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The Boston Phoenix Our Brothers' Keepers

A journalist argues that the West can, and must, stop internecine bloodshed overseas.

By Fred Turner

MARCH 23, 1998: 

THE WARRIOR'S HONOR: ETHNIC WAR AND THE MODERN CONSCIENCE, by Michael Ignatieff. Metropolitan Books, 207 pages, $24.95.

Over the past 10 years, Canadian journalist Michael Ignatieff has flown into the eyes of half a dozen moral hurricanes. On behalf of such august publications as the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, he has picked his way among corpses strewn across pews in a Rwandan church and between the burned-out shells of houses in Kabul, Afghanistan. He has shaken the hands of President Mobutu of Zaire and of anonymous Serbian militiamen. To read his résumé, you might think he was what infantrymen in Vietnam used to call a "ghoul" -- a professional voyeur with a taste for the atrocious.

And yet, the five linked essays of The Warrior's Honor (all reworked from lectures and published magazine pieces) reveal Ignatieff to be less a "Scud stud" than a jet-age Orpheus. In this reluctant, acutely thoughtful guide to man-made hells, Ignatieff distills his travels into a uniquely engaged and morally demanding form of reportage. Where other reporters content themselves with recording their personal reactions to scenes of civil abandon and gore, Ignatieff digs into these catastrophes' particular histories, sifts through what evidence he can find about how they came to be, and -- when he can -- apportions responsibility for their occurrence. Moreover, simply by insisting that such events have histories, he reminds us that they are not -- as we might be tempted to believe -- unavoidable examples of some universal human condition. Ethnic conflicts, and the atrocities that accompany them, are the products of particular times and places, he insists; and as such, they can be understood and prevented.

Consider the case of Bosnia. In his essay "The Narcissism of Minor Difference," Ignatieff neatly demolishes the notion that the conflict there is merely the most recent "eruption . . . of ancient hatreds" and shows that it is, instead, the direct result of the collapse of Tito's state apparatus. When the state vanished, he writes, so too did Yugoslavians' faith in the "interethnic accommodation" that had made it possible. Men and women who once thought of themselves as citizens of a nation now had to seek other groups within which they might find psychological and, later, material security. Searching for others like themselves, they began to exaggerate relatively minor differences between ethnic groups and to build new identities around those distinctions. And precisely by emphasizing those minor differences, they also created the psychological basis for armed conflict.

As colonial- and Cold War-era states have collapsed, Ignatieff contends, these sectarian psychodynamics have asserted themselves in a series of "ragged wars." Yet, even as the number of such wars has increased, so too has the power of what Ignatieff calls the "modern universal human rights culture." Grounded in the liberal notion that we are all alike under the skin, this culture has long been institutionalized in such bodies as the United Nations and the International Red Cross. But lately, it has also come alive in the minds of millions of ordinary citizens. Thanks largely to television, Ignatieff argues, citizens of Western democracies can now see both the suffering of people in distant lands and the abundance of resources their own countries can call on to alleviate that suffering. No longer restricted by technological limitations to encounters with people like ourselves, we find ourselves able to -- and at times, even obliged to -- indulge a liberal impulse. In short, the modern media have led us to a new moral ideal.

It is here that Ignatieff's argument becomes simultaneously most demanding and least convincing. For Ignatieff, the obligations of stable, wealthy states to assist those that have descended into chaos extends beyond the sorts of limited engagements Americans have undertaken in Somalia and Rwanda. In Iraq, for instance, he would have had General Schwarzkopf become "the General MacArthur of a conquered Iraq" so as to liberate the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein. In Somalia, he would have kept American Marines in the streets of Mogadishu to this day, and thus begun lifting the country out of the hands of its warlords. In both cases, he argues, "Had we been more ruthlessly imperial, we might have been a trifle more effective." Maybe. But a long history of idealistic American interventions abroad suggests otherwise.

Still, the thrust of Ignatieff's argument remains powerful. In a particularly compelling essay titled "The Seductiveness of Moral Disgust," Ignatieff notes that when faced with the complexity and ruthlessness of interethnic conflict, leaders of both Western democracies and human-rights institutions have been tempted to throw up their hands and walk away. Thanks to his careful parsing of the Balkan conflict, however, we can see that "ragged wars" begin in political collapse -- and thus may be amenable to political cures. As successful political entities, the liberal democracies have much to offer in such situations. Ignatieff convinces us that they should offer much more.

Fred Turner is the author of Echoes of Combat: The Vietnam War in American Memory (Anchor Books).

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