Good Balkan books?

Discussion in 'Officers' started by musicalmarvin, Jan 17, 2005.

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  1. Hi, heading to Sandy next year, realised my general knowledge isn't what it probably should be. Can anyone recommend any decent books for the whole balkans/kosovo etc. At the moment I can barely place them on a map (and I'm doing Geography). Any other good book titles will be appreciated.
  2. IMO "The Balkans a Short History", Mark Mazower, is the best short introduction to the march of Balkan history. A fairly slim paperback, erudite but well-written and readable, publisher details available from Amazon.

    Most popular short-ish paperback guide to more recent events probably "Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation" by Laura Silber & Allan Little. Some consider it over-opiniated and anti Serb, so I wouldnt make it my only reading. More details and other well-known volumes at

    The two Noel Malcolm "Short Histories" on that link are anything but, by the way, although very thoroughly researched. Maybe I'm a slow reader! :wink:

    Will await any other replies then might come back on this. Good luck!
  3. CQB Close Quarter Combat by Mike Curtis.

    This is a personal account of his experiences through his army career. He gives an overview of operations and details his experiences in the Balkans which are very interesting. I'd reccomend this book if you are interested in a soldiers story at "the sharp end".

  4. msr

    msr LE

  5. Try "Trusted Mole" by an old mate of mine, (ex Major Parachute regt) Milos Stankovic - will also give you some insight into the real politik of the times....
  6. The biography of Gen Michael Rose, who was head Brit out there for a bit. Very intresting.
  7. "Trusted Mole" is about the best one i have read, would like to know what happened to Milos Stankovic as it sounded like he was stiched by every body.
  8. Talking of the Balkans - does anyone know where I can find the quote that used to be used in the old UN briefings....counts down the situation in numbers...
    7 Republics
    6 languages
    5 etc
    4 etc

    It was actually a very good synopsis....

    Help !
  9. DangerMouse

    DangerMouse Old-Salt Moderator

    Some background to qualify my recommendation: I did International Relations at University, and studied briefly Bosnia, commissioned and deployed to Bosnia as my first tour. I have read lots of books about the Balkans, and attended many lectures. By far and away the best book I have ever read is Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia, by Brendam Simms. You can find it here:

    I would urge everyone in uniform to read it: to quote part of Brendan Simms's preface (pages xi-xii), "All this matters because the consequences of failure in Bosnia are still with us today. ...The senior ranks of the army and the officer corps are still riddled with anti-Americanism... Indeed, a disconcertingly high number of those interviewed for this study gave a strong impression of having learned nothing from the Bosnian fiasco. In short, the questions thrown up by the Bosnian experience are highly relevant. Unless the collection failure of government, the Foreign Office, the military, and indeed the whole advisory process is satisfactorily confronted, the risk of repetition remains acute."

    We had Martin Bell as an after-dinner speaker on a course I attended last year, and I questioned him about this book. Speaking as a veteran of reporting in Bosnia, he agreed that this book was accurate. Don't just take my word for it, two reviews, with which I concur completely:

    BETRAYAL IN THE BALKANS,6903,587112,00.html

    Britain's refusal to act in the former Yugoslavia left the Serbs free to butcher thousands of Bosnians. Brendan Simms dissects a catastrophe of British foreign policy in Unfinest Hour

    Nick Cohen, The Observer - Sunday November 4, 2001

    Unfinest Hour: How Britain Helped to Destroy Bosnia, Brendan Simms, Allen Lane/ Penguin Press £18.99, pp 496

    'Bosnia', a commentator noted as he watched the Foreign Secretary agonise at the height of the Balkan wars, 'will be on Douglas Hurd's tombstone.' Lord Hurd is still with us, but tens of thousands of Bosnians are dead. The connection between the grave statesman and the graves of the slaughtered is Brendan Simms's theme. We may see better demolitions of the last Tory government when the official records are released, but Simms's attention to telling detail and cool, literate anger make Unfinest Hour the best epitaph for the wretched years of the Major administration I've read to date. His argument, that what Britain did to Bosnia stands alongside Munich and Suez as a great Conservative foreign policy disaster, is irrefutable.

    The wars of the former Yugoslavia had one cause: irredentist Serbs, who combined nationalism and socialism in a faintly familiar mixture. They didn't merely want power, but to guarantee that only Serbs lived in Serb-occupied territory. Thus, while the Bosnian government retained Serb and Croat backing, every mosque in the lands Milosevic's supporters held was levelled. For years, Britain led the chant that nothing could be done. Yet in the assaults that forced Milosevic to sign the Dayton Agreement of 1995 and in the Kosovo campaign, the determined application of force compelled the supposedly mighty Serb armies to back off and precipitated a democratic revolution in Belgrade.

    Simms mints the phrase 'conservative pessimism' to describe the mentality of Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind and David Owen. They evaded Serb responsibility for the atrocities and vastly overestimated the difficulties of intervention. Exhausted by Ireland and haunted by Suez and Vietnam, Conservative politicians and the 'experts' in the press and think-tanks maintained that ethnic cleansing was an unpleasant fact of life. The dominant ideology might have propelled Britain to sit out the Bosnian conflict. But Hurd went further. Not only did Britain refuse to reverse Serb aggression, 'we' made damn sure no one else did either.

    'Pessimism' doesn't quite capture the malice of British policy. American attempts to lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian government were opposed by vehement mandarins. No-fly zones, relief for Bosnian enclaves, war-crimes tribunals and armed protection for humanitarian convoys were fought to the last ditches of the European Union and United Nations. 'Any time there was a likelihood of effective action,' said Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the Polish Prime Minister, '[Hurd] intervened to prevent it.' Post-imperial weariness mixed with genuine imperial arrogance. No one would make Britain lose face by forcing the Foreign Office to think again, particularly not the 'naïve' Americans. Throughout the war, the British conservatives were resentful Greeks to wide-eyed American Romans.

    The conviction that Britain had a superior knowledge of the futility of reforming a wicked world pushed Whitehall into a kind of madness. Only the possession of an unhinged mind can explain how Malcolm Rifkind, a Defence Secretary who had never seen combat, could bellow 'you Americans don't know the horrors of war' at Senator Bob Dole, who lost an arm in World War II. 'Your guys were usually so refined,' an American diplomat said of the Washington Embassy. 'But they were going crazy on this.'

    Rifkind's ravings - Senator John McCain came close to slapping him at one meeting - will surprise readers in a Britain where snobbery gives an unwarranted benefit of the doubt to patrician conservatives. The politicians who dealt with Bosnia were gentlemen of moderate temperament; sophisticates with breeding and manners, who were a cut above the rabble-rousing Thatcherites. Yet Hurd out-Thatchered Thatcher, who honourably opposed Serb aggression, when he declared that 'there is no such thing as the international community'.

    He then sank to a depth I can't remember Thatch reaching when he effectively closed Britain's borders to Bosnian refugees. 'The civilians have an effect on the combatants,' he explained. 'Their interests put pressure on the warring factions to treat for peace.' You have to read this disgraceful passage several times before you realise that Hurd was denying sanctuary to the victims of the Serbs (and of his diplomacy) so he could use their misery to force Bosnia to cut a deal with the ethnic cleansers.

    Corrupt language followed corrupting policies. Simms is very good on how the distinction between aggressors and victims was blurred and everyone became a member of a 'warring faction' filled with 'ancient hatreds'; on how the secular Bosnian government was transformed into 'the Muslims'. The Bosnian war, he writes, 'became a strange beast: a perpetratorless crime in which all were victims and all more or less equally guilty'. The debasement of the terms in which Britain could think about the Balkans reached a nadir when Kirsty Wark described a Catholic Croat Bosnian spokesman as a 'Muslim' on Newsnight and ignored his protestations that he was nothing of the sort.

    Ah, but it takes you back. David Owen Balkanising the Balkans. Major complaining about critics 'grandstanding from the safety of their armchairs'. (Try it at home if you believe it is possible.) Douglas Hogg screaming that it would take 500,000 troops to turn back the Serbs. MI6 spinning that the Bosnians were massacring themselves. And - how could we forget? - the valiant General Sir Michael Rose, who, while refusing to contemplate effective military action by the troops under his command, opined that demands for intervention came from 'the powerful Jewish lobby behind the Bosnian state' and wondered at a performance of Mozart's Requiem in Sarajevo if Alija Izetbegovic, the cultured Bosnian president, understood 'the Christian sentiment behind the words and music'.

    Rose's 'ancient hatreds' coexisted with a grudging admiration for Serb officers. Even the butcher of Srebrenica, General Ratko Mladic, wasn't all bad, in his considered view, but a 'man who generally kept his word'. Unfinest Hour is more than a diplomatic history. It is a grim cultural study of the political, military and intellectual élites of the early Nineties who watched suffering with a faux-realist relish and saw humane treatment as more dangerous than the disease.

    Formal differences between Left and Right scarcely mattered. Hurd sounded like John Pilger when he implied it was racist to intervene in Bosnia but not in Angola or Cambodia. Pilger mimicked Hurd when he accused the Americans of wanting to 'recolonise' the Balkans. For every Lord Carrington harrumphing that 'they were all as bad as each other' there was a Misha Glenny saying that those ancient 'irrational beliefs' drove all parties in the Balkans into cycles of insane slaughter.

    Kosovo supplies Simms with a happy ending of sorts. If he could find the time, Tony Blair would enjoy this dissection of the experts who now oppose the Afghan war. But just as Northern Ireland blinded Hurd to what was before his nose in the Balkans so, I fear, the success of Kosovo blinds supporters of the campaign against bin Laden to its huge dangers.

    From Amazon:

    Shame on all of us

    Professor Simms has produced a compelling dissection of one of the most shameful episodes in European history, when the Western powers stood aside and knowingly allowed a multi-cultural, democratic, independent European state to be dismembered, during a prolonged period of ethnic cleansing and genocide. In doing so, he ruthlessly pins a great deal of the blame upon those British politicians who not only allowed this to happen but who by their actions, inactions and mis-placed words actually encouraged Serb aggression and racial hatred.

    Hurd, Hogg, Rifkind, Major and Owen all find themselves targets in Professor Simms' justifiably angry polemic. Well written and clearly setting out the issues even for those readers who are not familiar with the disgraceful recent history in the Balkans, he reveals the shocking incompetence and serial misjudgements of those who were supposed to steer our foreign policy.

    Despite incomprehension our leaders can hardly claim to have been ignorant of Serb intentions. Radovan Keradzic told Alija Izetbegovic, in public and in front of the TV cameras, that in the forthcoming conflict "You Muslims will be exterminated." For once in his life he wasn't lying.

    As Professor Simms explains, we then invested millions of dollars in the provision of food and medicine but would do nothing to silence the guns that caused the need for such aid in the first place. As the book makes clear, the stark reality of the West's decision to confine itself to the provision of humanitarian aid is that we were prepared to feed people but stood aside and allowed them to be raped, shot and shelled. It was political cynicism at its worst.

    Simms is surprisingly light in his criticism of the UN but does point out that its insistence that it remain impartial and that it required the consent of both sides before acting was actually in violation of its own mandate. Most of the relevant Security Council resolutions were made expressly under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, making them "enforcement" mandates authorising the use of force in order that they be fulfilled.

    The book is in some part quite amusing about David Owen ("Let me through, I'm a doctor is the chapter title for the section of the book dealing with his woeful efforts). Owen refused to challenge the Serbs with the evidence that they were operating rape camps on the grounds that "You can't talk to the Serbs like that."

    Douglas Hurd will be less amused by his place in history as recorded here, although Simms throughout is careful to emphasise that Hurd is an honourable man who believed he was doing the right thing. His "Everybody can see there is going to be no military intervention" was tantamount to telling the Serbs that, whilst we might not approve, they were free to carry on killing. In other words, to secure peace it was necessary to reduce the Bosnians to a state of total hopelessness, an aim shared with the Serbs.

    Simms is to be congratulated for producing a well argued, extremely well researched and elegantly written book that turns a much-needed spotlight upon this most shameful episode in history. The fact that both Douglas Hurd and The Economist - those who at the time argued that the West could not and should not intervene and who have since been proved so terribly wrong by the outcome of events in Bosnia - have united in pillorying this book is almost recommendation enough.
  10. MM,

    get some background by reading "Eastern Approaches" by everyone's hero, Fitzroy Maclean.

    This will help you understand that this part of the world has always been a the headcase of Europe.

    enjoy Sandbags!
  11. used to live there before joining the army.

    best books I found:

    for coverage of the war itself: Trusted Mole, Unfinest Hour, My War Gone By, I Miss It So, Death of Yugolslavia, To End a War (richard holbrooke I believe). Sorry for not inlcuding authors names, forgotten em all.

    For the historical perspective, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West (actually one of my favourite books of all time), and The Bridge Over the Drina and Bosnian Chronicle by Ivo Andric.
  12. All excellent suggestions IMO, couple of authors' names inserted above.
  13. Did anyone ever read "War Dogs" about the brit mercs in the balkans, mostly deserters?
  14. A mate of mine has it, haven't read it myself but looking through it and the pics inside I wasn't really impressed. Alot seemed like walter mitty types, TA dropouts, reg deserters, glory seekers etc. Some were genuine tho.

    When I lived there heard a rumour about a mass grave just outside Vukovar with about 30 international mercenaries captured after the serbs took it.
  15. Wrt Milos Stankovic, in summary, he was investigated for a couple of years - which involved his house being taken apart, his possessions being removed, him spending time in custody, phone being tapped etc etc - and what evidence was found to implicate him? - BUGGER ALL!!!

    Martin Bell MP brought the case up in Parliament when it transpired that the police unit that carried out the investigation (I'm on dodgy ground here because I can't remember which one it was but I think it may have been the Transport Police or MOD Plod) are not directly accountable to any Government authority. They carried out the investigation in a manner, some of which was legally suspect, and the Head of the unit was suspended.

    The CIA had requested Milos be investigated - they also asked for a French officer and a couple of Danish officers as well I think - the Danes handed their guys over (same result) and the French told them to go forth and mulitply............ I can't help wondering myself if the Muslim delegation in the Peace Accord wanted Milos's head because they didn't like the access he had to the Serbian hierarchy and Milos was part of the price they demanded for coming to the table.

    The last I heard is that Milos is counter suing for various things (illegal imprisonment and so on). He's working, travelling around a lot, seems to be in good health, etc.

    I hope he brings out another book!