Book Review of Amoral Communities: Collective Crimes in Times of War by Mila Dragojević

By Melina Ackermann

All too often, scholars have explained mass atrocities by looking primarily at the macropolitical circumstances. But how do those broader social dynamics translate to heightened levels of violence in formerly peaceful neighbourhoods? Mila Dragojević addresses this question by looking into what she terms ‘amoral communities’. During conflict, amoral communities are created on the local level through an enhanced political ethnicisation with the exclusion of moderates and the creation of material borders demarcating and creating ethnically homogenous groups. This political strategy of ethnicisation and the targeted use of small-scale violence to achieve it explains the subnational differences between varying levels of violence targeted at civilians in the same country during the same war. This is the central argument presented in Amoral Communities: Collective Crimes in Time of War by Mila Dragojević (2019). In this ethnographic study, Dragović examines the communal level of divisions and how top-down attempts at ethnic division gain hold on the ground. She combines archival sources and in-depth interviews (conducted in 2013-14) of individuals who experienced the Homeland War (Croatian War of Independence 1991-95) in the former Yugoslavia in their communities, such as Eastern Slavonia, and supplanted by ethnographic data into the civil wars of Guatemala (1960-1996) and Uganda (1981-86).

As such, the book presents valuable insights into the understudied meso level of violence targeted at civilians. It further corroborates research stipulating that violence targeted at civilians goes beyond achieving a purely military strategy but is a sign of a process of political ethnicisation, which is part and precedes attempts of creating ethno-nationalist states. It also bridges the gap between genocide studies and literature concerned with civil wars and insurgencies on the causes and occurrence of wartime violence against civilians. Accordingly, those collective crimes are not, as previously thought, the outcome of long-standing grievances but rather of ethnic divisions created and exacerbated through violence. The fieldwork conducted by the author also stands out for its focus on not only giving the respondents who experienced the war a voice but also adding more emotion and depth to the study by focusing it on their embodied experiences. The research is herewith contributing to debunking dominant narratives and crucially shedding light on the fabric of society on the communal level before violence erupts.  The book skilfully manages to capture the nuances of understanding the respondent’s appreciations of the events that happened to them and occurred in their immediate surroundings.

The theoretical framework the author chose to embed her research in, namely the by Dragojević coined concept of amoral communities, though, is not sufficiently explored and also misguiding. The author explains it as a locus where civilians are the targets of attacks or excluded from the community via ethnic categorisations. Through the lens of peacetime morality, the behaviour of civilians and warring parties may appear to be amoral on the outset. However, the perpetrators operate in their own parameters of morality and do justify their behaviour and violence. Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil (1963), as well as social-psychological research (such as the 1961 Milgram and the 1971 Stanford-Prison Experiment), indicate that atrocities take place in the context of a reversal of the moral and (legal) order. Dragojević acknowledges this when saying that “the very definition of crime became altered by the wartime conditions” (p. 6), where the “state of exception” allowed the targeting of civilians of the “other” ethnicity as an act of “preemptive self-defense against perceived threats, not to one’s own biological existence but rather to the existence of one’s ethnically defined state, seen as the extension of one’s own life” (p. 6; see also p. 46). Consequently, amorality does not characterise those communities, but rather a reversed morality, where violence is justified because it presumably creates security and stability for the livelihood of one’s own ethnicity, and where, through a process of dehumanisation, a denial of the humanity of individuals of a different ethnicity gradually takes place. In extension, those are not amoral communities but display a shifted morality: moral ideas still underpin their actions. Further criticism concerns the arguably unnecessary addendum of the Ugandan and Guatemalan conflict. Although examining those cases is of interest, the focus is clearly on Croatian respondents and the Yugoslavian conflict. In contrast, the context of the two other case studies complicates matters and takes away from the strength of the analysis. The inclusion of the comparative studies is rather confusing than illuminating, primarily because the book’s chapters are organised thematically and not according to geographical regions. Thus, the author switches from one context to another instantly, without giving the reader the possibility to situate her or himself in the divergent conflict setting. Overall, the book’s strength does not lie in its conceptual framework and the angle it takes, but rather in its communal-level ethnographic approach to explain why incidents of violence against civilians vary among different conflict-ridden communities. It gives cause for hope for the prevention of atrocities by pointing out that those variations depend on the level of exclusion of moderates (through in-group policing, targeted violence, threats and social ostracism) and the creation of borders.