watching a massacre, or how you go from being a Naval power to being a 4-year office job for boys right out of college, but that seems, on the basis of my few anecdotes, to be the case.

    Someone can now come along and tell me why I’m all wrong. Honestly, I hope they do.


    12 Jul 11 at 10:24 am

  4. Well, there’s a long tradition of even mighty sea powers having naval officers who never go to sea – Gilbert and Sullivan wrote about it.

    I can see all too easily how lack of support back home or outright fear of being massacred themselves could lead to standing back and letting a massacre happen, though. After all, they didn’t actually see the massacre; they weren’t told what would happen.

    It’s not that unusual for people to hear screams for help and tell themselves similar things.


    12 Jul 11 at 12:37 pm

  5. Let’s be clear here. Were the Dutch part of the U.N. forces, as Jane said, or were they NATO forces, like Cheryl said?
    There is a vast difference between the two. The guards at the gates of U.N. building in Vienna are “armed” with pistols. I use quotation marks because the guards are fired if they so much as unholster their pistols while on duty, and the pistols aren’t actually loaded in any case. My source, who was a former U.S. Marine and one of those “armed” guards also told me that U.N. peace keeping forces around the world operate under similar restrictions.
    So if the Dutch were there as U.N. Peacekeepers, then they were probably operating under very restrictive (= totally ridiculous) rules of engagement.
    If, however, the Dutch were there as NATO troops, then they would have been operating under completely different rules of engagement.


    12 Jul 11 at 1:25 pm

  6. They were UN troops, my mistake.


    12 Jul 11 at 1:43 pm

  7. OK, the Dutch haven’t had a good day in land warfare since Malplaquet, but let’s not let everyone else off the hook.
    Not long before the Srebenica business, we’d put immense pressure on the mision commander in Rwanda not to call what was happening there “genocide” because then we’d have to do something about it. Around then, we decided it really wasn’t worthwhile seeing the food we sent to starving Somalis would actually reach them after losing 20 men in Mogadishu. While the Serbs were rampaging through Bosnia, we told them not to, and when we were ignored, the United Stats Air Force dropped–one bomb. (I brought the news of that one to some of the Army staff. There was a moment of silence, and then one lieutenant asked “Didn’t Napoleon say something about never doing your enemy a SMALL injury?”) Even in the later Kosovo intervention, orders were to stay so high–to avoid ANY US losses, that we killed unnecessary numbers of Serbs–possibly in the thousands. And let’s not forget being warned off Haiti.

    A couple of years ago, a small boat manned by the Royal Navy was captured without a shot being fired in the Persian Gulf. When the crew appeared–with goodie bags–on Iranian TV, the senior officer explained that “if we’d fought, we wouldn’t all be here today.” Indeed.

    This is a major reason why I don’t think the present system has much longer to go. As the “opinion makers” of the West currently see things, nothing can be worth one’s life–which means our only defenders are those who don’t buy into the current narrative. The opinion makers also talk about “sustainability.” This is not sustainable.


    12 Jul 11 at 3:36 pm

  8. Charlou makes a good point. Given the rapid communication available in 1995, I would doubt that the Dutch commander made the decision on his own. What was the chain of command? Was the decision actually made by the military or the Dutch government or some other civilian politician?


    12 Jul 11 at 3:38 pm

  9. Robert’s last comment reminds me of Australia. It had 7 million people in 1940. Here is what happened in World War 2.

    Over 993,000 Australians served in the armed forces during World War II. Of those on active service, 27,073 were killed in action or died, 23,477 were wounded, and 30,560 were taken prisoner of war. Of those taken prisoner, 8296 died in captivity.

    We’ve been in Afghanistan for 10 years and have had 28 soldiers killed. Every time one is killed, the media goes into hysterics about intolerable losses.

    DOesn’t anyone remember that people die in war?


    12 Jul 11 at 6:37 pm

  10. By contrast, let’s look at the number of people killed each year in auto accidents…
    Or the number of people killed by drunken drivers each year…
    Or the number of people killed by smoking each year…
    Or the number of firefighters killed each year…
    Or the number of infants and small children killed by child abuse each year…
    Or the number of women killed by their husbands, boy friends, and other “men who love them” each year…

    Where is the outrage?


    12 Jul 11 at 6:59 pm

  11. Well, to be fair, John was comparing the response to casualties in war at two different points in time, not every possible tragedy. And he’s got a point – now, it’s possible to identify and mourn every individual casualty in a way you couldn’t when they were dying by the hundreds (or more!) in a single day and not enough was found for some of them to provide an identification. I’m sure that feeds into the ‘We’ll go to war, but we won’t let any voter get killed’ idea. And people still want to go to war for all kinds of reasons – protecting important resources, replacing an unfriendly or brutal government with a better one, preventing mass murder…. The powers that be don’t seem to realize that if you want to do any of these effectively, people on your side, voters, adult children of voters, are going to die.

    And I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty well burned out, no pun intended, by all the outrage expressed about almost everything on your list. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone expressing outrage at the idea that firefighters die on duty. Grief, yes, but not outrage. All the others…oh, I’m just becoming an old cynic, and I’d really like, for example, MADD to admit that there are certain drunk drivers no one and nothing are going to stop, unless they’re imprisoned (BEFORE they kill???) and no amount of giving criminal records to non-alcoholic drivers with minimal BACs is going to improve matters much.

    And what about a bit more caution regarding child abuse accusations and the limits of scientific knowledge? We’ve had children murdered after being returned to brutal homes while in other cases parents spent years in prison because the pathologist who worked on their dead child’s case was wrong. I don’t think they can distinguish yet between SIDS and murder by smothering in a very young infant.

    I could go on, but I’ll just summarize my point: I don’t think we’re suffering from a lack of outrage in modern society. If anything, there’s too much, and it gets in the way of clear thinking.


    12 Jul 11 at 7:33 pm

  12. Actually, the firefighter thing should cause outrage because the death rate for firefighters in the U.S. is way above the rate in other countries. Why? Because the firefighters here are taught that they have to fight the fires more aggressively than the firefighters do in Europe (and maybe in Australia, who knows). I’m not talking about saving people trapped in burning buildings, I’m talking about trading firefighters’ lives to save property, even in many cases where arson was involved.

    But you’re right. Outrage has exceeded the toleration limits for most of us. Not because we have felt outraged too often or too much, but because we all (at least those of us over a certain age) have discovered that outrage–even great outrage–changes nothing.

    The only example I can think of where outrage has had an effect were the protests that ended the Vietnam War. And now we’re bogged down in a war in Iraq, which means that governments never learn, surprise, surprise.

    If anyone can think of other occasions where outrage has had a permanent effect for the good, I’d like to hear about it/them. I need a bit of hope in this dismal world.


    12 Jul 11 at 8:21 pm

  13. “I could go on, but I’ll just summarize my point: I don’t think we’re suffering from a lack of outrage in modern society. If anything, there’s too much, and it gets in the way of clear thinking.”

    Exactly. And the neo-tribalism, for want of a better term, that seems to pervade all of our western political systems has led to, or perhaps is the result of, the unwillingness of our political, cultural and intellectual elites to tolerate, let alone listen to, views that challenge their received wisdoms.

    One of the nice things about old age is that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I know that in a relatively short time I will not have to live with what seems to me to be more than likely: the imminent total breakdown of our western civilisation.


    12 Jul 11 at 9:50 pm

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