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October 17, 1994
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 160
Interview: Miklos Biro

The Doctrine Of Mass Reprisals

by Jan Brizalj (AIM)

VREME: In a polemical text in the ``Psychological Gazette'' you effectively accused military psychologists of justifying war crimes with their theoretical stands.

BIRO: Above all, I am not sure if these are the stands of one man alone, or part of an overall military doctrine. But if they are part of Military Psychology classes, then there is no doubt that they can do a lot of harm.

What is it all about? By using the results of different research and by giving a survey of different theoretical stands, the lecturer on Military Psychology teaches Military Academy cadets that there are no ``clean'' or ``humane'' wars, that World War Two ended ``efficiently'' only after German cities had been razed to the ground and atomic bombs dropped on Japan, so that they say literally:

``Reprisals against the population and the inhuman treatment of soldiers---when they become victims of war (wounded, captured) have always been means of inflicting heavy losses on the enemy: the drop in the morale of the human factor in war... In short, to demand of soldiers that they wage `clean,' `humane' wars is to ask them to behave like fools'' (!!). The text cites the Geneva Convention and makes recommendations to officers on how to prevent crimes, but this part is totally unconvincing in comparison with the previous intelligently explained thesis that brutality and ``the forgetting'' of humane principles are necessary for improving military efficiency.

All of this could somehow be lumped into the category of bizarre theories, if the reality of the present war did not show that the matter perhaps pertained to our army's general strategy. The ruins of Vukovar, Sarajevo and Mostar (in whose destruction the present Chief of General Staff General Momcilo Perisic, a trained psychologist, participated) and the recently announced ``doctrine of mass reprisals'' supported by the Yugoslav Army's top strategist General Radovan Radinovic, or the strategy of ``total war'' as practiced by Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Bosnian Serb Army Commander General Ratko Mladic, did not warn us of the possibility that the matter concerns a basic military doctrine which was taken over from the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) by the Yugoslav Army and the Bosnian Serb Army. Such a doctrine can sound very convincing when it implies action against our enemies, but I am not sure that it would sound quite as attractive if it implied that our enemies might employ it against us. While the supporters of this doctrine destroyed ``enemy'' cities throughout the former Yugoslavia, we kept quiet; however, when NATO threatened to bomb Belgrade, we suddenly remembered the Geneva Convention and humane principles.

VREME: You opposed some stands which hold that war criminals are ordinary, normal people?

BIRO: I didn't oppose the thesis that a war crime can be committed by a normal person under specific conditions, above all in a state of great fear or lasting tension. But, I couldn't ignore ``psychological'' proof that the best fighters were often the perpetrators of war crimes, because they got ``carried away in the heat of battle'' and ``caught up in the blood of war.'' In his lesson for future officers, my opponent even says: ``Violations against humanity can be prevented... only with the explicit threat that the crime will be punished by having the perpetrators tried after the war. Why then? The most important reason is that it would be necessary to deprive oneself of the best fighters when they are needed most.''

The thesis ``it can happen to anybody'' implies a justification for war crimes. Because a theft can also happen to anybody and moreover bring significant gains to the thief, but this of course, is sanctioned.

The stand held by psychological warfare: ``... some form of demonization of the enemy is necessary,'' inevitably brings to mind genocide propaganda with which our civil war has abounded. It is true that war propaganda is part of all wars, but the Americans demonized Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War and not the Iraqi people; just as they demonized the Vietcong during the Vietnamese War and not the Vietnamese people. Because, when you proclaim an entire nation ``genocidal,'' then the only salvation and logical defence lies in committing a genocide against such a nation. Such propaganda is then not only an alibi, but the initial impulse of ethnic cleansing.

The text I carried on the polemic with had an erroneous and harmful initial premise---that war is an appropriate human activity, that war ``as a means and extension of politics'' made sense. The second thesis implied that war is peculiar to human beings and that the majority of the people in Serbia approved of it. This thesis is in direct collision with the fact that during the civil war around 300,000 men in Serbia refused (at least once) to answer their draft letters!

VREME: From the beginning of the war you and your associates worked with men who had returned from the war and suffered stress disorders as a result of the war. How has this experience been?

BIRO: Thanks to the Soros Foundation, since 1991 we have been able to offer psycho-therapy to people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders. Our findings are contrary to the above-stated thesis. It shows, for example, that there are a number of stress disorders among people who unwillingly took part in massacres and were later burdened with an unbearable feeling of guilt for months. All of these fighters had been assessed as brave, while a large number of them had gone to war voluntarily, carried by patriotic feelings. Later, however, they were horrified by the atrocities committed by others on the front. Apart from these cases, there were cases of men with a great feeling of guilt, as the dominant symptom of a stress disorder, because of their participation in the war, and among a smaller number of fighters because the war was happening at all, (even though these men were not direct participants in the war).

Therefore, if there was some enthusiasm for the war, it certainly wasn't typical of all of the people in Serbia, and judging by the above-mentioned number of deserters, it wasn't even the dominant stand of the population.

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