Blind vision

Fighting for Peace

General Sir Michael Rose <em>Harvill Press, 256pp, £18</em>

There was shelling in Sarajevo as General Sir Michael Rose arrived to begin his stint a commander of the UNPROFOR forces in Bosnia in January 1994. It was the Bosnian army, bombarding Serb positions up on the hills. What, General Rose wanted to know, was going on? Victor Andreev, the Russian UN adviser, told him: "There was no such thing in the eyes of the Bosnian government, he explained, as a purely military action. There was only political action. They always greeted new arrivals to Sarajevo in this way, and the Serbs always responded in kind with artillery fire on the city. Visitors were thus given a practical demonstration of the aggression being committed against the state of Bosnia. In this way, the Bosnian government hoped to persuade the west to become involved in the war on their side."

This is Michael Rose's view of the war pretty much in a mortar shell. For him, the real villains were the Bosnian government, who wilfully persisted in prolonging the conflict by not accepting such peace deals as were offered them. Their object was to persuade gullible westerners that this was a war of a "victim state" against an aggressor. General Rose was exasperated by the extent to which they succeeded. Fighting for Peace, covering his year in Bosnia, is full of instances of the inability of wrong-headed individuals, Americans or journalists, to understand the conflict as he did. One example he cites is of a woman from the US embassy who blamed the destruction of Mostar on "the criminal Serbs". When she was told that this was the work of Croatian forces, "she burst into tears".

So it was chiefly idiots like these, his argument goes, who bought the notion that there was any moral distinction between the aims of the Bosnian side and its enemies. General Rose concedes, once, that he has nothing against the idea of a unitary, multi-ethnic state, but then dismisses the idea as hopelessly impracticable. One does not particularly expect a British general and SAS man to have any real understanding of the political nature of the war, of why it was that the Yugoslav Federation fragmented, of the unique nature of Islam in Bosnia, or of the history of the country - and he doesn't. What one is entitled to expect, however, is that the man might have some knowledge of what had happened less than two years before he arrived in Bosnia, which determined the context within which the war was being fought. But he gives no indication that he genuinely understood why and how it was that 70 per cent of Bosnia came to be under the control of Radovan Karadzic's regime after the referendum which approved Bosnian independence.

The capture of this territory by the Serbs in the first few months of the war was accomplished by the use of organised military and paramilitary force, with the indispensable help of the Yugoslav army, against a largely unarmed people. The project of ethnic partition in eastern and north-western Bosnia was brought about by systematic torture, murder and rape in detention camps like Omarska, the bombardment of unarmed villages, and straightforward dispossession and expulsion. And the Serb Republic thus established cut right across the historic borders of Bosnia and bore no relation to the ethnic disposition of its peoples. So very far from being auto-genocide, arranged for the benefit of the western media, ethnic cleansing happened to be well away from the view of outsiders, until Penny Marshall of ITN obtained access to the detention camps of north-west Bosnia later in 1992.

The obsessive focus by General Rose and most journalists on the situation in Sarajevo obscures the truth, which is that the real horrors happened outside the capital. (Still, within Sarajevo, 10,000 people were killed in shelling: the notion that most of it was provoked by the Bosnian army is simply bizarre.) It is likely that had General Rose been in Bosnia at the start of the conflict, his views about the victim state would have been different; he is not a callous or inhumane man.

There is truth in his account. No one with any experience in Bosnia will quarrel with his estimate of most Bosnian politicians as deeply, eye-wateringly corrupt. Indeed, he probably underestimates the extent to which aid was diverted to the black market. Indubitably, the Croatian government was directly involved in the Croat-Muslim war, whereby secessionist Croats sought to dismember what remained of Bosnia-Hercegovina. Certainly there were atrocities committed by the Bosnian side; they were, however, random, not systematic, and demonstrably insignificant in scale by comparison with those of its enemies.

But the Bosnian government was morally entitled to reject ethnic partition and the UN's arms embargo, which consolidated the Serbian advantage of possessing the heavy weaponry of the Yugoslav army. The UN, in distributing aid, may have helped with the symptoms of war, but the arms embargo was a form of outside intervention which handicapped the Bosnian army in any attempt to reverse ethnic cleansing. For General Rose, however, the failure of the Bosnian government to accept peace on any terms simply demonstrated its callousness towards its people.

When the Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic, said goodbye to Michael Rose at the end of his year's stint, he quietly remarked that he was a good general but a bad politician. This book shows at length just how right he was.

This article first appeared in the 11 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Plato rules, OK?