A Drive Through the Heart of Darkness

Review of ‘The Trial of Ratko Mladic’, directed by Henry Singer, and Robert Miller, showing in ‘London Human Rights Watch Film Festival’ 13–22 March 2019, https://ff.hrw.org/london

by Professor Robert Abrams, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York

The Trial of Ratko Mladic begins on 22 November 2017 in The Hague, just as the world is anticipating a final verdict in the trial of the man known as the Butcher of Bosnia, accused of genocide and crimes against humanity.  The trial of Mladic, having taken four and a half years for its evidence to be heard and another year for the justices to arrive at a verdict, was actually the culmination and conclusion of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia; this body had been established 24 years earlier to adjudicate the war crimes that had taken place in the 1990s after the Yugoslav federation crumbled following the fall of Marshall Tito.

The most terrible of the war crimes of this era was the mass murder of the Bosnian Muslim population, a brutal sequence of actions undertaken by the Serbian forces under the command of Ratko Mladic in the former province of Bosnia Hercegovina. As the documentary partially explains, the Bosnian Serbs were exacting retribution for the aid that Croatian and Muslim forces had purportedly given to the invading Nazis in World War II, and now they seized the opportunity afforded by the post-Soviet chaos in Yugoslavia to establish complete control over territory they regarded as historically their own—Christian and Serbian.

In 1992, to cite only one of many brutal crimes, though one that is at the very apex of cruelty, 1500 Muslim men and boys in the municipality of Poijedor were summarily shot in the back of their heads and buried in the iron mines outside the city. Thousands more, including women and children, were starved, abused, humiliated or made homeless. By 1995, nearly all of the Muslim population of Bosnia had been killed or exiled.  According to definitions accepted by the Tribunal, the willful destruction of a population amounts to genocide, and the execution of innocents is a crime against humanity.  Retribution for the events of World War II may be an attempt at explanation, but not a legal or ethical defense.

The film alternates between rare archival footage of the Bosnian war in the 1990s to inside glimpses of the preparations being made by prosecution and defense teams at The Hague in 2016 and 2017. For the prosecution, the Mladic trial represented the last opportunity to reveal the Bosnian war crimes to the world and to seek justice; for the defense, the trial represented a final attempt to assert that Mladic was neither fully aware of nor actively directing the crimes happening all around him.

Screening this riveting documentary, beautifully conceived and skillfully constructed as it is, gives rise to larger questions about the motivation and psychology of the malefactors of such abject inhumanity.  But many of these questions are dealt with superficially in The Trial of Ratko Mladic, if at all.  Documentaries primarily aim to record events, but at their best they also explore the fundamental paradoxes and contradictions of the principal actors.  The archival footage reveals a heavy, oppressive figure who stalks about menacingly in his camouflage fatigues. Several questions remain. How does such a person justify the actions he clearly directed and engineered? What is the personal history behind his cruelty? Also, beyond Mladic himself, how do such leaders influence the genesis and conduct of war?

With respect to the last question, one prerequisite for genocide is the presence of a forceful leader, one who, perceiving the enemy as an existential threat, must therefore dehumanize him. Then the murder of “non-humans” need not be viewed by its perpetrators as homicide, nor mass murder as genocide.  Psychiatrists consider severe sociopathy to be a non-psychotic but deep disturbance involving a person’s inability to acknowledge that others have a basic right to exist. History is replete with sociopathic leaders who have convinced themselves that complete annihilation of the enemy is morally just.

In a famous exchange of letters between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, Why War?,1 Freud, with his characteristic caution, tells Einstein that to avoid future wars, nations would have to accept the authority of justice, which they had done with the League of Nations and later the United Nations, but would also have to comply with the rulings of that authority, particularly with respect to conflicts over territory, which they have done with neither of the international bodies.  Thus far, countries have signed on to the rule of law in principle, but not in practice when disputed territory is at stake. Freud argues, the expulsion of “outsiders” from land claimed by a majority population is a natural precondition for genocide. Nevertheless, the war crimes judgments against former Nazis in Nuremberg after World War II, and the Bosnia Hercegovina tribunal have collectively led to a broad consensus that individuals can be held accountable for genocide and crimes against humanity.

In the story of Ratko Mladic, restitution is impossible and reconciliation meaningless; the Bosnian Muslim population has been decimated, so there are few individuals remaining to whom compensation might be offered. The prospects for psychological healing from the traumas experienced by the few survivors is also left largely untouched, aside from scenes of victims’ bodies being respectfully unearthed and prepared for dignified re-burial. Under such circumstances, a fitting end to the documentary comes after the verdict for Mladic of “guilty” on 9 of the 10 counts has been announced. An observer is asked by a journalist, “Is it over?” “Not really,” he replies.  The follow-up question is then posed: “Is it justice?” “Yes.”

[1] Paret P. (2005). Einstein and Freud’s Pamphlet “Why War?” Historically Speaking, 6,14-19. Project MUSE. Doi:10.1353/hsp.2005.0044.

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