Some years ago I served with the Allied Military Intelligence Battalion (AMIB) during the Bosnia peacekeeping mission. It was a multinational unit, composed of military intelligence men from various NATO nations, and it was tasked with collecting information in Bosnia and Croatia as required by our ever-shifting commander’s intent. Originally based in Sarajevo, I and a select group of Greek Army personnel later moved south to the Dalmatian coast, to an abandoned Yugoslav army base near the small town of Trogir, in Croatia.
I was the only Marine officer in the battalion, and it was the first time I was in a multinational service environment. So there was some culture shock for me at first. I was coming from the USMC’s insular and regimented military culture, into a multinational immersion with European militaries which can only be described, in my opinion, as glorified police forces (except the Turks). Our job was human intelligence: basically to drive all over Bosnia and Croatia with our translator, and meet with various locals who might have information related to the topics we were assigned to investigate.
The people whom we met with were almost always the dregs of society: criminals, former militia members, opportunists, informers, killers. Mostly they were just looking for handouts from us, and all of them were eager to justify and minimize their actions in the ethnic cleansing and fighting that had taken place. Some bragged about their sniping, their violence, their assaults on their neighbors, and their frauds and scams. But being around such people, and in this environment, for an extended period of time had an effect on me, which I have learned to put into greater perspective with the passage of time.
The Bosnian and Croatian countryside was possessed of great beauty, and countless images from that time remain fixed in my memory: the weird, almost haunted, quality of the decrepit base near Trogir; the very different tribal characteristics of the nationalities in AMIB (Norweigans, British, French, Italians, Germans, Turks, Greeks); the many long road trips we took to Zadar, Knin, Split, and dozens of other obscure towns in Bosnia and Croatia; the people we would meet on our travels in the countryside; the same Euro-pop soundtrack that played in the background nearly everywhere we went; the Serbian Orthodox monastery in Krka, where we once had to go for an assignment; and the almost unbelievable lack of supervision the Greeks and I had as armed men driving back and forth between two countries.
I loved working with the Greeks: proud, prickly, and independent, they knew who they liked and didn’t like, and fortunately I got along very well with them. Perhaps because of my own Mediterranean background, I knew how to deal with them in a way that none of the other Americans did. For that reason I was the officer assigned to work with them in Trogir. I will never forget my comrade Maj. Athanasios Tzintsas, a hardworking, jovial man, possessed of great humanity, wisdom, and an utter ruthlessness when needed. He was also the only man I have ever seen who could hand-roll a cigarette while driving through a perilous Bosnian mountain road while at the same time talking politics or philosophy.
But darker images from the region’s recent history were always present as reminders of the savage heart that pants just beneath the thin veneer of civilization. The natural beauty of the region formed an uncomfortable contrast with the obscene ghastliness of civil war, only recently abated, which was present in every village and in the wrinkled brow of every inhabitant. Political graffiti was nearly everywhere, and all of it was of the extreme type (fascist Ustase or Serb nationalist sloganeering). Parts of Sarajevo were mostly blasted apartment buildings, or buildings raked with machine gun or rocket fire. And driving through the countryside, one would see town after town of demolished houses, blown up by one group or another. The remnants were usually mined, a precaution taken by one group or another to ensure that no displaced persons ever entertained the thought of returning. Sullen hatred and repressed rage hung in the air like a poisonous cloud, and it could not be avoided. When talking with any of the locals, you just felt it immediately.
I remember one time while driving in the Croatian countryside we decided, against my better judgment, to pick up a hitchhiker. She was a teenage Croat girl with a beautiful face. But when we got her in the car and attempted some friendly chit-chat, all that came out of her mouth was the foulest, crudest, ethnic hatred: how much she hated Serbs, how much she wished she could kill every one of them, and such talk. It was unsettling for us to hear such unprovoked vitriol come from the mouth of a girl so beautiful; the Greeks and I were taken aback and could hardly respond. We got rid of her in the next village. And for the rest of the drive none of us spoke much, our hearts heavy with the weight of this incident. I felt a deep sense of shame. Shame for sitting there and listening to the diatribe, without responding, and somehow feeling complicit in it. I felt tainted, corrupted, unclean. And I think about this episode sometimes, in darker moments. I have come to despise ethnic or racial bigotry, in whatever form, to the extent that I cannot stand to hear it for a more than a moment.
Hatred is a poison: a corrosive, insidious poison, which eats away at the soul of the bearer, until he becomes a hollow shell of a man, a shellacked and mummified corpse. This is not a metaphor. It is a literal truth, and I have seen it. Never hold onto hatred or animus. And never accept it as a burden from anyone else.
We like to think we can trace the roots of hatred and conflict among peoples and nations. Regarding the Bosnian war, you can read the excellent The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric, as I did, and you can delude yourself that you know the reasons why this happened or why that happened. And to some extent, it is good to ask such questions. But I have come to think that irrational forces play a more powerful role in human affairs that we care to admit. In the end, the rational explanations are always somewhat deficient. Truth has many faces, and moves about on four legs. The unconscious, primeval Unknown is always there in the background, driving us forward, just as a sleepwalker is animated and guided by an invisible hand.
Sometimes, there is no reason why this or that happens. Civilization is a veneer, a mask attached to the face of the trousered ape which is man; and when the mask falls off, the beast behind it is revealed in all his brutishness. And the beast is a sick, craven, and destructive thing, when exposed to the light of day. Each generation must nurture the gift of civilization, and pass it on, this precious gift, to ensure that the face of barbarism remains safely hidden away. And when society fails in this task, consequences must be paid. And paid in blood.
Towards the end of my time in Bosnia, we once interviewed a hard-bitten Croat who was describing his supposed knowledge of a mass grave near the Bosnian border. He chain smoked, as most did, throughout the interview. Towards the end of the interview, and his spewing the usual anti-Serb litany, he leaned back in his chair, took a long drag on his cigarette, and squinted at me though narrow and cunning peasant eyes. They were afire with a mixture of scorn and undisguised vindictiveness. If I had encountered him in a combat zone and he had looked at me that way, I would have shot him without hesitation. But there was something else. There was despair in those eyes as well: beneath the animal, rat-like hostility, there was the forlorn look of the man who had lost his soul. The look of someone who knew, deep down, that everyone loathed him.
He said to me, through the translator, “I know what you’re thinking. And maybe I’ve said too much. But let me tell you that you have no right to judge me. You would have done the same things I did in my situation. You don’t know anything about me.”
I glared back at him, this slithery bastard. I wanted to tell him something he would remember for a long time.
“No”, I said slowly, “you don’t know what I’m thinking. You don’t know anything about me. But let me tell you: I will not allow you to give me your hatred. I refuse to take it from you. So you can take it back. All of it. You are not rich enough to give it to me.”
Then he put down his cigarette, lowered his head, and was silent.
Read More: What Are You Prepared To Do?