Ratko Mladić: Haematological Narratives of Violence
May 27, 2011 1 Comment
Alex Jeffrey of Newcastle University writes about the recent arrest of Ratko Mladić. Alex had a piece in Society and Space in 2009 entitled “Justice incomplete: Radovan Karađžic, the ICTY and the spaces of international law“, which we have made open access to link to this piece.
Ratko Mladić: Haematological Narratives of Violence
Car horns hoot along Maršala Tita, the central road through the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, a muted celebration for the arrest of Ratko Mladić in the northern Serbian village of Lazerevo on May 26th 2011. Mladić has been indicted since July 1995 (amended later in 1995 and in 2002) by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on counts of genocide, complicity with genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of war, crimes that in part relate to the siege of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1995 and the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995. The arrest granted licence to media commentators to indulge in many of the spatial and temporal narratives that enframed the violence of in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Perhaps most noticeably, newspaper headline writers were quick to brand Mladić ‘The Butcher of Bosnia’, while The New York Times (2011) remarked that his arrest “should be a warning to other butchers that they, too, will be caught and held to account.” This sloganeering should not be dismissed as incidental, since it illuminates a set of haematological narratives that seek to offer visions of violence and redemption in the former Yugoslavia. Ideas of blood, blood-lust and circulation have been used to support specific geopolitical agendas within this region, and rather than reproducing these we must uncover the forms of accountability and resolution they endorse.
Perhaps the most enduring haematological narrative is the primacy of ethnicity in explanations of the violence enacted in the fragmentation of Yugoslavia. As scholars such as Gerard Toal and Carl Dahlman (2011) have consistently argued, the wars in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia (noticeably not Kosovo) were originally branded as a consequence of blood ties: the argument by certain leaders both within and beyond the borders of Yugoslavia that different ethnic groups were so disposed to violence that the fragmentation of the state between 1992 and 1995 was a natural and inevitable process. This scripting saw antagonism as an inevitable consequence of the blood circulating within and between individual bodies. Of course, critical scholars of international relations and geopolitics have been resolute in their dismissal of this one-eyed form of social Darwinist reasoning. The spatial consequences of ethnic arguments are explained by David Campbell (1998), who notes that nationalist leaders sought to stabilise their ephemeral politics of ethnicity by fixing it to territory. The circulation of blood comes to a halt as it meets the imagined stability of soil.
But the label of the ‘butcher of Bosnia’ challenges a simple ethnic explanation. Such media accounts reflect an imaginary of Mladić carving a carcass, a bloody and difficult exercise to transgress the ‘natural’ body form of the Bosnian state. This approach places the violence beyond a simple ‘ethnic’ explanation and instead individualises blame on a single individual. In doing so administrative and military infrastructures are erased, as are the forms of economic and political patronage through which they are sustained. Thus the spectacle of Mladić’s violence surpasses the forms of circulation and infrastructure within which his actions are embedded. Such accounts conform to an established narrative of war crime as the activity of detached psychopaths acting against nature. This imagery is reminiscent of the arrest of Radovan Karadzic in 2008, who Richard Holbrooke was quick to label a ‘monster’ (see Jeffrey, 2009) despite his diplomatic dealings with Karadzic in the 1990s. Both ‘butcher’ and ‘monster’ deny the banality of evil, a term used by Hannah Arendt (1992 ) to illuminate the ways in which processes of bureaucratic detachment produced the conditions for Nazi war crimes.
While butchery is suggestive of certain forms of political and social detachment, it simultaneously evokes a sense of corporeal attachment. Specifically, the concept foregrounds the bloody nature of the violence itself. The description of Mladić sets to frame the combat in Bosnia as a form of blood-soaked and intimate engagement, acts of savagery as human bodies face arm-to-arm combat. This set of imaginaries serves a political purpose, since it separates the violence in Bosnia (and its perpetrators) from the imagined precision of military interventions enacted by NATO or coalitions of Western powers. For example, on the same day of Mladić’s arrest (26th May) the UK Government announced the deployment of Apache attack helicopters to support NATO action in Libya, a move that was justified by the Liberal Democrat armed forces minister Nick Harvey on account of the improved ‘precision’ of such weaponry. In contrast to the corporeal excess of the butcher, the use of aerial military technologies places commanders at an imagined distance from the bloody destruction of bodies (Williams, 2011). Where the butcher uses their hands, the precision fighter mediates their violence through technological and military infrastructures.
The haematological narratives that encircle Mladić’s actions and arrest have political consequences which unfold at a range of spatial scales. First, the arrest of Mladić has been a necessary step towards Serbia’s accession to the European Union, since compliance with the ICTY is a condition of the Stabilisation and Accession Agreement between the EU and Serbia in 2007. Since becoming President of Serbia in 2008 Boris Tadić has sought to reform the country’s Security and Information Agency (Bezbednosno-informativna agencija), in doing so prioritizing Mladić’s arrest. Reacting to the news on the day Mladić was taken into custody, Tadić presented the episode as harbouring geopolitical portent, suggesting “a difficult period of our history is over and Serbia’s reputation is no longer tarnished.” As with the ‘butcher of Bosnia’ label, this grand claim individualises responsibility for the violence and detaches this from wider political and social contexts. As I’ve argued elsewhere (Jeffrey, forthcoming), the process of individualising blame is itself a consequence of the reliance on legal instruments and institutions to address the outcome of war.
Haematological narratives also have regional consequences. In addition to an imagined transformation in Serb state sovereignty, the arrangements for Mladić’s trial at The Hague further underscore the frailty of attempts to establish domestic war crimes tribunals. The ‘Butcher of Bosnia’ label infers a style of violence grounded in a specific state: Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2005 the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina established a War Crimes Chamber (WCC) both as a means of establishing a state arbiter of war crime and as a step towards the completion mandate of the ICTY. Transferring Mladić to the WCC would be a vital step in building the legitimacy of this institution while also strengthening the sovereignty of the Bosnian state. The WCC is a rarity in that it is a functioning state level institution in a highly decentralised and fragmented state. Where the Dayton Agreement endorsed the politics of Mladić’s violence, the WCC can offer an alternative vision. When conducting research into this institution in Mostar in late 2009 one NGO worker remarked that the biggest barrier to political and social progress in Bosnia was the lack of extradition arrangements between the former Yugoslav states, since those indicted by the WCC could seek refuge in neighbouring countries. The imaginaries of butchery and blood-lust set the violence apart and trial at the Hague allow this separation to be reproduced. One small measure to challenge this would be to extradite Mladić to the place where his crimes took place, a move that would only strengthen the fledgling political and social debate about the past in Bosnia.
Arendt, H. (1992 ) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. London: Penguin Books.
Campbell, D. (1998) National Deconstruction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Jeffrey A. (2009) Justice incomplete: Radovan Karađžic, the ICTY and the spaces of international law. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 27(3), 387-402
Jeffrey A. (forthcoming) The Political Geographies of Transitional Justice. Transactions of The Institute of British Geographers
The New York Times (2011) The End of the Line, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/27/opinion/27fri4.html?ref=europe [accessed 27/05/11]
Toal, G. And Dahlman, C. (2011) Bosnia Remade. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Williams AJ. (2011) Reconceptualising spaces of the air: performing the multiple spatialities of UK military airspaces. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 36(2), 253–267.