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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: Kosovo: Six Hundred Years of Serb Defiance




Whoever is a Serb and of Serbian birth


and who does not come to Kosovo Field


to do battle against the Turks,


Let him have neither a male


nor a female offspring.


Let him have no crop.


When it became clear last week that NATO was about to launch airstrikes against Serb-led Yugoslavia, a popular Belgrade television station immediately changed its programming. Out went a much-advertised Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy named "Twins." In came an epic Serbian movie, "The Battle for Kosovo," depicting 14th-century Serbian knights in heavy chain mail being slaughtered by Ottoman hordes on horseback.


A film about the most crushing military defeat in Serbian history might seem a strange way of boosting the morale of the population on the eve of an attack by a combined air force of the United States, Britain, France and Germany. But American ways of thinking fail to take into account the historically charged mind-set of many Serbs - one in which defeat can mean victory, and the fact that the rest of the world is against you is merely further proof that you are right and everybody else is wrong.


Kosovo has long occupied a central place in Serbian mythology. Although it is now largely inhabited by Albanians, it is known as the cradle of the medieval Serbian empire, the most powerful and civilized state in the Balkans, with a rich cultural tradition that is expressed in the vibrant frescoes of Serbian Orthodox monasteries such as Decani and Gracanica, both of which are in Kosovo. This state was effectively annihilated on June 28, 1389, a day as important to Serbs as July 4, 1776, is to Americans.


At dawn that day, at least according to myth, the elite of the Serbian nation assembled with banners flying on Kosovo Field, a few kilometers north of modern-day Pristina, to do battle against a vastly superior Turkish force. The Serbian troops were weighed down by their heavy armor, iron halberds and maces. When the battle began, the more mobile Turkish cavalry hacked the Serbs to pieces. The Serbian leader, Prince Lazar, was captured by the Turks and ceremonially beheaded.


To the Serbian mind, the parallels between past and present are clear. The Turkish Ottoman Empire was the superpower of the 14th century. Just as Prince Lazar's knights were no match for the Turkish cavalry, the Yugoslav army has only a fraction of the military power available to NATO. But this may not matter if the Serbs are able to resurrect their tradition of national defiance.


Although the battle of Kosovo led to the extinction of the Serbian state, memories of the heroic last stand by Prince Lazar and his knights sustained the Serbian popular imagination during five centuries of Ottoman rule. Every Serbian soldier "knows what he is fighting for," reported the American journalist John Reed at the outset of World War I. "When he was a baby, his mother greeted him, 'Hail, little avenger of Kosovo!'" In 1915, the Serbian army made its last stand on Kosovo Field in the face of vastly superior Austrian and Bulgarian forces before retreating across the mountains to the Adriatic.


The legend of Prince Lazar and Kosovo became a potent political force in Serbia as the old Yugoslavia broke apart in the years following Tito's death in 1980 and the collapse of communism. In 1988, a coffin purporting to contain Lazar's mummified remains was taken on a triumphal tour around Serbia. Slobodan Milosevic, then leader of the Serbian Communist Party and now Yugoslav president, used this outpouring of emotion to repackage himself as a national leader. On the 600th anniversary of Lazar's defeat, in June 1989, Milosevic was hailed as the reincarnation of the fallen prince at a rally on Kosovo Field attended by more than 1 million Serbs.


During the years of Turkish occupation and the years of communism, the Serbian national idea was kept alive by a series of epic poems handed down from one generation to another. The most famous of these poems, "The Battle of Kosovo," tells the story of Saint Elijah coming to Lazar in the form of a gray falcon with a message from God in his beak (British author Rebecca West would use the legend in the title for her book, "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon").


The letter offered Lazar a choice between an "earthly kingdom" and a "heavenly kingdom." If he wanted an earthly kingdom, the prince should build up his armies; if he wanted a heavenly kingdom, he should build a monastery. Lazar chose a heavenly kingdom, building the monastery at Gracanica. While he might well have been able to keep his throne by concluding some kind of deal with the Turks, he steadfastly refused to compromise with the enemy.


Then the Turks overwhelmed Lazar,


And the Tsar, Lazar, was destroyed,


With him was destroyed his army


of seven and seventy thousand soldiers.


All was holy, all was honorable


and the goodness of God was fulfilled.


The Clinton administration appeared to be offering Milosevic a similarly agonizing choice in the weeks leading up to the bombing campaign (perhaps unaware of the significance of the falcon in Serbian mythology as a messenger of God, NATO planners even code named one of their military buildups Operation Determined Falcon). He could accept NATO troops in Kosovo to oversee a peace plan restoring self-rule to the province, now nearly 90 percent Albanian. Or he could choose war.


Milosevic is no Prince Lazar. He is a ruthless and thoroughly unsentimental politician whose principal concern is his own survival. Given a choice between an earthly kingdom and a heavenly kingdom, he would obviously prefer an earthly kingdom.


The real question, then, is how Milosevic manages to hang on to his earthly kingdom. The U.S. assumption has been that airstrikes will be sufficient to get him to back down, once he understands the extent of the damage that is being inflicted on his military infrastructure. From an American point of view, such a calculation might seem to be rational. Viewed from a Serbian perspective, however, obdurate resistance may be a better option.While a Serbian capitulation remains possible, an equally likely reaction is best conveyed by a Serbian word for which there is no precise English translation. That word - inat - conveys a stubborn determination to go to any lengths to get revenge on an enemy, even if you ruin yourself in the process. Inat is a concept deeply rooted in the popular culture, and has little to do with whatever government may be in power at the time. This being the case, Milosevic may believe that his best chance for holding on to his earthly kingdom is to wrap himself in the mantle of his medieval predecessor and stubbornly refuse to compromise.


Michael Dobbs is a Washington Post reporter who lived in Belgrade from 1977 to 1980.