I suppose it is possible that the arrest of Gen. Ratko Mladic is as undramatic and uncomplicated as it seems and that in recent years he had been off the active list and gradually became a mumbling old derelict with a rather nasty line in veterans' reminiscences. His demands would probably have been modest and few: the odd glass of slivovitz in company with a sympathetic priest (it's usually the Serbian Orthodox Church that operates the support and counseling network for burned-out or wanted war criminals) and an occasional hunting or skiing trip. Though there is something faintly satisfying about this clichéd outcome—the figure of energetic evil reduced to a husk of exhausted banality—there is also something repellent about it.
As a confused old pensioner or retiree, Mladic is in danger of arousing local sympathy in rather the same way John Demjanjuk did but of doing so within a few years of the original atrocities and not several decades. Moreover, Mladic was a director and organizer of the mass slaughters at Srebrenica and Zepa (as of the obscene bombardment of the open city of Sarajevo), and not a mere follower of orders. The new and allegedly reformist Serbian government bears some responsibility for this moment of moral nullity and confusion, since it seems to regard the arrest of Mladic and his political boss Radovan Karadzic as little more than an episode in the warming of Belgrade's relations with the European Union. You don't have to be a practicing Serbo-chauvinist to find something a bit trivial and sordid in that calculation. (And what if it doesn't prove possible to stretch the increasingly inelastic Eurozone to accommodate Serbia's pressing needs and add them to those of Greece and Ireland? A possible hostage to fortune here.)
There's another deplorable consequence to the presentation of Mladic as scruffy and pathetic. It will become almost impossible for people much younger than I am to understand what a colossal figure he used to represent. I use the last eight words very carefully, because at the time I considered him a vastly overrated individual, credited with political and military abilities that he did not, in fact, possess. But if you tried, in Washington in the early Clinton years, to suggest that Mladic's blitzing of Sarajevo ought to be met with a military response, this is what you would get. It was a sort of large-print version of the "Arab street," rewritten so as to replace Arab or Muslim with Orthodox or Russian:
If we fire on Serb positions, they will abandon all restraint and obliterate Sarajevo. … The Yugoslav National Army will go on the offensive nationwide. Milosevic will appeal to Moscow for weapons and diplomatic support and will get them. … You have to remember that Tito's wartime partisans pinned down 20 of Hitler's divisions …
On and on it went, not always with all of these points made in one burst (though I do recall Defense Secretary Les Aspin managing to compress them pretty neatly, not to say hysterically). Of course, in the end, the Mladic forces did what racial and religious fanatics always do and went too far. At that point, there had to be some kind of Western punitive retaliation. And then it turned out that the Serbian gunmen were not "crack" forces or "elite" troops at all, but a sordid militia with an unbroken record of victory against civilians. And, though Russian demagogues like Vladimir Zhirinovsky did turn up in Serb-occupied Bosnia, Russia showed little inclination to stake much on its sentimental history as Mother of the Slavs.
Even after the exposure of these and other chronic weaknesses, the Serbian leaders were offered concession after concession at Dayton and over Kosovo, until the entire myth was dissipated by Milosevic's insane attempt to extend ethnic cleansing into Albania and Macedonia. By the time it was over, the iron logic of European fascism had triumphed again, as it had after 1945, and large Serbian minorities in Krajina and Kosovo were being cleansed from places where they had long residence and deep roots. If anyone should have been agitating for the arrest and arraignment of Mladic over the past few years, surely it should have been the Serbian rank and file?
At times like this, we are always reliably reminded of what John Quincy Adams said about the risk to the United States of going "abroad in search of monsters to destroy." The monstrous character of Mladic and his movement needed no exaggeration. To this day, a lot of people do not understand how much misery and chaos and suffering it purposely inflicted. But the monstrous nature of his power and reach was paradoxically and enormously exaggerated—not by those who wanted to confront it, but by those who did not! This meant that the whole nightmare was needlessly prolonged and the expense of concluding it greatly increased. On whatever basis the post-Tito Yugoslavia was to be reconstituted, there was one that was utterly impossible as well as unthinkable: a "Greater Serbia," whereby smaller republics and their populations were forcibly cut to fit the requirements of a dictatorial tailoring. It will one day seem incredible that the NATO powers did not see this right away and continued to treat Slobodan Milosevic as a "partner in peace," thus opening the road that led straight to Srebrenica and the murder of people ostensibly under our protection.
Srebrenica is one of the best-documented atrocities in modern history. We have everything, from real-time satellite surveillance (shamefully available to the United States even as the butchery was going on) to film and video taken by the perpetrators, including Mladic himself. The production of this material in court will, one hopes, wipe any potential grin from his face and destroy the propaganda image of the simple patriotic man at arms. Whatever our policy on monsters abroad may turn out to be, at least we should be able to recognize one when we see one.
Christopher Hitchens' Kindle Single, The Enemy, on the demise of Osama Bin Laden, has just been published.