The defense of former General of the Bosnian Serb army, Ratko Mladic, began in May 2014 at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Among the arguments his lawyers have already made and are expected to return to is that he suffers from “deception of memory.” As The Independent reported:

His [Ratko Mladic] lawyer, Branko Lukic, also claimed that in any event, his elderly client’s recollection of events was shaky because he suffered from a syndrome known as “deception of memory.”

“It is a category of memory disorder which means that somebody cannot differentiate between truth and fact, because they speak the truth even if they are not doing so.”


I cannot help but wonder if translation has done a disservice to the above quote—but in any case I did not find the lawyer’s explanation helpful. Looking elsewhere, I found other explorations of the “syndrome” from the field of psychology. In 2012, The Guardian, for instance, ran an online experiment in conjunction with University of Cambridge’s Memory Laboratory investigating how the mind re-assembles and distinguishes memories of very similar things:

A lot of stuff happens in our lifetimes, and so it makes sense that our brains would have evolved some efficient memory strategies. We don’t try to remember every single event in its entirety. Instead, we store the elements of an event, and put them together in different ways to make different memories. The downside is that similar events that share a number of features may be more difficult to remember.

Memory can be deceived when it tries to recall things that are in fact very similar and its blurs them together or otherwise distorts accuracy. Perhaps repetition with slight variations is the cause of Mladic’s inability to remember sufficient details to clarify the circumstances surrounding the crimes of which he is accused?

There are other possible explanations. Self-deception, for instance, is a strong current in work on deception and memory. A study by psychologist Janet Metcalf argues that some aspects of faulty memory can be related to overconfidence. People, Metcalf argues, often overestimate what they know and how they will perform. Rather than questioning themselves or digging deeper to find accurate information from their memory, they halt their efforts before correctly solving problems. In such cases, confidence distorts memory recall through an excessively positive–and incomplete or inaccurate–self-assessment.

Another set of researchers, William von Hippel and Robert Trivers, compare self-deception to the processes of lying to others. As we all know, there are multiple ways of deceiving others: telling an outright lie, or obfuscating, exaggerating, or casting doubt on the truth. All can also be used to deceive oneself. While standard explanations of self-deception view it as a binary opposition of truth in the unconscious mind and falsehood in the conscious mind, von Hippel and Trivers describe a spectrum of “information processing biases that give priority to welcome over unwelcome information.”

How do these falsehoods take hold? Some of their argument resonates with the truism that people come to believe their own lies. But they also point out that beyond internal psychological process, self-deception has a social function as well. Von Hippel and Trivers argue that “self-inducing false memories” deepen their hold when they resonate with other factors that relate to lying to others. For instance, “when people collaborate in their efforts to deceive other, they might also increase the likelihood that they deceive themselves” (4). There are several varieties of self-deception, of which misremembering seems most relevant to the Mladic defense. On this, the authors note:

“People’s memories appear to be self-enhancing, sometimes containing information that is biased to be consistent with preferences and sometimes just failing to contain the whole truth.” (10)

There will be ample evidence from a wide array of sources beyond Mladic’s memory to bolster the ICTY prosecution’s case, among them statements the general himself made during the 1992-1995 war, as assembled by the International Center for Transitional Justice:

From a radio intercept on May 28, 1992, as Mladic ordered the bombing of a civilian neighborhood of Sarajevo: “I don’t want you to stop. Drive them insane; don’t let them close an eye. Target Velesici [neighborhood], there aren’t too many Serbs living there.”

Upon capturing Srebrenica in July 1995, after which some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered, Mladic was caught on video stating: “On this day I give Srebrenica to the Serb people. The time has finally come for revenge against Turks [Bosnian Muslims] who live in this area.”

And, perhaps the most infamous quote from Mladic was a statement before the Republika Srpska Assembly on May 12, 1992, as assembled by Robert Donia for the ICTY:

“People and peoples are not pawns nor are they keys in one’s pocket that can be shifted from here to there….we cannot wage war on all fronts nor against peoples…we cannot cleanse nor can we have a sieve to sift so that only Serbs would stay, or that the Serbs would fall through and the rest leave. Well, that is, that will not, I do not know how Mr. Krajisnek and Mr. Karadzic would explain this to the world. People, that would be genocide” (173).

Does the above statement suggest that in May 1992, well after the war and brutalities had begun, but before the height of ethnic cleansing and killing, he had doubts about the plan that Bosnian Serbs political leaders were advocating and which he was implementing? If he did have doubts, they did not seem to impact his subsequent leadership in implementing the plan.

Perhaps the chasm between his doubts and his actions contributed to making memory’s deceptions more tolerable than reality’s facts?  Memory can be deceived by similarity in past events, overconfidence and excessively positive self-asessment, or a calculus by which deception is preferable over accuracy and reinforced by lies that a group was willing to accept. If the Mladic defense wants to pursue a strategy based on the psychological malady of “deception of memory,” I’d be greatly interested to understand which explanation they think best adheres to Gen. Mladic’s condition.

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One Response to Deception of Memory

  1. Tom says:

    This quote from the lawyer “It is a category of memory disorder which means that somebody cannot differentiate between truth and fact, because they speak the truth even if they are not doing so.”

    Sounds like the category is lying plain and simple. I could not help but laugh when I read that quote. WOW!

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