A few weeks ago, a highly decorated Canadian soldier and a recipient of the Order of Canada, Major General Lewis MacKenzie, addressed the audience at the Faculty of Philology, in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. He was there for the Belgrade Book Fair to promote the Serbian translation of his book “Peacekeeper: Road to Sarajevo,” originally published in 1993.
In his book, this former commander of the UN forces in the so-called Sector Sarajevo (between April and October 1992) characterized the war in Bosnia as a messy regional conflict and suggested that Bosnian Muslims were the chief troublemakers in Sarajevo. Armed with such understanding of the conflict, MacKenzie advised Clinton’s administration not to intervene in Bosnia, thus prolonging the suffering of its population. He would later offer an excuse for his actions by saying that his message was directed solely at the Americans, and that he did not say “that other people should not intervene”. (See: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/book-criticizes-retired-generals-role-in-bosnian-war/article18427050/ )
According to media reports, MacKenzie offered to his Belgrade audience a historical overview of the Serbian-Canadian relations and his analysis of their alliance forged during the First World War. He prefaced his talk with a personal apology to the Serbs from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo for the unfair treatment they had received at the hands of the United Nations in 1990s. MacKenzie clarified his apology by saying that the Serbs in those areas were the victims of the poorly informed and poorly designed UN policies. Towards the end of his lamenting over the “disastrous” role the UN had played in Bosnia, MacKenzie advised the Serbs on how to avoid being cast as villains ever again. “In the case of a new war erupting in the Balkans”, he said, “Serbs would be well served to immediately hire a prominent American lobbying firm. And I recommend this to you as a general”. (See: https://www.kurir.rs/vesti/politika/3347149/srbi-unajmite-amere-i-dobicete-sledeci-rat-kanadski-general-mekenzi-o-devedesetim-zelim-licno-da-se-izvinim-jer-ne-mogu-da-govorim-u-ime-medjunarodne-zajednice )
To anyone who might find this episode and his apology somewhat out of character for a celebrated peacekeeping hero, a broader context might be of help. Those who devoted their careers and lives to studying the Balkans would recall that in the early 1990s Major General Lewis MacKenzie had been recognized by the Serbian political elite as a rather reliable friend. In an interview to Slobodna Dalmacija on November 28, 1994, one of the Serbia’s strongmen, Slobodan Milosevic’s closest confidants and the director of the Belgrade-based news agency, TANJUG, Slobodan Jovanovic, had listed several “Serbophiles” among the UN officials, soldiers and international observes on whom Serbia should rely in order to win the “ongoing media war”. In addition to the generals Philippe Morillon (France), Sir Michael Rose (Great Britain), and the U.S. lawyer and the former Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, as well as the British politician, Lord David Owen, this list included the Canadian Major General Lewis MacKenzie. (As quoted in Mark Thompson, Forging War: The Media in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, University of Luton Press, 1999, p. 45, Footnote No.3.)
The majority of scholars specializing in the Balkan history and the breakup of Yugoslavia view Major General MacKenzie as a promoter of a narrative that denies Serbia’s responsibility in that bloody breakup and as someone who disputes the evidence of genocide committed in Srebrenica that was presented to the ICTY in The Hague. (Also see Eric Gordy, Guild, Responsibility, Denial, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013)
Since mid-1990s the denying of the Srebrenica genocide has been a main feature of all of General MacKenzie’s public addresses on the breakup of Yugoslavia. In an op-ed “The Real Story behind Srebrenica,” penned in 2005 for the Globe and Mail, this recipient of the Vimy Award argued that “if you're committing genocide, you don't let the women go since they are key to perpetuating the very group you are trying to eliminate.” (Originally published July 14, 2005. Updated April 22, 2018. Available at: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/the-real-story-behind-srebrenica/article737584/ ). Two days later, on July 16, the Belgrade-based pro-government newspaper, Vecernje Novosti (Evening News) published an article entitled “Nije bilo masakra i 8000” (There was no Massacre and 8000) in which MacKenzie again denied Srebrenica genocide. As pointed out by this author as well as many others, general’s claim that genocide requires the destruction of a group in its entirety rather than a part of a group conflicts with Article II of the Genocide Convention, which defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part” several types of groups. (Also see Gordy. Ibid.)
MacKenzie is also known to many citizens of Sarajevo as a “General with a rose”. In her book The Lion, the Fox, and the Eagle Canadian journalist Carol Off noted a testimony by a former prisoner who claimed that while serving as the UN Commander of Sector Sarajevo, MacKenzie paid her several intimate visits in the infamous camp for women, “Sonja.” While the allegations against him were never brought up in the court of law, this retired general claimed that the UN-run investigation in this matter cleared him of all allegations.
It is important to say that MacKenzie's latest address in Belgrade was the crowning moment in a protracted effort to question established facts about the Yugoslav breakup and deny crimes, including the crime of genocide, committed during that conflict. His repeated questioning of the number of those murdered in the Srebrenica genocide points out to the continuity of the denialist discourse which uses dead bodies as the main historical and political currency.
MacKenzie's analysis of the nature of the breakup of Yugoslavia should also be viewed in the context of him acting as a spoeksperson for numerous Serbian dispoaric organizations in North America. In the past, he had acted as a paid lobbyist and had received financial backing from the lobby group called SERBNET. Furthermore, he had been featured prominently in a couple of propaganda movies about the Yugoslav breakup (The Weight of Chains, and Kosovo: Can you Imagine?) authored by another genocide denier, Boris Malagurski. (See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=waEYQ46gH08 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKZufhh6xGQ )
One of the venue promoting historical revisionism and genocide denying is the relatively new web-platform called Canadian Veritas Observatory (CVO. http://www.canadianveritas.ca/ ). Its focus is on Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia, while its thematic framework is dominated by articles denying the Srebrenica genocide and castigating the 78 days-long NATO bombing campaign of Serbia and Montenegro in 1999. MacKenzie is the honorary member of the CVO'a Board of Directors, and his articles are featured prominently on its web page.
He is by no mean alone on this mission to liberate the ancient Roman goddess of truth, Veritas, from the bottom of the wholy well. His team of revisionist super-herous wingmen includes the last Canadian Ambassador to SFR Yugoslavia, James Bisset, a prominent Islamophobe, the Srebrenica genocide denier and an editor with the far-right magazine Chronicles, Srdja Trifkovic as well as another former Canadian soldier turned journalist, Scott Taylor. (See: https://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/blogs/srdja-trifkovic/; and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAf5RUdnWY4) For some years, the “fantastic four” have been the main attraction at every major diasporic event or panel addressing the former Yugoslavia. Much like the main character from the movie Usual Suspects, this truth-loving bunch feeds humongous nationalist appetite of their audiences and quenches their thirst for truth by serving them versions of the anti-Serb Keyser Soze, be it Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Carla del Ponte, Ed Vuliamy, David Pettigrew, David Rhode, Noel Malcom, or yours truly.
The most troubling aspect of Mackenzie's public engagement, however, has been that for years this retired Major General has been using his prominent position in Canada (as a retired and decorated military hero, and as a politician) to shield himself from legitimate criticism over effectively supporting and legitimizing arguments made by convicted war criminals such as Radovan Karadzic, for example.
Two weeks ago, in the Serbia's capital, MacKenzie was offered the most significant academic platform in that country to once again misrepresent established facts, denouce documentary evidence about the nature of the Yugoslav breakup and Serbia's role in it, and to legitimize his revisionism and genocide denying. The fact that he was embraced as a truth teller and a true friend of the Serbian people precisely for those reasons illustrates the nature of the Serbia's official historical narrative of the 1990s, and is indeed a sad testament to the state of affairs in both Serbian society in general and Serbian academia in particular.
Srdja Pavlović specializes modern Balkan history, culture, and politics in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta.