Selected Longer Reviews

Warrior's Honor: ethnic war and the modern conscience

By Ignatieff, Michael

Chatto, London , 1997, 224 pages,
Price: 10.99 Pound Sterling
Shelf mark: 305.8 [Soc]

Between 1993 and 1997 Michael Ignatieff travelled through what he calls the landscapes of modern ethnic war: the former Yugoslavia, central Africa and Afghanistan. Like all good travellers, he was using these journeys to explore not only the world outside him, but also that inner world of assumptions and beliefs that he carried around in his head. So it is no criticism of The Warrior’s Honor, his resultant collection of essays about war, nationalism and Western intervention, to say that it tells us more about the author than about any (or all) of the places he visited.

His most basic assumption is his belief in the fundamental equality of human beings. He holds that all human differences are minor, when set against the things we have in common; and from those common features of mankind there springs a set of "human rights" which belong equally to us all.

Once upon a time this was a subversive doctrine. Nowadays, the intellectual avant-garde sneers at it as part of a discredited "Enlightenment project", and the whole idea of universal values is beginning to sound positively old-fashioned. So it is quite refreshing to read an unabashed defence of it here, especially a defence by someone who admits that this doctrine of universal human rights also depends on a kind of fiction, a deliberate ignoring of the real differences which we encounter in our day-to-day experience of other people.

Ignatieff has no difficulty in showing that, when it comes to organizing any particular state, the fictions of liberal universalism are preferable to the fictions of nationalism. A state based on the supremacy of one national or ethnic group (Hutus, say, or Serbs) will be a less pleasant place than a state based on the liberal doctrine of equal citizenship.

But the difficult question is: how can we believe in universal values, without also believing that we should take action to defend those values universally? If a citizen of Essex has the same rights as a citizen of Yorkshire not because he is British but because he is a human being, then why should the British Government confine its protection of those rights merely to the human beings who happen to live in Britain? Is it not equally obliged to defend all the human beings in Rwanda, Tibet and East Timor?

This is really the central question of the book; and yet Ignatieff never gives it a proper answer. Of course, when he visits places where the West (or the UN) has intervened on the ground, he does treat the intervention as deeply problematic. Many critics argue that intervention either has no effect, or makes things even worse; Ignatieff takes these arguments seriously, while coming down, in the end, against them. But his underlying assumption remains unexplored and unchallenged - that, if we can do more good than ill by intervening, we are under a positive duty to intervene.

Among those critics who say that intervention is a complete waste of time, one rather facile argument is especially popular: the claim that wars such as the one in Bosnia are just endemic "ethnic" conflicts, the inevitable expressions of ancient ethnic or religious hatreds. Ignatieff deals well with this claim (and with its most fashionable exponent, Samuel "Clash of Civilizations" Huntington), pointing out that these so-called ancient hatreds are modern creations, largely created by political processes from above.

The key development, he suggests, is the break-up of the state: that political event is generally the cause, not the consequence, of local nationalisms. And so, unusually for someone in the left-liberal tradition, Ignatieff ends up recommending that states should be strengthened, not undermined or disbanded. Surveying the wreckage of Rwanda and Afghanistan, he writes: "More than aid or emergency relief, more than peacekeepers, these societies need states, with professional armies under the command of trained leaders".

Again, this brings us to a difficult question which Ignatieff fails to answer. If a strong state is so desirable, can he really afford to reject the thing that binds most successful states together - the sense of national identity that comes from a shared language and culture? How strong is a state going to be if people are taught to think of it merely as a geographical area containing a certain number of human beings endowed with universal rights?

The sense of national identity on which some thriving states are built is just of no interest to Ignatieff - or, if he considers it at all, he lumps it together with the "nationalism" of staring-eyed extremists with Kalashnikovs. His argument implies, for example, that Norway should never have been permitted to gain independence: the fact that Norwegians just did not want to be ruled by Swedes is, in his eyes, irrelevant, and he flatly says that secession can be justified only when there is a recent history of persecution and bloodshed. And yet he wants strong states. How strong would a Swedish-Norwegian Union have been, if Norwegian soldiers felt no interest in defending Swedish soil?

Again and again in this book, one gets the impression that Michael Ignatieff breaks off his argument when the questions get difficult. The things he says well (in thoughtful, finely turned prose, with the occasional arresting metaphor) are, on the whole, the things that are easy to say: about the "seductiveness of moral disgust", the "narcissism of minor differences", and so on.

Unfortunately, when he writes about the war in the former Yugoslavia (the main example referred to throughout the book), he fails to do one other easy thing - to check his facts. The war in Bosnia did not start in May 1992. The Serbs who fled from the Krajina in 1995 did not number 600,000. It is not true that by 1990 "more than a quarter" of the population of Yugoslavia identified themselves as "Yugoslavs" (the correct figure, from the 1991census, is three percent).

And it is simply grotesque to say, of the Serb-run concentration camps in northern Bosnia in 1992, that "the camps that the media actually got to see were not death camps but transit camps for civilian detainees whom the Serbs hoped to send into exile". The very first camp visited by a group of Western journalists was Omarska, where several thousand Muslim prisoners were shot or beaten to death.

It is quite false to say that the Bosnian Muslims failed to keep "their part of the bargain", which was to demilitarize all the UN-declared "safe areas": no such condition was imposed by the UN. And it is frustrating, to put it mildly, to reach the end of a book about intervention without having found a single discussion of the most important Western intervention actually carried out during the Bosnian war: the imposition of an arms embargo, which prevented the victims from defending themselves.

Noel Malcolm

This review first appeared in The Sunday Telegraph on 25 January 1998

Noel Malcolm’s Kosovo: A Short History is published by Macmillan.

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