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. Put in economic terms: is a pre-commitment to fight and fulfill ones duty, even when the odds to win are impossible, a desirable trait in our military?

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?

8 Responses to Srebrenica: should the soldiers protecting the enclave have died?

  1. “if they had their time again, would the soldiers prefer to have fought that day”

    No. If there is not difference to the outcome, apart from their own deaths, then it is possible the most stupid thing to do. Surely there are media people asking them this sort of stuff. A force (with tanks?) that captures, say 15,000people, then executes 7000 men, is unlikely to be held off by 450 guys with pistols (machine guns, whatever).

    “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.”

    Not sure. Ask the German soldiers about this. There has been quite a philosophical change there and AFAIK, soldiers are obliged to disobey orders that are ‘immoral’ (look it up. I can’t recall all the details).

    I think there is another point here. Armies that can win are a deterrence. Those that can’t are not a deterrent. No wonder we get arms races. A military force that cannot win, even if it goes down fighting, is almost as good as none at all. Do you really think that if those 450 Dutch soldiers were killed that it would have been any sort of deterrent?

    At most, these under-armed forces are a symbolic act to maintain allies who can actually win.

  2. mattkwan says:

    Bit of a false dichotomy here – all soldiers live vs all soldiers die. In practice, once they came under fire NATO air support might have got their act together. Or they could have surrendered later, after taking limited casualties.

  3. Tony Healy says:

    The culpable parties are really the non-military advisers and politicians who committed an infantry battalion without procedures for responding to superior force. Had the battalion opted for battle, it would have been destroyed by artillery fire in five minutes, at no cost to the attackers.

    The role of armies is economic; it is to make an objective more expensive to obtain, either in time or resources. The Dutch battalion, because it lacked supporting arms, had zero military value.

    Soldiers, like rescue personnel and police, do not have a duty to die for no reason.

    By the way, the lesson about escalation authority was applied by Australia when it intervened in East Timor. Cosgrove insisted on and obtained authority to match any level of response he encountered, up to air and naval support, which probably played a part in containing the response.

  4. Paul Frijters says:

    The question of what difference it would have made is clearly important. As Tony says, Dutchbat could not really win, though in the urban environment and given the nature of the initial Serbian push (which was, by all accounts, quite tentative, almost as if they were trying out what would happen) I would have expected them to last more than 5 minutes.
    The Scenario Matt paints seems quite possible also, ie that strong initial resistance would have forced the allies to provide air power and would have lead to a Serbian retreat. The opposite is also possible, that a strong response would indeed have meant heavy Dutch casualties, leading to much stronger rules of engagements later on and a more direct confrontation of the Bosnian militias and armies by NATO. Hard to say whether that would have been a good or a bad thing, but I do think that heavy Dutch casualties would have made a difference to the further dynamics of the conflict. It would certainly have been reasonable at the time to believe resistance would have made a longer-term difference.
    Of course the politicians bear greater culpability but the question about the role of armies remains. Armies are always in a political environment and in this case we are talking about volunteers with access to huge amounts of information. Having soldiers who will not fight if they cannot win is like having a very very expensive sticker on the window saying your house is secured.
    There are plenty of historical conflict where armies were foretold they could not win, but where the much weaker side nevertheless fought, usually losing but now and then winning despite great odds. For instance, thank god for Russian tenacity at Stalingrad, though damned a similar tenacity of the Germans defending Berlin.

  5. Steve B says:

    I wonder whether a failure to surrender would have resulted in all 450 being killed. I somehow doubt it, as the powers behind the Serbian forces would have realised an all-out assault on an army from a NATO nation could unleash a lot more problems for them.

    And if the Dutch had fought, then it is far more likely the 7,000 would not have been massacred.

  6. Paul Frijters says:

    Steve,

    yes, that is Matt’s point too and I tend to agree with that assessment. Still, in order to have fought the soldiers would indeed have had to be prepared to risk being killed for strangers in a strange country, so the question afterwards is whether it is reasonable to say they should have taken the risk. And how high a risk should they have been prepared to take. 1%, 50%, even 99%? And is that what one should generally expect from soldiers?

    I am mainly just posing the question, but if I had to answer it myself, I guess 10-20% chance would surely be reasonable to expect in that kind of situation, which would imply stiff initial resistance. To ask of our soldiers to take a 99% chance of death, I guess the long-run potential benefits would have to be much closer to home than the fate of strangers in a strange land.

  7. Unanimous says:

    mattkwan is right. The serb forces didn’t want a full on war with NATO. A small amount of resistance may well have been effective, and if not, something else could still be negotiated. But I don’t think there are all that many general lessons to be drawn. Faced with a hopeless situation, it can make sense to surrender. I guess the dutch soldiers felt it was hopeless, and that shows a lack of confidence in the rest of NATO as much as anything else.

  8. Phillip says:

    The 7,000-10,000 ARBiH soldiers should have protected the enclave, instead of fleeing. What could 500 Dutchbat soldiers of done?

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