In the annals of atrocity there are milestones: the Nazi Holocaust, mass-starvation tactics by Stalin and Mao, Cambodia's "killing fields" under Pol Pot, Rwanda's genocidal massacres.
And then, in modern Europe, a grisly ethnic war in Bosnia.
It may be difficult to conceive of sitting down with, say, any of Bosnia's ferocious factions for a clinic on how to "play nice." Or of installing a wartime code of conduct in a land where lawlessness and depravity long set the tone.
But in a still-volatile Bosnia - where those who directed the massacres of thousands remain free and the US has decided to keeps its troops indefinitely - retired American officers are teaching about how to fight war under international rules.
The monumental project carries a number of ironies.
The classes are part of a $400 million, US-backed "Train and Equip" program for Bosnia's mainly Muslim Army. But many European diplomats fear the lessons are actually preparing the victims of the last Balkans war to take revenge in a future one.
And most of the retired US officers doing the training fought in Vietnam, a war where some documented atrocities helped shock America into withdrawal.
But then, the Geneva Conventions appear to have been devised with contradiction in mind.
The international agreements were envisioned as a way to confront war, deemed illegal on the surface by signatories, and to lessen its impact on innocents.
The conventions, first undertaken in 1864 and with subsequent amendments signed on Aug. 12, 1949, acknowledge that "war law" is an oxymoron. But they also recognize the basic necessity of creating bounds.
In the classrooms here in Pazaric, a desolate, bullet-riddled town near Sarajevo, the agreements translate into a class in common sense and morality from chief instructor J.R. Kendall. The Missourian, one of several instructors from a pool of 200 retired officers attached to the Alexandria, Va.-based Military Personnel Resources Inc. (MPRI), devised his curriculum with war crimes in mind.
Lessons from Vietnam
It was Mr. Kendall's own experience in Vietnam that sparked his idea for the class after he landed in Bosnia, where prisoner executions, rape, torture, and slaughter of civilians were often the rule rather than the exception between 1992 and 1995.
In Serbo-Croat, the cycle of blood and vengeance has a name: kad tad.
Consider the following confession, which illustrates what Kendall and 200 other training officers are up against: "My soldier Sloven, 17, had been tortured and killed at Doglovi," says Neven, a commanding officer in the Bosnian Army, who fought to defend Sarajevo from Serb attackers. "I saw Sloven's body when we retook the position, and all I could think of was what I'm going to have to say when I knock on his mother's door.
"Two minutes later one of my men came in with four Serb prisoners on ropes, tied like cattle. I said, 'I told you no prisoners,' and took my Heckler machine gun, which hung from a strap at my side, and sprayed them in the chest."
This tale of wartime murder, told in the Texas Restaurant in downtown Sarajevo, came from a former officer who finished his law studies in Sarajevo before the war, but who argues that breaking the Geneva Conventions was acceptable given the atrocities that he saw perpetrated by his enemy.
Indeed, Balkan wars have been forever famous for the slaughter both of prisoners and civilians. The most recent wars - touched off by the breakup of the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995 - were no exception, despite repeated pledges made by the warring factions to abide by the conventions.
Mass executions were carried out with ruthless efficiency in towns like Srebrenica, Vukovar, and Ahmici. Systematic rape and torture in concentration camps were common terror tactics used mainly by Bosnian Serbs but also by Muslims and Croats.
The Bosnian officers here in Pazaric have welcomed the US training.
"Of course we want to have an army which will respect all human rights in maybe some future war," says Maj. Sead Rekic, a senior Bosnian Muslim commander at the Pazaric training school.
The training has provided the added advantage of putting Muslims and Croats, both of whom subjected each other to gross atrocities, into group discussions that raise "heat of the battle" experiences that might otherwise have remained secret for years.
Questioning US teachers
Still, students are skeptical. What the Bosnians want to know is what makes men who fought in the Vietnam theater, famous even in Yugoslavia for its atrocities, qualified to teach them war law.
"The My Lai massacre is mentioned at least one time in every class," says Kendall, who attained the highest rank in the military for an enlistee - command sergeant major - before retiring after the Gulf War.
Kendall arrived in Vietnam just days after the March, 1968, My Lai massacre, on a reconnaissance unit attached to the same division as that of the offending US troops.
His take on that American atrocity: "Yes, it did happen. But because the United States is a democratic country and because the United States [has] a democratically based army, something was done about My Lai."
Kendall points out that US veterans raised some of the loudest calls for prosecution. In fact, US Army Lt. William Calley was found guilty of lining up civilians and gunning them down. Many Americans were appalled that he served only three years under house arrest and three days in a stockade.
Says Joe Allred, MPRI's chief information officer and a professor of military science at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, "There are other historical examples we prefer to use because we would prefer teaching from a positive viewpoint rather than from a negative viewpoint."
Atop Curriculum: Courses in Civility
In their class on "The Law of Land Warfare," instructors from the Alexandria, Va.-based Military Personnel Resources Inc. (MPRI) teach three of four major articles of the Geneva Conventions.
* The first deals with "the amelioration of the condition of the wounded and sick in armed forces in the field."
* The second addresses decent treatment of prisoners of war.
* The third concerns the protection of civilians and the issue of collateral damage, and which sites are off limits as targets.
The conventions stipulate that all captives must be protected against acts of violence, intimidation, and insult. They are entitled to all basic human rights and are required upon capture to give only name, date of birth, service number, and rank.
Physical mutilation and exposure to scientific experiments are forbidden.
Captives must receive decent lodging and medical attention. Collective punishments, torture, and cruelty are forbidden, and discipline for escape is to be only mild in form.
- Philip G. Smucker