This year marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Bosnia (1992-1995), a conflict which divided families and saw one time neighbours become deadliest enemies. Currently, the British army is embroiled in a number of conflicts. Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya are examples of modern day intervention, as we act like an international police force along with our American friends; it is entirely possible Bosnia was the tentative first step toward this. The Brits’ role as part of the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia was just that, to try to provide humanitarian aid to the Bosnian people. Juxtaposed to current conflicts this one was dealt with in a completely different way. Though it was far bloodier, the UN stuck steadfastly to their roles as peacekeepers by aiding a nation that was being ethnically cleansed. The ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims and Croats was being perpetrated by the Serbs and, after much delay, UN troops were sent in, not to fight but to deliver aid and protect the wounded. They were not allowed to fire their weapon unless they were facing a direct threat. As a contrast, a more recent intervention in Libya saw troops dispatched to aid the rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi. They used airborne attacks as well as ground troops to neutralise threats to the rebel factions and innocent civilians not loyal to Gaddafi’s oppressive regime.
The feelings and frustration of the forces and people involved are beautifully portrayed in the Peter Kosminky’s 1999 film Warriors. British troops in Bosnia arrived under the UN flag and provided humanitarian aid; the film follows their experiences exclusively. Focusing on the troops restrained approach gives Warriors a unique view of the conflict. It allows for assessment of the tragedy and a personal connection with the soldiers on the ground. This makes the film far more accessible for western audiences, helping to bridge any perceived gaps in culture. I spoke to Peter Kosminsky, actors Cal MacAninich and Matthew MacFadyen as well as Bosnia expert Chris Leslie, in an attempt to understand more about Bosnia and discuss Kosminsky’s excellent film depicting the story of the UN peacekeepers, 1st Battalion Cheshire Regiment.
“I wasn’t especially interested in the Bosnian war per se. I was interested in the situation of the British troops who went out there to act as peacekeepers but found themselves stuck in the middle of someone else’s very brutal war” says Kosminsky. “It was the effect on men, trained to kill, now operating under the very restricted UNPROFOR mandate that most interested me.” Kosminsky notes how this was a relatively unusual role in 1992-1993, most other conflicts concerning western armies had involved fighting, such as Korea and Vietnam, but thinks that the troops involved were secretly proud of their role of saving lives rather than taking them. They found the task to be an entirely different experience to the one they had imagined. Not being complicit in the violence did not spare them from its effects. “Many were deeply affected by being unable to intervene in what they felt were extremely brutal and unjust situations. To stand by powerless because of a restrictive mandate and watch neighbour butcher neighbour is always going to have a powerful psychological effect on the men and women involved.”
The strange thing about the Bosnian war is how little was known about it in Western Europe and the USA. Peter Maass discusses in his book ‘Love Thy Neighbour: A Story of War’ how Americans knew almost nothing until the state department published details of the atrocities that were occurring in the region. “The reports become pornographic. It is the sort of pornography that repulses most people, but some are titillated by it. For a while, everyone in America and Western Europe was fascinated by it, for whatever reasons.” Although the atrocities were not declining, far from it, the interest in them was. Maass declares that “even snuff films get boring after a while.” The British soldiers in Warriors provide the perfect avatar to gain insight into the war and experience a western reaction to the violence. Their indignation and devastation is clear to see. It is impossible not feel their frustration as their efforts seem so meagre in the context of such a brutal turn of aggression.
Warriors constructs a very clear picture of this throughout and was aided by superb research, Kosminsky gives thanks to his researcher Sally Beare who spent many months interviewing British troops about their six months in Bosnia. “Her transcripts formed the basis of the scripts written by [screenwriter] Leigh [Jackson]” recalls Kosminsky. “He and I then spent some time as guests of the British army in Central Bosnia conducting our own research.” This thorough examination makes Warriors a triumph of realism. Although the film itself is very one sided in favour of Bosnian Muslims and Croats, it deals with real situations that were experienced by soldiers who spent up to 6 months on the front lines in Bosnia. “The film is only balanced to the extent that their reactions were balanced” states Kosminsky. The men interviewed for the film observed atrocities from both sides, but some were more heinous than others. That the Serbs more often look like the ‘bad guys’ is largely attributed to the way they acted during the war, something that is also pointed out by wartime journalist Peter Maass.
Atrocities such as those carried out in Ahmici are shown to highlight the culture of massacres and merciless killings. The town of Ahimici played host to incredible cruelties perpetrated by the Croatian community of Bosnia on the Bosniak civilians in the area. Civilians were murdered, shot at point blank range in what is regarded as one of the most heinous examples of cleansing during the war. Kosminsky and his actors deal with the incident in the way the British soldiers they interviewed experienced it. Shock, reverence for the dead and rage against the monsters who carried out the slaughter with no way of seeking revenge for the innocent civilians, many of whom were women and children. Presented with such unbearable sights, the soldiers in Warrior are understandably devastated, highlighting a crucial difference between this deployment and others of the modern era. Not being part of the fighting meant many soldiers would become more emotionally involved with the deaths of the citizens, some of whom the soldiers had formed strong attachments. This makes the film a more complete drama but also allows more emotion to be displayed as relationships are
built, then fractured or destroyed.
The sheer scale of atrocities was something that had to be considered during the writing of the script. In every corner of the country some terrible incident was most likely occurring and Kosminsky worked closely with writer Leigh Jackson to ensure that the audience did not suffer from “atrocity fatigue”. The soldiers chatter and laugh together before being exposed to the horrific realities surrounding them. As in the Studio Ghibli masterpiece, Grave of the Fireflies, the action is tempered with moments of clarity and spontaneous jollity, helping to mask the pain that most of the characters are experiencing on a day to day basis. Kosminsky and Jackson adeptly build to natural climaxes during the film, acquiescing to the need of offering incisive moments of tension and passion.
Moments like the portrayal of the Ahmici massacre snap the viewer to attention and none more so than an almost unbelievable encounter Private James, played expertly by Matthew MacFadyen, has with a Serbian soldier. James is told to find one man left alive in a truck of corpses; his physical and mental strength helps him through the search and to return the man to safety. He confronts the Serb soldier who is in command and who laughed throughout the whole ordeal. The scene is a culmination of James’ caring, protective personality breaking down. He has witnessed atrocities he could never have imagined and has lost his best friend when he would have gladly exchanged his own life to save him. The following is his fiery repost to the Serb:
“Get your dick out. Come on, let’s see your dick. Or are you a eunuch? Did your mother bite it off when you were having sex? You want to rape me? Come on, speak to me. Why are you letting me insult you? I thought you were a man. Come on, fucker. You and me mate.”
“The scene was based very closely on one very specific description in an interview carried out by Sally Beare” says Kosminsky. “I remember reading it and being shocked by its rawness and visceral power.” A working class man from Liverpool, James had been thrown into a situation that rocked him to the very core. “I used to dream about scoring the winning goal for Liverpool. Now I dream about walking on dead bodies, because that’s what I did.” These moments had profound effect on the troops of 1st Battalion Cheshire Regiment. Actor Cal MacAninch notes how the film draws heavily on the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, “the difference being that these men were traumatised, at least in part, by their impotence as soldiers.” MacAninch was intrigued at how his character Sergeant Sochanik, was one of the few who managed to escape severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “I loved his inner strength,” recalls MacAninch. “No matter how much chaos and provocation surrounds him, he remains focused and calm. He had a great humanity.”
“It was not difficult but challenging to play a man worn down slowly. It was mostly a joy and a privilege to play such a richly drawn character.” Private James fits in perfectly with Kosminsky’s vision for the film which is described by MacFadyen as “unflinchingly, unsentimentally real”. Kosminsky found himself with no restrictions on the material he included. Although he would adhere to some budgetary limits, to ensure maximum realism Kosminsky had his actors spend time with the Royal Green Jackets in Warminster, familiarising themselves with their SA-80 rifles and the Warrior vehicles, from which the title is derived, that they used in Bosnia. As the filming began in the Czech Republic soldiers who had previously completed a tour in Bosnia came to drive the Warriors on set and provide interesting background. MacFadyen notes how a lot of authenticity came from hanging out with the troops every day for weeks on end, “[We were] asking questions and being ribbed mercilessly by them. We copied the way they wore their kit and how they spoke to each other.” Although he never met anyone with the same experience as Private James, MacFadyen knows how invaluable the experience with the soldiers was, “By the end of the shoot the producer said he couldn’t differentiate between the actors and the squaddies!”
These experiences along with the writing of Leigh Jackson are vital elements in the realistic and captivating content of the film. “Leigh Jackson had written such a tremendously powerful screenplay, ultimately it’s all in the writing” says MacFadyen, something that is reiterated by Kosminsky. Warriors manages to create a perfect balance between the scale of the conflict and the personal events, “we focussed relentlessly on the personal experiences of individual soldiers. This kept the final result personal and emotional rather than geopolitical. This was Leigh’s triumph.” To keep the personal touch of the film, Jackson and Kosminsky kept away from the war-torn city of Sarajevo and the politics therein, the Brits in Vitez and Gomi Vakuf were their exclusive focus. Having taken in the film on a few occasions Chris Leslie states a desire to have seen more of Sarajevo and some balance between the suffering of Muslims and the suffering of Serbs and Croats but he knows it was important to establish who the ‘bad guys’ were. “Although all sides were complicit, the Serbs cleansed 70% of the country within three months, from that it is quite clear to see who the aggressor is” states Leslie.
Leslie tells of how a lack of return on investment slowed down the response to the massacres in the warzone. The US had decided to play down their role as the World’s policemen only for that to change in Iraq, with the UN also being slow to act. “The UN and its sponsoring countries can have teeth when there is something in it for them” states Leslie referring to the toothless approach and the offering of false hope and security to thousands that died under their watch.
Private James is a distinct creation of Jackson’s but his emotional nature and conscience never break the real drama of the war going on around him in what is a very special performance, expertly directed. The death of his best friend is a turning point for James, “It shatters him” says MacFadyen, “I’m sure Alan James would have taken that round for his best friend.” James acts as a kind of moral compass highlighting the views not only of the soldiers interviewed for the film, but the filmmaker and scriptwriter. One scene shows James trying to sequester an injured Bosniak from behind enemy lines, the protective part of him still lives despite the death of his best friend. “It’s such a brilliantly written and heartbreaking sequence; we just had to play it simply and truthfully” says MacFadyen. “I do think his selflessness, big heart and fierce sense of right and wrong are James’ strongest characteristics.” The character is a vehicle for the writer’s dismay at the events around the country experienced by the soldiers.
Perhaps the most prevalent issue when considering Bosnia and current wars is how little was known about the conflict. MacFadyen, MacAninch and Kosminsky were not particularly familiar with Bosnia before getting involved with the film and this echoes the experience of most of the western public. Modern wars such as Afghanistan and Iraq are subject to 24 hour media coverage and most details are known about what is happening on any given day. Chris Leslie bemoans the way the media handled the information, “it was alarming that the media in the UK portrayed the conflict as inevitable and that for hundreds of years these people hated each other. This was an excuse for our military and politicians to stay out of it.” Led to believe it was a hopeless civil war fuelled by hatred, it was easy for the British public to forget about the conflict. What was actually happening was an invasion and mass slaughter of thousands
of innocent civilians, ethnic cleansing on an unprecedented level.
Warriors begins by assuming absolutely no prior knowledge of the conflict but does not explain it on simple terms either. Not focusing on the media interest of characters like Slobodan Milosevic, the film draws the viewer into personal stories of our own troops sent out to the area. “I wanted the viewer to experience the situation exactly as the newly arriving Brits experienced it – knowing as much or as little as they knew” reflects Kosminsky. “I do think it helped the audience associate with the central characters.” It was important for Kosminsky that as much preconception as possible is left at the door and the experience of the soldiers is shared simultaneously with the audience.
The characters of Almira and Naser Zec in Warriors are embodiments of a particular aspect of the conflict. “These characters were very much created by Leigh Jackson” recalls Kosminsky, “but a number of the officers we interviewed met and interacted with well educated Bosniaks. It was exactly how familiar and westernised these people were that struck these Brits and made the sad experiences they suffered more devastating for them.” These two characters had a profound effect on the soldiers in Warriors; especially Lt. John Feeley (Ioan Gruffudd) who strikes up a semi-romantic relationship with Almira. In comparison to modern warfare in the gulf, these relationships help to shrink the supposed distance in cultures to one more appropriate to actual geographic distance. The shocking sequence of the soldiers finding the burnt bodies of people they had previously shared meals with is drawn from the recollections of officers who were stationed in Bosnia. The soldiers were often surprised by the number of Muslims in Bosnia that were westernised and far from the alien Arabs they may have been expecting, educated and often with a good grasp of English.
Leslie notes that there were many factors that made the Bosnian war so explosive and that some of these factors are present within UK society. “Dehumanisation, religion and ethnocentrism are rife in the UK, particularly in Northern Ireland but even in Glasgow during the marching season and the football season you can see this all manifesting.” Finding someone who is your enemy due to religion or ethnocentrism and then dehumanising them was a key ingredient of the conflict. Cal MacAninch found that even just filming in formerly war torn regions of Eastern Europe reminded him of places in Glasgow and how striking even those similarities were. His character Sergeant Sochanik is Scottish, born to Polish and Serbian parents. The character sums up the experience the Scottish actor had. “In all the horrors he encounters he is constantly reminded that these are his people” says MacAninch, whose own character is a conduit for portraying the proximity of the cultures of Eastern and Western Europe.
The Bosnian war is particularly compelling for many reasons and Warriors produces a magnificent but tender homage to the British troops doing the UN’s dirty work in the region. MacAninch hopes that the film “can remind people of the futility of war.” 20 years on from the war and the echoes can still be heard around the world, almost as a warning. This could happen again given the right circumstances and it could happen in your own back yard. Warriors provides a moving testament as to why we should never let that happen.