Biographical Constructions of the National

Images of the Enemy and Tales of Violence by Former Combatants in the Post-Yugoslavian Wars

(Last modified March 2002)

Twenty-five interviews conducted with young veterans who fought in the post-Yugoslavian wars in the nineteen-nineties form the empirical basis for this research. The study investigates the emergence and transformations of interpretive paradigms prevalent in specific groups and throughout society, based on the wartime experiences of these combatants. Among the central issues pursued are: How did these young men become soldiers and warriors? What new realities emerged, according to their perspective? What developments lead to the establishment of armed bands, leading in turn to armed conflict? How did stereotypes of national purity and essentialist communities become cultural truisms? How did collectively legitimated violence give way to individually practiced violence? The biographies of former fighters demonstrate how perpetrators of violence are formed and how the dynamics of violence are organized.

Although this research reveals a mosaic of different paths leading to war and of different forms of warfare, characteristic trajectories of conflict and typical forms of action also emerge, as well as the simultaneous existence of traditional and modern phenomena and symbols. Small and large groups of people, their coexistence and cooperation in wartime and their actions in a highly militarized society coalesce to form a complex structure of conflicts. Regional, cultural, and national peculiarities, idiosyncrasies in the civilian-military relationship, and special characteristics of male socialization were used as vehicles in these confrontations.

Violence is integrated into a horizon of meaning. In other words, violence becomes the prerequisite for and means of a politics of identity, claiming as it does that the very borders which it aims to create in fact already exist. Images of the enemy and the experience of violence serve as a special means of highlighting concepts of ethnic community and are inseparably connected with organizational and institutional, cultural and interpersonal factors. Interviews can aid in reconstructing empirically how ethnicity is conceived as a compatible attribute of experience and meets with acceptance when it is associated, in a step by step process, with violence. The existential experience of violence is communicated together with the postulated existentialist community, so that it becomes directly relevant for the actions of individuals.

"Normal soldiers and warriors" tell stories about relationships and identity, about fantasies of violence and the search for community, as well as the search for autonomy. They structure the course of events, speak of rules and conditions, of room for discretionary action and obligations, of cooperation and alienation, of the battle against death and loss. What emerges from these narratives is a notion of confrontations which were experienced by interview partners as central to their identity, because they threatened the existence of both parties in the conflict. The narratives also demonstrate how the delimitation of ethnic boundaries and self-mobilization serve to create a sense of "military community".

But the interviews also show that even while such existential communities are in the process of being constructed, differentiations and the destruction of former life forms which result from the war itself are working to undermine them. When violence is over, new differences have become visible: refugees, traumatized persons, fanatics, criminals, profiteers.