Kosovo: The Brave Tribes Are Doomed

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FRESNO, CALIFORNIA — Hey, you want to hear the New World whining at Old Europe? Here it is, from a press conference Condi Rice gave about Kosovo: "I mean after all, we're talking about something from 1389. 1389! It's time to move forward. And Serbia needs to move forward. Kosovo needs to move forward.

Well, I think we can all agree that 1389 was a while back, and that all things considered, "forward" is generally a good way to go. And not just for Serbia. No, Ma’am. It applies just as much to Kosovo.

"But hold on, Gary," you may be yelling at your computer, "what’s all this about 1389 anyway?" Well, as historical expert types like me and Condi know, that happens to be the date of one of the coolest battles in history. And since it happened in Kosovo, they decided to call it the Battle of Kosovo.

I’ll get to the battle in a minute--it’s a glorious battle and deserves retelling--but first I want to talk about Condi’s tantrum over people caring about stuff that happened long ago. I’ve heard this a lot: "Can’t they just get over it?" There’s some rule in California, it’s like a misdemeanor to care about anything that happened more than a week ago. And Condi, the all-American spinster, picked up that notion and ran with it, because as we all know Condi had to be twice as dull as her rivals. So here’s Condi solving the problems of Balkan history in a mall-girl whine: "I mean come ON! 1389? I wasn’t even BORN then!"


Serbs just can't "get over it."

Well, Condi, have a seat on that mall ottoman, the one between the American Eagle store and the foodcourt, and let Uncle Gary tell you something very important: You see, L’il Condi, some people actually care about stuff that happened a long time ago. Yeah, seriously. Like, for example, me. I care more about one particular day in 1779 than I do about my whole sophomore year in high school. Because on September 23, 1779 a Scottish-American rebel privateer named John Paul Jones maneuvered his soggy old raider, the Bon Homme Richard, next to a much bigger British warship, the Serapis, and lashed the ships together to make sure no quarter could be asked or given. And even though the Brits blew his little ship apart right under him, Jones refused to surrender and scared his Brit counterparts into surrendering themselves.

That day gave me a reason to live. All my sophomore year gave me was the strong impression that people were stupid and nasty. So excuse me, Condi, I’ll take 1779. A lot of people will take any year in the past over a lot of years in the present.

And the year 1389, the one you want the Serbs to get over? Well, 1389 means even more to the Serbs than Jones’ victory means to me. The battle they fought against the Turks that year is the main plotline in every song and story the Serbs tell to this day. It taught generations of Serb boys what was expected of them, how honorable warriors are supposed to act.

I suspect Condi’s other, deeper problem with the Serbs’ 1389-ophilia is that the Serbs didn’t even win that day. Talk about un-American! They hang around dreaming of this old battle, and it was a defeat? Gawd, get a life!

Well, not everybody wants a life, Condi. There’s a lot to be said for glorious death instead. Ever read the Bible, for example? Not that you have to. A lot of the great old European warrior stories are about defeats. The Anglo-Saxons sang about getting stomped by the Vikings at Maldon, and the Franks just couldn’t get enough of the Song of Roland, which is a whole epic poem about how Roland, Charlemagne’s Custer, lost his whole command. They should do a poster of that battle, with Roland as this Conan-the-Barbarian hero battling to the end, surrounded by hacked Saracens, wearing a t-shirt that says, "It’s a Euro thing, you wouldn’t understand."

But if you really try, you can see the appeal yourself. I mean, take Custer. If he’d won, wiped out the Sioux at the Little Big Horn, would anybody remember him now? It’d be kind of a bummer, actually. Much cooler to die fighting, like those old paintings show him, hat off and hair flying in the wind, drawing scalp-hunters from all over the Plains.

If you think about how cool Custer’s defeat was, it’s easier to understand the Shia, who whip themselves every year to get into the spirit of Hussein’s all-time one-sided defeat at Karbala ("Anguish"), where he charged the Caliph’s entire army with 30 companions. Makes the charge of the Light Brigade look like a game of touch football at the Kennedy compound.

Nope, there’s no doubt about it: defeat is sweeter than victory any day, unless it actually happens to you. Once you’re safely under the sod and the battle is in the hands of the tribal bards, defeat is the best material around. Poets love defeat, which makes sense if you remember the kind of people who wrote poetry at school.

The Serbs were a major power in 14th-century Europe. People forget how much pure geographical luck, good or bad, makes or breaks countries. Without the good luck of having the English Channel for a front lawn, Britain would have been toast a dozen times over. And if the poor Hungarians hadn’t been stuck guarding Europe’s back door when the Mongols came calling, they might have ended up the dominant power on the Continent.

Serbia was another up-and-comer until it had the bad luck to run into the Turkish offensive line. The Serbs were always the best warriors in the Balkans, and under King Dusan the Great, they smashed their way down into Albania, Macedonia and Northern Greece. Belgrade, their capital today, was back then at the northern edge of Serbia. The real heartland of Serbia was--you guessed it--Kosovo.

The Turks were on a tear of their own. They still hadn’t taken Constantinople, and wouldn’t for another 60-odd years, but they’d long since bypassed it to establish a foothold in Europe, from which they pushed further, year by year, doing deals when it suited them, or just plain crushing anybody who wasn’t open to negotiating the Turkish way.

The battle of Kosovo was one of those classic match-ups: Serbs pushing south and east meet Turks pushing north and west.

The Turks were some of your more interesting conquerors: goofy, ruthless and sly. You never knew which kind of Turk you were going to meet on a given day, the kind who were totally willing to take in a Christian vassal state and offer a friendly exchange of harem boys to seal the deal, or the kind who liked to sit on big pillows and think of new ways to make infidels die more slowly and painfully than any have died before.

The Serb legends say that the Serbs’ King Lazar could have made a deal with the Turkish sultan Murad I, but Lazar had some wacko dream where the angels told him to take the kingdom in heaven over one on earth. Like a bad contestant on Let’s Make A Deal, the idiot chose the kingdom in heaven--at least, that’s the way the Serbs tell it. I just wish the angels would offer me a deal like that, just once. You’d see me sign on the dotted line for the earthly kingdom offered to me so fast you’d hardly have time to pack before my goon squads arrived to throw you in the dungeons. And my dungeons--let’s just say they’d be very special dungeons, dungeons I’ve been planning in my head since well before sophomore year.

Okay, enough daydreaming. Lazar probably wasn’t the brightest king on the block. He should have taken the deal. But if you look at the paintings of him he looks like one of these ruddy stocky type-A guys with high blood pressure who wake up angry and stay that way all day. Well, the Turks cured that blood pressure problem in one day.

The reason Lazar should have taken the deal was because the Sultan had a huge army, at least 40,000 men, a massive number for pre-antibiotic days. And maybe 4,000 of those were the Janissaries, Christian boys grabbed from their mommies as a kind of infidel tax, taken to Istanbul to be brainwashed into Muslim fanatics and turned loose on the Sultan’s enemies. You have to admire that, taking the little infidel kiddies and turning them into Muzzie stormtroopers. I mean, just because you’re a world conqueror doesn’t mean you can’t have a sense of humor.

Lazar’s Serbs had a pretty good force of their own, maybe 20,000 men--including a few Croats, which is really amazing because if you know anything about the Balkans you know Croats go completely apeshit with hatred when you even mention Serbs, like that big jock in the movie who used to sniff the air and go, "NERDS!" when some math geek was in smell range.

But the Croats could see the Turks coming their way, and had the sense to fight with the Serbs to try to stop them before they reached Croat-land. It’s actually pretty classic gang-war logic: the 12th Street boys may love to fight the 14th Street kids, but if some gang from out of town shows up, they’re going to unite against it. Or pretend to. Because that’s the other classic element here, treachery: one of the Turks’ big assets was a traitor Serb noble, Dejanovic, who knew the territory and acted like their Indian scout, hoping to share the spoils.


Serbs having a hard time "getting over" the loss of Kosovo

The Serbs were fighting on their home field, but the Turks were professionals, vets with dozens of battles all over the Balkans to their credit. The Turks also had clear superiority in armor and weapons over the Serbs, who had panic-mustered every stable boy and dirt farmer they could find, even if they had no armor or proper weapons. One of the coolest features of the Serb force is that they had what European armies never seemed to have: mounted archers. Even so, most accounts of the battle spend a lot of time talking about the powerful volley of Turkish arrows that started the battle, so reading between the lines--which you absolutely have to do to make any sense of these old ballads--it seems like Kosovo started out as the classic encounter between European tactics, shield wall and heavy cavalry, vs. Steppe warfare: long-range arrow bombardment and maneuver.

The Serbs did what European armies always did best: they charged, and smashed right into the Ottoman force. Eastern armies were always impressed with what those white boys on their big plow horses could do on a flat field, with room to get up speed. There’s an Arab saying that dates from the Crusades: "The charge of a Frank (European) could knock down the walls of Babylon."

But there’s another truism about cavalry charges: unless they were supported by infantry, cavalry battles usually dissolved into "melees," meaning a bunch of individual duels between sweaty grunting tired guys on sweaty grunting tired horses. A few bold horsemen can make a big dent in the enemy line, but if the enemy has the discipline to stay in formation and the numbers to plug the dent, then eventually numbers will tell.

That’s what happened at Kosovo, as the day wore on and everybody’s hacking arms got tired: the Serb charge was absorbed, stopped and finally reversed as the Turks committed more troops to battle.

There are times in war when courage is a bad idea. After Stalingrad the Germans should probably have surrendered on the Western Front, applied for admission as the 51st State and hoped for the best. All they got for the long years of hopeless fighting after that defeat was a few million casualties and a badass rep that got their logo put on a lot of bikers’ helmets. Not much of a return on investment.

And when you’ve lost the battle, like the Serbs had at Kosovo by that point, then the idea of doing the noble thing, sticking around to get wiped out, isn’t a very good idea. Unless you’re thinking about all the art that it’ll inspire: you know, sad songs, sad paintings, sad stories. The Serbs have lots of those, all about Kosovo, and all about how they got wiped out as the afternoon wore on. There’s a famous painting of a dead Serb warrior with this medieval hippie Serb girl weeping over him that kind of sums up the whole necrophilia thing here. I can see the appeal of it, probably way more than most Americans can, but I have to be honest: if it came to lying dead there and getting a kiss vs. having a Corvette and driving to Malibu with her—you know, both of us alive and all—I’ll take the Malibu option. (But since Malibu ain’t an option for me and for just about everyone else, all we’ve got is the 1389 option.)

What’s cooler are the funny lines the Serbs have their heroes saying to each other as they get slaughtered, like: "If every one of us turned into a grain of salt, we wouldn’t be enough to salt the Sultan’s dinner!" Ho-ho-ho, and now let’s politely get hacked to death.

The consolation prize in Kosovo was a kiss and a drink

But for a really pro-active, mentally healthy response to defeat, give me my all-time favorite Serb: Milos Obilic. Milos, a Serb warrior who saw his comrades slaughtered at Kosovo, didn’t just moan and groan in defeat. No, he took action. What happened was, when the Sultan, Murad came out of his pavilion to wander over the battlefield and gloat over all the dead Christians, Milos played dead. When the Sultan got within stabbin’ range, Milos jumped up and gave Murad the biggest, and last, surprise of his life. Yes, thanks to a Serb, Murad the First became the first and last Ottoman sultan to die on the battlefield. Sultans didn’t specialize in leading from the front.

What the Sultans did best, you can see from what happened when the Sultan’s son Bayezid heard that Daddy had been sliced ’n diced by a bad sport from the losing team. Bayezid, a born executive—God, I love this bit—Bayezid called his brother Yakub who was leading the other wing of the Ottoman Army: "Oh Yak-ky! Yak-ky little brother, palsy-walsy…could you just come on over here for a sec? Dad left me a message for you!"

Yakub came galloping over and Bayezid gave him the message: "The Sultan’s throne isn’t big enough for the two of us, so… Die you bastard, so I can be Sultan!" Of course Bayezid didn’t do the killing himself; Sultans don’t lower themselves to manual labor. He had some eunuch strangle his little bro. Killing your brothers; one of the seven habits of successful sultans, an Ottoman business management best seller.

The Serbs lost a huge number of men that day. So did the Ottomans, but they had a much bigger population to draw from. That allowed them to keep sending out more and bigger invasion forces. Even though the Serb nobles cut a deal at last, and stayed in power for another couple of generations, the whole of Serbia was inevitably absorbed into the Ottoman empire just around the time that the Turks finally took Constantinople.

By this time, the Austrians were terrified, and for good reason. One-hundred-and-fifty years later, the Ottoman armies surged all the way to the walls of Vienna. So the Austrians, like the cunning little cowards they’ve always been, established a couple of Serb preserves, like Roosevelt did with the buffalo, to make sure the Serbs didn’t go extinct… Real reason: so the Serbs could be their human buffer against an Ottoman attack.

You may have heard of the names of those Serb enclaves from the 1990s Balkan wars: Vojvodina and Krajina. Krajina, a long swathe of ethnic Serb territory within current-day Croatia, was eventually ethnically cleansed by the Croats: thousands of Serbs killed and the rest, hundreds of thousands, burned out of their houses, thanks to a huge dose of U.S. military aid to the Croats, along with NATO jets and intelligence. All this came after the Serbs beat the shit out of the Croats in their first fair fight in history.

And that’s the lesson of Kosovo for the Serbs: we always fight better than our miserable enemies, and yet every time we get screwed. Whether it’s by the Ottomans in medieval times, or the Clintons in the 1990s, the basic blueprint was set right there on that one day in 1389, all those years ago. Just look what happened to Kosovo in 2008, the wonderful Declaration of Independence that Condi Rice was gushing about. Kosovo is now a fully independent "country" run by a cowardly Albanian mafia that lasted about five minutes in combat against middle-aged Serb militia units, then hid in the bushes until NATO bombed Serbia into submission, and rode back into power as victors all because the gullible Americans used their Air Force to bomb the Serbs into "getting over it" once and for all.

And now Condi just can’t understand how the Serbs have the nerve to be unhappy, just because their ancient homeland has been overrun with Albanians, whose main exports are popping out Muslim babies and running every mafia operation in Southern Europe. Why don’t the Serbs just deal, huh? Why don’t they get a life, get over it, already?

By Gary Brecher aka THE WAR NERD