Balkan Primer (X) - Blood Feuds, Kanuns, and American Policy

December 26, 1999

Comment: #339

Discussion Thread:  #s 253, 254, 258, 262, 263, 267, 268, 286, 316, 322


[1] SCOTT ANDERSON, "The Curse Of Blood and Vengeance," New York Times, December 26, 1999 Magazine.  Excerpt: "Pentagon analyst Franklin C. Spinney remembers the conversation with crystal clarity. Over dinner with a Marine flier in late 1991, talk turned to Navy plans for a new version of the F-18 Hornet. Earlier in the year, the Pentagon had killed the new A-12 bomber. Other Navy planes were decades old. And the service thought existing F/A-18s couldn't fly long-range missions. To fill carrier decks, the Navy decided to rely on an upgrade of the F-18 used by the fabled Blue Angels. 'We've got to have this even if it doesn't work,' the pilot confided."

American soldiers have been placed in a "peace-keeping" role in the middle of the Serbo-Albanian conflict in Kosovo without a national debate over the wisdom of this policy, as is required by the spirit, if not the letter, of the Constitution. Those who believe this peacekeeping role is a temporary one, lasting only until passions cool enough to establish a multi-cultural democracy in Kosovo, would be well-advised to understand how the hereditary codes of conduct shape the inter-generational behavior of the rural Albanians that make up the overwhelming majority of the Kosovar population.

The most important of these codes for Kosovo is the Kanun of Lek Dukagin, which probably emerged in the 15th Century but was not even written down until the 19th Century.

The attached article will help you glimpse the possible ramifications of the Kanun for American policy in Kosovo.

Scott Anderson explores the general hypothesis that a key ingredient in the Balkan poison is the conflict between the clan-based, rural culture of villages and the multi-cultural urban sophistication of the cities, like Belgrade, Zagreb, and Sarajevo. Anderson believes there is a chronic tendency in the region to revert to primitive vendetta-based culture of the village -- with its reliance on the law of the blood feud -- in times of crisis. The succession of crises in Yugoslavia certainly provides at least superficial support to his hypothesis and makes it a worthwhile subject for further investigation.

Anderson uses the current situation in Northern Albanian (among Catholic Gegs) to illustrate this argument, but clan-based cultures are also particularly strong in Kosovo (among Muslim Gegs), among the rural Serbs in of Herzogovina, and the rural Serbs and Croats in the Krajina region of Croatia, as is evidenced by the fact that much of the most vicious fighting occurred in these latter three regions during World War II and recurred there in the more recent wars of the Yugoslavian succession.

The attached article describes how these codes of conduct work among the predominantly Catholic Gegs in Northern Albania. (Albanians are divided primarily into two groups -- the less clannish Tosks in the Southern lowlands and the highly clannish Gegs in the mountainous North and Kosovo.) While clan-based cultures vary from region to region, they are all based on patrilianial organizations governed by traditional laws and concepts of honor passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation (which makes disputes long-lasting and the law highly mutable over time). Among the most extreme of these codes is the 15th Century Kanun of Lek Dukagjin, which applies to the Gegs in Northern Albanian, but also happens to be the most relevant code for the Muslim Gegs Kosovo.

The foundation of the Kanun is the concept of personal honor and at the center of its laws is the blood feud (which is the subject of the attached article). A complimentary discussion of the Kanun as it applies to modern Kosovo can be found in "Kosovo: A Short History," by Noel Malcolm (Harper Perennial, 1999), particularly in Chapter 1.

Malcolm points out that the Kanun is in reality a complicated system of vendettas aimed at obtaining satisfaction vis a vis punishment. There are four major offenses to personal honor under the Kanun: (1) calling a man a liar in front of other men; (2) insulting his wife; (3) taking his weapons (the failure to disarm the KLA, incidentally, is only the most recent of many failed attempts to disarm the Gegs); and (4) violating his hospitality. These offenses are not paid for in property or by fines but by the spilling of blood or by a magnanimous pardon.

The attached article provides an in-depth case study of what happens when a violation of hospitality occurs. As explained below, the Kanun goes well beyond the Hatfield and McCoy conception of an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. Satisfaction can be obtained by killing ANY member of the original offender's family, and the newly spilt blood then cries out for yet more satisfaction. The result is a natural tendency toward escalation. Malcolm, for example, describes how one mid-19th century vendetta in Northern Albania began with a dispute over four rifle cartridges which had been promised but not delivered. Within two years, that vendetta has resulted in 1,281 houses being burned down and 132 men killed. While this kind of extreme outcome is unlikely to recur, Malcomb says the tradition of the blood feud has never died out in Kosovo. Indeed, he emphasizes that the importance of the Kanun to the ordinary life of Albanians in Kosovo can "hardly be exaggerated."

The attached article is concerned with a small blood feud in Northern Albania, but it also is a window, albeit and imperfect one, into the effects of the clan-based culture in Kosovo.

Think of the reference, therefore, as a metaphor for the larger problem now facing American soldiers in Kosovo. They are caught in the middle of a volatile mixture of reciprocal desires for revenge governed by clan-based codes of conduct.

And ask yourself a question: Should there not a serious national debate over why American soldiers are in the Balkans, how long they will remain there, and under what conditions they will leave?

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]