West's cowardice rivals that of Serb gunmen

Georgie Anne Geyer

October 14, 1992|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Belgrade, Yugoslavia -- THE Yugoslav war is not the inexplicable "quagmire" that it has so often been portrayed. Instead, the war has a key that could easily have unlocked all the tightly closed doors to a successful policy.

That key is the Serbian gunmen who even at this moment burn and ravage Bosnia while Western "statesmen" ostentatiously fiddle in New York and London. That is the nature of this frightful war.

From the very beginning of the war in June 1991, both European and American diplomats and officials have repeatedly refused even to send air cover for hundreds of thousands of innocents being slaughtered. Why? Because the war would demand 100,000 to 200,000 troops. Why? Because the Serb gunmen were courageous "World War II-style guerrillas" like those who fought the Nazis to a standstill."

Here, in Belgrade and Zagreb, in Sarajevo and in what is left of Vukovar, that analysis -- the core of all Western thinking, the essence of both major presidential candidates' arguments in Sunday's debate -- is generally thought too ridiculous to consider. Diplomats, military men and journalists here know what this war is about, if diplomats and officials in Western capitals do not.

This was and is a war of Serbian gunmen in Bosnia and Croatia and their mountains of artillery guns and ammunition, all left behind by the well-endowed Yugoslav army when it collapsed a year ago. Over and over, their military "style" has been only one: to bomb the Vukovars and the Sarajevos to death -- from a most safe distance -- and never, ever fight hand-to-hand or commit infantry.

Indeed, those mixtures of old Yugoslav army (few), local warlord armies (many) and uncontrolled "wild mountain Serbs" or "wild irregulars" (too many) have repeatedly refused to enter the cities as infantry, on foot. There is wide agreement here that they are largely thugs, psychopaths, and would-be World War II "Chetniks," whose specialty is slitting throats and cutting off limbs while the victims are still alive. Some are "weekend warriors" from Montenegro who go in for "fun" and are paid in Deutsch marks.

All are basically cowards when it comes to any traditional ideas of military engagement or the honor of the battlefield. But they have also been fighting a war of the countryside and the mountains against the city and the plains. Indeed, the intellectuals, journalists and public figures of the city have with total deliberateness been the first to be killed.

Unquestionably, Milos Vasic, the courageous Serbian editor and military analyst of the prominent anti-war journal Vreme, the equivalent of our Time, has the correct key to the gunmens' character. "This war is definitely anthropological," he told me, nTC sitting in Vreme's busy offices here. "We always divided our population more by altitude than by language or ethnic group.

"First, there is the mountain cattlemen approach. The other is the farmers' approach. The cattlemen perceive the world in terms of space for their herds; the farmers, in terms of time for their crops.

"That is why the wild mountain men with no sense of humor are the driving force of this war. And that is why Sarajevo and Mostar were so savagely destroyed. These cities are a different civilization to guys frustrated by not being able to settle in them."

He might have added that that is why churches and cultural monuments were the constant and cynical targets of the Serbs. Four hundred Croatian churches have been destroyed; the Serb gunmen have consistently used UNESCO flags, supposedly protecting historic monuments, as markers to destroy monuments. Over and over, in the smitten cities, the gunmen would hit a church steeple with artillery, and journalists at the scene could hear the "yea, yea" in the background.

But if this entire analysis is true, and it is -- if the Yugoslav tragedy is a war fought almost entirely by artillery, and it is -- then the initial and continued reasons for non-intervention are absurd.

Of course Western forces could have bombed the artillery sites around these ancient cities; of course they could have used smart bombs and counter-battery fire weapons; of course they could have put an air-cap and sea-cap on the massively equipped Serbian forces. Of course, of course . . .

"Most of the artillery could have been taken out," Gen. Slobodan Praljak, vice-defense minister of the Croatian army, told me, typically. "By air. Why, you can see it, and everybody knows where everything is anyway. We know every piece of ground. The West is lying because there is no answer to why they didn't stop this in time."

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