Kosovo - Instant history

Kosovo: War and Revenge

Tim Judah<em> Yale University Press, 288pp, £12.95</em>

ISBN 0300083548

A year on from the Kosovo war, it is difficult to feel anything but ever-deepening gloom about the results. Even those of us who endorsed Nato's declared aims - who believed that international action to stop Slobodan Milosevic was both necessary and morally right - tend to be upset about the means used, and depressed about the lasting consequences.

Grim revelations on the conduct of Nato's air war proliferate: gross political and military miscalculation, stories of spies in high places, bungled plots to kill Milosevic, and strong suspicion that incidents such as the bombing of Chinese targets were not tragic accidents but entirely deliberate. Allied strategic thinking proves to have been in thrall to a depressingly familiar military techno-fetishism: belief that superior (but largely untested and, as it turned out, often unreliable) mass-destruction hardware would achieve bloodless victories. The news media have gradually and bitterly come to feel that they were more misled by officials than in any other modern conflict. Serb massacres of Kosovar civilians, though widespread and vile, turn out to have fallen far short of the genocide that was alleged. Above all, it has become ever clearer that Nato was blithely, disastrously confident until after the last minute that Milosevic would back down.

In Kosovo itself, revenge murders (by both sides), rampant crime and corruption and small-scale ethnic cleansing continue almost unchecked. The Nato peacekeepers are floundering; they are increasingly confused about their role, and some of them are allegedly becoming sucked into the lawlessness and violent retaliation that they're supposed to be there to prevent. Ever more observers are recognising the Kosovar Albanians - and especially the Kosovo Liberation Army - as having been the main villains of the piece all along. Older racist stereotypes of Albanians as Islamic fanatics and inherently lawless have been revived. The economic collapse and chaos of both Kosovo and Albania have spawned a thriving underworld which provides ready ammunition for such claims.

In Serbia, as economic conditions deteriorate and violence spirals from the murky world where gangland and politics meet, some observers are predicting civil war. Tim Judah's Kosovo can only serve to deepen the current mood of desolation and delayed anger. Judah has been watching events in the former Yugoslavia for a decade - sometimes from the firing lines, sometimes from Belgrade or other Balkan capitals, sometimes further afield. His previous book, The Serbs, though far from uncritical, offered unusually empathetic understanding of the fears and furies that have driven Serbian actions since 1990. Kosovo, conversely, gives a harsh picture of the political and military leadership of the Kosovars. The story that Judah tells of the KLA's origins and emergence is grisly. It grew from a milieu where the wilder reaches of Marxism- Leninism mingled with the seamier depths of gangsterism. Initially, the KLA commanded little support - and it was condemned as a "terrorist organisation" by western diplomats who were soon to be its allies. However, through its own intimidation of rivals and waverers, and because of the blind savagery of the Serb response to its first attacks, support for the KLA grew. Some commentators have suggested that the KLA deliberately provoked the Serb backlash that drew Nato into the conflict.

Judah is much better informed than most reporters about what was happening on the ground among Kosovars and in Serbian politics. He offers a detailed picture of the superpower manoeuvrings, the negotiations at Rambouillet and elsewhere, the progress of Nato's planning (although, on the latter, still more recent material has superseded his research and modified parts of his picture). His conclusion is simple and bleak: everyone fouled up; nobody predicted what would happen, or effectively planned for it. Nor has anyone had anything very sensible to say since the war ended. Judah is scornful of the "people in faraway think-tanks, paid to write about the 'lessons' of things", who pontificate about what we should learn from Kosovo. Equally, he sneers at unidentified hordes of "partisan writers" who supposedly think that they know all the answers. All this amounts to a sweeping and rather arrogant dismissal of almost everyone who has written about the conflict except Judah himself; but Judah actually relies quite heavily on other sources, such as an historical background written by Noel Malcolm. Judah's derisive, superior tone towards other writers in the field leaves a somewhat sour taste, marring an otherwise hugely impressive work of instant history.

Stephen Howe's book, Ireland and Empire: colonial legacies in Irish history and culture, is published by OUP in April