In This Review

The Warrior's Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience
The Warrior's Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience
By Michael Ignatieff
Henry Holt, 1998, 224 pp
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The last half of the twentieth century has been an era of civil wars in Africa, the Middle East, Central America, East and Southeast Asia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Balkans. From the Greek civil war of 1944-49 until recently, most such conflicts were proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union. For Americans, the life-or-death issues involved in the Cold War were overriding, often causing them to lose sight of the interests and objectives of the local parties to the conflict. Today many in America seem surprised that the forest fires of war continue to flame out of control around the world. Communism is discredited and the Soviet Union has vanished; the United States sails an untroubled sea under a cloudless sky; so why are these people killing each other?

What Americans find not only surprising but shocking are the atrocities that peoples who were neighbors, friends, even members of the same family commit against each other. Similar gruesome episodes occurred in wars in which the United States participated-for example, in Central America. But Americans felt that these were isolated episodes, and believed hopefully that they were not sanctioned by the U.S. government. Besides, the other side, they were told, did things that were as bad or worse. As for family members battling one another, terrible though it was, it was comprehensible. After all, the central episode in American history was a civil war animated on both sides by the belief that brother must kill brother if the cause be just and of sufficient importance. So Americans of the 1990s are struck less by the spectacle of various peoples on other continents driven from their homes, starved, mutilated, and slaughtered than by the apparent absence of any cause that might justify such brutality.

A FIVE-PART SERIES

Michael Ignatieff, who has journeyed to the battlefields of some of today's mini-wars, has made them the focus of his inquiries. In an earlier work, Blood and Belonging (1994), he compared six trouble spots: the former Yugoslavia, Ireland, Kurdistan, Germany, Ukraine, and French Canada. In his slender new volume, The Warrior's Honor, he returns to what was once Yugoslavia, but also reports from Afghanistan and Central Africa and refers to insurgencies in Sri Lanka, Algeria, Chechnya, and elsewhere. About 50 such wars are being waged today, he says-in what Americans regard as a world at peace.

Ignatieff is not only a writer but a broadcaster. Indeed, Blood and Belonging was also a six-part BBC television series, each part devoted to a particular trouble spot. The book and series had much of interest and value to say. Their weakness was the lack of a common theme, gamely though the author tried to discover or invent one. The Warrior's Honor has similar strengths and weaknesses. It is less a coherent book than five essays circling around various aspects of the civil wars of the 1990s. To the illumination of dark deeds on the killing fields Ignatieff brings a poetic sensibility and a lyrical style that many will find beguiling. His individual insights often succeed brilliantly. His leaps at synthesis, however, usually fall short. He is impressionistic rather than systematic, suggestive rather than explicit. What eludes him is the unifying vision, the explanation that makes sense of it all. It may not exist.

TELEVISION CREDITS (AND BLAME)

Ignatieff introduces Warrior's Honor by asking anew the much-discussed questions of why, when, and how Americans and other peoples of the West should involve themselves in today's mini-wars. "My concern here," he writes, "is with [our] moral obligation" to the alien peoples caught up in these struggles and with "that impulse we all feel to do something when we see some terrible report on television from Bosnia or Rwanda or Afghanistan. Why exactly do some of us feel that these strangers are our responsibility?" The feeling of responsibility began, in his opinion, with our shame over the century's mass murders and evictions of entire peoples. No ties of family, business, or class, we realize, sufficed to save the victims. What happened to them could have happened to anyone, to you or me.

Television, Ignatieff suggests, is the "privileged modern medium" for conveying this sense. But the medium has built-in contradictions and ambiguities. Television trivializes history's triumphs and tragedies, giving them equal time with gossip, fashion news, sports, the weather, and elections to the local school board. Television captures the imagination, bringing the world into viewers' living rooms and bedrooms with an air of immediacy and urgency. It can have the impact of a blow to the stomach, but then it moves off in another direction, tugging our attention with it. Ignatieff writes, "The medium's gaze is brief, intense, and promiscuous. The shelf life of the moral causes it makes its own is brutally short." To embattled causes in need of publicity, television gives and television takes away. Insofar as Ignatieff draws a conclusion, it is that television journalism ought to be more responsible and show more respect for the dimensions of the dramas it sometimes has an opportunity to portray.

Television as a medium is better suited to conveying images than thoughts. Simply and graphically, it shows the suffering of the losers, but it tends to be less effective at inquiring into causes. That, according to Ignatieff, makes the audience watching reports of a conflict impatient with the issues at stake; none of them, we feel, justifies the horrors we see on the screen. We come to believe that all causes are fraudulent or worse. In Ignatieff's view, we are eventually so angered by both sides that we turn against the victims too, on the grounds that they are fighting under banners every bit as bloodstained as their oppressors'. He urges us not to give way to this reaction.

IS THE HOUSE HAUNTED?

The case of the former Yugoslavia seems to engage Ignatieff most. It is in his discussion of the violent breakup of that country in the early to mid-1990s that he poses the question of how people who grew up and lived amicably side by side can end up killing one another. One explanation-powerfully expressed by Rebecca West in Black Lamb and Gray Falcon (1941) and taken up much later by Robert D. Kaplan in Balkan Ghosts (1993)-is that these are blood feuds, centuries old, that haunt the Balkans and may do so until the end of time. But it is with Samuel Huntington, he of "clash of civilizations" fame, that Ignatieff chooses to cross swords, appointing the eminent Harvard political scientist spokesman for all who, for one reason or another, trace today's civil wars to the distant past.

There are many old fault lines that one can claim run through the former Yugoslavia. Constantine split the Roman Empire roughly a millennium and a half ago into a Latin-speaking west and a Greek-speaking east. Today's Serbs and Croats are heirs to rival civilizations: Serbia is Greek Orthodox and uses the Cyrillic alphabet, while Croatia is Roman Catholic and uses the Latin alphabet. The peoples of the western empire have had about 1,500 years to restructure their state system, reassemble along national lines, and agree in the main on which states should appear on the map-a process completed only a little more than a century ago with the birth of Italy and Germany. But the peoples of the east, mostly transferred from one multinational empire to another, from Byzantine to Ottoman to (in some cases) Hapsburg rule, having just started on the path of self-determination, have had only about 80 to 170 years in which to sort out their national identities and frontiers-which may not have been enough time. Finally, with the wars of religion following the Reformation, Western Europe underwent a profound experience that the Balkans did not. In ending those wars, the countries of the West learned to live as a single multistate community despite differences in religious beliefs. The former Yugoslavia did not have the benefit of that lesson.

Nonetheless, the current hatreds in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia have not welled up out of the past, Ignatieff says. The Yugoslav peoples, he argues persuasively, cannot have been engaged in a clash of civilizations, since the South Slavs of today, lacking a classical education, know nothing of the western or eastern empire in which their ancestors lived. Those empires were divided by language, but Serbs and Croats, ignorant of Latin and Greek, came to speak a common language, Serbo-Croat. It is not civilization that divides them, nor language. Neither is it creed: educated for decades by an atheist communist dictatorship, these are peoples, says Ignatieff, on whom religion has little hold. Nor is it nationalism, the bogey of the modern world, or ethnicity, by which he seems to mean the same thing. The subtitle of Blood and Belonging described contemporary mini-wars as embodying "the new nationalism"; in the subtitle of Warrior's Honor, Ignatieff categorizes the mini-wars as "ethnic war." In fact, most cannot properly be described by either term. The Hutu-Tutsi wars in Africa are tribal, while in Northern Ireland the natives are fighting a war of religion. But Ignatieff is on target when he depicts nationalism (or ethnicity) as a vision summoned up by a group of terrified individuals seeking a group to protect them. He dubs it a "fantasy."

In chronicling the South Slav war, Ignatieff begins with the death of Tito in 1980 and the consequent disintegration of the Yugoslav state. As Ignatieff tells the story, the demagogue Slobodan Milosevic,, in a grab for power, successfully appealed to Serbs' fears. This terrified Croatia, which took measures that further frightened Serbia, and before long the politics of paranoia were in full swing. It was mutual fear more than mutual hate, asserts Ignatieff, that drove the belligerents to torture, mutilation, rape, and massacre. The fear was there to exploit, he says, because of the Tito regime's failure to face not the distant but the immediate past of World War II, during which Yugoslavs betrayed and massacred one another. The Tito government functioned by promoting the lie that Yugoslavia had united as one nation against the Nazi invaders. Yet parents told the forbidden story to children, so everyone was haunted by a dread, the more powerful for having to be kept quiet, that some dark night the past would come alive and vengeance would be exacted for the crimes of the 1940s. There was no ghost in the house, but there was a skeleton in the closet.

Like so many answers in history, however, the one above provides no resting point. Let's say that the Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and other Yugoslavs betrayed, tortured, mutilated, raped, and slaughtered in the 1990s because they did so in the 1940s, but why did they do so in the 1940s? Ignatieff does not confront that question, and indeed takes a wrong turn here in his discussion. He follows a theory of Freud's that must have struck him as a brilliant, if paradoxical, revelation. Freud wrote that "it is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike" that cause hostility between them-"the closer . . . the more hostile." Conversely, the greater the differences between people, the less hostility they feel.

Alas, that Freudian theory is not the key to understanding; if anything, it locks the door. Consider conflicts where differences are conspicuous, where hostility, according to Freud, should be least: for example, those between blacks and whites. Can anyone believe that race riots are characterized by a lack of bitterness? Is racial hatred never intense?

History shows that a war between brothers, such as the American Civil War, can be a war to the death, and that a war between peoples totally unalike, such as Genghis Khan's Mongols or Tamerlane's Turkic tribesmen and the civilizations they burned to the ground, also can be a war to the death. Indeed, tens of millions of strangers, looking strikingly different, speaking foreign languages, and worshipping gods of their own, were slaughtered by these savage nomads from the Eurasian steppes. It is not because differences are small that conflicts are bitter, but despite the fact that differences are small. The size of the difference does not matter.

IGNORANT ARMIES

Efforts have been made to mitigate the harshness of warfare. Medieval Christendom had its chivalric code. The nineteenth century saw the founding of the Red Cross and the birth of a humanitarianism that takes no sides but helps all victims- developments of which Ignatieff writes sympathetically and with admiration. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 codified the rules of war, setting up an international legal code that professionals were meant to observe.

Somehow these accomplishments are being undone today. One of Ignatieff's purposes in writing this book, he tells us, was to inquire into this retrogressive trend. "What is happening to make the world seem so dangerous and chaotic? Who are the new architects of postmodern war, the paramilitaries, guerrillas, militias, and warlords who are tearing up the failed states of the 1990s?" A partial answer is that a warrior's sense of honor no longer dominates the battlefield because today's battles, in lands where states have collapsed and government has disintegrated, are not being fought by professional soldiers. All too often, Ignatieff reports, it is irregulars and private gangs who wield the weapons. Often these are made up of teenagers in the grip of alcohol and of adolescent fantasies of violence and dominance. A warrior's honor is neither to be expected nor found among these armies of the night.

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  • David Fromkin is Professor of International Relations, History, and Law at Boston University.
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