View Full Version : The Underlying Impetus for the Serbian-Bosnian Conflict of the 1990s

10-24-2009, 09:33 PM
The phenomena explored in Vamik Volkan’s “Bosnia-Herzegovina: Ancient Fuel of a Modern Inferno,” the 1990s Serbian massacre of the Bosnian Muslims in the former Yugoslav territories, fails to be explained entirely by Volkan’s transgenerational transmission of trauma theory. A more coherent explanation is obtained only through synthesizing Volkan’s theory of the passing along of trauma from generation to generation with other theories: Anthony Downs’ that the leader is the driving force of political movements, and Philip E. Converse’s that the will of the masses directs such developments.

Volkan’s theory ⎯ which he calls transgenerational transmission of trauma ⎯ is that human beings who experience deeply traumatic or shameful experiences that involve helplessness or loss of self-esteem inevitably compensate for the resulting feelings of helplessness or shame through certain behaviors, including aggressive acting out. An individual who experiences traumatic “helplessness, shame, and humiliation,” especially involving loss of self-control, (Volkan 110) cannot work through these feelings. Rather, Volkan theorizes that after such an incident the affected party “envelops” (Volkan 110) the feelings and “externalize[s] and control[s] it in the ‘outside’ environment.” (Volkan 110) That is to say that the victim, unable to deal with the overwhelming feelings, seeks in some way to compensate for his feelings of inadequacy. Volkan theorizes that the effects of the trauma are “deposited” (Volkan 110) into the offspring of the victim, creating a chain of issues passed from parent to child that continue to be transmitted, even centuries after the initial traumatic event.

Volkan offers the example of a World War II soldier who suffered in what he describes as “the worst defeat in American military history,” (Volkan 113) and then turned to a life of compensatory behaviors for this past shame. For example, after the war the soldier created a series of birdhouses for birds in his back yard and controlled them rigorously; tagging the birds’ legs and making certain that each bird and its offspring remained in only the home the soldier had designated. In such ways he tried to attain dominance over his environment and exert control over life and death on those around him.

Volkan theorizes that by teaching his son to be hunter, the soldier passed along this same need to control those around and exert a power of life and death. The soldier’s son became no common hunter, but one who machine-gunned deer from helicopters. Volkan likens this passing on of traits to his son as the “depositing” of the damage done by the trauma, from father to son. Volkan theorizes that the son’s interest in taxidermy was an attempt to “repair” his repressed feelings of shame by reconstituting his victims. Volkan describes all this as “narcissistic personality organization with malignant personality trait,” (Bosnia-Herzegivia, p. 115) meaning in essence that the son through his actions in life was trying to overcompensate for some wrong that had been “deposited” in him by his father. As well, the son’s daughter Julie in turn became a veterinarian, which Volkan views as more manifestations of “repairing activities” (Volkan 116) to overcome the original trauma set in the prison camp soldier’s psyche two generations before. Through these examples Volkan demonstrates the systematic passing on of trauma from generation to generation.

Volkan applies this same theory to explain the Serbian-Bosnian conflict. He theorizes that the entire Serbian slaughter of the Bosnia Muslims came as a result of a perceived humiliation suffered 600 years prior, in the Battle of Kosovo, by the Serbians at the hands of the Muslim Ottoman Turks. It did not matter, as Volkan explains, that the reality of what happened in the Battle of Kosovo was quite apart from the martyrdom that the Serbs decided they had suffered. All that mattered was the Serbs of 1389 believed they had been humiliated and wronged, and then, six hundred years later due to the continued generational depositing of the feelings, the Serbs were virtual repositories of ill will and shame that was just waiting to be boiled over and directed towards a potential solution.

Volkan offers that Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb politician behind the entire uprising against the Bosnians, was just such a catalyst that directed this latent rage. Volkan’s transgenerational transmission of trauma meant then, in this context, that the Bosnia Muslims became for the Serbs the reincarnation of the Ottoman Turks of six hundred years prior. By attempting to destroy the Muslims, much as the soldier’s son had machine gun slaughtered deer, the Serbs were, by this theory, able to revitalize and compensate for the abyss of shame that had festered in them all these years.

Volkan’s theory appears to make perfect sense in the context of the Serbian-Bosnian conflict. He gives examples of how the Serbs would rape Muslim women in the “assumption . . .that the child produced by the rape of a non-Serb woman would be a Serb,” (Bosnia-Herzegivia, p. 125) and thereby provide an “ethnic cleansing” (Bosnia-Herzegivia, p. 125) cure for the angst and humiliation deposited into the Serbs over the centuries. In short, transgenerational transmission of trauma meant that the Serbs “perceived a ‘real’ threat, based on a past trauma,. . . and felt compelled to act against it.” (Bosnia-Herzegivia, p. 125) The theory appears to make sense.

And yet, the theory falls short in many respects, and appears contradictory. The soldier and his son, for example, even though they created death (hunting), also created life (birds and taxidermy). There seems to be no “healing” aspect of the Serbian atrocities. It also appears to be completely misguided, and directed towards self-destruction – for example the Serbs ended up bombing their own city of Sarajevo.

It is necessary therefore to turn to alternate theories to try and explain this sort of event. Downs’ “Democracy” essay offers a very different explanation for such political phenomenon – focusing instead of on underlying external forces, such as past perceived insults or trauma, rather on the machinations of political leaders themselves. Downs reasons that the focus, or catalyst for political events is the leader, or what he calls the “decision maker,” who is trying to achieve an end. Downs states that so long as the decision maker is “rational,” he will get his way, and achieve his end goal. This decision maker does two things:

(1) He calculates the most reasonable way for the decision-maker to reach his goals, and
(2) He assumes this way will actually be chosen because the decision-maker is rational. (Democracy, p. 4)

Downs is careful though to explain that “rational” does not necessarily mean civilized. Rather, it means “behavior oriented towards this end and no other.” By “this end” Downs means the end goal chosen by the decision-maker. In this context, for example, Milosevic the leader’s actions were cold, calculated, and rational means towards achieving an end of political supremacy – for him. Downs theory would mean that Milosevic merely wanted to achieve absolute power and did whatever he had to do to make that happen, irrespective of any acting out of ‘implanted’ trauma or anything else.

Downs’ theory as well offers alternate explanations for events offered by Volkan to support transgenerational transmission of trauma. For example, Volkan described how Milosevic had the six hundred year old corpse of Lazar, the martyr from the Battle of Kosovo, exhumed and displayed all over Serbia to foment the Serbians and resurrect their past trauma. Yet Downs would offer this as merely another form of rational action by the decision-leader to achieve his goal of state domination, that is, “action which is efficiently designed to achieve the consciously selected political or economic ends of the actor.” (Democracy, p. 20) The same action, offered as proof of transgenerational transmission of trauma by Valkan, would illustrate for Downs an action by the decision-maker towards his own end.

Another theory that equally well explains the entire Serbian conflict is Converse’s “Belief Systems,” which focuses on the beliefs of the masses as the driving force behind political phenomenon. Converse first defines a belief system “as a configuration of ideas and attitudes in which the elements are bound together by some form of constraint or functional interdependence.” (Belief Systems, p. 3) This seems clear enough, but the real relevance to the Serbian issue is when Converse goes on to explain that the less educated, or more “common” the citizen of a country, the less “global” (Belief Systems, p. 54) and indeed less accurate, the point of view will be. Converse for example outlines how a less educated individual might be in favor of socialism (or think that he is), but at the same time state that he is against nationalization of the industry, a clear contradiction. Converse explains this anomaly by saying that the such a person, representing the masses, could not be expected to have a proper or consistent belief because he had: “less than a college education and was not generally interested enough in politics to struggle through such niceties, simply lacked the contextual grasp of the political system or of his chosen ‘ideology’ to know what the appropriate response might be.” (Belief Systems, p. 15) Similarly, for example, the Serbs thought that by impregnating a non-Serb the resulting child would be a Serb, ignorant to the fact that a child was the product of both its father’s and its mother’s genes. Converse then would conclude that the masses – the average Serbs – not really being so educated or “global,” would be more likely to present a belief system full of ignorance that might move towards extreme nationalism, which was exactly the movement that resulted in the Bosnian genocide.

Converse also offers this same theory of movements being the result of the will or tapping into the will, of the masses, to explain the Nazi movement. Converse first asks, “How could the German people have lent support to a movement with an ideology as brutal and authoritarian as that of the Nazis?” (Downs 62) (The same question could be asked of the Serbs.) Converse explains though, for example, that one of the promises made by the Nazis was that debt would be erased for all famers, and given that the German economic system at that time was near collapse, this was all the farmers, who created a strong base for the voting political parties, wanted to hear. Converse in other words, reasons that catering to the masses is all that is needed to actuate any political agenda. This theory, then, would equally well explain the entire Serbian movement – as one that catered to the general Serb populace, that Volkan admits was in the forefront of a “nationalism” (Volkan 123) movement. In other words, that All Milosevic had to do was promise the Serbs a better life, and build on their nationalism, and they inevitably followed him.

In sum, neither Volkan, Downs nor Converse explain entirely the Serbian movement against the Bosnians. Vokan’s theory addresses underlying, almost subliminal forces. Downs puts the focus on the will of the leader, in this case, Milosevic. Converse on the will of the masses, the Serbs. All three theories applied both independently and together are needed to make sense of the tragedy, as certainly all three make sense when applied in this context.