Srebrenica: should the soldiers protecting the enclave have died?

Radovan Karadzic is now on trial for his role in the massacre of Srebenica and general Mladic was already convicted before him for aiding and abetting this genocide as the military commander of the Serbs. The question I mainly want to pose here is whether the 450 Dutch troops charged with preventing this should have fought and died.

For those who might not know what this massacre was about: it occurred in the aftermath of the break-up of Yugoslavia, which was located between Italy and Greece on the Adriatic coast. A federation of peoples that had lived together since the second World War then broke apart into its constituent ethnic groups (Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians, Slovenians), initiated by a push from Serbian nationalists for dominance within the former Yugoslavia. Within the increasingly delineated new regions, ethnically based militias and armies were forming. Being the first, the Serbs were by far the stronger side in the Bosnian civil war and they raided, tortured, and raped through whole villages and regions of Bosnian Muslims in the early 1990s. As a reaction to this, the UN decided to declare safe zones within Bosnia where the population would be protected from the militias and armies. Srebrenica was such a safe zone and housed a lot of refugees from surrounding Muslim villages. It was supposedly protected by a battalion of Dutch soldiers and the air power of other NATO allies.

What eventually happened is that the Serbians over-ran the enclave, put the women and children on the bus (after raping many of the women), and captured and executed around 7000 of the Muslim men. The battalion protecting them surrendered without a fight and was shipped back to the Netherlands, awaiting years of parliamentary inquiries and debate.

The 1995 massacre of some 7000 Muslim men in Srebrenica following the take-over by Serbians is a black page in the histories of Bosnia, Serbia, and the Netherlands. It is a black page for Bosnia because of their loss, a black page for Serbians because of their deeds, and a black page for the Netherlands because of their cowardice as it was ‘Dutchbat’ that was primarily charged with the protection of the Muslim population. Instead of doing their duty and defend the population, Dutchbat did not kill a single Serbian soldier and surrendered almost immediately after the Serbians attacked for real, supported by Dutch politicians who wanted to prevent the spectacle of soldiers coming home in body bags.

There has been much soul searching in the Netherlands about the role of Dutchbat. Some have tried to share the shame with other countries by pointing out that the French (and others), for instance, did not provide the air support they were obligated to provide making it a hopeless task for the Dutch to truly defend the enclave. Others point out that the size of the troop contingent and the general strategy for protection were not in the hands of the Dutch, which meant that the utter hopelessness of their situation was not their fault and that their presence hence always should have been understood to be largely symbolic. Yet others say that the Bosnian Serbs made promises not to harm the men and that the Dutch were not to know what would happen later, even though the preceding Serbian territorial conquests in that time involved many instances of mass murders, leading the UN (in resolution 819 and ensuing) to openly voice its fears for the future of the population in Srebrenica.

Importantly, some families of the murdered Bosnian men successfully challenged the Dutch state in the Dutch courts in 2011 to the extent that the Dutch state had legal culpability in the murders of their men since it was their job to protect them.

What should the Dutch have done then on that day in 1995? Given the realities when the Serbs attacked, what else could the Dutch soldiers do but surrender and hope for the best regarding the population they were meant to protect? If you think about it, the real question is whether the honourable thing to do would have been for the Dutch soldiers to indeed come home in body bags.

Consider the case for this obligation: the soldiers in Dutchbat were all volunteers for the mission with the official task of protecting the population. They were also paid a risk premium because they went into a war zone as protectors. The official report into this, which took 7 years to compile, lead to the fall of the 2002 government and basically confirmed that the Dutch had a duty to protect the Muslim population but failed in that duty. What else is that duty but an obligation to do one’s best to protect, even if the likelihood of failure is high? The fact that there were not enough troops merely meant that the Dutch government was making promises of protection not backed up by real actions and in no way negates the duty of the volunteers who still took on the assignment.

So imagine the situation these soldiers and commanders were in: surrounded already for months by vastly superior Serbian troops and hearing many stories of massacres following the occupation of Bosnian villages, you see the Serbian tanks actually coming to the town’s perimeters. You shout for air support which is not forthcoming, partially because you haven’t got sophisticated air targeting systems with you and partially because your supposed allies are not keen. Yes, you volunteered and your politicians have been bragging about how your country is doing its bit for Bosnian Muslims, but you don’t want to die that day. What should you do? Accept a vague promise from your enemies that the people you are supposed to protect will be fine and accept a bus ride out of there or do you start shooting at superior numbers knowing there is a good chance you would not make it alive?

Do volunteering soldiers have an obligation to fight an impossible fight or not? That is what it came down to it. If one says ‘no’ then one is basically saying armies are not there as a form of future deterrence but only there to win. If they cannot win, they should be realistic and accept surrender. If one does believe in deterrence then whether or not one can win is less important than that the soldiers fight and risk their lives when it comes to a crunch. Especially when it is hopeless you then want them to fight. That is what honour and duty is all about. To fight might get them killed, but the enemy will reconsider attacking in a similar situation elsewhere because of the consequences.

Still, on the ground, the Dutch commanders, soldiers and politicians were basically unanimous in choosing surrender without a fight. Indeed, the legal culpability of the Dutch state arose because of the role of the politicians in the surrender. And few back home really disagreed with them afterwards because no-one wanted to openly tell the soldiers they should have died. Even the highly critical 2002 parliamentary report into the massacre refused to take the logical consequence of the mandate taken on and be critical of 450 healthy soldiers returning when 8000 under their protection died.

With 450 deaths Holland would have had 450 heroes: valiant soldiers fulfilling their obligations. The country would have thought twice about joining symbolic missions again and be much more serious about properly arming and preparing its soldiers in future conflicts. But, there would have been 450 grieving families and enormous immediate political fallout almost certain to topple the government. So, the country and particularly the soldiers themselves have had to live with the shame of choosing the easy option. I do sometimes wonder: if they had their time again, would the soldiers prefer to have fought that day?

25 thoughts on “Srebrenica: should the soldiers protecting the enclave have died?

  1. Back to the future. The Dutch resistance in WW2 was similarly full of backbone…

    Still, who would want to make that decision? Not many civilians, probably.

    Soldiers obviously do make these decisions, or they would never go to war. Doubtless, there are many times that our SAS guys are outnumbered, in what looks like a death-trap. They deserve a lot of admiration for courage in the face of regular danger, that the rest of us hope we never have to confront.

    The Dutch soldiers will be left with their consciences, which may not be much fun either. That is part of the problem of compulsory military. Not everyone has the stomach for what it entails.

  2. By the way, in terms of what it takes to topple a Dutch government…

    …not much, from my understanding. Their governments are apparently cobbled together from unstable alliances of minor parties, sometimes with very different agendas. They make the Gillard government look like the Rock of Gibraltar.

    Luckily the Dutch seem to have a pragmatic approach to life (based on 3 years observations working there), which stops government instability from getting too chaotic.

  3. I would not want a family member to die for Afgans or Bosnians or anyone. Nor could I imagine anyone at home safe with the family regretting that they did not die for strangers in a strange country.

  4. I guess you might have asked the same of the guys at Rorke’s Drift. (Er, the battle, not the pub in Darwin). Or perhaps Publius Horatius Cocles at the Sublician Bridge. The question of whether to stand or fight against overwhelming odds is not always, as you point out, a simple military one. In those two examples I gave, the people ‘back home’ would have expected their soldiers to stand and, if necessary, die. If as you suggest that a ‘stand’ at Srebrenice would have led to the fall of the Dutch government, maybe the soldiers were merely reflecting the values of the people sending them there.

    I might also point out in defence of the Dutch soldiers, that they were at the end of a long process whereby the international community would say to the Serbs ‘Don’t cross this line or there will be trouble’. The Serbs would cross the line, and the response of the international community was to say ‘Well, now don’t cross this next line, or there will be trouble’. Repeated to the nth power. Add lots of conferences and self important diplomats shuttling round the world giving concessions and procrastinating. Is it any wonder that the Dutch troops may well have seen all this non-action when atrocities were being undertaken previously, and maybe thinking that if they made a stand they would not be supported…and in fact perhaps even be used as scapegoats? I don’t know what was in the mind of those troops, but firm commitment by the international community to support them is not foremost I suspect. I personally give the Dutch a lot of kudos about having the conversation about whether or not they should have done more. The same conversation has not been held for the rest of the international community which let it get to that point without intervening sooner. I personally believe that earlier intervention by the international community to much lesser atrocities would have left everyone better off. That conversation is politely avoided.

  5. As a practical matter I doubt there would have been 450 body bags if the Dutch had fought. What was called for was honourable resistance, not a fight to the last man. Not even Mladic would have been crazy enough to massacre surrendering NATO soldiers (he would have found himself at The Hague a lot sooner if he did).

    And 800 trained troops should have been able to hold a town for a couple of hours against an undisciplined militia, even one with overwhelming numbers. Especially as once the fight was underway you would think massive air support would be forthcoming.

    Yes, the Dutch commander made the wrong call.

    • A acquaintance was seconded with the British in Bosnia, he told me that the Serbs were often drunk and not much chop when it came to a real fight with opponents that were professional soldiers who shot back. He told me of 3 UK soldiers who came upon about 25 serb irregulars that were using a sawmill for really awful things , all of the serbs died .

  6. emess, DD,

    yes, I agree with all of that. There were many complicating factors and it was not an all or nothing choice. The choice on the ground will have been one of how high a risk they were willing to take. Another complication not yet mentioned is that the soldiers did not feel very popular there. Hard to defend people who don’t like you.

    Pedro,

    it is a matter of degrees and it is obviously important who you are defending, your own people or someone else’s. Still, I find it hard to say that it is ok to reject low risks if you are a volunteer paid to protect others. As I said elsewhere, in the circumstances maybe a 10-20% risk would have been reasonable and like DD I suspect that would have been enough to sway the day.

  7. The right action to take would have been for the Dutch to dig in and fight to the death if necessary. In his book Humanity Jonathan Glover talks about what happens when individuals (or in this case a group) refuse to face a greater evil because of a perceived threat to their own safety. Their refusal to act then places the fabric of their own society under threat.

    It would have taken great courage to face the Serbs at Srebrenica but the Dutch failed. Yet they would have likely prevailed as higher command would have responded with overwhelming fire support and as is well known the Serbs would not endure that. That said the idea that Srebrenica was an easily defendable safe haven is ridiculous – you only have to look at a map of where it was positioned – well within Serb territory.

    All of the political twisting and turning and excuse making that has ensued since the massacre do not excuse the West’s failure at Srebrenica. We were cowards, more interested in talking about what we would do than actually doing anything. Readers might also note that the ethics of the Dutch action at Srebrenica is workshopped at the Australian Command and Staff College on a regular basis. I was part of one workshop and the outcome – that the Dutch did the right thing – was very surprising. I was the lone voice in favour of fighting but notably the only Defence civilian in the room.

    The quality and logic of the debate were exceptional as was the experience of those present (many with combat experience). From a military perspective there was no logic in staying. And it was also pointed out that was I in uniform and in command and had elected to stay and fight; that if I did survive my career would have been finished. I accepted this but would not change my view – it was a moral principal (and human lives) at stake – and that was actually worth dying for if necessary.

    Then again, I am opposed to the withdrawal from Afghanistan as well.

    • that is fascinating. The Srebrenica experience in workshops by the Australian defense with the outcome being that the right thing to do according to our own military is to abandon their duty? And the one guy who says he would fight is told that this would end his career if he lived? Wow. At least they were honest I suppose, but I do wonder what the famous ‘diggers of old’ would have made of such an attitude?

      • complicated story. Their commander sort of surrendered under a vague verbal assurance that the population would not be harmed. Then the Dutch politicians got involved in getting them out of there. And of course it took a few hours between the advancing Serbs and the actual take-over of the town and there will have been lots of communication with many outsiders (including several failed requests at air support). The picture is a bit unclear but from what I can gather everyone involved in the Dutch side (including the government) agreed surrender and inactivity was the right thing to do though the direct decision was taken by the local commanders (formally, the troops were under UN control and not under Dutch government control so they could not order a surrender. The reality was a bit more murky).

        • “pointed out that was I in uniform and in command and had elected to stay and fight……”
          If it was not a case of obeying orders, was it a problem of not having orders? Can either of you elucidate?

        • it is a matter of rules of engagement versus the decision to surrender on behalf of others: according to the rules of engagement at the time, the Dutch had the right to fight though that would have been up to the local commanders to decide. But they also had the option to surrender, again a call primarily made by the local commanders. So there was a real choice. To fight would be within the rules, but to surrender would also be seen as legitimate under military law, at least as I understand it.

        • So the calculation was that by surrender they would prevent the city becoming a ‘Stalingrad tractor factory’ ?

          How much support- air, resupply , and potential reinforcements were nearby at the time?

  8. Belgian and French so called peace keeping forces also chickened out in the mid nineties of last century, during the genocide in Uganda, as with Srebrenica, only at a cost far, far more lives than even Srebrenica.
    Why have troops sent ostensibly to protect the weak when these just stand by as the butchers and rapists go about their work?

    • mainly symbolism I would think. The ‘something must be done’ reflex is very strong. And of course, even if they don’t fight, they are still witnesses and as such probably do have a deterrence effect, particularly when well-organised groups are involved whose commanders can be identified and thus potentially held to account at a later date.

      • That’s an important point to make, Paul – peacekeeping forces that won’t fight can still be useful, both as potential witnesses and because the local warlords can never be quite certain that they won’t fight. Unfortunately at Srbenica this deterrence failed.

        Having read more, I’d concede it wasn’t simple cowardice by the commander on the spot or even by the politicians. It really was a tough call to make even if later events proved it the wrong one.

      • That’s an important point to make, Paul – peacekeeping forces that won’t fight can still be useful, both as potential witnesses and because the local warlords can never be quite certain that they won’t fight. Unfortunately at Srbenica this deterrence failed.

        PS There’s terrific material here for a play or film script here – not the massacre itself, but the dramatic but ambiguous situation facing the commanders, and the surrounding intrigue on all sides..

    • I think you mean Rwanda, and that was after a local Belgian commander was somehow fooled into giving up his squad’s weapons. Nineteen Belgian troops were slaughtered and that was it, Belgium was out of there.

      In the ‘end’ it was the French that deployed troops to stop the killing although if you take into account how their arm-sales to the former Rwandan government helped fuel the conflict there’s a degree of irony. (the conflict has continued through central Africa for much of the past 17 years killing upwards of 6 million people)

      Look also at what Clinton did in Somalia after the Blackhawk Down incident – basically high tailed it which Bin Laden subsequently claimed emboldened Al Quaida. It’s worth reading William Shawcross’s book Deliver Us From Evil – Clinton’s decision is described as turning a minor military failure into a major political one.

      • As Reagan’s similar reaction did after the Beirut bombing.

        But neither was actually a case of ” turning a minor military failure into a major political one”. Rather it was a case of a minor military failure REVEALING an existing major political one. What purpose were those marines serving in Beirut? What were those Rangers doing intervening in a squabble between minor warlords in Mogadishu? Had either President been able to show the American public that there was a realistic prospect of a tangible gain worth the sacrifice then they would have had no cause to fear the political consequences of staying.

        This idea that democracies cannot fight small wars for long is simply wrong framing of the question because it assumes long small wars are worth fighting. The reason democracies leave small wars behind is that the costs of the war are borne by people (ie the common man) in a position to avoid the sunk cost fallacy.

  9. You are correct, PoliticoNT. Rwanda.
    It is certainly true that you have understated the story of Gen.Romeo Dalliere and the UN troops forced to witness the genocide after being denied support from the UN to act on intelligence received before and early during the massacre of 800,000 people. Certainly, as over the previous century, the role of the French and Belgians in central Africa remained as sinister as ever.

  10. Karremans ruled of the beginning his force was not going tho fight. This is not soldiering but giving up before a battle (which he would probably lose). Nevertheless his mission was to protect the people with his soldiers. And yes some or a lot might have killed or wounded, but THAT is soldiering, to protect the weak from the barbaric strong. You failed, and even not TRIED to prevent the atrocities left behind your cowardice.

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