The Collision of Ethnic War And Humanitarian Principles


By Michael Ignatieff

Metropolitan Books

224 pp., $24.95

Just before 4 a.m. on a raw December morning in 1996, a group of men wearing black masks scaled the wall of a Red Cross hospital in Chechnya and murdered six unarmed Red Cross international aid workers.

For Christoph Hensch, a Swiss administrative specialist who barely survived a bullet wound that morning, the incident was inconceivable. "We couldn't understand how people could be so crazy, without respect for the Red Cross," he acknowledged.

On one level, the incident was shocking for its callous brutality against an organization committed to impartially aiding victims of war and promoting obedience to international humanitarian law. On a broader level, though, it highlighted the difficulties faced by today's humanitarian agencies working in starkly inhumane situations. Indeed, the Red Cross is zealously committed to the principle that the soldiers of all sides of a conflict deserve an equal right to treatment and care.

In his book "The Warrior's Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience," Michael Ignatieff explores why Western individuals, governments, and organizations such as the Red Cross believe that the problems of people in such unstable countries as Afghanistan and Angola are of concern to all of us.

Furthermore, once we become involved in these wars, how realistic is it to expect that those involved will behave according to Western morals and humanitarian values? For Ignatieff, these questions are steadily boiling to the surface as the growing number of international humanitarian agencies increasingly clash with one of the globe's most destructive scourges: ethnic war.

Perhaps the most obvious reason is that they come to very different conclusions about human nature. On the one hand, humanitarian intervention, with its roots in the Enlightenment ideals of such philosophers as Jean Jacques Rousseau, is based on the principle that everyone is created equal. On the other, ethnic nationalists emphasize differences between groups, based on cultural, linguistic, religious, or other ties. Consequently, ethnic war frequently results following the breakdown of a state when one or more ethnic groups seek control of a recognized state, some form of autonomy, or outright independence.

In his argument that ethnic nationalism is not "some primordial essence, formed by history and tradition, latent within," Ignatieff argues that nationalism is not the result of historical enmity between competing groups. Instead, it is often a result of nationalist leaders, who conjure up allusions to past atrocities and invent shared histories to consolidate political power.

In the face of such violent ethnic wars, Ignatieff wonders what those of us living in stable countries can do to assist those suffering through machete attacks and Molotov cocktails. He contends: "Never have sentinels between the human and the inhuman been more necessary."

Ignatieff is to be applauded for tackling issues, ranging from television's role in encouraging moral empathy to the promotion of healing by war-crimes tribunals. In attempting to tackle so many themes, however, he is guilty of trying to do too much in so short a work. The result is a book that, at times, lacks cogency and cohesiveness.

* Seth G. Jones is a graduate student in international affairs at the University of Chicago.

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