Warrior's Honour:
Ethnic War & the Modern Consciousness

by Michael Ignatieff,
ISBN: 0701163240

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Texture of Troubles
by Waller Newell

The Warrior's Honour is a series of essays emerging from Michael Ignatieff's travels "through the landscapes of modern ethnic war" between 1993 and 1997, including Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Afghanistan. Readers who liked his previous books, such as The Needs of Strangers and Blood & Belonging, will not be disappointed, for all the elements of the Ignatieff style are here: the jeweller's eye for the vivid detail, the fluid and gracious prose, and a high-mindedness which is attractive, even if, in my view, it verges at times on the platitudinous. There is no denying him his share of golden moments as an author: "At the checkpoints I met the new warriors: the barefoot boys with Kalashnikovs, the paramilitaries in wraparound sunglasses, the turbaned zealots of the Taliban who checked their prayer mats next to their guns." Ignatieff was one of the first to travel to these lethal interzones between the superpowers and simply look at the strange and frightening new kinds of conflict that were emerging there. Along with Conor Cruise O'Brien and a few others, he early on reported from the front while most were still absorbing Fukuyama, with the urgent message that history is very far from over. The Warrior's Honour is that rare thing, a book that both engrosses and instructs, even to the level of a public service. Although he is becoming something of an official National Treasure, with the perils that this must always entail for a serious writer, he is in fact someone of whom educated and thoughtful Canadians can be proud. I'd rather my national identity were associated with him than with, say, Senator Mahovlich.

Mr. Ignatieff poses a simple but important question for understanding the world at the close of the century. Now that "there is no narrative of imperial rivalry or ideological struggle" that gives us a stake in understanding wars and atrocities in far-away places, "it isn't obvious why strangers in peril half-way around the world should be our business." Whereas the strategic interests and ideological battle of the two superpowers once provided this link between metropole and outback, the only link today is the fragile and evanescent ethos of international human rights, bravely defended in the outback by "aid workers, reporters, lawyers for war crimes tribunals, human rights observers, all working in the name of an impalpable moral ideal." The contrast between this thin skein of universalistic human rights and the tribal particularisms that are always on the verge of snapping it is the leitmotif running throughout the essays. "We in the West start from a universalist ethic based on the ideas of human rights; they start from particularist ethics that define the tribe, the nation, or ethnicity as the limit of legitimate moral concern."

I won't attempt to convey the richness of the essays themselves. They weave together contemporary observation with history and cultural analysis in a way that is both subtle and educational. There are leaps of admirable cleverness that are more than mere cleverness, such as a contrast between television's role in propagating the liberal-universalist ethos of human rights and compassion and the Marxist disdain for such "bourgeois" sentimentality, as evidenced by Merleau-Ponty's defence of the Stalinist show trials, Humanism & Terror. Few authors can make this kind of detour and then make it back safely to the highway of their central narrative. Of particular interest is his application of Freud's idea of "the narcissism of minor differences" to understanding the ferocity of the genocidal conflict in the Balkans. It is precisely because Yugoslavia under the Tito regime did succeed for some forty years in diminishing the sources of ethnic conflict between Serbs and Croats that their remaining, seemingly minor differences erupted with such ferocity in the vacuum left by the departed Marxist-Leninist state. Drawing on Freud, Ignatieff writes, "as external differences between groups diminish, symbolic differences become more salient. As less and less distinguishes you from anybody else, the more important it becomes to wear the differentiating mask." The young warriors on both sides wear "the same international uniform: the tight-fitting combat fatigues, designer shades, and headbands popularized by Sylvester Stallone's Rambo." Precisely because modernization is eroding real differences between peoples, including substantive differences over religion, people want to kill each other because of their hair colour or because they "know" that the other people are kidnapping their people for human sacrifice.

The concluding essay is less satisfying because the author is constrained to offer something in the way of a solution, or at least the prospect of a solution, and naturally he cannot come up with a great deal. Since nobody else can, either, it would be far too much to expect of a single writer. Just by helping us see, hear, and smell the texture of the trouble spots he travelled, Mr. Ignatieff has done more than enough for his readers. He rather half-heartedly embraces truth commissions of the kind set up in South Africa and Latin America as one way by which a nation might come to terms with its past, but ends up conceding that they often as not produce a fake reconciliation by which the previous regime of oppressors get away with most of their crimes. In any event, "the idea that reconciliation depends on shared truth presumes that shared truth about the past is possible." But for all peoples, "truth is related to identity.. To be a Serb is first and foremost not to be a Croat or a Muslim." Nevertheless, Mr. Ignatieff remains an optimist in the sense that he believes it is at least possible for peoples and nations to get along with each other, or at least avoid hostilities, and that there is no reason to suppose that human nature or history dooms us to endless conflict and struggle. In this way his view is a little brighter than that of, say, Conor Cruise O'Brien, who has a more Augustinian pessimism about the darker reaches of the human soul and even believes that in the liberal West we need to sample a bit of this darkness so as to inoculate ourselves against the forces of darkness and reaction in the world by being able to understand their appeal. Still, and perhaps inevitably, this is where Mr. Ignatieff verges on the platitudinous. "Reconciliation," he concludes, "means breaking the spiral of intergenerational vengeance. It means substituting the vicious downward spiral of violence with the virtuous upward spiral of mutually reinforcing respect." Well, sure, but how?

One of this book's best insights is that genocidal conflict is exacerbated by the collapse of the nation-state, because only within the nation-state can people "form civic identities strong enough to counteract their ethnic allegiances." Citizenship within a nation-state is necessarily universalistic, and assumes that what citizens share is more important than what divides them as members of ethnic tribes. In the Balkans, this problem was exacerbated by the fact that the Titoist nation-state was in fact an ersatz version, imposing a false universality from above. People did not actually evolve a civic identity, through participation in the democratic process, to replace their tribal loyalties-they were simply compelled to act as if their tribal loyalties had vanished. "By repressing the real history of the interethnic carnage between 1941 and 1945," the author observes, "the Titoist regime guaranteed that such carnage would return." Mr. Ignatieff, though, doesn't pay enough attention to the connection between this fake form of modernization without democracy and the departed Marxist-Leninist system, whose original model was, of course, the Soviet Union. Today's Russia, like the Balkans, is also riven with ethnic hostility and tension. In both cases, the legacy of communism and the dead hulk of its institutions and mentality have exacerbated these tensions.

The civil truces among autochthonous or ethnically homogeneous peoples underlying every successful liberal democracy took centuries to achieve in the West. The Soviet Union and its satellites, by contrast, imposed the outward, ostensible universality of the modern nation-state by force and decree, without achieving the true inner content of liberal individualism: the universalistic civic and commercial virtues that gradually soften and supplement the kind of communal loyalties that characterize nationalism everywhere before modernity has taken firm root. As these peoples re-emerge from the shattered Marxist-Leninist system, not only are they not embracing the liberal-democratic version of modernity (often on the basis of an entirely plausible distaste for its materialism and vulgarity), but decades of communist oppression and indoctrination have discredited secular modernity altogether while corroding their own traditional religious and ethical prohibitions against gratuitous violence or intolerance toward neighbouring peoples.

The nation-state is not the simple absence of despotism. People don't naturally or spontaneously embrace liberal democracy once freed from a dictatorship. Getting people to be productive and individualistic without being rapacious or reverting to pre-modern hatreds took several centuries to achieve in Europe and North America, a painstaking civic and social pedagogy including philosophical, religious, economic, and scientific developments that created a whole new civilization. Soviet communism tried to skip all this and impose modernity overnight through force and terror. Now that the system constructed through that force and terror has collapsed, the societies emerging from its wreckage will, tragically, still have to pay the price and undergo the trials that the Western democracies, with varying degrees of success, have already come through. A system that, over decades, killed millions and systematically extirpated all vestiges of civic, religious, and economic culture, both modern and pre-modern, in order to skip the "bourgeois" stage of history naturally left behind only the chaos and demoralization it created. That's why it will be a long time before the reconciliation of which Mr. Ignatieff so eloquently writes comes to pass.

Waller R. Newell is a professor of political science at Carleton University, and co-author of Bankrupt Education: The Decline of Liberal Education in Canada.


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