The first platoons started cycling through the week-long sessions in late April. The soldiers were presented with typical peacekeeping problems—negotiating with a mayor or inspecting a weapons-storage site or protecting a group of refugees returning home—which then were allowed to play out. The idea was to avoid the scripting that afflicts much infantry training and to let the story lines develop in unexpected ways, as they might in a civilian setting. Throughout the months that followed the instructors struggled against their own tendency to fill gaps with action and watched carefully for a related syndrome among the "civilians" that they called "COB creep." Usually they succeeded in keeping the scenarios within reason.
Every week was like a new soap opera: the characters all knew each other, and acted accordingly. If, for instance, a squad of soldiers tried to bully the officials in one village, striding into the mayor's office and making demands, "Bosnians" in all the other villages soon heard about it, and gave all the soldiers a hard time for the duration of the training session. A major named Jack Pritchard, who was directing the show day to day, told me that he was trying to teach levels of non-intervention. The trick for getting through the course, as the soldiers soon began telling one another, was largely just to stay calm. Some of them took it too far and became downright saintly. But tempers sometimes did flare, and with shouting matches built into the proceedings, real fights occasionally broke out between soldiers and civilians. I saw a few of them myself during some of the later training. The observer-controllers would step in and diffuse the tension, but then they would step back out and let the stories continue.
During the first training rotation the worst case occurred when a "demonstrator" threw an apple. A soldier, thinking the apple was a grenade, raised his M-16 (loaded with blanks) and fired. The demonstrator was a quick thinker—he fell down and died. The soldier was a little slower—he never could explain what he had hoped to achieve by shooting the man once the apple had been thrown. The trainers decided to let it run, and the entire company had trouble getting the civilians to cooperate for the rest of the week. During the second rotation the worst case became known as the Massacre on Lane Four. A National Guard lieutenant lost his temper and began to shoot civilians, and when his soldiers tried to stop him, he shot them too. The observer-controller who intervened told me about it quietly soon afterward. He was worried because he had found no formal way to isolate or identify the man, given that the lieutenant had apologized during the self-critique segment of the after-action review, and that an inviolable part of this training is the freedom to make errors. Nonetheless, it's hard to imagine that the lieutenant wasn't quietly offered a desk job.
The Fort Stewart exercises for the first Bosnian rotation wrapped up halfway through July. In the "capstone" event, which was repeated several times, a sequence of companies went into downtown Hinesville during a simulated Bosnian election, protected a group of "Muslims," and confronted an unruly mob. Each time the town went about its normal business—which, frankly, isn't much. Cars drove by, and those people who didn't already know asked what was going on. One man asked if martial law had been declared—as if there might have been a coup d'état. The spectacle made the evening news in Savannah at least once. Several days after the last of the exercises the soldiers flew to the training center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, for a final full-scale mission rehearsal, which was more of the same. A month afterward they flew overseas.
I watched as the last group of 280 soldiers, bused in from the Fort Stewart gym, stood around in their combat gear inside a cavernous departure hall at Hunter Army Airfield. Rita Johanson was on the job with her clipboards and lists and her staff of twenty "movement control specialists," otherwise known as "pushers." She predicted a departure on time. An Omni Air DC-10 stood outside on the tarmac, swallowing hundreds of green duffels into its hold. Colonel Bill Weber walked around checking up on his people. General Skip Sharp, who was leaving with this group, arrived by helicopter. His immediate subordinates showed up to say good-bye. The soldiers filed into a ready room, where a sergeant bellowed the required hijack briefing, which amounted to "Do not hijack the airplane, because it is against government regulations." Sharp stood in front of his troops in his helmet and uniform, looking a little shy. He said, "Is everybody ready?" and I don't think he was being funny. People had been telling me that it's a new kind of Army—that you can't just order men to take the hill anymore but have to explain why. Kum-ba-yah. But when I asked a soldier if he knew whether they would fly directly to Bosnia or stop first in Germany overnight, he looked at me as if I was stupid and said, "It's like this, see: just get on the plane." I thought, if only leaving were so easy.
The Army's Real Morale Problem
I drove to Bosnia from Croatia in a Budget rental car, and looked around for several days before seeking out the Army. Early one evening, while exploring the quiet countryside southeast of Tuzla, I took a wrong turn and came unexpectedly upon an immense chain-link fence stretching into the twilight ahead. The fence was topped with concertina wire, harshly lit, and backed by watchtowers every few hundred yards. Inside I could see low wooden buildings and shipping containers stacked high.
The profile was unmistakable. I parked the car and strolled over to a locked gate to ask where, exactly, I was. The soldier who came down to investigate seemed surprised by my presence, but he was willing to talk through the fence. He said this was Comanche, the helicopter-and-logistics base—the one with the western theme. Eagle Base lay merely a mile away, but he had no idea how to direct me there by the public roads. He said he himself stayed clear of it. I asked him why. He said, "Too much brass. It's wound way too tight." We continued to talk for a while. He was not enjoying Bosnia. He was surprised that it was possible to drive around in a rental car. He asked about Tuzla and said, "They don't let us out of here—not hardly ever at all." He looked so miserable that I felt guilty when I drove off free into the night.
The truth is that all the U.S. bases in Bosnia, including Comanche, were wound way too tight. Take as an example the rule that the soldiers carry their weapons at all times. This was presumably meant as a precaution against outside aggression, but there was no conceivable need for it, and apparently no other armies in Bosnia enforced it on their camps. Still, the Army had a very hard time loosening up. A requirement that the troops wear combat helmets while in camp had only recently been relaxed, and that was considered to be a courageous decision.
But the guard at Comanche was right that Eagle Base was the tensest of them all—a place so tight that the air itself seemed sometimes to hum with anxiety. I kept trying to understand why. One soldier blamed it on a training culture run amok. He was a sergeant in the combat engineers. He said, "We've gotten to the point when you go into the field, or do anything, you've got to have some kind of observer-controller. I don't need an observer-controller to do this job here—just leave me alone." A captain I spoke to blamed it on the information culture. He was the acting "mayor" of the base, and he had dark circles under his eyes. He said that once the systems for providing information were put into place, they demanded to be fed, which led to micromanagement, which in turn increased the hunger for information—a snowballing effect. That, he said, was why he was about to quit the Army. I suggested that the same process exists in civilian organizations, and he answered that in the Army it is harder to resist. Colonel Bill Weber grimaced when I mentioned the process to him. He knew all about it, and called it "feeding the beast." He also pointed out that during a peacekeeping mission, with so little action on the ground, the beast just naturally went looking for scraps.
But that still didn't fully explain the tension. Then, one night around dinnertime, a couple of kids were seen running into the woods next to an equipment yard on the base, and the perimeter guards discovered a "breach in the wire" nearby. The reaction was astonishing to observe. The entire garrison snapped to an alert: the headquarters compound was locked down, hundreds of soldiers were called out to patrol the grounds, and checkpoints were thrown up at the crossroads inside the base. The military dogs were brought out to help. Two helicopters with infrared scopes and other night-vision devices began to clatter overhead, scouring the grounds for the intruders—who would presumably draw attention to themselves by acting in some furtive way. The search went on for hours, but the intruders were never found. I sat outside my quarters on a well-built Brown & Root deck and watched the action late into the night. The soldiers who came by seemed to be going through the motions of a search, rather than really looking. Afterward a guard I had met before came and sat with me. He said it had been known from the start that the intruders had escaped right away. Indeed, it was known who they were—the sons of a neighboring farmer—and they had broken in before. I asked him why the base had bothered with such an alert. He said, "CYA. Cover your ass. Because you've got no reason not to."
That was it, of course—the key to the inner life of Eagle Base, and the explanation for its tension. It was the same sort of career fear that had shaped the response to the mission from the start. Later I discovered that these break-ins were such a regular thing that for some of the local boys they were considered an initiation. If the Army had simply patched the fence and talked to the parents, the game might have been less fun. But this way, with just a pair of wire cutters and a bit of nerve, a couple of kids could get the entire base to light up. It was like a childish form of asymmetric warfare: the Americans knew they were being toyed with but could not keep themselves from overreacting.
The operative phrase was "force protection"—the military's way of saying "self-defense," and without question the most significant term in the Army's lexicon today. The term has been around for only about ten years but has taken on the weight of a sacred incantation. Its power lies in a dual evocation of safety. On the surface it signifies the physical safety of troops—and who in peacetime can argue with that? Beneath the surface it signifies the safety of people's careers should any of those troops be wounded or killed—and in the context of American politics what else could one expect? Bill Weber was one of the rare officers willing to take it on in public. He said, "Now, I'm just a simple guy, but it doesn't seem to me like we're here to protect ourselves first. I always thought the mission was the number-one thing. But I'll tell you what: if you as a commander take casualties for any reason, the first question that gets asked is 'What level of force protection did you have?'" If you were a commander on Eagle Base, you could answer that you required even your clerks to carry guns, and that although the intruders who kept busting through the wire were just kids, you never let down your defenses.
The Army was perfectly capable of judging the realities of Bosnia, of accepting changes, of drawing down troop levels, of closing and consolidating bases, and, if ordered someday, of withdrawing entirely from the Balkans—but it could not ease off on itself. More than money, more than housing, more even than time away from families, it was this artificial anxiety that was responsible for the much publicized morale problems within the ranks. And the creed of force protection stood at the center of it. The creed was strongest at Eagle Base, because of the headquarters there, but it shaped life on the satellite bases, too, and spread to encompass the patrols. Consider just the requirement that each patrol include at least two armored Humvees, each with at least four soldiers wearing heavy Kevlar helmets and carrying loaded M-16s, and also with at least one belt-fed machine gun, typically top-mounted and manned by a combat-ready warrior in goggles and full body armor. These guys would come rolling through the peaceful, vaguely Austrian-looking landscapes around Tuzla, or walking heavily armed through the equally peaceful towns, as if they had taken a wrong turn somewhere, or completely misunderstood the realities on the ground. Only along the Drina River, with its hostile population and its war-wrecked countryside, did they not look hopelessly out of place.
None of the other coalition troops went around that way—not even in the notoriously tough territory near Mostar. They lived on nearly open bases, which in many cases they were free to leave when off duty. They wore soft hats or no hats at all, mixed easily with the population, drank the local liquor, and kept their guns out of sight. It's true that they made less attractive targets than the Americans. But it's also true that a sniper can easily kill a man no matter what he's wearing. If there was any risk here at all, it was that the force-protection measures were making Americans still better targets, because they were making the GIs seem afraid.
The nature of that fear was easy to misinterpret. In Macedonia, I met an expatriate American woman who had worked twenty years abroad for the United Nations and was now stationed in Pristina, Kosovo, to build a new welfare system from scratch. She was a Texan, like Weber, but had severed the connection; she spoke English with an unusually clipped international accent and not the slightest trace of a drawl. Along the way she had picked up the habit of underestimating American soldiers, whom she disdained for their provincialism and their habit of repeating jokes from late-night TV. She said they embarrassed her constantly at meetings in Pristina. We talked about force protection, and she said, Oh, God, that embarrassed her too. She called it an American fear of the world. She equated it with the fear of bacteria, and said it was as American as wrapped bread. She said it was as American as tamper-resistant packaging. I thought she was wrong. Force protection is indeed about fear, but not of the world so much as of the political climate in America, which is a climate of peace. At the coalition headquarters in Sarajevo I met a British officer who had given this some thought. Speaking of the U.S. Army, he said, "The problem is, how much does getting on with one's life rely not so much on succeeding but on avoiding failure?"
Weber had similar thoughts. He was concerned about the soldiers' isolation, the effect on their morale, and the slow drift toward institutional incapacitation. For the sake of the troops as well as of the mission, he wanted to do the unthinkable—to find a way to reduce the force-protection measures, to stow the weapons while in the camps, to let the soldiers drink an occasional beer, and to allow even the patrols to stand down. Skip Sharp apparently agreed, though he was careful with what he said to me. But it was not just a matter of issuing orders or dictating the terms: standing down required a change in mind-set both above and within the Bosnia mission, and this was proving impossible to achieve. Weber kept trying anyway. He told me about meetings he had held with the patrol commanders.
"I'll say, 'I want to know what kind of conditions would have to exist for us to stand down in Bosnia.'
"'Well, it's very dangerous over here.'
"'Okay. Measure that.'
"I'll say, 'All through SFOR we haven't been attacked once!'
"Of course, it's not always like that. I'll say, 'What would happen if I pull you out of Kevlar?'
"And most of the guys will say, 'Nothing—it would be useful.'
"But one company commander—and now you can see us living our own propaganda—one commander says, 'I don't think it's a good idea.'
"'But why? Is there a threat?'
"'Well then, why?'
"'Hey, sir, this is our field uniform, and we're in the field. It's what we wear to do our job.'
"'But your job is peacekeeping! You're supposed to be talking to people!'"
Some of the patrols did talk to the Bosnians. Some of the patrols did not. Some of the patrols had been restricted by their immediate commanders from doing any such thing. But Weber kept leaving Eagle Base anyway to show them what he had in mind. In the open country, with his interpreter by his side, he stopped to talk to farmers and their wives about the weather, or elections, or whatever came up. He went into stores and bought candy for the kids. He sat in cafés, ate sausages, and drank the local teas. He took off his helmet and waded into crowds at the marketplaces, like a big, confident country boy from Texas, a man with a bad haircut and an irrepressible grin, greeting the vendors and asking after their business. The soldiers he was leading followed along in quiet amusement and took off their helmets too, if only this one time. The Bosnians never knew quite what to make of Weber's affability, and could not have understood that much of it was a conversation internal to the United States—one man's reply to the dogma of force protection, and his argument for engagement and flexibility.
The Force of Diplomacy
But openness and affability could not always provide solutions in Bosnia—as Weber well knew. He was advocating a mental process, a way of thinking about the mission, rather than the specific style or the particular military method that would result. One of Weber's co-workers at the headquarters on Eagle Base was a State Department diplomat who was considering the very same concepts of engagement and flexibility, but taking them in a different direction—toward the idea that in certain troubled areas where ethnic hatreds were again on the rise, the Army needed to strengthen its presence and to stand more firmly than it was naturally inclined to do.
The diplomat's name was William Bach. At age fifty-seven he was a slim, blond, bookish man who had spent eleven years in Vietnam—eight during the fighting in the south and another three more recently in Hanoi. Now he was assigned to Eagle Base as the Army's political adviser. He was focused on finding the right balance between force and force protection in Bosnia. He told me that the Army was legitimately concerned about getting sucked in, and that the worry stemmed not from vague visions of "another Vietnam" but from the precise memory of the American intervention in Somalia, where in October of 1993 eighteen peacekeepers had been killed. Bach never once expressed support for the original U.S. decision to intervene in Bosnia, but he believed that there could be immediate practical reasons for stiffening the Army's resolve there. He told me that the soldiers sometimes went too far in their avoidance of risk, insisting on an attitude of rigid impartiality that, rather than dampening political emotions, seemed in places to incite ethnic hardliners and encourage their obstructionism. In his quiet way he said, "The military instinctively tries to avoid conflict, whereas I and some of the other international representatives take a more robust approach. We make the point that the diplomatic solution often requires additional security."
On a cold, rainy morning Bach invited me along to see what his work entailed. A minority Muslim leader from the Bosnian Serb territory in the extreme east of the country, along the Drina River, had asked for a meeting in a café just outside the Eagle Base gate. The leader's name was Refik Begic. He held a mandated Muslim position in the municipal government of Bratunac, the same grim town I had visited with the Army lieutenant on his "radio show" patrol. Bratunac was known as a particularly vicious place—an ethnically cleansed Serb community that served as the base for the famously murderous attack on neighboring Srebrenica, the once Muslim enclave that fell to Serb forces in 1995. With the encouragement of the international forces, some of the Muslims were now trying to return to their homes. The Serbs were resisting. Begic had asked for the meeting today to inform the Army of the worsening situation.
Bach and I, along with a civilian Serbo-Croatian interpreter, walked up the main street of Eagle Base and through the pedestrian gate. The café stood a short distance away, past the last of the concertina wire, the braced-steel "dragon's teeth," and the staggered concrete barricades erected against car-bomb attacks. Out beside the public road, by a bus stop, the Army had installed a sandbagged pit into which the locals were invited to surrender their grenades and land mines—which they sometimes did. Across the road stood a few restaurants and bars, forced to survive on civilian traffic while waiting for a golden future when American soldiers would at last be allowed out to spend their pay. Those places were sleeping in the morning as Bach and I walked by, and only our café was open.
The café was empty on the inside, a dim grotto with vacant tables, smoky still lifes, and lace window curtains that filtered the daylight. Begic arrived a few minutes late. He was a lanky, gaunt, clean-shaven man, wearing a double-breasted blazer and a gunmetal shirt and tie. He had been a teacher in Bratunac, and during the war had been captured by the Serbs and detained at his own school. He had been exchanged for Serbian prisoners, had gone off to fight for his side, and had lost part of one foot in battle. Now he walked with a limp, and his forehead bore a vertical scar. Bach sat him down, called for coffee all around, and asked Begic for news from Bratunac.
Begic lit a cigarette. He said, "Strange things have started to happen. Many incidents." He waited, frowning, for the interpreter to speak, and continued, "For instance, the failed attempt to enter Bljecevo."
"What was that?" Bach asked, as if he hadn't quite heard.
"Last week," Begic said. "When the girl lost her foot on a land mine."
Bach said, "I remember." The girl was eighteen. She was among a group of Muslim refugees attempting to return to a ruined hamlet near Bratunac.
The Bratunac that Begic went on to describe was a place dominated by Serb hardliners and defiant war criminals, where Muslim property titles were being systematically destroyed at the city hall and a new "patriotic club" of ultra-nationalists had risen to power within the municipal council. In the past week alone, aside from the explosion of the land mine, a Muslim woman had been assaulted on a Bratunac street, and a refugee's house had been burned to the ground. Begic wanted a strengthening of the U.S. position, and thereby a strengthening of his own.
The conversation was a dance. Bach promised nothing. He mentioned a report on suspected war criminals in Bosnia published by a human-rights organization called the International Crisis Group. In the pages devoted to Bratunac the report had named a number of local officials, including the mayor. Had Begic read the report? Were there other names that should have been in it? That was the sort of thing Bach had in mind. Begic did not have to worry about the standards of proof, because this was not a court proceeding, and the United States had no authority to arrest unindicted officials. What Bach meant was that even hearsay would be useful here—the kind of inside knowledge that would allow the Army to anticipate events on the ground. I had the feeling that Begic had not expected to go this far today. But quietly now, as if merely to help Bach with his notes, he began to name names.
After the meeting Bach expressed some nuanced doubts about the process of "returns," the current means of re-integration of wartime refugees that has become the focus of international ambitions for Bosnia. He said that maybe someday he would express that thought at the Department of State. In the meantime, however, he just wanted to keep the Army from becoming complacent along the Drina River. American soldiers passed through Bratunac every day, and maintained a twenty-four-hour presence in Srebrenica, and they were reporting back through the regular channels that life was calm along the Drina. They said that the gunfire heard on many nights was "celebratory" (for births, weddings, and drunken get-togethers), and not meant to terrorize the Muslims. They interpreted the land mine in Bljecevo as just another remnant of war—and it was tough luck for the girl. In public many Serbs were saying these things too, though too slyly. Bach didn't think that the soldiers overidentified with the Serbs, but he wondered if they had been lulled by the absence of battle, or were wishing the shadows away. He thought he needed to see for himself.
The Remnants of War
And so, two days after the meeting in the café, Bach and I strapped into the back of a Blackhawk helicopter, and with a sway and a shudder lifted off, eastbound for the Drina River. It was a bright morning made hazy by the smoke from wood-burning stoves. We cruised fast across a patchwork of small farms and scattered houses, consolidated here and there into villages with minarets, and came eventually to the land of the Bosnian Serbs, a ghost country of low hills and valleys with overgrown fields and houses that were roofless or burned or lying in rubble.
The Drina appeared ahead, a gloomy river turning loosely between close, forested hills. We flew upriver and landed at an old playing field along the short road from Bratunac to Srebrenica, where an Army Land Cruiser was waiting for us. We were joined by a graying, bearded Englishman named Oliver Burch, a regional head of the Office of the High Representative, an agency set up to oversee the Bosnian peace. Burch had been in the country now for nearly a decade, and was said to be the toughest and most effective of the expatriates at work along the Drina River. He had been in Bljecevo when the girl lost her foot, and had been one of the first to arrive on the scene. Bach had asked him to come along today to take us back over that ground. Refik Begic had motored out from town in his rattletrap Yugo, and he led us past an abandoned battery factory, used as a collection point during the collapse of Srebrenica, and then onto a dirt road and up a narrow valley that with its gray, leafless trees resembled an Appalachian hollow on an early-winter day.
That was Bljecevo. A group of Serb refugees lived at the base of the valley in a settlement of cinder-block huts and prefabricated shelters along the road. The ruins of the Muslim houses stood farther up the valley, among steeply sloping pastures. The houses had been abandoned intact during the last hours of Srebrenica's fall, and had been destroyed in the days afterward. Five years later young trees had taken root in the rubble, and weeds were growing on the broken stumps of the walls. It was to reclaim those remains that a group of the original inhabitants, a busload in all, had tried the week before to come home. The attempt had lasted only a few hours, including the time it took to retreat after the detonation of the mine. The returnees later insisted that they would not give up. But they had been badly frightened, and were nowhere to be seen today.
The dangers in Bljecevo remained unclear. The old front lines, which snaked through the surrounding hills only about a half mile away, had been mined and rocketed by both sides during the fighting. In contrast, the valley had been a farmed and peaceful enclave right up until the end—and therefore was uncontested land of the sort that might normally have remained clean in a war. But this was Bosnia, where mines had been indiscriminately strewn about, and where perhaps a million of the devices, many unmapped, remained hidden in the ground. As is typical in a peacekeeping operation, U.S. soldiers were not directly engaged in the slow, risky work of identifying and clearing those mines, and they were supposed to confine their patrols to routes that had been "proofed," however that could be defined. On Eagle Base the Army had set up a regional Mine Action Center, an office charged with working through the confusion on such matters; but all it could report with certainty about the Bljecevo valley was that it contained no known minefields. The regular U.S. patrols had understood that as a warning and had stayed clear. Oliver Burch mentioned that the local Serbs seemed unafraid to graze their sheep in the pastures, but he himself remained wary.
Where the dirt road narrowed and grew rough, he suggested that we proceed on foot, and with care. Bach checked that the crippled Begic could endure a walk, and we set off up the road, strung out along a pair of dried-mud tire tracks that offered the best assurance of safe passage. We gathered at the site where the girl had been maimed. It was a collapsed, roofless shell of a stone house much like the others, an old place built within a few feet of the road. The mine had been buried in the pathway to the ruins of the front door. It had blasted a shallow crater in the yard.
Bach studied the scene. Burch said, "Right. So what happened. The girl arrived with her family. She had a bag of sandwiches and a bottle of water. She stepped off the road, and it hit her here. It took her foot right off. She got blown clear across the road—all the way to there. When we found her, she was standing on one foot, supported by her father. Screaming, obviously." It took an hour to evacuate the girl, because of concern about other land mines.
But the concern now was the history of this particular mine. There was always the possibility that the American soldiers were right—that this was some long-dormant device, buried during the war by one side or the other and then forgotten. Burch said, "If it was not, if it was a new mine, it means we have a serious anti-return movement now, and that's very bad news." Before making that assumption, he wanted to explore every possibility. He suggested that perhaps the house had been mined by its Muslim owners before they fled—a trick he called a tradition.
Begic had followed what Burch was saying. He broke in, and through the interpreter said, "I spoke with the father after the incident. Openly and very confidentially. I asked him whether he was the one who had laid the mine. He swore by his children that he had not done it."
Burch acted unimpressed, but he seemed to be working toward the same conclusion. Referring to the collapse of Srebrenica, in 1995, he said, "It's true that these were the last people to hear of the surrender. They didn't know for twelve hours. I would have thought that in the general panic, with people going off to the battery factory to surrender ..." He continued, "I would be surprised if people here would have had the time to start laying traps."
Bach nodded. He asked, "What would have happened to the house after the owners left in '95? You think a mine was placed and blown?"
It was Begic who answered: "What was done usually was to rob it first and then burn it down."
Bach said, "So the Serbs came here, looted the house, burned it, and then maybe blew the walls. It sure looks that way, doesn't it? But then when they finished, would they have wanted to put a mine down there? I'm wondering if that could have happened in '95."
In the end Burch admitted that he didn't think so. He had started this visit, he later told me, wanting Bach to consider the extent of the unknowns. But when he took himself back to the time of the war, he found it hard to believe that any Serbs in their moment of victory could have imagined that their enemies would dare to return, or that they would have seen reasons to set traps in the ruins. On the other hand, there were certainly reasons now, with the attempted return of Muslims. It seemed evident after talking it through, if there had been any doubt, that the mine had been recently laid, and possibly with official collusion. We walked back down the road. When we got to the vehicles, Refik Begic climbed into his Yugo and sped off toward Bratunac. The rest of us followed more slowly in the Land Cruiser.
Begic was having a good day. He set up a meeting at noon in his office, at which his wartime opponent, the Serb nationalist mayor Miodrag Josipovic, had to sit across the table from Bach for nearly an hour. The mayor had a handlebar moustache and a wide, brutal face, which was wreathed in cigarette smoke. Bach said, "You realize that American economic projects depend to a large extent on the success of the returnees." The mayor was unimpressed. So Bach brought up the new report on war criminals, without mentioning that the mayor was one of those named. Bach said, "What about bringing those people to justice?" That got the mayor's attention. He pounded on the table and threatened to leave. He talked about the war criminals on the Muslim side. Bach heard him out, and then asked Oliver Burch, as if he didn't know, "Was the mayor on that list?" And Burch answered, "Yeah ..." And Refik Begic, a mournful expression on his face, made it obvious that he was enjoying the show.
It hardly mattered what was said there anyway. On one side of the table, Bach represented the U.S. Army, and by his mere presence delivered a warning about the limits to Serb power. From the Pentagon down an enormous effort had gone into making such warnings credible. On the other side, after five years on the receiving end of peacekeeping, the mayor had a sense of the formal constraints on the American troops and of their fear of getting involved. He was wary of Bach, but also defiant and surprisingly sure of his ground. He talked about the lack of patience in the United States for the Balkans now. He seemed to think that as long as the attacks remained deniable, the U.S. Army would be unable to respond. I thought he was underestimating Bach, who clearly by now had confirmed his original view that the American presence along the Drina would have to be strengthened.
Out on Patrol
Colonel Bill Weber was keeping a close eye on the situation as well. After returning from one of his forays into the countryside, he said to me, "The switch between being a combat soldier and a peacekeeper is easy at this point. But if people were being injured, it would be very difficult. It would be a fine line." I asked him if he had seen something specific to cause him concern. He said he had not; but largely as a result of Bach's efforts, he had the Drina River in mind. Because of the land mine in Bljecevo, the process of Muslim returns had come nearly to a stop. Now an election was approaching, during which thousands of refugees would be bused back to their original homes to vote. They would stay just long enough to mark their ballots. But with the mood darkening along the Drina, the consensus at American headquarters was that the Army would have to appear in force to keep things calm.
Skip Sharp, with the advice of Weber, Bach, and a few others, decided to position most of the Srebrenica company—sixty out of a hundred soldiers—in the area for four days full time, and to position two additional companies downriver, beyond Bratunac. The commanders sent out an Army lawyer with contracts and cash to lease campsites just out of sight, on the outskirts of the towns. They planned to run a heavy schedule of patrols for two days prior to the election, and during the voting to lock those patrols into fixed and visible positions within quick driving range of each polling station. Beyond that, if Bach remained worried about the mood among the Serbs, they would have to see. There was always a possibility that the moderates would win the election, though the chances seemed slim.
I went to Srebrenica to stay with the troops. Their camp stood on a hilltop above the town. The soldiers had gone there expecting to rough it for a few days, but no sooner had they arrived than a Brown & Root convoy had pulled up, and, to their amazement, a crew of Bosnian civilians had emerged to set up two heated tents with electric lights and cots, a line of portable toilets, and a big collection of white-plastic chairs. Rather than feeling grateful, the soldiers were a little annoyed. In their disgust many of them chose to sleep outside, crammed into their vehicles or stretched out in sleeping bags on the cold ground.
The days and nights passed as uneventfully as intended—endless hours spent on patrols, huddled freezing in the open-turreted Humvees, chewing on rations, and then locked down during the election for fifteen long hours at a ruined gas station, near the turnoff for Bljecevo. It was miserable, and I enjoyed it. The soldiers did too, though they expressed those thoughts in different ways. One man said, "An Army tour is like being on a cruise ship. There's the all-you-can-eat buffet, the twenty-four-hour gym, and our next stop is ... Srebrenica, whose specialty is hospitality! On your left, a mass grave! On your right, a whorehouse!"
During the lockdown I sat in a Humvee with a lieutenant from Atlanta in the right seat, a machine gunner from Massachusetts in the turret, and a soft-talking guy from backwoods Kentucky behind the wheel. There wasn't much to do. We watched the road, talked, and ate some MREs. I asked the lieutenant about the training back in Georgia. He laughed and said, "Stani ili pucam!"—Serbo-Croatian for "Stop or I'll shoot!" We were monitoring traffic, waiting for the Muslim election buses to pass. It was raining. A convoy of cars had rolled by with a Serbian flag hung from one of the windows. Now a bicyclist passed. The lieutenant radioed in a report: "Man traveling northbound on Huffy. Banana seat. Circa 1985." He looked at me and said, "No detail is too small." The radio came back: "Okay. Roger. Got it."
The machine gunner was reading Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes. He had gone through three years of college, and he wanted to return and become a playwright. He had scored 128 out of a possible 130 on the Army entrance exam, and somehow had ended up in the infantry. He said, "Can you believe I worked in a bookstore for most of my high school?"
The driver said, "I believe that."
The gunner said, "I used to read Utne Reader, Atlantic Monthly, and Mountain Biking U.K."
The driver said, "You meet totally different people when you come in the Army."
The gunner said, "I took a semester break ..."
That was three years before. The lieutenant had left a promising job at about the same time. His mother had cried because he was wrecking his life. Now he said, "It's just something you have to do, you know?"
The driver said, "No you don't." He chuckled. He said, "If you look at it now, would you do it again? Leave that same job?"
"Yeah. I would."
"Really? You was makin' nice money."
"When am I going to be this age again? What am I going to tell my grandchildren—that I sat in an office all day?"
"More like sat in your mansion."
The gunner leaned down from the turret. "Instead you're sitting in Humvees."
The lieutenant said, "Yeah, there I was ... knee deep in the shit! My grandkids will say, 'Were you in the shit?' and I'll say, 'Yeah, I was in the shit!'"
The gunner said, "There I was."
And the driver said, as if to himself, "I'll be tellin' all kind of stories."
The long day finally came to a close. The election passed with hardly a glitch, and the ballots went off to Sarajevo to be counted. In the morning the American force faded away, leaving only the regular patrols to roam the Drina River. I roamed with them for a few days. Out of sight of the company commander, the soldiers did their own natural standing down, removing their helmets and flak vests, sitting in the cafés of Srebrenica, and relaxing among the peasants in the shattered mountain villages. They were not fighting World War II, but what they were doing was real—and effective. It's true that they occupied positions of privilege at the end of a huge effort to put them on patrol. But they needed less of that effort than the Army supposed.
When the election results were announced, the news was ominous: radical Serbs had won by overwhelming margins all along the Drina River. With the political climate continuing to deteriorate, William Bach maintained the pressure for a stronger American presence in Bratunac, and the 3rd ID built a new small base right on the outskirts of town. The message got through to all sides, and after the winter snows melted, the process of Muslim returns began again, perhaps a little faster than before. There was no further violence. Largely because of the American efforts, the precarious peace was maintained.
The 3rd ID, however, paid a heavy price for its success. Last February, as the first and second rotations prepared to swap places, Skip Sharp was forced to downgrade the entire division to the Army's second-lowest rating for wartime readiness, effectively removing it from its traditional role: standing by to defend the nation. The downgrade is a temporary setback, likely to be overcome sometime in 2002, when the final peacekeeping mission in Kosovo is scheduled to end and the division will at last have time to retrain, and presumably to regain its armored battlefield skills. Meanwhile, for the professional warriors of the 3rd ID—these guys who like to blow things up—the downgrade is of course an unpleasant condition to endure, and no less painful for being self-imposed. For some of them, it is proof enough that America is already dangerously overextended.
Still, in more-immediate operational terms it is possible to think about the division's mission in Bosnia not merely as a tribulation to be endured but also as a useful experience with the sort of ambiguous military involvements—the operations other than war—that the United States will probably continue to face. Of the many competent young officers I met in the field, one said, "I grew up with a whole vision of Ronald Reagan, our military, the resurgence of American power in the world. That's kind of what drew me to the military. Then the wall came down, and now it's like, 'Who's the enemy?' So it's been different. But it's not like everybody on patrol hates what he's doing. It's amazing how much people change after they get to Bosnia. It doesn't take that long to understand we're not here to kill."
Of course there was the other side, too—the soldiers who resented the changes, and remained locked into an almost wistful view of simple dangers. For them the peacekeeping mission was a more troublesome deal. Late one night on Eagle Base a guard I was accompanying on his perimeter rounds began to shout into the darkness, "Enemies, come on! Come on!" He was really just joking around, making a show of his frustration. But in some ways he was like the Army as a whole. He was standing behind a fence, peering into the night, well fed and safe, and good at his job. He was big, and strong, and heavily armed. But after nearly a decade of peace he was unsettled by the lack of front lines.