BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — As a schoolboy, Blagoje Adzic is said to have hidden and watched from a tree as Croatian fascists rampaged through his village and slaughtered every member of his family in 1941.
The unspeakable horrors committed during one of Europe's bloodiest fratricides have haunted Adzic for half a century.
Frequent public references to the loss of his family confirm that the emotional wounds have never healed.
Millions of Yugoslavs suffered similar atrocities during the internecine battles that raged during World War II and share many of the same agonizing memories.
But as the commanding force behind the Yugoslav People's Army, few have Adzic's power to seek revenge for the loss of his family.
Adzic, a three-star general, is the head of the military high command and leader
of the renegade faction fighting for Serbia as Yugoslavia edges closer to civil war.
He is said to have a close relationship with Serbia's nationalist president, Slobodan Milosevic, and he has been active with a new archconservative Communist splinter party devoted to protecting and promoting Yugoslavia's military might.
He has steadily distanced himself from the concept of federal unity espoused by the late Yugoslav strongman, Josip Broz Tito, instead embracing "the necessity of Serbian domination," according to Western military attaches.
Little is known about the general's military strategy for dealing with the frightening instability now gripping the Balkans.
Even less is known of his personal outlook, except that he is a man of immense influence with an ax to grind.
Adzic has made no secret of his hatred of Croats and has publicly sparred with federal President Stipe Mesic, the Croat who is, at least officially, the army's commander in chief.
Mesic also lost his family to Croatian fascism, which has made Adzic's public outbursts look somewhat irrational.
"We fear he could tip the balance within the precarious military structure," said one European defense attache in Belgrade, who believes Adzic is at least partly motivated by a will to settle the Serb-Croat score.
Despite his unabashed bias, Adzic is not viewed as a volatile loose cannon. A reclusive figure even within the closed circle of military society, the 58-year-old general is seen as one who acts with cool deliberation rather than knee-jerk emotion.
"Adzic is a question mark," observed a senior envoy who has met the general.
"He's a Serbian nationalist and a Communist. He's certainly a hard-liner and has shown himself to be disrespectful of civilian authority. But at the end of the day he hasn't done anything, yet, to put his forces to work clearly in the interest of Serbian expansionism."
While Adzic appears to be the chief engineer of what many fear is a creep-ing military coup d'etat , he actually ranks only second in the hierarchy behind Defense Minister Veljko Kadijevic.
Military analysts say Adzic and Kadijevic are engaged in a power struggle.
Adzic appeared to take the initiative on July 2, when he delivered a fiery and menacing speech via television, vowing to crush Slovenian "back-stabbers" who had humiliated federal troops sent in to seize control of border crossings and airports in the breakaway republic.
There was no presidential authorization for Adzic's declaration that the federal army was at war with Slovenia. The federal presidency was then still paralyzed by Serbian intransigence, leaving the armed forces without a civilian commander.
Adzic's threat to fight Slovenian militants in a battle "to the end" was followed within hours by deployment of a massive armored column from the Belgrade-based First Army District, for which there was also no political authorization.
At a time when Adzic has stepped forward to flex Yugoslavia's military muscle, Kadijevic, 66, has been reported to be gravely ill.
The defense minister made a timely comeback last week, promising that the Yugoslav crisis would be settled by peaceful means.
But whether his health is strong enough to counteract Adzic and the pro-Serbia forces remains to be seen.
The only other constitutional control over the high command, which has always been overwhelmingly Serbian, is the country's eight-man collective presidency, headed by Mesic.
The election of Mesic on June 30 resurrected the federal presidency after a six-week deadlock. But the army appears to be directing the ruling body, instead of vice-versa.
Serbia controls four votes on the collective presidency, the Bosnian delegate is also a Serb and Slovenia's representative has refused to take part, leaving Mesic regularly outvoted by the Serbs who see the military as "their" army.
While the 110,000 recruits represent Yugoslavia's patchwork of nationalities, about 70% of the 70,000 officers and career soldiers are Serbs.
Adzic rose through the military hierarchy in the First Army District, which remains his power base and his most dependable fighting force.