Selected Minor Works: Kosovo Pole Revisited

Justin E. H. Smith

[For an extensive archive of Justin E. H. Smith’s writing, visit]

In recent years, one of the sights that never fails to drive home to me the fact that I am back in Eastern Europe is that of hordes of travellers rushing to the grand machines in airport departure areas that, for a price, will wrap one’s luggage in multiple layers of clear, environmentally unfriendly plastic.  This is meant to serve as protection, though it must be hell to remove. 

With this image still vivid from a recent voyage, I was amused to read of Milosevic’s posthumous return to Belgrade that “[t]he coffin, wrapped in clear plastic and packing tape, was removed from the jet after the rest of the passengers’ baggage on a small yellow vehicle with a conveyor belt” (New York Times, “Milosevic’s Body Returned to Homeland for Burial,” March 15, 2006).  Finding this gem just before the funeral, I thought to myself: Replace the staid black suit and tie with a shiny track outfit for the ceremonial display, and pipe in some noxious turbofolk to pump up, with the help of a cheap techno beat, the narcissism of minor differences, and there will be no doubt but that in death the ex-Yugoslav dictator has been honored, if not with a state funeral, at least with all the decorations of the post-communist culture of tacky thuggery that Milosevic and his family so shiningly embody.

In 1998, I asked Warren Zimmerman, the recently discharged U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, whether the seemingly endless series of violent episodes involving Serbia and its neighbors could be attributed to “deep-seated, historical enmities.”  He rightly said no, and that indeed much of the Clinton administration’s fence-sitting was regrettably motivated by just such an idea.  Slobodan Milosevic often invoked the battle of Kosovo Pole against the Turks in 1389 to justify ongoing slaughter.  Clinton, in turn, emboldened by Robert D. Kaplan’s influential 1993 book, Balkan Ghosts, was happy to invoke similarly distant and semi-mythical events to justify the U.S. position that there’s no point in trying to stop those bloodthirsty Yugoslavs from having it out.

In the late 1990s, I got it into my head to go to Belgrade to interview Milosevic.  It never happened, and this past month I have definitively put my hope of following through to rest.  Back then, I was listening in preparation to instructional casettes of what used to be called “Serbo-Croatian.”  They highlighted the names of foods, and for some reason lay particular emphasis on the fruits.  I learned for example that in Serbia a mango is called a “mango.”  Great. 

I quickly realized that this would not help me to formulate probing questions about who stood to benefit from the privatization of previously state-controlled industries, about the chain of command between Belgrade and Bosnian Serb commandos, etc.  I doubled up my efforts and began to sit in on intensive language courses at Columbia. In the end, the Yugoslav embassy in D.C. held onto my passport far too long.  By the time I got it back, having in the end been declined a visa, I was fairly proficient in Serbo-Croatian –I could now buy a mango while haltingly discussing geopolitics– and the NATO bombing campaign had, at long last, begun. 

This campaign divided those of us who hate war, but also hate the suffering wrought by nasty, opportunistic men propelled into power, whose “sovereignty” is then for some reason thought worthy of respect. To the present day the NATO campaign in Yugoslavia seems to occupy a position halfway between the case of Rwanda, where staying out was a clear abrogation of international responsibility to protect the helpless; and that of Iraq, where humanitarian intervention between a tyrant and his subjects was neither a significant part of the justification for invasion nor, evidently, among the concerns of the invasion’s planners.

The Serbian media have for the most part been at least as reserved in their expression of affection for the deceased former leader as has the New York TimesVreme, Serbia’s own journal of record, assesses Milosevic’s reign as one of incalculable tragedy. Curiously, it seems that Milosevic has received a warmer send-off from the Russian establishment press, but even there his legacy is presented in that dialogical form that often passes for objectivity: “Some say he was the butcher of the Balkans, but some say he was a Serbian national hero.”  We may speculate that this “balance” has something to do with Putin’s increasingly tight control of the media, and his concern for his own legacy as an increasingly iron-fisted ruler.  Russia has given amnesty to Milosevic’s wife and their cretinous son Marko, the one-time patron of Belgrade’s Madona discotheque, whose principle concern in life seems to be collecting sports cars and firearms, and who once announced to Yugoslavia’s Vatican ambassador that he would like to have plastic surgery on his ears, since, as he explained, “I can’t drive an expensive car, dress well, and be floppy-eared like cattle at the same time” (for a hilarious transcript of bugged conversations among the Milosevic clan, see:

Those who believe that Milosevic could do no wrong appear to include young Marko, wife Mira, a few scattered seniors in Serbia and Russia whose pensions have been cut off, and Ramsey Clark.  All considered, the average age is quite high.  Notwithstanding the depiction widely circulated in the Russian press, of the former ruler as St. Slobodan in the style of an Orthodox icon, and notwithstanding the 50,000 nostalgic gawkers who turned out for the public funeral, it is not likely that the affectionate memory of him will survive for more than the few years most of his supporters have left.

Reading the placards held up by the elderly demonstrators outside the US embassy in Moscow a few weeks ago, one detected an odd persecution complex, as though Western nations have arbitrarily picked out the South and Eastern Slavic peoples for harrassment.  This complex is particularly sharp among some Serbs, who sincerely believe that they are the last line of defense for Christian Europe against the invading Muslim hordes.  As I seem to recall one Serbian warlord saying in the mid-1990s, if it weren’t for the vigilant work of death squads like his, camels would be drinking from the banks of the Seine in no time.

The problem of course is that the Ottoman Empire no longer exists, and in  any case the Kosovo Albanians and the Bosnian Muslims are not foreign invaders.  They are, to use the old, optimistic and all-inclusive language preferred by Marshall Tito, indigenous Yugoslavs, and from the point of view of, say, a Norwegian, they are at least as European as Arkan the warrior and Ceca his turbofolk-singing muse.  Though there is an enduring “Muslim question” in Europe, the landscape has changed somewhat since the original battle of Kosovo Pole, and Milosevic was indulging in nothing but an anachronistic medieval fantasy to make Yugoslav Muslims out as Turkish infidels.

But are the complaints of anti-Serbian bias justified?  To be sure, there is a prevailing sense in the Western media that Serbians are to be collectively punished for the crimes of the warlords and thugs Milosevic oversaw.  Thus in a blurb on the New York Times homepage we read that “The ex-Yugoslav leader’s supporters planned a Belgrade funeral that raised fears of Serbs using the ceremony to try to regain power.”  Serbians regaining  power in Serbia?  The very gall.  In the full article, “Serbs” is lengthened to “nationalist Serbs,” but the slip is telling.  Serbia continues to be vilified as a whole, and probably will be until more serious atonement is made by the Serbian political establishment, and until the deniers of the ethnic-cleansing campaigns are pushed even further to the fringe, where they may congregate harmlessly and irrelevantly, like the friends of David Irving.  It is a good thing that Milosevic was not honored with a state funeral, and if he and his family had been refused the right to return to Serbia now, the ceremonies would likely have only taken place in Russia and stoked the rancid rhetoric there about some pan-Slavic mystical  “brotherhood” which nonetheless excludes the Croats and Slovenes since they abandoned Orthodoxy, or the Cyrillic alphabet, or something.

The irony is that the appeals to ancient blood ties that provide nationalist movements with their fuel are but a flipside of the Clinton-style invocation of intractable ancient blood feuds in the aim of rationalizing staying the isolationist course.  Among national groups, there simply are no natural enemies or natural friends.  Serbs and Kosovo Albanians are not like cats and dogs.  The myth that they are, or that they became so in some  transformative event on a 14th-century battlefield, and are forever condemned to live out the fates that were there secured, has tremendous propaganda value in rallying the troops for current purposes, and this is something that Milosevic well understood.

And this brings us to Iraq, where, in the transition from “terrorist insurrection” to “civil war,” the Americans are increasingly feeling not besieged, but exclued from the action.  Whatever the arguments for withdrawal, and there are many excellent ones, let us not lapse into the Orientalist and vaguely racist fantasy that, whereas we in the enlightened world work out our differences through rational communication, in those parts there’s nothing to be done but to let the Shiites and Sunnis fight it out amongst themselves.  Such reasoning always mistakes the local and short-term for the eternal and fixed.  It’s not in their blood.  It’s in their predicament.