Lessons from Karremans at Srebrenica and Puller in China

This past week, a court in the Netherlands found that Dutch military peacekeepers were responsible for three of the 8,000+ massacred at Srebrenica in 1995. The BBC reported it this way:

The Dutch were in charge of the UN “safe area” when Bosnian Serb forces overran it in 1995 and killed 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys.
The court in The Hague ruled that the Dutch troops should not have handed the three men over to Bosnian Serb forces.
The ruling was unexpected, and may open the way for other compensation claims.
The case centred on three Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) who were working for the Dutch force, Dutchbat, during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war and were among thousands who took shelter in the UN compound as Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Gen Ratko Mladic overran Srebrenica on 11 July 1995.
Two days later, Dutch peacekeepers forced the Bosniaks out of the compound.

The BBC 10 year anniversary coverage included this excellent timeline.

 

Thomas Karremans

Now that the necessary background is out of the way it is time to move on to the important analysis: the individual decision level. The Dutchbat (Dutch Battalion) was commanded by LTC Thomas Karremans, lightly armed and totaling roughly 300-450 soldiers. *The figures cited at left are different than others that I’ve come across.

Dutchbat’s mission was to protect the civilian populace in a particular “secure area” or “safe haven,” as designated by the UN. Their rules of engagement were generally for self-defense, and they counted on NATO air support to provide greater punch.

Reading the simplified timeline at left, one learns that LTC Karremans let 4-5,000 refugees from the Serb attack on Srebrenica into his compound on 11 July. The Serb force was roughly corps-sized, which can be estimated at 20,000+ in terms of strength (tough to estimate due to irregular nature of this military force).

The commander of the Serb forces, GEN Mladic (now on trial himself), met with LTC Karremans on 12 July, and essentially strong-armed Karremans into releasing the Bosniaks to be safely “evacuated.” Karremans had a lightly armed battalion, while Mladic had a corps-sized element. The numbers were clearly in Mladic’s favor, and, despite Mladic’s assurances that the Bosniaks would be safe, over 8,000 men and boys were separated from the larger group and executed the next day.

Nobody can ever truly understand another person’s decision. There are a myriad of factors that overwhelm people, for different reasons, at different times, with different incentives holding sway. But the facts remain that it was LTC Karremans mission to protect this group of civilians. These civilians were, as the court ruling put it, in his/Dutchbat’s “effective control.” The sworn enemy of those whom he was charged to protect arrived at the front door, and asked that he turn them over with an “assurance” that they were not to be harmed. It is difficult for any thinking person to conclude anything other than two things: either Karremans was the biggest fool that has ever walked the earth, or an absolute coward.

I believe the latter to be more likely. It seems that Karremans was acting to save himself and used his rule of engagement as cover. This brings to mind the words of GEN Douglas MacArthur at the trial of a Japanese war criminal: “The soldier, be he friend or foe, is charged with the protection of the weak and the unarmed.” Karremans failed two ways: first, in his primary mission, and second, this basic principle of officership as stated by MacArthur.

Fighting might have meant heavy casualties, but with NATO airpower within reach…it is hard to see why Karremans did not choose to disallow Mladic’s coercive request. He could have held defensive positions long enough to call in meaningful support. However, even without air support ~ fiat justitia ruat caelum (“Do justice even should the heavens fall”). Karremans could have found another way to meet his protection mission by accepting his chosen profession’s charge to defend the defenseless until, if necessary, the least breath. Every single Dutch soldier should have been killed in action before one Serb bullet could threaten a single Bosniak. Although this is an ideal type, it is what a professional military officer is obligated to, what he or she ought to be committed to, in serving society. It matters not that these were not Dutch citizens to be protected; the Dutch citizenry chose to send Dutchbat to Bosnia with a specific, legally and morally binding mission. While Dutchbat in general and LTC Karremans in specific failed to meet this mission, the American Marines in China in the interwar period provide a counterexample.

Chesty Puller

This story comes from Max Boot’s book The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. On pages 274-75, Boot describes the American Legation in China, which was essentially a “colony minus,” an expansive trade regime. American governments supported the “Open Door” policy in China, as opposed to the European preference for actual, official colonization.

As such, the US maintained military forces in China, including a Navy patrol down the Yangtze River as well as the Army’s 15th Infantry Regiment and 4th Marine Regiment. The State Department said in 1937 that military forces “primary function [in China]…is protecting American nationals, secondarily, American property.” This was prudent considering the lack of a functioning government amidst the trilateral war amongst the Japanese, Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists.

In Shanghai, the US maintained roughly 1,000 marines in the mid-1930s while the other military forces had an exponential numerical advantage. Boot continues:

“It was not these tiny forces that maintained the neutrality of Shanghai’s International Settlement; it was simply that Tokyo was not yet ready to make war on Britain and America. But there was always a danger that extremist nationalists in the Japanese army would invade the settlement regardless of the consequences. There were constant incursions by Japanese patrols into the American-controlled sector, all turned back peacefully by the marines. One one occasion, 80 Japanese soldiers entered the U.S. zone after dark and began rounding up 200 Chinese for “trial.” When Chesty Puller, the Haiti and Nicaragua veteran who was now executive officer of the 2nd Marine Battalion, heard about the incident, he wasted no time in leading 22 marines out to confront the Japanese. Puller drew his pistol and told a Japanese officer, “I’ll give you five minutes to free those men and get your troops back across Soochow Creek where you belong.” This time, the Japanese complied, but it was clear that war was looming, and that hte little garrisons in Shanghai and Tientsin could only come to grief.”

Puller was charged with protecting American citizens and property in a defined area while heavily outnumbered by potentially hostile forces. When faced with an emerging crisis that may have exceeded the letter of his mission, his instinct was to swing into action and display a willingness to act on his mission’s intent (as he perceived it).

The two military decisions could not be more opposite, even providing for hidden details and unknown factors. It is clear that, in a similar situation, a military professional should aspire to act like Puller, while avoiding Karremans-like decisions.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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