Bound by Neutrality
War is hell, we’ve learned by now. But what about not-war? The 1999 BBC-TV film Warriors — an unsentimental and heartbreaking story of British peacekeepers in Bosnia — demonstrates that any kind of armed conflict is devastating, even to those not in the immediate line of fire.
In the autumn of 1992, a battalion of British army troops, led by Lt. John Feeley (Ioan Gruffudd: Horatio Hornblower, Solomon and Gaenor) and Lt. Neil Loughrey (Damian Lewis), arrives in Central Bosnia to offer “humanitarian aid.” The troops are there to ensure the Bosnians don’t starve in the coming winter, their CO tells them, but the soldiers think their job is more to salve the world’s conscience than anything else. Welcomed by the Bosnians and Muslims and despised by the Serbs and Croats, Feeley, Loughrey, and their men find themselves tiptoeing through a quagmire of ethnic and religious hostilities, unable to do much beyond observe the conflict for fear of being seen as supporting one side or another, and unable even to remove local civilians from danger, lest they inadvertently aid in “ethnic cleansing.” The rules of engagement — or non-engagement, as the case may be — forbid them from firing their weapons unless they are in imminent danger, and even when one of their comrades is killed in deliberate “crossfire,” the Brits have little recourse. The entire mission becomes an exercise in extreme and stressful frustration for all involved.
The film’s title is ironic — these men are not allowed to be the warriors they’re trained to be. And they’re much more restrained than any true policemen would be, despite the “globo-cop” name with which UN peacekeepers have been anointed. Rolling into small Bosnian towns in their white tanks flying the UN flag, jaunty in their blue berets and helmets, these men find it impossible to maintain the necessary neutrality, not when local kids are begging candy bars off them and desperate Bosnians hold them hostage, surrounding their tanks in the hopes that the Serbs won’t shell them if the British are also within Serbian sights. The peacekeepers can’t help but get emotionally involved, even when letting their compassion get the better of them only makes things worse for the people they’re trying to help.
Seemingly at every turn in Warriors, small events turn disquieting or outright tragic, or tiny signs of humanity pop up amongst the horrors. British troops are interrogated and insulted by Serbs at a roadblock… and then, at the Christmas party at the British camp, a Bosnian kid climbs into a startled soldier’s lap, making herself cozy. Loughrey sets up a little “shrine” to his fiancée, Emma (Jodhi May), but we’ve seen him getting close to local interpreter Minka (Sheyla Shehovich), and we know that personal disaster awaits him. Feeley gets friendly with the family next door to the house in which he and Loughrey have taken up residence, and finds himself drawn to Almira (Branka Katic), particularly when her husband goes off to fight. In the freezing, muddy, grim Bosnian winter, the working-class British grunts and their upper-class officers alike turn to one another and to local friendships they can’t avoid forming for comfort in their desolation and disappointed rage.
And yet the real nightmare doesn’t set in until the British troops head home, six months later, and find that they cannot settle back into their previous lives. Loughrey’s fiancée is stunningly unsympathetic to the life-shattering nature of his experience; Feeley’s loneliness is only exacerbated by returning to nothing more than his routine army job. A tour of duty that soldiers who didn’t go to Bosnia see as soft and easy proves instead to be something akin to America’s military action in Vietnam, producing misunderstood veterans full of incoherent anger.
Eschewing the graphical violence and coarse language typical of military movies, Warriors is nevertheless one of the most emotionally real movies about the lives of soldiers I’ve ever seen, thanks to strikingly moving performances — from Gruffudd and Lewis and also Matthew Macfadyen as a private shattered by his service. If you have access to BBC America, you might have another chance to catch this one. Hopefully, Warriors will turn up on Masterpiece Theater or A&E sometime soon, so that it can get the larger audience it deserves.