The Warrior's Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience

Michael Ignatieff Toronto: Penguin Books Canada, 1998

By Murray Tbomson (reviewer) | 1998-11-01 12:00:00

Michael Ignatieff's book poses questions that require answers if the 21st century is to turn existing cultures of death and violence into those approaching cultures of peace. The Warrior's Honour begins with four of these questions: Why do some who live in comparative zones of safety become involved with strangers who live and die in war zones? Who are the people who are waging war today - those who "are tearing up the failed states of the 1990s"? How does the savagery of ethnic war affect our thinking and actions today? How do healing and reconciliation come to societies torn by mass murder and depraved injustices?

In exploring these themes he raises still more questions: When is it necessary for outside powers to use military force in civil wars? When is it right to back a minority's claim to secede from a state? And how can civilian populations be protected from the consequences of civil war?

The author was not content simply to raise the questions. Over a five-year period he traveled to, and lived in, current zones of violence: Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, and Afghanistan. With courage and sensitivity to their plight, he met with, and confronted, young men from the same villages, former classmates who played together on the same sports fields but who now faced each other with grenades and semi-automatic rifles.

In 1995, in a memorable trip through central and southern Africa, he traveled as a journalist with the former U.N. Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. He observed the contradictions and inconsistencies of the United Nations and its principal spokesman, who were unable or unwilling to intervene and stop the butcheries of hundreds of thousands of people: human slaughter graphically portrayed on our TV screens.

Ignatieff accompanied the Secretary-General on his visit to the jungle headquarters of Jonas Savimbi, the head of UNITA in Angola, a man blamed for much of the carnage in that country after 1992. He observed Boutros-Ghali patting Savimbi's hand and calling him "my dear old friend." He asked the Secretary-General why he made a public gesture of support for such a man. [The Secretary General] "gives me a mocking glance, as if to say that my scruples are beside the point: the family of nations is run largely by men with blood on their hands. Besides, the peace process in Angola is behind schedule. One massacre at a crossroads could start the madness up again.... [So] Savimbi must be stroked."

This is one of many examples of the author's insightful reporting on events as he traveled through the carnage zones of the world. His perception of the way these events are covered and examined by the media also deserve our attention. The "promiscuity of television news" has its own conventions: it must be visual and fit into short time frames, regardless of the content's importance. So we are faced nightly with a jumble of events: "tornadoes in Pennsylvania, gunmen in Bosnia, striking teachers in Manchester, a royal outing in Suffolk, and infant heart surgery in a California hospital ... as a representation of the promiscuity of the external world."

Michael Ignatieff's critique of television news goes deeper yet. "While television news publicly adheres to the skeptic's code of honor - that nothing is sacred - in practice it worships power. Television is the church of modern authority," he says, citing as examples the almost worshipful coverage of the 1953 British coronation, the marriage of Charles and Diana, and the inauguration of U.S. presidents.

Ignatieff's examination of the obscenity of "ethnic cleansing" and what he describes as the "narcissism of minor differences" deserve our attention as we in Canada struggle with such differences in our own national life. "What is wrong with nationalism," he says, "is not the desire to be master in your own house, but the conviction that only people like yourself deserve to be in the house....The language of purity and cleansing, so full of echoes today, is perhaps the most dangerous of all languages of narcissism. The distinction between cleanliness and dirt becomes the distinction between the human and the non-human, between the valued and the despised."

With such insights it is difficult for me to disagree, as I do, with the book's conclusions. Yet what are we, who struggle for and believe in creating a peaceful world, to make of statements such as this: "What history ... seems to teach us is that war survives all forms of outrage at its barbarity, that it is pointless to dream of a world beyond war or to imagine a world where the warrior's art is no longer needed, and that the path of moral reason lies in ... accepting the inevitability, even the desirability of war..."

The only solution offered to this dreary view of our fate is as weak as it is futile: to conduct war according to certain rules of honor and to struggle to make the warriors involved obey them. This conclusion seems to be based on the notion that modern, stable societies, with their disciplined, well-trained police and military forces, are required to prevent the ethnic conflicts about which he writes.

The author seems oblivious of the fact that the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union have between them been responsible for several major wars in this century producing upwards of 100 million deaths and uncounted cruelties. Nor could the weapons that were used and which continue to be produced, deployed, and prepared for future use - from cluster bombs to napalm and nuclear weapons - by any stretch of the imagination be classified as either honorable or humane.

Nor, in fact, despite the author's admirable "hands-on" approach of risking his life in war zones, is there any analysis of war itself, of the role played by the "stable societies" with their national economic interests, ballistic missiles, huge arms expenditures, secret service-led destabilizing, underground activities, burgeoning arms trade, and the nature of modern military training, including its refined methods of obtaining information by torture.

It remains, then, for those of us who share the U.N.'s belief that the scourge of war must, and can, be removed, to use the insights provided by this book, then to redouble our efforts to ensure that its conclusions can be scrapped and rewritten. Reviewed by Murray Thomson

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1998

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1998, page 27. Some rights reserved.

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