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The Fevers of Nationalism

THE WARRIOR'S HONOR: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience. By Michael Ignatieff . Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt: 210 pp., $24.95 : UNWINNABLE WARS: American Power and Ethnic Conflict. By David Callahan . Hill & Wang: 240 pp., $23

March 01, 1998|PETER MAASS | Peter Maass is the author of "Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War," winner of the 1996 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the current interest category. He covered the war in Bosnia for the Washington Post

One of the nice things about the Cold War was the fact that most questions had answers. The borders of the Soviet empire were known, its arsenal was known, its goals were known, its fissures were known. Perhaps some of the answers were wrong, but at least we thought we had the answers, and this made us feel a bit more secure. If you know what lurks in the darkness ahead, the darkness loses much of its fearsomeness.

But what is one to make of today's world? The Soviet Union is long gone, and instead we are faced with pinprick threats from an array of ethnic conflicts that defy comprehension. In Rwanda, about 1 million Tutsis were felled by Hutus using machetes to carry out their slaughter. Somalia was brought to its knees by clan fighters who barreled around Mogadishu in trucks with antiaircraft guns bolted to the flatbeds. Liberia presented the specter of child soldiers no bigger than the assault rifles they wielded at lethal roadblocks. In Bosnia, Serb forces adopted the strategy of siege warfare and choked cities into submission. In Chechnya, ill-prepared Russian troops were beaten off by a few thousand Muslim fighters.

Many questions, few answers. It seems as if Winston Churchill's description of Stalinist Russia--"a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma"--could be applied to dozens of hot spots around the globe, and each of these riddles is crying out for our attention, courtesy of CNN. But when we try to do something, calamity ensues. In 1993, U.S. troops were sent to sort out the mess in Somalia, and they soon returned home in failure. After several years of dawdling, American troops were sent to Bosnia in 1995, not so much to rescue Bosnia but to save NATO from collapsing and Clinton's presidency from ridicule, and the troops are likely to remain in the Balkans for years to come. The lesson that's been drawn from these less-than-satisfying engagements is that we should do the best we can to steer clear of engagements anywhere. As Michael Ignatieff notes in his elegiac "The Warrior's Honor," the colonial era's battle cry of "exterminate all the brutes" has been turned on its head and is being replaced with a weary, fin de siecle sigh of "let the brutes exterminate themselves."

The usefulness of Ignatieff's book as well as of David Callahan's "Unwinnable Wars" is that they illustrate, in vastly different ways, how nationalistic disputes are not as mysterious or unfathomable as they appear. Both books peel away the political rhetoric that has prevented a well-informed debate, and they note that the biggest riddle of our times may not be the origins of conflict in country X or Y but America's muddled state of mind when it comes to dealing with these troubles. In addition, both books are quite honest about an underappreciated fact of our times: Ethnic conflict is not breaking out all over the globe. "The list of post-Cold War ethnic conflicts is tragically long, but it is not nearly as long as it might be," Callahan writes. "For every ethnic rivalry that has exploded into violence, others have been resolved or have at least remained nonviolent." Ukraine is at peace with Russia, South Africa is at peace with itself, Hungary is not fighting Romania over long-disputed Transylvania, Macedonia remains free of war and so on. We need not feel that the world is overwhelmed by ethnic conflicts, Callahan notes.

If you are trying to understand the role of ethnic conflicts in our world today, Ignatieff is one of the best guides. His previous book, "Blood and Belonging," was a well-received reportage of his journeys into the nationalistic battlefields of the 1990s, including the Balkans, Kurdistan and Northern Ireland. Ignatieff is a member of the political intelligentsia who, instead of reclining in an armchair and perusing the day's headlines, goes into the field and meets the foot soldiers and warlords and aid workers whose motivations are intriguing, and he writes about them with the elegance of a novelist, which, by the way, he also happens to be. "The Warrior's Honor" is not a policy book; it is a moody exploration of the reasons why men rise against their neighbors, and it delves into the Western world's curiously ambivalent reaction to carnage in distant and not-so-distant lands. Ignatieff's insights are acute and profound. The only complaint one could level at "The Warrior's Honor" is that, because it is primarily a collection of previously published essays, including pieces in the New Yorker, there is a familiarity to what it contains, and it has a slightly disconnected feel. One wishes he had fused his ideas and experiences into a fresher work rather than snapping them into place like Lego pieces.

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