Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience
By Michael Ignatieff
Viking/Penguin Books Canada, 207 pp.

There are no atheists in foxholes, but is there room for a retinue of moral agnostics?  Modern war is attended by an entire cast of non-combatants who flock to the gunfire with every hope of making a difference but no intention of taking sides.  In Angola, Bosnia, Rwanda and Afghanistan, the white jeeps of the International Committee of the Red Cross are routinely waved across lines of engagement, protected by the promise that they are there only to give succour, not to get involved.  The blue helmets of the UN take up positions amidst the most heated local conflicts on the planet, then stand fast as atrocities are committed just beyond their perimeters.  The TV networks send in camera crews, but only, they insist, to bear witness, not to tip the outcome.

Michael Ignatieff’s The Warrior’s Honour is about horror and empathy.  It visits some of the worst killing grounds of the decade – places where all order has broken down, even the rules of mass warfare, such as they are.  Here, torture and terror take precedence.  Men are castrated before they are executed, women are raped.  The elderly are hacked to death in front of one another.  Hospital patients are mown down and thrown into mass graves, IVs still attached to their arms.  Schoolchildren are targets of mortar attacks.

In such places, surely empathy cannot exist.  A man who butchers his neighbour’s children cannot be capable of imagining himself to be his neighbor, except to relish the anguish he has inflicted.  Hate is the furnace of a blood frenzy that justifies the worst atrocities on the grounds that my enemy would do – has done – the same to me.

And what about those of us who watch the carnage from our living rooms, safe in our zones of comfort and order?  What are we to do, confronted with the media coverage of someone else’s hell?  Feel lousy, authorize an international effort to look after things, and then go about our business?  Bomb the aggressors back to their senses?  Minister to the victims with food and shelter and medicine, in the hope that this will at least ameliorate the misery?  Or rinse our hands, condemn them all for their barbarism, and make damn sure the contagion doesn’t spread to anywhere near our borders?

As Ignatieff makes clear, we do or try to do all these things.  To do nothing is to be ashamed.  The only honourable reaction to horror is empathy, but empathy is a difficult state to maintain when it is not your horror, and when the media flit from one nightmare to another, week in, week out.  Not to mention that empathy has never brought a single 20th century conflict to a halt.  Only superior firepower has done that, and even then the results are worrisome.  Drawing one’s own weapons to put down force of arms makes killers of those who would stop the bloodshed.  And in any event, things tend to erupt again as soon as the lid is off.

The Warrior’s Honour is an eloquent and admirable work.  Ignatieff guides the reader through the war zones of the present, reflecting with a cultured mind and a compassionate heart on what has come to pass.  He brings to bear the very values that war suspends in otherwise cultured and compassionate people.  True, the trenches of World War I produced sheaves of heart-rending poetry, scribbled by benumbed fingers in the lulls between killing and dying, but no one who is being shelled has the time or the presence of mind to compose a treatise on the nature of human conflict.  Ignatieff, however, is so successful at making the horror vivid while maintaining his intellectual cool that the inevitable incongruity is jarring.  It is as though Sir Kenneth Clarke were not simply pointing out the brushwork on a painting of the Battle of Waterloo but actually striding across the battlefield on June 18, 1815, talking to the camera instead of diving for cover.  Ignatieff, protected, narrates from pockets of butchery where no one is safe.

But what is it that shields him, or at least makes him an inconspicuous target?  He recounts an evening in 1993 spent with Serbian militiamen dug in around Mirkovci, a village in what had been eastern Croatia.  Why was he allowed to pass the night with them, gathering stories and trading cigarettes?  Why did they not just shoot him on sight and go back to hating their enemies?  It could not have been his status as a non-combatant: in these wars, as in terrorism, the innocent are front-line fodder.  No, it could only be his status as an outsider and an observer.  Not only did he pose no threat – after all, he was not trying to kill them – but they also probably welcomed his presence.  He broke the tedium and brought smokes.

The same principle is supposed to prevent Red Cross workers from being murdered in their beds, UN troops from being taken hostage and foreign journalists from being summarily executed.  All these things happen, and when they do they are deplored by an indignant international community; but they happen less frequently than they might and very rarely all at once.  For the West, the gesture of compassion is the one possible foot in the door of self-consuming ethnic hatred.  Whether dispensing antibiotics or shouldering camcorders, the presence of people who could perfectly well choose not to be there is a signal that someone, somewhere, cares.  Slim though it may be, it is often the only chance for a moment of calm in the maelstrom.  Even those who wage total, local war have to think twice before slaughtering foreign aid workers.  If the war should go badly, to whom could one appeal to protect one’s own civilian population?

Ignatieff argues that what makes these bubble conflicts so appalling is that the contract between soldiers, forged over centuries of combat, no longer holds.  When nations go to war, they may do so with disciplined armies.  When states disintegrate into violence, as in the former Yugoslavia, thugs come to power on the strength of private militias with a thirst for the job.  In Africa and elsewhere, checkpoints are staffed by 15-year-olds with Kalashnikovs.  These are armies trained in nothing more than how to use cheap, portable, user-friendly weapons designed to cause maximum damage when turned on the unsuspecting.

Honour among warriors turns on rules of engagement.  Soldiers fight only other soldiers.  One does not prey purposely on the weak, the elderly, the innocent or the infirm.  Pillage is not the purpose of war and rape is not its reward.  But how can such rules hold when the adolescents and psychotics who carry out the killing are drilled in the opposite?

Ignatieff suggests that the old contract of war was between opposing forces.  Men of arms knew how to deal with, and to treat, other men of arms.  The new contract, if there is one, amounts to a promise between partisans to exterminate one another, while at the same time both sides welcome the presence of neutral, care-giving organizations, provided they maintain their posture of neutrality.  The contract is not between warriors, but between victimizers and those who put themselves in harm’s way in order to tend to the victims – Amnesty International, Care, Oxfam, Mèdecins sans Frontiéres and the rest.  As horrific as war always is, contemporary ethnic conflicts are unspeakably worse than campaigns fought between disciplined armies.  One shudders to think how much worse they would be if not for the witnesses to war who are compassion’s representatives.

In its anatomy of horror and empathy, The Warrior’s Honour poses a series of intertwined questions.  First, why – and how – do we care at all, those of us who watch from a distance?  Why should we care what happens to total strangers half a world away who are destroying one another in the name of cultures we know nothing about?

Second, why do they do it?  Why do peaceable accommodations between peoples suddenly disintegrate into atrocity?  After all, as Ignateiff points out, “Croats and Serbs drove the same cars; they worked in the same factories as gastarbeiters; they longed to build the same folkloric Swiss chalets on the outskirts of town and raise the same vegetables in the same back gardens.”  Why did they choose to slaughter one another rather than live side by side?  What is so important to them that mass murder became preferable to peaceful coexistence?  Or is the question meaningless?  Does choice have nothing to do with it?

Third, what is to be done?  What policies guide those who would intervene?  What suasion do they apply?  What comes of their efforts?

Some of these questions are easier to answer than others.  The chapter that deals with the International Committee of the Red Cross, for example, is thoroughly enlightening, charting the ICRC’s history, its organization and its strict code of non-partisanship.  Here, Ignatieff shows how refusing to intervene – refusing to pick sides or to lay blame – is the only possible course of intervention.  But here he is dealing with concrete practice.  When he comes to consider why ethnic slaughter ignites in the first place, the results are less satisfying.  The question demands to be addressed, certainly.  It is not an imponderable, but it may be unanswerable.  Ignatieff’s speculations are inspired by Freud’s notion of the narcissism of minor difference, in which small distinctions between “us” and “them” are inflated into hideous symbolic contrasts.  But merely giving something a name is not sufficient to understand it, as Ignatieff himself admits: “The narcissism of minor difference may not explain why communities of fear begin to loathe each other.  It is not an explanatory theory.  It is only a phrase, with a certain heuristic usefulness.”  Still, if one cannot account for the causes of the violence, is it any wonder that solutions continue to elude us?

One of the manifest strengths of this book is the way Ignatieff combines the fieldwork of a journalist with the perspective of a moral philosopher.  He jets around Africa with Boutros Boutros-Ghali.  He accompanies ICRC volunteers as they do what they can in Afghanistan.  He chats with gunmen in the former Yugoslavia.  He provides, in effect, vignettes of all the various actors in the respective tragedies he visits, with one notable exception.  Given that he is himself a journalist – not a network correspondent or a newspaper reporter, true, but a journalist nonetheless – and given that the book opens with an essay on the way the media depict the killing grounds, it is curious that the work of the men and women who cover the war zones is all but absent.  The media move in the same spheres of danger as the Red Cross and the UN, encumbered by the same ethical quandaries.  Their presence is just as morally necessary as that of Amnesty International or Christian Aid: for the media to have ignored the genocide in Rwanda, say, would have been shameful.  It would have been a statement to the effect that we – the media, their viewers – do not care.  In order to signal that we do care, we must watch the ugly images relayed to us via satellite.  Without the pictures and the newspaper accounts, there is nothing to care about.

Inasmuch as Ignatieff considers the role of the media, he does so in the abstract and he has little good to say.  The nightly news, he concludes, “has become the principal mediation between the suffering of strangers and the consciences of those in the world’s few remaining zones of safety,” yet it is spectacularly ill suited to the task.  Cutting the world up into 90-second fragments of experience cannot explain anything.  The codes and conventions of TV news are such that little is accomplished beyond stirring up vague feelings of unease and ambivalence in the viewer, and this, he argues, is an insult to the victims who suffer on the screen.  “A dishonor is done when the flow of television news reduces all the world’s horror to identical commodities.”  More than that, he suggests that the dishonor costs lives.  The piecemeal, decontextualized representations of TV news inflame empathy but paralyze action.  It is impossible to know what to do.  And as we dither, the killing continues.

This line of argument yields a proposal – one of the few actually offered in the book.  It is breathtakingly unworkable, and presumably Ignatieff does not advance it seriously but merely to underscore a point.  It is that we should do away with the nightly news, a format he figures does more harm than good.  “When the rules of a genre are in such contradiction to the needs and intentions of those trying to make the best use of it, there is a case for scrapping the genre altogether.”  It should be replaced, he contends, by long-form coverage in documentary or magazine format.

The limitations of the nightly news, as Ignatieff admits, are well known to the network correspondents, but it is a format we are stuck with.  It is a bulletin service, alerting its audience to what is noteworthy.  It does not replace long-form documentaries, any more than the documentary format should replace the news bulletin.  Does Ignatieff genuinely suppose that audiences would have waited for documentary accounts after the fact when the Allies landed at Normandy, when the Berlin Wall fell, when the shells rained down on Sarajevo, foregoing the running update?  Does he not realize that the immediate coverage of these events is part of the event itself?  There is something condescending about his dismissal of the quick news account.  It disparages not only the field correspondents who perform difficult jobs under often trying circumstances, but also the tastes and the needs of the audiences they serve.

The fact that the cast of characters in The Warrior’s Honour omits the local journalist and the foreign field correspondent is a flaw in an otherwise splendid book.  It means that the big picture Ignatieff is attempting to provide remains incomplete.  And the absence of the journalist-as-actor is doubly odd, given how essential the role of the journalist was to the research on which the book is based.  In 1993, when Ignatieff went into the ruins of Vukovar, he did so in the company of a local journalist.  Foreign correspondents, rushing into places of turmoil and catastrophe, invariably hook up with a local journalist, someone who can be counted on to know the lay of the land.  When in 1995, Ignatieff accompanied the Secretary General of the United Nations on a tour of Africa, flying on the same executive jet, did he not appreciate how this close access to a figure such as Boutros-Ghali was won purely by virtue of Ignatieff’s own status as a star journalist?

Indeed, although Ignatieff is also an academic and intellectual, The Warrior’s Honour is ultimately the work of a journalist.  It is descriptive, it is perceptive, it is thought provoking.  But in the end, it offers no great program of redemption, no scheme to set things right.  In the face of truly agonizing tragedy, it settles for the modest and manageable goal of bearing witness.eg

  • Literary Review of Canada November 1998.