THE MODERN SERBIAN ARMY AND THE ART OF WAR
The greatness of the Serbian Army’s roots is one of guile and stealth in combat operations. To understand the organic methodology and experience of the Serbian Army is to know the Serbian people in their long history of struggles for self-determination and Independence going back to ancient Rome. During the epic period of wars between the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires, the Serbian people, by which I also mean its irregular armed forces, were always forced to defend their rights, their culture, and their religion against those who desired to oppress them, those who would force them to submit to a foreign culture or governmental forces that could only lead to the demise of the Serbian people.
By allowing such an oppression, the Serbian people would have been reduced to slavery and thereby destroyed their ever energetic Serbian armed forces. It was and is the Serbian land forces whose tireless and thankless task then and now is to defend their people in a landlocked country covered with fields which can be harvested and mountains which can offer protection during times of war.
And indeed, this is a country at the crossroads of Central and Southeast Europe, a gateway nation. As we know, those soldiers and officers of Serbian origins have given their lives in the thousands during the First and Second Balkan Wars, the disastrous World War I, and then through the world famous struggle of the Communist Partisans war against the Axis, fascist forces that invaded the former Yugoslavia in 1941. With the Third Balkan War and the perfidious attack by NATO air strikes against Serbia, the country then known as Yugoslavia, from March 24, 1999 to June 10, 1999 during the so-called Kosovo War.
Since that period of inter-strife - civil war in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia -- the Yugoslav armed forces, now the Serbian Army of the Republic of Serbia, have had the creative challenge of rebuilding an army that could be the most versatile in the Balkans, perhaps in some ways even be equal to those land forces of Germany and France if correct measures are taken to insure the Serbian Army’s moderation and staunch independence from political corruption or external political manipulation from outside the army itself. The Serbian Army’s historical mission is to serve the Serbian people.
For a military theorist or military historian to give a critique of the Serbian Army, s/he must have a general understanding of the life of the great Field Marshal Baron Mihajlo Mikasinovic, who had so much influence on the lives of Serbian soldiers and Serbian civilians along the Military Frontier known as “Vojna Krajina” which was part of the former Austro-Hungary Empire.
The reader should understand Field Marshal Mikasinovic was not only from a different epoch than Josip Broz Tito who guided to the best of his ability the Partisans against the military Axis forces in Yugoslavia during World War II, but unlike Marshal Tito, Mikasinovic was not a revolutionary but a professional soldier and therefore pragmatic in utilizing the Serbian soldiers under his command.
Therefore we see the dialectical transition from colonized Serbian soldiers to those troops and officers who lived through the partisan war era up to the partisan forces who helped forged the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia are of different military hues, although both chronicles of such Serbian military history should be understood and analyzed in order to see a clearer vision of a modern Serbian Army.
In his monograph on Mihajlo Mikasinovic, the author Djuro Zatezalo wrote of the Field Marshal:
As an officer he meted out the strictest justice. He despised sycophants and respected only true merit. His sharp gaze frightened every rogue, but towards a soldier who conscientiously executed his duties, his facial expression would soften and his gaze became warm. He was extremely hardworking and committed to his job, executing his duty accurately and in a timely fashion. He was a real father to his soldiers; the strictness of their tasks kept them content and challenged. His adjutant ate lunch at the same table as Mikasinovic, indicating that he worked closely with his officers. He talked with the soldiers and aided and encouraged them in situations when they truly needed it.
Such a description of the Serbian Field Marshall of the 18th century is important, because although that era's methods of warfare no longer exist, it is the military character, the culture essence of a Serbian officer in past military history that should not only be studied but implemented with the overall character of the modern Serbian officer in the Serbian Army. Although the Serbian Army was
codified in 1838 as an army of the Serbian people, it has gone from being a irregular type of army dating back to the 18th century to being a more advanced modern military force in practice and theory during the Partisan Resistance Movement in World War II, only to deteriorate as an effective fighting army after the end of the Third Balkan War.
With the implementation of the Serbian Army currently composed entirely of professionals and volunteer troops after the end of mandatory military service in 2011, I would suggest much is lacking in terms of professional and cultural élan within the troop echelons and in some sectors of the Serbian officer corps. My reasoning: class antagonism between those who ‘volunteer’ and those who enter the Serbian Army because of dire economic necessity and not because of a genuine interest in the defense of the Serbian Motherland.
There are also those among the Serbian populace who because of their middle- class status or economic ties to oligarchies in Western Europe and beyond, have no desire to pursue the disciplined life and dedication that should be a part of the Serbian Army.
Such serious contradictions are to be expected and viewed as a determinant of the professionalism of the Serbian Army in both peacetime and time of war.
I would advocate that the Serbian General Staff and its officers work diligently to restore the mandatory military service obligation of Serbian men and women who come of age at 18 years, and that they serve in the Serbian Army, the Serbian Navy or Serbian Air Force for at least two years.
I would also encourage giving Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) within the current Serbian Army more opportunities to enroll in officer training schools. Historically, it has been the ordinary Serbian worker, as well as the rural Serbian male and female, that have shown themselves to be stalwarts in time of war.
It would behoove the leadership of the Serbian Army to review the works of Von Clausewitz for an ongoing deep analysis of the progress of the Serbian Army, as well as a further understanding of profound professional self-criticism.
I would say that Von Clausewitz explains in high military theory what I have advocated on a practical level, when he writes: “To be imbued with the spirit and essence of this profession, to train, to rouse, to assimilate into our system the powers which should be active in it, to apply our intelligence to every detail of it…- that is the military virtue of an army in the individual”.
Detailed to a specific degree in the Belgrade, October 2009 paper “DEFENSE STRATEGY OF THE REPUBLIC OF SERBIA," defense of the internal integrity of Serbia lay with its continuation of both peaceful and violent agitation against the opportunistic behavior of those in Kosovo wishing to foment terroristic violence or to manipulate Western European powers, as well as the erratic military impulsiveness of the United States, to wage a conflict with Serbia over the so-called “separatist aspirations”. Although the defense strategy paper is now dated, it still relevant to some degree concerning how the Serbian Army Chief of Staff may view the mission of the Serbian Army vis-a-vis the nation-state, to which I refer as Serbia’s domestic and foreign policy agendas in the 21st century.
At the present juncture of world history, we live among thriving and dangerous oligarchies not seen since the time of the Peloponnesian War. Many of the nation-states in Europe including the nation-state rivals of Russia and the United States are imbued with the deadly combustion of organized crime and religious fanaticism, multiplied by incendiary national extremism. The October 2009 paper on Serbian defense strategy published in Belgrade articulates this key statement: “From the standpoint of security risks and threats the Republic of Serbia is facing, what is particularly important is the link between terrorism and all forms of organized, transnational and cross-border crime.”
However, I would submit there is an underlying adversary outside the “forms of organized, transnational and cross-border crime”, which are the mercurial and predatory interests of the United States. Furthermore, should NATO -- which would include a vast number of American troops, American armored units and American air force units -- eventually attack the territory of Russia, it would insure that Serbia be neutralized in order that the Serbian Army could not cut through the underbelly of Western Europe, that is, through the corridor of Southeastern Europe.
In other words, the forces of NATO would strategically want to protect its southeastern flank if it decides to enter into an act of war with Russia or give a dramatic rationale for coming to the military aid of the Ukraine should a friction of war between Russia and the Ukraine become a fait accompli and not merely a propaganda threat.
Underlying the sincere desire of the Serbian Army leadership to preserve the way of life of Serbian culture and its heritage within its armed forces, there was a naïve liberal initiative in 2010 of a Serbian military delegation that met with American military officers of The multi-service U.S. Army War College (USAWC) Traveling Contact Team (TCT) in Belgrade.
What was discussed was the transformation of the Yugoslavian National Army (JNA) to a bourgeois and democratic Serbian Army, although such a term as “bourgeois and democratic” would not be in the lexicon of modern Serbian Army codex, although the reality is that military class issues were on the agenda in terms of a coded language such as “The major challenges the SAF face are the abolition of general conscript duty, the rebalancing of the force to reflect the desired officer/NCO/enlisted/civilian ratios, development of a modern professional military education system, and the achievement of social status improvement for SAF personnel”.
In an attempt to be strategically creative, the then-leadership of the Serbian Army attempted to reach out to the United State military leadership that ironically had helped NATO in punishing the Serbian Army during its conflicts during the Third Balkan War. In its weakness - from my perspective - the Serbian military leadership signaled to the U. S. military leadership to help Serbia to find a modern way to create a more formidable and democratic army, instead of looking critically at its own cultural history of warfare. This kind of liberalization can only lead to further disruption and lack of military continuity, like bringing in a Trojan horse to placate the Serbian people for mistakes made in the Third Balkan War.
Furthermore, there have been mixed signals consciously or otherwise concerning the Serbian State leadership in joining the European Union which would be a de facto membership in NATO. According to Serbian geopolitics expert Dragana Trifkovio, “[...More than] 80% of Serbian citizens are opposed to any cooperation with NATO, especially in the light of the Alliance's air strikes on civilian and military targets in the country back in 1999”.
Thus, from a conscientious military perspective in terms of a lucid and technical strategy based on theory and practice congruent with the Serbian Army’s history, one could question the wisdom of the Serbian military leadership to enter into such a reaching-out to a former adversary such as the United States whose history is entrenched in endless wars. In such a conscientious matter as the study and application of military theory, it should be understood that one should play the game of neutrality in a strict form and not attempt to play off competing adversaries for one’s benefit.
In the year 2017 there seems to be a more realistic and pragmatic approach to its historical ally Russia that harkens back to the days of Serbian Field Marshal Mihajlo Mikasinovic and the Seven Years War - when Austria with its precarious situation in the Seven Years War gave rooms for the Serbs to move closer to their natural ties with Russia. As the world enters regional conflicts in the Middle East and mounting terrorism on the continent of Europe including Great Britain and the United States, the Serbian State and the Russian State are beginning to again have a realistic approach to a strategic alliance, although it needs to be strengthened deeper and with more delicacy in terms of combat maneuvers between the two countries and with Serbian officers going as observers or as advisors in support of the Donetsk People's Republic in the Donbass region.
Recently, the Russian State has shown a more serious desire to help in the rejuvenation of the Serbian Army.
The Serbian Defense Minister Djordjevic stated, according the Associated Press, that the "jets, tanks and fighting vehicles — donated from Russian arms reserves for free — will be 'fully modernized and refurbished' in Serbia by Russian technicians for an undisclosed sum. It is estimated that the overhaul of the MiGs alone would cost Serbia some 200 million euros ($216 million.)”. The Serbian military leadership -- I am sure -- welcomes the “free” Russian arms reserves, but at the same time, the Serbian military leadership and the Serbian government should continue to demand an upgrade in tanks, artillery and air force jet capabilities.
I would like to conclude with a cultural/philosophical-military view of the Serbian soldier as an embodiment of the national character in a time of war. I would hope this is a more subtle, resonant, and eloquent account of the Serbian Army and its history of being at war. In Zatezolo’s monograph on Mihajlo Mikasinovic, from which I will now quote, two different observers give an account of Serbian soldiers in action during the War of the Austrian Succession:
In one report from 1747, an Austrian officer said of the Serbs: “… They make brave heroes in battle. They just need discipline. In addition, Prince Joseph of Saxe - Hildburghausen characterized the border soldiers like this: “Everywhere I saw people who were brave warriors, of a crude and uncertain nature, the children of poor homespun food. With effort and passion they can be made into strong men, tough and hard as an oak forest, carefree and wild, with good hearts. They are nature’s children and because of this are superstitious. They are full of feeling and enthusiasm for military honor… Their nature is fearless, and they are capable of fidelity and loyalty…”
Although such observations of the Serbian soldier in time of war may now seem outdated, nonetheless certain truths and validity of the character of the Serbian soldier remain, particularly during World War I, when the Serbian people lost thousands of men. In the words of Serbian military historian Dusan M. Babac, “Serbia paid for her great victory in the First World War in a disproportionately exorbitant manner: it is estimated she lost close to one million inhabitants, of whom about 400, 000 were conscripts and the rest civilians which accounted for nearly a third of the total population or close to 60% of the male population. No other country that participated in the Great War paid so dearly for its freedom”
Never has there been a full accounting of the thousands of deaths of Yugoslav Partisans, both men and women, who gave their lives in the First to Seventh Nazi Offensives that ranged from the attack on the “Republic of Uzice” in Western Serbia in the autumn of 1941 to the final attack in western Bosnia in the second quarter of 1944 by the Germans which failed, but which cost the Partisans under Tito great loss of life. Such is the profound tragic history of the Serbian soldiers from regular warfare to irregular warfare.
Clearly, the Serbian Army is unique in modern military history because it has the wherewithal to fight asymmetrical and symmetrical warfare that goes back to the period of the Ottoman and Austrian Empires in which the army was further developed in the modern era, including those Serbs who fought in the Spanish Civil War and whose leadership would play a vital military leadership role in the Partisan war against Nazi Germany in their own country of Yugoslavia. The Serbian Army is forged in the iron vice of war and soldered in the steel of commitment in the history of general warfare.
The creativity of the Serbian Army's overall mission should always take into account its historical past and not allow itself to be fooled by contemporary alliances that can change like the temperament of a wind in springtime. Serbian military leadership should continue to find its place in the modern military era by concentrating on its historical roots, when formulating creative tactics and strategy that correspond to the Serbian national character regarding the nuances of preparation for war while always desiring to maintain the peace within the natural territory of Serbia.