Tag Archives: They Would Never Hurt a Fly

The ordinariness of war criminals

I wonder if the cosmopolitan Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic[h] is heeded in the former Yugoslavia. What she writes in the three collections of conversational essays about the disastrous emergence of new countries from the wreckage of decades of communist despotism seems very acute to me. In Cafe Europa she asserted that to grow up from the dependency mentality inculcated by Tito’s state (and other Stalinist states), the peoples of Eastern Europe must learn to stop treating history as ”a washing machine” in which historical guilt can be laundered and absolved. ”We are falsifying the past, just as the Communists did when they came to power,” she decried.


(Mirko Savković’s portrait of Drakuli)

Responsibility for the atrocities committed by every side in the fission of Yugoslavia fought by the heretofore dominant Serbs (whose sense of entitlement seems to me not unlike that of Sunnis in Iraq) has been taken by practically no one. An exception who particularly surprises Drakulic is the biologist who became the third-highest-rank official in the Republic of Srpska (a particularly murderous Serbian regime north of Bosnia), Biljana Plavsich.

There are also chapters on the Yugoslavian/Serbian president Slodoban Milosovich and his pretentious, beribboned wife Mira, the Serbian (who fled to Russia and avoided trial in the Hague) who was an academic sociologist, and on the fugitive Gen. Ratko Mladich, but most of the chapters in They Would Never Hurt a Fly: War Criminals on Trial in the Hague are reports from the trials for torture and slaughter of those of lower rank, not the ideologists like Biljana Plavsich and Mira Milosovich (or John Woo and Dick Cheney—and Donald Trump’s endorsement of waterboarding and harsher interrogation measures).

How could apparently sane and even quite ordinary people do what they did? The question raised by Nazi functionaries re-emerged in what the Serbs regarded as a war against secession (a definition of the situation explicitly encouraged by the first President Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker) and nationalists of other sorts (than Serbian) regarded as wars for independence (like the American Revolution, rather than the American Civil War). As in stories told by the other cosmopolitan Croatian writer I’ve been reading, Josip Novakovich, the horror is not just the viciousness of the atrocities, but that people who had been living in harmony under the yoke of universalism-proclaiming communism turned on each others with such excesses.

The mass murderers are not psychopaths, but are chillingly able to dissociate what they do from who they are. The “banality of evil” was the theme of Hannah Arendt ‘s Eichman in Jerusalem and Drakulic’s book takes its title from on of the Essays in Understanding that Arendt wrote earlier. :

“When his occupation ‘forces’ him to murder people, he does not regard himself as a murderer, because he has not done it out of inclination, but in his ‘professional’ capacity: out of sheer passion he would never do harm to a fly.” (I have repunctuated Arendt, who did not put “forces” or “professional” in quotes—the “forces” is the view of the torturers/murderers)

That systematic mass rape of Bosnian Muslim women was “no big deal” was the view of the (Serbian) perpetrators, as Drakulic elaborates in her bitterly jocular chapter “Boys Just Had Fun.”

Drakulic begins with crimes committed by Croatians, including the murder of one man who testified about atrocities and stayed in Croatia. He was murdered and his murderer acquitted. The chapter that has the same title as the book is about a Serb who murdered hundreds of prisoners.

Drakulic is very clear that Croatians and others in the former Yugoslavia want to erase the record of what they did to each other, while nursing grievances from the 1940s (and, in the case of Serbs, from the defeat by Turks in 1448). “Why write about the [civil] war?” is a question both Novakovich and Drakulic report being asked frequently. Her answer is that “more than a decade after the beginning of the war in the Balkans, it is essential that we understand that it is we, ordinary people and not some madmen, who made it possible. We were the ones who one day stopped greeting our neighbors of a different nationality, an act that the next day made possible the opening of concentration camps. We did it too one another”—and continues with her leitmotif (across many books) of the lingering collective irresponsibility of Croatians and others who grew up in communist dictatorships. The people of Croatia elected Franjo Tudjman twice, the people of Serbia twice elected Slodoban Milosovich, and she asks, “If Germans were responsible for supporting Hitler [who was not elected by the majority in a free election], why should not Serbs be responsible for supporting Milosovich and Croats for supporting Tudjman? Neither of them could have survived in power without the support of the people.” Moreover, denying that the people who re-elected Tudjman and Milosovich “didn’t know” (as many Germans claimed in regard to Nazi death camps) is impossible (not merely straining plausibility as in the Nazi case):


(Milosovich in 1995)

In voting for Milosovich or Tudjman people voted for the politics of ethnic cleansing. Could they claim, like the Germans, that they did not know? Both Croatia and Serbia are too small to use that as an argument. In the five years of war, too many people were directly involved in the ethnic cleansing [if only in appropriate property from neighbors who had fled or been otherwise eliminated] to be able to seriously claim that they did not know. They did know, and they went along with it, or at least they did not care about it…. it is necessary to learn that you had a choice—and that you made the wrong one….The trials of war criminals are important not only because of those killed. They are important also because of the living. In the end, what matters in regard to war criminals and why we should bother to take a closer look at them is one single important question: what would I do in their situation?

The book has a macabre epilogue in which the prisoners who are there for organizing the slaughter of those of different nationalities, get along fine, cook for each other, eat together, talk to each other, etc..

I wish that the question about what any of us would do within a war in which combatants don’t wear uniforms was without relevance here and now, only a historical curiosity, but “civil wars” are raging in multiple locations at present, including some in which US soldiers in uniform and mercenaries (Blackwell) are involved…


©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray