Warriors: Oh what a lonely war
by Peter Paterson, Daily Mail, November 22, 1999
OVER the past two nights, we have seen, in Warriors, a deeply moving, alarmingly realistic and powerfully acted drama about a war in Bosnia-Herzegovina that occurred less than a decade ago, yet has been almost wiped from the memory by subsequent Balkan troubles.
Given this collective amnesia and magnificent as it was in many respects – Warriors had no time to explain the witches’ brew of Serb versus Croat, Moslem versus Orthodox, the bitter legacy of World War II, the Tito dictatorship or the collapse of communism. As a consequence, the complexities of who was fighting whom, and why, were barely intelligible to anyone who had not at least seen the shortened, three-hour version of that great documentary The Death of Yugoslavia.
Yet, in a curious way, ignorance worked in favour of Warriors by underscoring the frustration, anger and confusion in the minds of a British infantry battalion deployed as part of the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Bosnia. Their bafflement over their role echoed, perhaps, our own hazy recollections of what this brutal conflict was all about. It is asking a lot of soldiers whose vocation is to fight, to endure the insults of one side in a civil war such as Bosnia’s and the recriminations of its victims on the other.
In Saturday’s opening episode, this unsatisfactory state of affairs was perfectly illustrated when British troops were halted at a road block manned by insolent Serbs. On the far side of a bridge, a group of Moslem refugees awaited certain annihilation. The orders given to the British were to cross the bridge and evacuate wounded Moslems, but the Serbs, demanding the right to examine UN vehicles and personnel, would not let them pass. A creepy Scandinavian official from the UN, Rik Langrubber (Carsten Voigt), turned on British captain Richard Gurney (Tom Ward), in charge of the convoy, saying: ‘You’re the British Army, so you want to smash your way through.’
With the intervention of HQ, Gurney had to submit to Serb blackmail and UN compromise, and endure racist taunts directed at his men. But when he reached the Moslems, they had no intention of allowing his force to skip away while they were blasted by enemy tanks and artillery, and refused to let the British go. They were still there when the guns opened up, killing and wounding men, women and children around them. In the confusion, they rescued only one blood-spattered Moslem youth – in a Manchester United football shirt – but were obliged to surrender him to the Serbs when the convoy was searched on its way out. The rage and impotence of soldiers forced to obey a nonsensical and inhumane UN mandate were all too obvious.
During this wonderfully acted scene, Matthew Macfadyen, as Private Alan James, one of his mates from Liverpool dead from a sniper’s bullet and he on the point of mutiny, dug in his heels. There was no way he would give up the boy, and his officers had to scream at him to obey. Macfadyen later vented his feelings towards a Croatian officer guilty of butchering nearly 100 Moslems. The young soldier summoned up a string of oaths and imputations on the virility and ancestry of the Croatian that owed more to the souks of the Middle East than to the Anfield terraces.
Warriors boasted a splendid cast, including Ioan Gruffudd and Damian Lewis as two lieutenants as frustrated and furious as their men. Both befriended Bosnians but were forbidden to help them or their compatriots, even when the obscenity of ethnic cleansing occurred right in front of them. Less successfully, the story followed the soldiers home, trying to show the psychological effects of the strain they endured during their six-month posting. Lewis’s Lieutenant Loughrey, guilty about his affair with an attractive interpreter, struck his pregnant girlfriend when she touched him on the shoulder, while his mind was fixed on Bosnia.
Private James quit the Army but could not settle back into civilian life. And Gruffudd’s Lieutenant Feeley, the man one thought would single-mindedly make it all the way to general, tried to take his own life.
A useful lesson from this fine drama is that we shall have to rethink the whole idea of what it is to be a soldier.