Review: Virtual War

Michael Ignatieff Penguin Books Ltd, 2000

By Derek Paul (reviewer) | 2000-10-01 12:00:00

In his most recent book, Virtual War, Michael Ignatieff recounts and reflects upon the most recent use (or misuse) of military power by the United States and its NATO allies in Kosovo.

An introduction and six chapters cover the Kosovo conflict, leaving an intimate impression not obtainable through magazine and newspaper articles. Ignatieff knows many people close to the centre of this conflict. American ambassadors Richard Holbrooke and Christopher Hill, for example, enable him to produce a convincing account seen, as it were, from the centre of power. He also has important friends in Serbia, for example the fascinating Aleksa Djilas, son of Milovan Djilas, whom he visited in July 1999 soon after the bombing stopped. Djilas' contributions to this book lend it an evenhandedness it would otherwise not have, and also re-emphasize the cracks evident in Ignatieff's argumentation.

There is a unique freshness in Ignatieff's willingness to reveal his own shortcomings, most clearly in the "Dialogue on Intervention" carried on between Robert Skidelsky and himself - pp.73-87. Skidelsky takes the route that would conform with international law as it now is, whereas Ignatieff wants to establish necessary intervention precedents for humanitarian reasons, and must therefore risk going beyond what is already agreed internationally. The consequences of following the Ignatieff route are unknown, but are bound to accentuate militarism. It is here that we first see Michael Ignatieff clearly as a militarist. The unanswered questions that abound, especially in the last chapter of the book, follow from this step.

Nevertheless, there is much else in the first six chapters that is of merit, not least the description of the role of lawyers in the military operation of bombing Kosovo and Yugoslavia. The American legal preoccupation with the Geneva conventions sweetens the disregard the United States seems so often to have often had for international law, especially relative to the United Nations. A new question here might be asked: what makes the Geneva conventions so special that they would receive such rigorous attention in Kosovo?

Virtual War suggests throughout its numerous arguments and rationalizations that its author is totally ignorant of or oblivious to the extensive peace literature that now exists. Peace research in his home country, Canada, began in 1960, still earlier in a few other places. The outpouring of excellent material from many institutes in many countries has transformed what we know about militarism and peace seeking. There is also much available to modern readers on nonviolence including civilian-based defence. At bestVirtual War indicates that Ignatieff accepts the reality of power. American hegemony is evident today and, following Richard Holbrooke's activities at the critical period of the Kosovo crisis we are presented with a supposedly benign aspect of that power. But was it so benign? The Rambouillet Agreement was officially designed to stop the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and retain that province within the Yugoslav federation. But was it a realistic peace initiative? The United States has a fine historic record of negotiation, but it also learned during the Cold War how to insert a joker into a draft agreement, that is, a clause that is known in advance will prevent agreement being reached. Whether or not you call it a joker, the Rambouillet agreement contained elements that Milosevic could be counted on not to agree with. Nevertheless, Ignatieff uses the Rambouillet experience to further demonize Milosevic (p.48) saying that he used the time gained in the negotiations to prepare "a decisive semicircular sweep around Kosovo" that had the effect of driving the Albanian Kosovars out. The facts are true, but the angle is false, since Rambouillet was loaded.

Many of the other failures of this book are concentrated in or repeated in the final chapter, also titled "Virtual War." The title is unfortunate because the expression virtual war consistently means real war, albeit waged at long range by one of the sides. The exception is when it refers to an electronic attack on a computer system (cyber war) that does not qualify as war at all - in any normal definition of war.

This last chapter is a complicated 54-page essay that could well be expanded into a whole book. It looks into the morality and practice of war at long range (or by remote control) using highly accurate weapons, and the persuasive influences of the media, public opinion, and military lawyers. The author turns over many stones only to find a rattlesnake under each one, which he is unable to deal with. His moral uncertainty continues until it causes him to reach the very weak final pages (pp.214-5); though the subject matter here is of central importance, requiring a stronger and less confused hand. The reasons are not hard to find. Ignatieff has for some time now allied himself with strategic thinkers. His ambassadors and his generals may be excellent family men and great company, but in the halls of philosophers they have failed to ask the truly fundamental questions. For example, many of Ignatieff's statements show that he considers war inevitable "as a last resort" and that fighting a war against the Serbs in Kosovo was necessary. If he had read widely in the peace literature he would know that war need not be the last resort though one can always make it so. Indeed war-as-the-last-resort must eventually disappear from human thinking if the world is ever to become peaceful. There are nonviolent strategies that might have worked in Kosovo had such been prepared but, alas, the big money still goes overwhelmingly to the militarists.

In a subsection of the last chapter titled "Waiting for the Barbarians" Ignatieff warns that "other nations will begin to produce and deploy long-range precision guided missiles and . . . America will become more vulnerable to attack. In response it will have to develop missile defense systems to protect the continental United States." This is surely the kind of support that the most weapon-loving militarists have been hoping for from prominent writers. It belies all the diplomatic work for peace of the last 55 years and returns us to the classic adage that the Cold War taught many of us to abandon: "If you want peace, prepare for war." Scientists have written extensively and consistently about the futility of ballistic missile defence, none more convincingly or with more understanding than David Parnas, a professor of computer science and engineering at McMaster University. To quote Parnas from a recent private communication:

" . . . The stronger argument is that the response to building, or even planning [a ballistic missile defence (BMD)] will be the retention of existing missiles and the design of newer, more sophisticated ones. Those technologies are proven and testable. BMD will depend on technology that is not just unproven, it is proven to be untrustable and known to be untestable. BMD is the losing side of this competition."

However, Ignatieff's one remark on BMD is even more unfortunate. Evidently our author thinks that "the continental United States" might be defended in this way. Wake up, all creatures! Even in their wildest and most optimistic heyday following Ronald Reagan's first announcement of the Star Wars program in 1983, the scientists in charge never said that they could defend the United States. They told Reagan they might be able to defend a few targets. This did not deter Caspar Weinberger from touring Europe in the spring of 1984, answering European concerns by saying that, yes, Star Wars would not only defend the United States, but also Western Europe. It is distressing that an author as well respected as Michael Ignatieff would fall into the simple trap of believing the Cold War rhetoric of the White House.

In conclusion, Virtual War, though presenting useful and new information, requires skilled analysis of its shortcomings. Most readers are likely to be misled in important ways.

Reviewed by Derek Paul, Co-ordinator of Working groups, Science for Peace.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2000

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2000, page 26. Some rights reserved.

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