For a time, I thought of the 1990s conflict in the Balkans between the Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks as “my war.” Having recently read and reviewed Sean M. Chandler’s novel The Notice, a captivating look at the fear and violence from the inside, I remembered how much I thought that war might be the last great conflict my generation would see.
Foolish and naive of me, of course, but then who in the post-Desert Storm euphoria imagined 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq? Or for that matter, Rwanda, Kosovo, Chechnya, and Darfur?
I missed Desert Shield/Storm, sitting out the conflict in Maine as a member of the pre-commissioning crew USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51). At one point a call went out for volunteer supply officers to augment the logistics build-up and I eagerly sought the permission of my chain of command. The ship’s captain denied my request and I, like most everyone else, watched the war unfold on television.
When Arleigh Burke later deployed to the Mediterranean Sea the ship was assigned to monitor the Balkan conflict from a post in the Adriatic Sea. I clearly remember reading classified daily intelligence reports and trying to make sense of the origin and conduct of the war that produced the term “ethnic cleansing.” There was a profusion of military, paramilitary and militia groups designated by three-letter designation codes in those reports, which focused more on daily events than the origins of the conflict.
My lack of knowledge about the why of the conflict was revealed one Sunday as Arleigh Burke loitered in her assigned box drawn on charts of the Adriatic by a headquarters many, many miles away.
Operations permitting, every Sunday while deployed the ship’s captain declared we would observe “Sunday at Sea” in which work hours would be reduced as much as practicable and a cookout would be held on the flight deck. There would be Bingo in the crew’s mess and skeet shooting from the fantail.
On this particular day, I recall sitting on one of the bits used in mooring the ship while eating a hamburger from a paper plate. Several of the Sailors who worked for me were standing nearby, and one of them called over to me: “Hey Suppo, can you answer a question we’ve all got? Why are we here anyway?”
He waved his hand around so I realized he was asking about the purpose of our current assignment, slowly carving geometric shapes in the Adriatic Sea while our radar systems probed far inland, searching for any violations of Operation Deny Flight, the no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Pointing to the east, which was an empty tract of water, I told the group that in that direction some people were killing some other people and it was our job to stop what bloodshed we could. Before they could ask the inevitable next question, why, I told them the whole situation was complicated and we went back to eating our burgers and dogs.
Crewmembers of Arleigh Burke were authorized to wear the NATO Medal for our time in the Adriatic, and later I received a second NATO Medal while serving at Task Force 63 in Naples, Italy. Although I had a lot more responsibilities in my second Balkans-related tour of duty, in both cases I was sitting on the far edge of the conflict and that heightened my interest to know more.
I read quite a few histories of the conflict including the excellent Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War by Peter Maass; The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War by Misha Glenny; Endgame by David Rohde, which describes in terrifying detail the massacre at Srebrenica; War In A Time of Peace by David Halberstam; and To End A War by Richard Holbrooke.
By no means would I consider myself to be an expert, but I feel now I have a better working knowledge of the conflict. Enough so that I found Mr. Chandler’s The Notice to be a powerful addition to what has been written about the most recent of the Balkans wars.
There are important lessons to be learned from that conflict; one wonders if the sectarian violence in Iraq — which was another multi-ethnic state held together by the force of a totalitarian leader — could have been mitigated. But I sense the complexity of the Balkan wars has deterred many in the United States, perhaps even the world, from delving too deeply.
Let’s not forget too that 9/11 happened just a few short years after “my war” went cold. Our memories are short, and as someone said we should worry more about the wolf closest to the sled.
Of course, someone else also said those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.