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Understanding Yugoslavia's Killing Fields

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Since Yugoslavia disintegrated in violence 3 years ago, observers have struggled to understand why the Yugoslav conflict has been so brutal and has involved such extensive violence against civilian populations. For many commentators, it was sufficient to refer to historic ethnic rivalries in the Balkans, attributing Serbian ethnic cleansing campaigns to age-old enmities that resurfaced with communisms collapse. Evoking history, however, does not explain why this war has surpassed previous Yugoslav internal conflicts in terms of casualties among noncombatants, numbers of displaced people and refugees, and wanton destruction of cultural monuments. In addition, focusing on the past tends to discount the responsibility for the conduct of the war of current political leaders. Based on Claus von Clausewitzs seminal study of war, it seems more likely that the main reasons for this particular conflicts brutality can be found by examining the decisions made on political ends and military means by leaders of the former Yugoslavia before and during the conflagration. The most critical role belongs to the Serbian leadership, given Belgrades inheritance of the bulk of the Yugoslav National Army and its resulting commanding military position vis-a-vis the other former Yugoslav republics. To pin down the principal reasons for the violence directed against noncombatants in the former Yugoslavia, this essay analyzes the three phases of war in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia from the perspective of Serbian strategy, drawing on Clausewitzs insights on the nature of war and its relationship to policy and strategy. The essay concludes that the key factor behind the violence directed against noncombatants is found in Serbian President Milosevics decision to pursue extreme ends with limited military means. This strategic miscalculation caused Milosevic gradually to lose control over Serbian policy and drove the Yugoslav conflict toward Clausewitzs vision of absolute war.

Subject Categories:

  • Government and Political Science
  • Sociology and Law
  • Unconventional Warfare

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