In April 2018, a group of 25 children participated in a bootcamp in Koprivnicko-krizevacka County, a training event organised by a local airsoft team (Airsoft is a team sport where opponents shoot each other with pellets from replica weapons). The training included a mix of orientation in nature, first aid skills and something called "homeland education". Children were photographed giving salutes and holding guns. The whole event was supported by representatives of the local government who praised the educational value of such activities. A year prior to this event in Pakrac, a town that was divided during the war into Serb and Croatian parts, the local primary school drama group staged a play about wartime events in the town of Pakrac in 1992. Children in military uniforms and Croatian checkerboards wrapped around their heads, and carried museum rifles, staged killings, refugee crises and other wartime events, all framed in the narrative of the heroic "Homeland War" in Pakrac.
These events may seem like harmless incidents; however, placed in the context of Croatian society, they are more likely to represent manifestations of the growing militarisation of Croatian society, and the heroic narrative that holds a monopoly on "the truth" regarding the so-called "Homeland War"1 in Croatia.
Let's begin with the militarization. If you find yourself browsing the tv channels of the Croatian public broadcaster (HRT), you will begin to wonder about your own security. Images of armed men in the media are omnipresent. Some of the footage is real, from the 1990's war while others are from military trainings, military parades, as well as discussions on the arms trade, security and "hybrid wars". In addition to the conservative turn of the public broadcaster (influenced by political elites), the reason for this lays also in the active campaigning of the current Defense Minister of Croatia, Mr. Krsticevic. The minister, when taking the office, decided to end trends set by a line of his prodecessors which included professionalization and a low media presence of the military. Instead, his strategy has been to make the military as visible and present in every day life as possible, or, in his own terms “bring it back to the people“.
What are the consequences of this strategy for the militarization of youth?
Compulsory military service was abandoned in Croatia more than ten years ago, partly because more conscripts have called for conscientious objection instead of military training. Since 2008, young men are no longer required to serve in the military, but have the option of volunteering for a military training within Croatian Armed Forces. However, in 2017, the Defense Minister announced in multiple media appearances the possibility of reinstating compulsory military service. This resulted in harsh criticism from civil society. The Centre for Peace Studies (CPS) office received numerous calls from young men and their parents wanting to be informed about their rights as conscientious objectors to military service. The topic, however, was not abandoned by the Minister. Instead, he kept checking the state of public opinion by first suggesting obligatory military service, then a shorter obligatory military draft, etc. These events, combined with the rise of conservatism, re-traditionalism and securitisation of the society led to the formation of an informal coalition of NGOs and individuals - called "NO to the military draft“ - led by CPS.
However, at the end of March 2018, the Minister's campaign ended with changes to the Law on Defense, which allowed an ambigious authority to the Ministry to recruit young men into military training with the aim of the "development of a security culture among citizens". How this new formulation will be interpreted and impletemented remains unclear.
How are these processes connected with the story from the beginning of the article? The Minister of Defence is not alone in his attempts to rebuild the authority and importance of the military in society. The problem is that, 23 years after the war, the discourse of ongoing threats to the homeland security is still promoted among the public. This discourse relies on the war traumas of the past. To build a counter-narrative to the idea of armed forces as the guarantee for peace is extremely difficult because of the so-called "truth about the Homeland War", a phrase that puts an end to many public debates in Croatian politics and public spaces.
One of the self-appointed guardians of "the truth" on the Homeland War is the Croatian Generals Assembly, an NGO composed of controversial army generals and war veterans who have gained a lot of attention in the past years as extreme right-wing opinion makers. The organization was promoted into the political mainstream by the former Prime Minister Oreskovic, as well as the current Prime Minister Plenkovic who held meetings with them. They are also promoted by the Mayor of Croatia's capital Zagreb, Mr. Bandic, who received an honorable membership in their organization. Two years ago, the organization started to receive funding from the Ministry of Croatian Veterans to conduct a series of seminars for history teachers on the topic of "the Homeland War". Each seminar lasts two days and hosts around a hundred teachers. In addition to the public funding they received for spreading the "truth about the Homeland War", the Generals have also imposed themeselves as opinion makers on topics of general political interest such as school/education curricula reform. A debate around the curricular reform process would be a long and complicated one, but it is important to know that the reform process was blocked by the conservative government. The government ignored a wide public support for the reform -which was evidenced by the biggest protests in Croatia in the past decade and put the reform into the hands of seemingly neutral, technocratic experts from the ruling party's coalition partners. However, the Minister of Education has shown little political integrity and will to carry out this process, while being more willing to discuss elements of the reform with some retired army generals. For instance, even though the curriculum for the history classes was reviewed by independent experts, conservative opinion makers, including the Croation Generals Assembly, constantly criticized it and presented their views as having greater authority and relevance for the history classes than the actual experts.
The idea that Croatian youth will be prepared for life through military training echoes the rationale that associates skills for orientation in nature with carrying arms in bootcamps. Likewise, the story about the primary school re-creation of wartime experiences in Pakrac echoes the destructive effects of the current political climate. Pakrac is one of the towns most affected by the War in Croatia. The town was brutally divided into Croatian and Serbian sides with families torn apart and communication lines broken. The origins of the Centre for Peace Studies dates back to wartime Pakrac, where our founders served as volunteers rebuilding both the infrastructure, as well as the social ties in the city. Staging of war atrocities in school play can hardly be pedagogically justified if it wasn't for the monopolization of the narrative about the "truth about the homeland war". This narrative leaves these issues out of the discussion. In other words, if something is classified as truth, there is nothing to discuss, not even the methods of promoting it. This is the narrative that justifies the Defence Minister's actions, as well as the actions of the teachers in Pakrac and the bootcamp trainers in Koprivnicko-krizevacka.
This idea makes it plausible for a group of Generals to teach "history" to history teachers, based not on knowledge, but the "roles they played in the Homeland War". Especially worrying is the presence of war veterans in schools, giving lectures and sometimes graphic presentations of the Homeland War to children and young people. Such events are organized by war veterans organisations that, due to their agreements with headmasters, present the "truth" about Homeland War to primary school students. Their personal views and opinions are also presented there and those lectures do not go through the expert review of the Ministry of Education, nor are those presenters pedagogicaly trained. The lack of information on the Homeland War in our formal history curriculum, combined with the presentations of war by war protgonists, poses the threat that young generations will not be able to critically reflect on wartime events, but instead adopt the "hero" narrative.
What are we trying to do about it?
The Centre for Peace Studies has been a vocal promoter of conscientious objection, establishing an informal platform and preparing manuals for conscientious objection. Also, we have been advocating for increased investment in civil protection systems as a means of building the resiliance of communities as opposed to investments in the military. Apart from the advocacy work and public campaigning, CPS invests a lot in education. For the twentieth year in a row, we have completed our two semestoral Peace Studies program that offers opportunities to activists, civil society organisation employees and other citizens to get familiar with the legacies of the antiwar movement and peacebuilding process in Croatia. The program last for two semesters and offers the opportunity to analyse current threats to a sustainable peace in Croatia such as economic injustice, racism and xenophobia, securitisation and clericalisation, and to become familiar with and test the methods of nonviolent action against these trends. In addition, we organize peace education for youth activists, human rights schools for students, capacitiy building for local community actors, and do a lot of seminars for teachers.
As a part of the GOOD Initiative2 we have been campaining and advocating for quality implementation of citizenship education at all educational levels. As support for citizenship education was lacking on the national level, we have focused on building pockets of resistance at the local and county levels. In the past year, several municipalities have decided to begin integrating citizenship education into their school curriculum, with CPS (together with partners from the GOOD Initiative) providing trainings for teachers. These trainings included human rights education, education for democracy, media literacy etc. We are using these local examples as advocacy tools hoping to build greater support for civic education on the national level as well as among schools and parents. This is extremely important at the moment when homeland education is seen as a plausible alternative to human rights and democratic citizenship education.
1 In the burst of the political and economic break-up of Yugoslavia, war emerged, most violently in Croatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina, later in Kosovo. In 1991 armed conflict emerged in Croatia between the Yugoslav Peoples Army and supporting paramilitary groups, and the Croatian National Guard supported by paramilitary groups. By the time it has ended in 1995, casualties were counted in thousands and refugees and displaced people in hundreds of thousands. Unlike the majority of foreign media and historians who use expressions Conflict in Yugoslavia or Serbo-Croatian War, the expression „Homeland War“ (or alternatively War for Independence or Greater-Serbian Aggression) is used in Croatia. The name used is one of the symbolic representations of an important place the war holds in collective memory, marking it as ground zero for the interpretation of countries history, both before and after the war.
2 Initiative for systematic and quality introduction of civic education in schools