EESE 6/2005

War and Britishness after 1945: Narrating Bosnia

Barbara Korte (Freiburg)


1.     War and Britishness after 1945

In her study Britons, which traces the invention of British identity in the period between 1707 and 1837, Linda Colley counts war (in particular war with France) among the central factors in forging this identity.i Colley's theses have been received controversially, but she is not alone in claiming a connection between war and notions of 'British', 'English' or other collective identities. Judy Giles and Tim Middleton's 'sourcebook' on national identity as it was conceived between 1900 and 1950 contains a whole section on "War and National Identity". The editors note that wars are "obvious occasions when ideas about national identity become particularly visible".ii At the same time, however, they remind us that any notion of national identity is necessarily complex and in flux, and that different wars fought for different reasons have played different roles in the conceptualisation of what they refer to as 'Englishness':

The idea of Englishness which existed in 1900 and which was called upon between 1914 and 1918 was not the same sense of Englishness for which men were exhorted to fight in 1939, although it inherited certain aspects from the Edwardian and Georgian eras. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Englishness was constantly debated, re-worked and re-formulated: the 1940s' idea of 'a people's war' to combat Nazi Germany was a very different (and notably more inclusive) concept than that of the 'hero's war' of 1914.iii

Despite such relativisation, Giles and Middleton would agree that war was a significant factor in shaping a sense of national identity in Britain until the end of the Second World War. Since this watershed, however, a straightforward relationship between national identity and war appears to have vanished. To Linda Colley, the absence of war on a large scale after 1945 explains the vagueness and uncertainty of a national identity frequently diagnosed for Britain today:

The Other in the shape of militant Catholicism, or a hostile Continental European power, or an exotic overseas empire is no longer available to make Britons feel that - by contrast - they have an identity in common. The predictable result has been a revival of internal divisions among them. The manner in which Great Britain was made out of that remarkable succession of wars with France in the past is a root cause of its uncertain identity in the present, and may well be the means of its unmaking in the future.iv

For Western Europe, the Second World War appears to have been the last war in which a majority of the people stood uncontroversially behind their governments when the war was declared and fought. As far as Britain is concerned, the Falklands War was, of course, a conflict in which the country engaged for national reasons (reviving the patriotic war rhetoric of the Second World War). It was, however, a minor war fought by professional and not by conscripted soldiers, and as a war that provoked a highly critical reception at least among the intelligentsia, it has helped little to promote national feeling in the long run.v Far more frequently, Britain's military exploits abroad after 1945 have served not a national purpose but an international policing or 'peacekeeping' role as part of a multi-national force. Considering the protest of a significant part of the British people against their country's alliance with the United States in the war 'against Saddam' in 2003, the association between the nation and its war-farers seems unsettled indeed. As causes for war, and obligations to enter wars, become globalised, the relationship between 'the nation' and war gets increasingly complicated. It would appear that the wars of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in which Britons and other (West) Europeans have participated - or were at least expected to participate - have challenged communities above all to scrutinise war's legitimacy and necessity, and to ask in the name of which community war is conducted.

Much of the present controversy about Iraq is rooted in the fact that this war was conducted without a United Nations mandate to cover the action of a super-power and its 'willing' allies. But even where such a mandate existed, and where the purpose of military engagement was only 'humanitarian', this engagement has provoked questions as to why and how nations which do not fight their 'own' war are affected by the conflicts in which they participate. The civil war in former Yugoslavia exemplified both the fragility of the nation state as a political construct and the perversity of (ethnic) nationalism. Arguably, it is this dimension of the war in Yugoslavia which caused a range of British filmmakers to narrate this war with particular attention to the issue of identity - not only the identities of the parties directly involved, but also the sense of identity of Britons who were drawn into the war in Bosnia. This paper will be devoted to three of these narratives, all of which were produced in the late 1990s: Beautiful People, Welcome to Sarajevo, and Warriors.

2.     Beautiful People

Beautiful People (1999) is an episodic film in the mode of tragicomedy; it received an award at the Cannes festival. The film was written and directed by Jasmin Dizdar, a Bosnian expatriate living in London; the script was commissioned by the British Film Institute. It seems interesting in our context that only one of its episodes is set in former Yugoslavia. Primarily, the film is concerned with repercussions of the war in Britain. The opening sequence of Beautiful People shows programmatically how the war among Yugoslavs spreads to Britain: Two former neighbours from a Bosnian village, a Serb and a Croat, fight each other on a London bus and in prominent locations of the capital such as Parliament Square. They end up in neighbouring beds in a hospital where the English nurse is unable to tell which is the Croat there and which the Serb. But not only is the Balkan war 'fought' on British soil. Britons themselves are personally affected by the conflict in Bosnia: Portia Thornton, a young doctor from an upper-class Tory family, falls in love with and eventually marries Pero, a refugee to whom former Yugoslavia is the past and Britain the future. A BBC war correspondent, Jerry Higgins, who has filmed an amputation in a makeshift hospital in Srebrenica, is haunted by his experiences and suffers a mental breakdown. A psychologist diagnoses him as suffering from 'Bosnia syndrome' - i.e. seeing the world through the victims' eyes. Dr Mouldy, a father of two boys who has been left by his wife, helps a young Bosnian couple accept the baby the woman expects after having been raped by enemy soldiers. And as an epitome of contemporary Englishness, a young football hooligan is 'reformed' when he is confronted with the war in Bosnia. Significantly, this happens not via television, that is, the medium which brings war into everybody's living room. Rather, Griffin Midge experiences the war - about which he knows nothing despite television - in real life and, quite literally, as part of an international humanitarian mission: On his way back to Heathrow from Rotterdam, where he has attended a qualifying match which the English team has lost, the drugged young man gets lost on the airfield, falls asleep on a freight pallet and is parachuted into the Bosnian war zone as part of a United Nations aid supply thus symbolising his country's role in the Bosnian theatre of war. Still wearing his Gary Lineker shirt, the disorientated Griffin runs into a group of refugees and is rescued by soldiers on a UN mission.

However, Beautiful People discusses not only Britain's role in Bosnia. It also establishes parallels between the Balkans and Britain in the 1990s. Poignantly, the film presents contemporary British society and identity as multi-faceted. In London at least, people are shown to live in a multitude of social groupings and ethnic communities, all of which bear their own potential of conflict, including nationalist and racist aggression. A young black man is attacked by Griffin's ultra-chauvinist pals (who also slap one of Dr Mouldy's little sons for supporting the Holland team), and the hospital bed next to the two former Yugoslavs who have fought each other on the bus is occupied by a Welsh nationalist (a reminder of devolution) who has burnt down twenty cottages of English weekend tourists. In this film, then, narrating Bosnia serves the purpose, among others, to suggest that British national identity may be just as fragile as the Yugoslavian has proved to be.

3.     Welcome to Sarajevo

In contrast to Beautiful People, my next example is set primarily in Bosnia during the year 1992. Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) was produced by Channel Four Films, directed by Michael Winterbottom and written by Frank Cotrell Boyce, based on the book Natasha's Story by war correspondent Michael Nicholson, who here wrote about his own experiences in Yugoslavia. The film's title is not explained until fairly late in the film: "Welcome to Sarajevo" is a graffito on a wall next to where Canadian blue helmets are stationed. Although the soldiers shown in the film are mostly Canadians, the protagonist, Michael Henderson, is British: a war correspondent, part of an international reporter's team based in Sarajevo who cover the violence committed against muslims in Bosnia. Although the protagonist is thus established in an international context, the film also points to his Britishness: Henderson works for British television, he drives a landrover marked with a Union Jack, and his behaviour is explicitly contrasted with that of an American colleague.

A media-critical dimension is important in the film: Television was the medium through which people world-wide were able to watch the war in Yugoslavia and the inefficiency with which the international political community confronted it. In Welcome to Sarajevo, both the medium's detachment and the politicians' helplessness are transcended on a personal level. Michael Henderson is transformed from 'objective' observer-reporter to committed helper, achieving as an individual what politicians and officials are unable to perform. As a matter of fact, Henderson becomes emotionally so involved in the conflict that he rescues an orphaned Muslim child and - like the real Michael Nicholson - (illegally) takes her to Britain.

The perspective of the war correspondent is congenial to rendering a war in which Britain, like other nations, was involved primarily as an onlooker with restricted opportunities for humanitarian assistance. The film maintains that such wars, too, call for engagement, and that this engagement will change the people drawn into a 'foreign' war. At first, Henderson considers himself a reporter only. His attempt at professional detachment is visualised through the conspicuous use of documentary material, authentic stock footage originally used by leading British and American news programmes. Increasingly, however, Henderson cannot just observe and simply report back home. More and more, he is shocked and haunted by war images which he processes not as a camera but as a human being. This affectedness leads to humanitarian action when Henderson comes across an orphanage in Sarajevo and promises one girl, Emina, that he will help her go to Britain. Mrs Savic, who runs the orphanage, buries dead children in her garden so that everybody can see the graves. In the same spirit, she reminds Henderson of the ethical dimension of his profession - the crimes against humanity in Bosnia must be made public: "Everyone must know we are dying. Tell them that we are dying."

That this act of telling is indeed necessary is emphasised through the editing of the respective passage. A sudden cut from the children's graves to British Prime Minister John Major reveals the politician's ignorance and fatal undecidedness in face of human catastrophe. Major is shown during a parliamentary speech, claiming that Bosnian children can best be helped at home and should be treated "on the spot" rather than being brought to Britain (or any other nation participating in the United Nations aid programme). This official British policy, which is covered by the United Nations' refusal to evacuate muslims from Bosnia because this might be interpreted as collaboration with the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing, is a target of explicit satire in a later shot in which pictures of UN vehicles are accompanied musically by a rendering of "Don't Worry, Be Happy". However, not only do politicians try not to worry too much. British television's coverage of the war in Bosnia becomes an object of critique when it is revealed that Henderson's reports are never treated with first priority. Not even a bloodbath filmed by his team is selected as a lead story for the evening news, which instead open with the news that the "Duke and Duchess of York are getting divorced".

After he has witnessed an attack at the orphanage, Henderson delivers a deliberately non-objective, committed reportage on behalf of the children and reproaches the international community for not evacuating victims of the war. Eventually he also finds a way to actively help at least some of the children when they are permitted to be taken on a convoy to Italy. Although the permission does not include Emina, Henderson manages to take her to his family in London and later even adopts the girl, thus bringing the Yugoslavian war into Britain - against the will of his government. In Welcome to Sarajevo, the British war correspondent becomes an example of how his country should have acted. The film relates Britain's inability to fulfill its humanitarian mission to the fact that its rules of engagement in Bosnia were dictated by an international mandate prescribing 'neutrality'. As a result, Henderson can no longer identify with his country's politics and is obliged to find a way of acting as an individual whose sense of belonging to Britain as a political community has been disturbed. A similar development is portrayed in the third example to be considered here, and because its protagonists are British soldiers, this film addresses the issue of Britishness even more directly and more aggressively.

4.     Warriors

The two-part television play Warriors, produced for the BBC in 1999, was written by Leigh Jackson and directed by Peter Like Welcome to Sarajevo, the production works with a documentary aesthetic and shows the failure of the international mission in Bosnia as well as the necessity to act in truly humanitarian manner. More explicitly than Welcome to Sarajevo, however, Warriors links this concern to Britishness, since it focusses on protagonists who have to act - and eventually refuse to act - as members of the British army in Bosnia. This television play addresses a new role of soldiering in a global context, and how this affects values which British soldiers have traditionally been expected to represent.

Warriors focusses on a fictional battalion of soldiers from Liverpool who, in the summer of 1992, are sent to Bosnia as part of the United Nations Protection Force. It is the very fact that they operate under United Nations command which causes the ethical conflicts on which the production concentrates. It opens with scenes that show the men in the company of family and friends in Liverpool. The men are torn abruptly from football matches, family visits, pubs, birthday parties, visits to the disco and preparations for a wedding when the battalion is called to Yugoslavia. It is emphasised that neither civilians nor soldiers know much about Bosnia - except that Sarajevo once hosted the Winter Olympics. Bosnia is clearly foreign ground and of no concern to the community which the men leave behind, and at first they, too, become engaged in the war only as part of the international mission.

When Warriors first shows the soldiers in uniform, on the plane that takes them to Bosnia, their blue United Nations helmets are strikingly highlighted. From the early scenes in Bosnia and throughout the television play, United Nations regulations and diplomacy hinder British soldiers from taking part in the war as they have been trained to do: that is, by taking sides and acting according to a code of behaviour that includes the defence of freedom and the protection of victims of aggression. As it is, the men cannot even fulfill their humanitarian mission properly because UN regulation obliges them to remain strictly 'neutral'. As an officer instructs them during their first briefing: "Our mandate: we don't take sides. We don't move refugees, we're not here to start ethnic cleansing, we are not here to redraw the ethnic map of Bosnia." As part of the United Nations, British troops "have to stick to the rules of engagement", and these rules demand frustrating compromise: "We are a neutral force. We don't assist in ethnic cleansing." Throughout, the UN representative, Landgruber, is presented as a negative, hesitant figure who is, in turn, sceptical of the soldiers' suitability for what he sees as a sensitive diplomatic mission: "You're the British army so you want to smash your way through."

The title 'warriors' on its literal level refers to the type of armoured personnel carriers in which the soldiers cruise the war-devastated country, but it can also be read as an ironic comment on the role the soldiers play under the United Nations mandate: They are systematically prevented from performing the active role which the word 'warrior' connotes.vii Impotently, they witness the human tragedy resulting from the scorched-earth policy and ethnic persecution of the civil war. Wearing the blue helmet, the soldiers are permitted to help nobody but the most 'seriously' injured, since all other forms of interference might be interpreted as a breach of neutrality. The men, however, become so disturbed by what they have to stand by and watch that they begin to disregard orders. They hide a refugee who wears an English football shirt - index of a pan-European enthusiasm for that sport, and at the same time a sport with which the British are particularly associated. When their vehicle is searched, however, they have to let him be taken away and possibly killed. In another scene, they rescue a Muslim boy and take him to their camp hospital. They are reprimanded by their own officer for this "cavalier behaviour", but the television play makes it clear that only this kind of behaviour is properly humanitarian. Furthermore, its iconography suggests that it is this kind of behaviour which should be expected from soldiers serving under the Union Jack: Significantly, during their first subversive rescue action, the soldiers' vehicles are painted a United Nations white but still fly the British flag. Afterwards, the soldiers are made to display United Nations colours instead, but later, when they try to help a group of Muslim refugees against orders, their 'warriors' again show the Union Jack.

Only in subversive acts can British soldiers in Bosnia act according to their self-image as British soldiers. Warriors makes the point that this self-image, this soldier's ethos, unites men of different social class, religion and ethnicity. Like Beautiful People, this production emphasises that British identity also comprises ethnic diversity, but here this diversity serves a different argument. The battalion includes a Jew, Engel, and the son of Eastern European immigrants, Sochonik, who has a Polish mother and Serbian father. During a scene in Part One, the soldiers' IDs are checked by Croatian militia who provoke and insult Engel and Sochonik in particular, the latter being asked why he "want[s] to save dirty muslims". The incident reveals to all soldiers in the battalion how easily ethnic belonging may be turned against a person; it deepens their sympathy for the Bosnian muslims but also enhances their group solidarity as members of the British army.

Saving muslims becomes an increasingly important mission to the men despite their orders to stay neutral and hence constitutes a prominent part of the subsequent action: One of the lieutenants, John Feeley, assists an old couple whose dog is shot by militia while their house is being plundered. In the end, they are killed nevertheless, the old man's body being crucified to his own house as a gesture of provocation to his British 'protectors'. Lt Neil Loughrey befriends a Muslim family with many children. All of them are killed and burnt during an attack of their village despite the presence of UN soldiers in the vicinity; Loughrey acts out his anger against the only house of the village that still stands because it obviously belongs to a Christian family. The television play takes time to 'document' the cruelty - and the soldiers' shocked reaction - in detail. Feeley makes friends with another Muslim family, the Zecs, and actually falls in love with Almira Zec. He tries to shelter Almira and her daughter but, again, cannot prevent their death. Later, the soldiers find Almira's husband, badly wounded, on a truck filled to the brim with dead bodies. This event causes Pte Alan James to lose his nerve and abuse the leader of the Croat militia - an outburst for which he is to be disciplined after the battalion's return to Britain.

For its final section, the production cuts abruptly back from Bosnia to Britain, thus emphasising the men's disorientation when they come 'home' about one year after they set out for Bosnia. Despite their acts of individual courage, officially prescribed helplessness has wrecked the men psychologically and has heavily disrupted their sense of personal identity as well as their relationship to their own country. After their return, they are all alienated from their former lives and the country that sent them to Yugoslavia. Recollecting the war scenario, Lt Loughrey unintentionally hits his pregnant fiancé; to the policeman who investigates the incident, Loughrey confesses: "You feel so guilty for leaving all those people in the shit". Lt Feeley tries to commit suicide. Pte James loses his nerve again in a supermarket when he sees a child screaming at her mother: "I've seen kids who've really got a reason to cry". Unaware of his background, the mother says that he should be "locked away". The father of his girlfriend confronts James with patriotic rhetoric: "You were all heroes", to which James replies: "I think it was shite what we did". James, who used to be a great football fan, can no longer bear to be in the Liverpool stadium; like his comrades, he feels guilty for having returned to a country still widely unaffected by a war in which it is officially engaged. All of the men, through their involvement in Bosnia, have lost contact with their community.

5.     Conclusion

Britain took part in the Yugoslavian civil war as part of international political effort and not because of any national interest. However, as the three examples discussed have shown, even such engagement in a 'foreign' war challenges the sense of British identity. The two films and the television play examined demonstrate this challenge to different degrees and with different centres of attention: Beautiful People by showing how a foreign war may be 'imported' to Britain and serve as a mirror to Britain's own weakening sense of national coherence; Welcome to Sarajevo and Warriors by portraying British subjects, civilian and military, who get into conflict with their country's official (internationalised) policy and who accordingly develop doubts as to what it means to act as a person with a British ID. Narrating Bosnia means narrating a war which offered the British no potential for the positive identification of war and the nation, but which had a considerable potential for inquiring into what it means to be British.


i Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (London: Vintage, 1996 [1992]). For a more extensive sketch of the connections between Britishness and war(s) see my "Wars and 'British' Identities: From Norman Conquerors to Bosnian Warriors: An Overview of Cultural Representations," in War and the Cultural Construction of Identities in Britain, eds. Barbara Korte and Ralf Schneider (Amsterdam/Atlanta, Georgia: Rodopi, 2002) 9-24. The present paper develops ideas first proposed there.

ii Judy Giles and Tim Middleton (eds.), Writing Englishness 1900-1950: An Introductory Sourcebook on National Identity (London: Routledge, 1995), 110.

iii Ibid.

iv Colley, 7.

v Lucy Noakes articulates a frequent interpretation of the Falklands War when she considers it as "an opportunity for Britain to prove that it was 'Great' again; a chance to recompense for the numerous 'end of empire' wars of the past fifty years: wars in Malaya, Korea, Kenya, Aden, Suez, Cyprus and the North of Ireland that symbolised Britain's declining role as an imperial world power. The Falklands War became a crusade to recapture lost British honour and values, an opportunity to prove that British military might still existed, as much as a relatively small and short campaign to recapture some small, sparsely populated islands thousands of miles away." See Lucy Noakes, War and the British: Gender, Memory and National Identity (London and New York: Tauris, 1998), 106. See also, among others, James Aulich (ed.), Framing the Falklands War: Nationhood, Culture and Identity (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1992); Kevin Foster, Fighting Fictions: War, Narrative and National Identity (London and Sterling, Virginia: Pluto Press, 1999); David Monaghan, The Falklands War: Myth and Countermyth (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998).

vi In 1987, Kosminsky had directed a television documentary about the Falklands War, The Falklands War: The True Story (for Yorkshire television).

vii Compare the entry for warrior in the Oxford English Dictionary (second edition, 1989): "One whose occupation is warfare; a fighting man, whether soldier, sailor, or (latterly) airman; in eulogistic sense, a valiant or an experienced man of war. Now chiefly poet. and rhetorical [...]."