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National Observer Home > No. 41 - Winter 1999 > Book Review

The Warrior's Honour

Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience

by Michael Ignatieff

London, Vintage, Random House, 1999, pp. 207.

The terms "ethnic war" and "ethnic cleansing" have recently become more common, although such actions as those to which they refer have taken place for many millennia. In this book Ignatieff, a British writer and broadcaster, discusses recent examples and the moral problems that they present.

The author gives many examples of recent ethnic killings. For example, of a Catholic missionary compound in Rwanda he noted:

"The Hutu militia known as the Interahanwe ('we who strike together') arrived at this Catholic mission community in April 1994. They then separated the Hutus from the Tutsis and systematically slaughtered the Tutsis.

Tutsis were hacked to death while cowering behind the pews of the church or under the desks in the classrooms, or while hiding in the swamp in the valley below, or while climbing into the trees.

When the militia grew tired of killing, they immobilised their victims by slicing the tendons of their arms and legs, went to rest, and returned later to finish the job."


Or in regard to the Srebrenica safe haven for Bosnians:

"In July 1995, Serbian militiamen fought their way into the haven, disarmed the United Nations peace keepers there, rounded up all the men in town, and evicted the women and children . . .

[The I.C.R.C.] delegates set up a tent at the air base, and for a week the women of Srebrenica trooped through it, telling stories of how their men had been led away at gunpoint by the Serbian militiamen.

Even then, it was plain to everyone that most of those who had disappeared and the I.C.R.C. counted about seven thousand in all had already been executed."

Ignatieff sets out at length his experiences in recent travelling to countries where ethnic strife has been particularly marked. He writes with indignation, and the incidents that he describes show human behaviour in some of its most unpleasant and even horrifying phases.

At times Ignatieff is unduly concerned to relate what he is describing to Jewish experiences in the Second World War. Although the treatment of Jews at that time was appalling, equally appalling has been the treatment by Stalin of Russians, by Mao of Chinese, by Hitler of Gypsies, by Pol Pot of Cambodians, and so on.

For there to be balance, there should not be an undue concentration upon what has been experienced by Jews, but rather there should be proper attention to misfortunes that have been experienced by other races.

A possible criticism of this book is that Ignatieff merely deplores at some length matters that others generally deplore. He follows the general (and surely correct) view that revenge, vengeance and killing are reprehensible. However in these regards words are cheap.

It would have been more useful for the future for Ignatieff to assist by advising what particular steps should be taken to overcome the disgraceful attitudes that he describes. But this he does not do.

R. M. Pearce

National Observer No. 41 - Winter 1999