Distributed April 1999
Copyright ©1999 by Robert Scholes
"[The battlefield] is crowded with the dead, who died in more than their flesh, whose civilization was cast with them into their graves. It is more tragic even than its own legend, which with the dishonesty and obstinacy of a work of art commemorates one out of several battles of Kosovo. That battle which was fought under the leadership of Tsar Lazar in 1389, and placed the Serbs under the yoke of the Turks, was followed by three others of a major character, in which the Serbs stood up before the Turks and had their death demonstrated to them, the complete annihilation of their will established."
More than 500 years later, at the battle of Kumanovo, just south of the battlefield of Kosovo, the Serbs finally defeated the Turks. The remnants of their army fled to Albania. Before Columbus crossed the Atlantic the Serbs were defeated. Less than a century ago, they finally won back control of their own territory, only to lose it again to the Austrian empire. These are, shall we say, a persistent people. But there is more to them - and to Kosovo - than that.
The legend of Kosovo was kept alive for five centuries in song and story, continually animating and reanimating the patriotism of a nation with a country. But the legend has certain unique features which our policy-makers should consider, if they wish to understand the people whom they are busily bombing these days. Before the battle, as the poets tell it, an angel in the form of a grey falcon flew from Jerusalem to Kosovo with a message for the Serbian leader.
The angel offered Tsar Lazar victory and an earthly kingdom or a heavenly kingdom earned by defeat and destruction: "For all your soldiers shall be destroyed,/And you, prince, you shall be destroyed with them." He chose heaven. And the legend says that "All was holy, all was honorable/ And the goodness of God was fulfilled." I do not wish to claim that the angel appeared to the present leader of the Serbs, but I do believe the legend, which every schoolchild in Yugoslavia learns, can tell us something about the people we are bombing.
In our country, as we say, "winning is everything." For our opponents in this instance, it is, quite simply, not. Pragmatism is our state religion, whatever we may say to the contrary, and I do not think we can export this religion to Serbia. Please notice, I say nothing about the justice of the case, for this is a case where 500 and more years of history defy justice to take off its blindfold and look at the scales, which refuse to settle one way or another. There is right - and wrong - on both sides. But this is sacred ground for the Serbs. They have been fighting for it, dying on it, and been buried in it for centuries.
History and legend, myth and journalism, mix in the minds of humans to create those powerful fictions of national pride that sustain them and motivate their people to fight and die for them - or just to pay their taxes and be good citizens. We ignore these fictions at our peril. I know I attended to them when I fought as a naval officer in the Korean War. When Rebecca West was finishing her book, the Germans were bombing Belgrade, trying to subdue the Serbs. She noted, "The Yugoslav army never capitulated, although it was destroyed; and the last remnants of it are still fighting, hidden in the mountains and forests."
The grey falcon now comes in the form of the NATO air forces, delivering missiles instead of messages, but I am afraid the Serbs will make the same choice they made in 1389. I sincerely hope we can find a way to end this battle without a similar slaughter.######