You're in the Army, Now...

Oliwia Berdak
Partisan heroes

2011 was the year when the last of the former Yugoslav states, Serbia, abolished military conscription. High costs associated with the training of young recruits, the professionalisation of the army in the context of NATO enlargement as well as changed social attitudes towards the military have driven this trend since 2003 (when Slovenia abolished the draft, followed in 2006 by Macedonia and Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia as of 2007 and 2008, respectively). One could say that there is nothing special about this change, since many Western European states have undergone the same process. However, the  Yugoslav Wars of Succession of the 1990s have given the military a special status in the region: the army (or rather the multiple armies) has been seen by many as the legitimate defender of the nation; this was most certainly the case in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and in Croatia. Moreover, for a long time, military conscription was how an exclusively male citizen’s duty was expressed, both in Yugoslavia and its successor states. This duty became extremely complicated in the 1990s in the context of the changing state borders, and thus the changing legal claims to men's bodies residing within them. Conflicting narratives about the war — sometimes portrayed as an external aggression, sometimes as a legitimate defence, and sometimes as a civil war — further complicated this matter.

Being a soldier: A right or a duty?

Membership of the army can be seen from different perspectives: as a duty (and thus possibly a burden on those liable to conscription) or as a privilege (since it grants someone full membership of a community and the associated rights). This duality and controversy about the military is reflected, for instance, in feminist ambivalence towards it. Some feminists argue that women will only be recognised as full citizens if they are allowed to participate in the defence of the community, seeing women's admission into the army as a sign of further emancipation. This perspective also stresses the positive impact women can make on the army and its conduct. Others, however, perceive the army as an entirely masculine institution, and see women's role more in anti-war and pacifist movements. Still, in most countries the draft frequently applies only to men, an arrangement which was unsuccessfully challenged in the United States in the Rostker vs. Goldberg case in 1981. Men's participation is thus framed as a civic duty, and women's – as a civic right.

The organisation of the military is also strongly linked to different political traditions of citizenship. In the republican discourse, citizenship is equated as much with civic duties and shared responsibilities as rights. According to this tradition, liberty and equality are seen as being guaranteed by the existence of such institutions as the military. Therefore, the state should have the right to require its members to participate in them. Liberals, however, are wary of subjugating individual rights to those of the community, in particular because states can become involved in immoral wars, in which case they can (or even must) be disobeyed. Naturally, this leaves the issue of so-called 'just wars' unresolved: if the war is deemed just (e.g. defensive), should the 'common good' take precedence over individual choices? And why should only men carry the burden of the defence? This is where the notion of one’s duty as a citizen becomes problematic, and why those arguing from both republican and liberal traditions continue to fiercely discuss this point. A compromise position allows conscientious objection to military service based on religious or philosophical views.

Male duties in Yugoslavia

In the socialist Yugoslavia dominated by the founding myth of the 'War of the National Liberation', such debates did not feature very strongly. The antifascist struggle during the Second World War was praised in popular partisan novels and films. One of the most influential works in this period, read by children in school, was the war diary of the Croatian poet Vladimir Nazor, S partizanima [With Partisans]. Whilst children and young people were taught in detail about the heroic actions of their Partisan forefathers (and to a lesser extent foremothers), they were also actively prepared for another potential campaign defending the socialist homeland from its enemies. Yugoslavia's defence plans were largely based on the concept of mass mobilisation; shortly before his death, Tito stressed how in the case of aggression, every citizen of Yugoslavia had to become a soldier. To this purpose and not so differently from other socialist states, from 1970 onwards primary school children were taught first aid, whilst secondary school children attended lessons in Defence and Protection (odbrana i zaštita).

Military education did not finish there, as young men aged 18 and above were also liable to military service, which could be between one and three years (depending on the unit, the recruit's educational background and time period - service was shortened after 1952). Although some men resented military service, before the late 1980s, it was considered by most as obvious and unquestionable, a social precondition for marriage and thus a stepping-stone to full manhood.[i] The importance of the military in the shaping of masculinity is evidenced by the fact that even after the Yugoslav National Army (YNA) was declared one of the aggressors in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1991 and 1995, many men in the former Yugoslavia continue to remember their service fondly, highlighting its function as a rite of passage to manhood ('a school of life'), a time when best friendships were formed and when one could be mischievous towards one's superiors (Petrović, 2011).

Despite this strong tradition linking male citizenship to soldiering, in the 1980s and 1990 there were attempts to challenge this form of contribution to the homeland. Military service was seen by some as an outdated way of serving the community, and already in 1987, the Young Communist League of Slovenia proposed to allow civilian service to those Yugoslav men 'whom conscience forbids to carry arms'. In August 1988, a gathering of European pacifists was organised in Bohinj, in the then Socialist Republic of Slovenia. Promoting civilian service in Yugoslavia thus arose in a very specific context, where the Yugoslav National Army was seen as an old and obsolete structure, preventing the democratisation and liberalisation of the country. Since soon the YNA generals were seen as pushing towards a military conflict, with an illegal limited mobilisation of the 1st army from 30 June 1991, the aim of getting men out of the army easily reconciled itself with peace activities. In that summer, various groups across Yugoslavia were actively calling for and attempting to get young men out of the YNA to prevent a civil war (Backović et al, 2001). The calls were also directed at republican leaderships for the same reasons.

Who must and who can defend? (and what do they get in return...)

However, not all narratives on masculinity and fighting were linked to regular army service. Beginning in 1990, Serbian rebels and paramilitaries in the Republic of Croatia drew on an older conception of masculinity, referring to themselves as hajduks. Operating in the region between the 17th and 19th century, hajduks were romanticised outlaws outside state authority (Žanić, 2007, p. 115). They also feature strongly across Southeastern Europe, appearing under the various local names as komiti or klepths. By adopting this narrative, the rebels could thus stress their solidarity with their local (Serbian) community, in defiance of the increasingly ethnically assertive Republic of Croatia. Still, others framed them in more state-related terms. The Yugoslav National Army officially 'defended' them and the unity of Yugoslavia, and Croatian politicians and the media linked them to a wider Serbian military effort against Croatia. Moreover, the emerging political structures across Yugoslavia sought to establish control over the various paramilitary groups, trying to incorporate them into their official legal structures in order to ensure a monopoly of violence in a given territory.

The eruption of large-scale violence first in Croatia in the summer of 1991 and then in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the spring of 1992 put any alternative conceptions of male civic duty to the test. The unfolding context of the war together with the traditional understanding of men's duty as defence of their community meant that many men now faced a painful dilemma: to wait for the politicians to resolve the conflict or to take-up arms in defence of Yugoslavia, their local community or their new state. This changed perception and the tension this caused is expressed in an article published in Peace News in 1992 by Zoran Oštrić, a Croatian anti-war activist:

Some young Croatian men fled the country prior to that [violence] and have avoided the horrors that have become part of our everyday life. Many of those who have left could not understand how two or three months later some of their friends were in the army and had in some cases had [sic] even joined up voluntarily (...) Perhaps it was once possible to change things without offering armed resistance, but now a time has come where it's simply no longer possible.

Pressure increased on those who did not want to fight in the war. Still, a small minority continued to question the idea of military contribution. In Croatia, where a provision for conscientious objection was included in the 1990 Constitution, 882 requests for civilian service were filed between 1992 and 1995 (Tatalović and Cvrtila, 2003, p. 29). These men extolled the merits of civic contribution, demanding recognition for their work, which could include voluntary work, humanitarian involvement and political lobbying. In Serbia, where no such option existed, desertion and draft evasion were the main ways of avoiding military involvement. It is estimated that only 50% of men responded to the draft call.

However, the men who did join up as either volunteers and conscripts have frequently narrated their military involvement in the language of citizenship: they fulfilled their duty to the homeland in times of trouble and for this they demand respect and special social rights. However, investigations into war crimes on all sides of the conflict have undermined some of the respect for the former soldiers. Moreover, with an economy crippled not only by war destruction but also by the mismanagement of privatisation and the economy by the ruling parties in BiH, Croatia and Serbia, many former soldiers have found themselves unemployed. Whilst some are entitled to some form of pension and disability allowance, these entitlements are quite low, although this depends on the number of years served, severity of the disability and the country (they are higher in richer Croatia, for instance). Those deemed 'healthy' often received nothing at all. However, even those who seem 'fine' often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with a high incidence of suicide amongst veterans.

The resulting frustration with the governments can lead to mobilisation, efforts at reconciliation and even puzzling alliances between veterans. In February 2012, the veterans of the Croat Defence Council and the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina shared their pensions with their former enemies – the former soldiers of the Army of Republika Srpska – after Republika Srpska did not pay the latter their pensions. Moreover, veterans continue to be a powerful if often silent group, which can be easily mobilised by right-wing politicians.

Men of the future?

Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia introduced conscientious objection in 2004 and 2009 respectively. And it was high time. In Croatia, the number of those requesting civilian service reached a third of all potential recruits already by 2002, pointing to the fact that men no longer wanted to define their duty as citizens in purely military terms. Nonetheless, as mentioned in the opening line, by 2011 all of the former Yugoslav states had abandoned military conscription. With no automatic right to work and no duty to serve, does this mean that ‘male citizenship’ has disappeared? Not quite, as political, economic and social citizenship continues to be gendered, i.e. experienced differently by men and women. Perhaps as part of a wider process reassessing rights and duties associated with citizenship, this could be an opportunity for the state and the civil society to reconsider men's position and to promote different ideas of 'male citizenship'. After all, duties in a community can be defined in more than one way, for example in relation to family and caring responsibilities. However, this will necessarily be a longer process. Despite their legal right to parental leave and the government's incentives,[ii] in 2011 men constituted only 2.6% of all parents on parental leave in Croatia. These statistics are not much better in Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina, clearly indicating that change will depend not only on a redefinition of notions of societal contribution but also of gender norms.



Backović, Ofelija, Vasić, Miloš adn Vasović, Aleksandar (2001) 'Who Wants to be a Soldier? The call-up crisis - an analytical overview of media reports'. In B. Magaš and I. Žanić (eds), The War in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1991-1995. London and Portland: Frank Cass. Pp. 329-345.

Petrović, Tanja (2011) 'Šta će nama vojničke priče? Sećanje na JNA na prostorima bivše Jugoslavije' ['What Should We Do with Military Stories? Remembering the YNA in the Former Yugoslav Space']. In I. Prica and T. Škokić (eds) Horror-porno-ennui: kulturne prakse postsocijalizma [Horror-Porn-Ennui: The Cultural Practices of Postsocialism]. Zagreb: Institut za etnologiju i folkloristiku. Pp: 413-437.

Tatalović, Siniša and Cvrtila, Vlatko (2003) Studija o profesionalizaciji Hrvatske Vojske [A study on the professionalisation of the Croatian Army]. Zagreb: Croatian Ministry of Defence.

Žanić, Ivo (2007) Flag on the Mountain: A Political Anthropology of War in Croatia and Bosnia. Translated from Croatian by Graham McMaster with Celia Hawkesworth. London: SAQI with The Bosnian Institute.


[i] There was a short-lived attempt to introduce military service for women between 1983 and 1985, but this was voluntary and only lasted between two months and 22 days for women soldiers and six months for women officers (Gombač, in Petrović, 2011, pp. 414-415).

[ii] Parents are granted two additional months of parental leave if the father uses at least three months of the six months' parental leave.