Blue Flower

Can the world learn how to settle conflicts without wars? Ivana Milojevic explores the possibilities.


There is no ‘other’, only us.

How can a person kill? How can a person torture another? How can anyone kill a child? And why are most of those who commit gruesome crimes men?

Growing up in a stable, secure Yugoslavia of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s and being fed the history of wars and conflicts, I often asked myself those questions. Since no answer was coming and neither teachers nor parents had an answer, I concluded two things:

(1) These things only happened in the past.

(2) These things only happened to others, far away from here, mostly in Africa or Asia.

Surprise, surprise, it happened again, and it happened to us. In order to deal with what is happening in Yugoslavia, the rest of Europe reinvented an old category and gave it a new meaning: "The Balkans, it only happens there." Not in Europe and not to us. People in Serbia tried to shut their eyes and mind to what "their" government and military was doing to others, in other parts of Yugoslavia, and recently in Kosovo. But apart from people standing on the side, and allowing horrific crimes to happen, some men have actually done it. Now, how is it possible to turn relatively benign "creatures" into mass murderers? How can a man live with his family one day and kill someone else’s the next?

Unfortunately, this is not too difficult to do. To wit:

(1) You create the category of "the other" (even if that other was until recently part of "us").

(2) You attach to "the other" the attribute of "the less".

(3) You create the sense of threat, "them" coming after "us".

(4) You glorify heroic fighting and sacrifice for ones own people/land.

(5) You actively prosecute opinions/ideologies that are trying to resist the above process (1-4).

(6) When confronted with your own deeds, you deny them or justify them with "Others are also doing it", or "It’s a war".

The roles of men and women 

During the conflicts in Yugoslavia, women were seen as victims, and their suffering, including rape, was commodified for political purposes. This myth of "helpless and innocent" women is not quite true. In fact, most women actively participated in gender roles assigned them by their national leaders. Most women gave their loyalty predominantly to the nation (rather then to "people" or "women"). Prominent women leaders, such as Madeline Albright in USA and Mirjana Markovic in Serbia, both promoted war, one way or another. However, women were also the majority of the organisers and participants of the peace movement.

Because of their real and alleged roles in society, they were not sent into a killing mission. We cannot quite verify what would happen if they were, whether the character of the war would change, and whether there would be less killings and torture of innocents. But I believe that it would be more difficult for women to detach themselves from "real" people, especially children; a detachment that seems to be possible for many men.

I recall one scene in a USA movie on the persecution of Christians in ancient Rome. As Christians were taken to the arena full of hungry animals, everyone cheered. But when the Christian children were taken men kept on cheering while women hid their heads or left, as they could not continue watching. The scene might be fictional but I believe that this could have happened. Through child bearing and child rearing women know—emotionally and spiritually, as well as rationally—the cost of human flesh and human lives.

For men, detached and not influenced by child bearing and child rearing, it is easier to replace the value of human life with that of "higher goals". To achieve those goals, the means—killing and torture—become irrelevant. The potential for such detachment is actively practiced during peaceful times. The patriarchal Yugoslav men first practised the idea of "the other" and "the less" against their own nationals: women. When confronted with their own deeds, they would justify it with "others are doing it (it has always been like this)" and "they deserved it".

Feminism, the ideology that challenges patriarchy, is actively prosecuted and seen as a threat (to identity, social order, nature, even to love). The strong man, "the hero" of the family is glorified. Ideologies that promote love and peace among all people are seen as either naďve or foreign, and if foreign, they are seen as a threat (to identity, religion and social order).

They say it is usually only difficult to kill the first time. Every ‘next’ time becomes easier. One more process takes place during peace that helps men become killing machines. This is represented by svinjokolj (the slaughtering of the pig), a social event organised around preparation of "food". Here Yugoslav men (especially in rural areas) have a prominent role. After cutting the throats of innocent animals (who also plead for mercy with their screams and by trying to run away) is it so different to do the same to the throats of people? Yes, animals are "less". Their brains less developed. But so is the case with the brains of children and babies. So might be the case with the brains (humanity, ethics or values) of "the others" who are "less".

Shall we turn men into women to prevent wars?

However, it seems difficult, if not impossible, to turn men who are influenced by ideologies other then patriarchy, nationalism or racism, into killing machines. To create change and go beyond wars we do not have to turn men into women. The very active participation in child rearing and the creation of local communities would help enormously. But as is the case of women actively supporting nationalistic ideologies and men actively supporting peace movements, the gender is not the sole, nor even the most crucial, factor. Women, emotionally against war, might adopt nationalistic ideologies in order to save their own sons.

A similar process took place with women’s grass roots movement against war, the so-called "mothers’ protest" in Yugoslavia.

While the "mothers’ protest" was the first public resistance to the wars there, it was later used to reinforce nationalism. The area of the posting of young men became contested ("our sons should be returned home as they should fight only for our own nation") but not the posting and the preparation for fighting itself. Therefore, it is more important to change our current cultural cognitive maps, patriarchal and otherwise.

At first thought, it seems that the more "civilised" people are, the more difficult to kill. The European and American NATO has confirmed it belongs to a more civilised group by killing with "silver gloves". NATO confirmed its civilisation (and masculinity) with its advanced weaponry and with its emotional detachment from the conflict, by fighting a ‘just’ war and being on a ‘humanitarian mission’.

People in urban areas and in developed nations also confirm their civilisation by not killing animals personally. They eat "meat" not animals, and buy it in unrecognisable and disguised forms in supermarkets. No blood sheds from their gentle hands. However, this detachment makes it even more evil: The refusal to engage. The belief that you are above. We then can feel correct in using humans to develop science and medicine, like in the case of a very developed nation of recent times, Nazi Germany. Or the current scenario/practice in the modern science—using and experimenting with human and animal embryos. In the case of cloning Dolly the sheep, thousands of animals (born or not born) suffered; the only ethical question was, "Shall we clone humans too?" Thus, we can see that "civilisation" itself cannot be the guardian of the prevention of cruelty, torture and murders.

The thing that can prevent such events from occurring is not solely the emotional process and repulsion from direct killing/torture (this can be, as I said, easily bridged). It is rather in the rational/emotional belief and values that no living being is "less". That no living being should be tortured and killed for who and what they are.

The ideology that speaks against women being seen as "less" is feminism. The ideology that speaks against other races/nations/people being "less" is cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism and post/anti-colonialism. The ideology that speaks against the animals being "less" is the animal liberation movement. The ideology that speaks against seeing children as "less" is the movement to protect their rights and the movement against child abuse. The ideology that speaks against seeing older people as "less" is the movement against ageism. The ideology that speaks against some of us as "less" because we do not have the same abilities as the mainstream is the disability movement. The ideology that speaks against the nature being "less" is the ecological movement. And the ideology that speaks about all living beings being part of the same "one", is Neo-Humanism. In order to go beyond wars we need them all. 

Ivana Milojevic is at the Graduate School of Education, University of Queensland, Australia, where she is working on her PhD and researching anti-racist policies in schools. She formerly worked as an associate lecturer at the University of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia.