The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust and Modern Conscience, by William Shawcross. New York: Simon & Schuster. 464 pp. $19.95.
In the nearly four decades since the end of World War II, more than 150 new wars began, involving more than three-quarters of the world's population and the governments of no fewer than 100 nations. Against such a backdrop, in which warfare has become commonplace and civilian casualties often exceed the threshold of comprehension - 2 million in Nigeria in 1968, 3 million in Bangladesh in 1971, and 50,000 in El Salvador since 1980 - it is all the more remarkable that the sad predicament of the Cambodian people somehow seized the attention and rallied the compassion of a world increasingly inured to the calamities of war.
In his outstanding new book, ''The Quality of Mercy,'' British journalist William Shawcross expertly details the complex circumstances that elevated the plight of the Cambodian people to an international cause celebre in 1979 and persuaded the Western world to mount the most costly and ambitious war relief effort since the Marshall Plan.
In April of 1975, the guerrilla fighters of the communist Khmer Rouge marched triumphantly into the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, ending a six-year civil war that had served, as Mr. Shawcross's previous book charged, as a ''sideshow'' to the United States involvement in neighboring Vietnam. For 31/2 years the leader of the victorious Khmer Rouge, the now infamous Pol Pot, subjected this small nation to a fanatical barrage of radical programs and policies. The regime Jimmy Carter labeled ''the world's worst violator of human rights'' depopulated the cities, forcibly resettled its citizens in jungle labor camps, and imprisoned or executed whole segments of the population.
The toll exacted on the Cambodian people was incalculably high. By the time the Vietnamese launched their invasion in 1978 to topple the Khmer Rouge, an estimated 3 million Cambodians - or 40 percent of the nation's total population - had lost their lives. The survivors were, in overwhelming numbers, either seriously infirm or perilously close to starvation.
Word of the devastation wrought by Pol Pot began to reach the West almost immediately after the Vietnamese invasion. Expressions of concern were muted at first by international condemnation of the Vietnamese Army's aggression. But the dramatic announcement in July 1979 that 2.25 million Cambodians were in imminent danger of perishing from famine focused concerted attention on a crisis that had hovered for half a year, ''at the rim of Western consciousness,'' according to Mr. Shawcross.
Officials at the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross , and dozens of private charitable organizations quickly began to marshal their resources. The magnitude of the proposed relief effort soon surpassed all previous humanitarian aid projects and was given immeasurable impetus by sustained public appeals in the US and Western Europe for donations to avert ''a Holocaust'' and the ''genocide of the Cambodian people.''
It is here, in the highly charged atmosphere in which the Cambodian relief effort was conceived and organized, that Shawcross begins the careful exposition of what he describes as a ''mystery story.'' The basic facts are all a matter of public record: $1 billion donated worldwide to Cambodian relief programs, 500, 000 tons of food shipped to Cambodia (Kampuchea) and refugee camps along the Thai border, and $60 million worth of medical supplies delivered to affected areas. It is Shawcross's diligent effort to probe, in his words, ''the work of the humanitarian organizations that the world has created to bind its self-inflicted wounds'' which gives ''The Quality of Mercy'' its impressive emotional force and intellectual power.
Without cynicism or rancor, Shawcross exposes the weakness in strategy and perspective that plagued the Cambodian relief effort. Bound by ineffective bureaucratic procedures and by political considerations that often took precedence over humanitarian concerns, the relief organizations, including UNICEF, the UN World Food Program, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the Red Cross, regularly sacrificed their high ideals for local expediencies. Evidence that the danger of famine in Cambodia had subsided, and that a substantial portion of food aid was being hoarded by the Cambodian government, was deliberately withheld from the public. Appeals for funds were stepped up, and the relief operation quickly took on a haphazard momentum all its own.
The mismanagement, waste, and bureaucratic shortsightedness of the humanitarian aid program in Cambodia were not uncommon in other UN-administered relief operations. What made the Cambodian situation unique was the unprecedented outpouring of public and government support in the US and Western Europe for the emergency relief effort. Shawcross digresses from his narrative to speculate on the reasons for the largess. He argues that the use of such words as ''Holocaust'' and ''genocide'' to describe Pol Pot's brutal persecution of the Cambodian people triggered a latent mechanism in Western society. To ignore Cambodia's needs became tantamount to the failure of most Western nations to come to the aid of the Jews during World War II. Couched in the evocative language of a shameful episode in Western history, the Cambodian relief effort became as much a burden to be shouldered as a humanitarian obligation to be met.
Now, with as many as a dozen nations at war and countless others besieged by rebellions and chronic instability, it seems fair to ask, as William Shawcross does so eloquently, ''whether the brief attention given by (the Western world) to ... peoples in distress really alleviates their condition as much as it assuages our consciences.'' The limits of charity and the struggle in postwar Western societies to come to terms with others' misfortune are ultimately the issues that most concern Mr. Shawcross here. And, in the end, it is his examination of the factors that condition our response to distant crises that lingers in the mind long after one finishes this challenging and thought-provoking book.