Courtesy Reuters

Retrogressive Little Wars: Honor Forgotten

In This Review

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

By Michael Ignatieff
Henry Holt, 1998
224 pp. $24.95

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.


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

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