Article by Peter Maass

The Fevers of Nationalism

Los Angeles Times  |  March 1, 1998
The Warrior’s Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience. By Michael Ignatieff

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

Reviewed by Peter Maass

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.

Ignatieff takes a long look at the role television news has played in informing the American public of tragedies in foreign lands and in persuading us against involvement. This is one of the riddles of our times: We know more than ever about the horrors that unfold when war occurs, but this awareness doesn’t make us more willing to stop the suffering. Ignatieff is not the first to notice this dilemma, but he unpacks it in a precise way. “Television has unfortunate strengths as a medium of moral disgust,” he writes. “As a moral mediator between violent men and the audiences whose attention they crave, television images are more effective at presenting consequences than in exploring intentions; more adept at pointing to the corpses than in explaining why violence may, in certain places, pay so well. As a result, television news bears some responsibility for that generalized misanthropy, that irritable resignation toward the criminal folly of fanatics and assassins, that legitimizes one of the dangerous cultural moods of our time—the feeling that the world has become too crazy to deserve serious reflection.”

The world has not gone crazy, it has merely lost the Cold War narrative that we knew so well. The new narrative has a name: nationalism. And Ignatieff understands it well. He dismisses the “ancient hatreds” babble that politicians favor. “Disintegration of the state comes first, nationalist paranoia comes next,” he writes. “Nationalist sentiment on the ground, among common people, is a secondary consequence of political disintegration, a response to the collapse of state order and the inter-ethnic accommodation that it made possible. Nationalism creates communities of fear.”

One of the ironies for well-intentioned Westerners is that successful intervention may require the sort of “imperial ruthlessness”—Ignatieff’s phrase—that we condemn in our political ancestors. Nation-building is not for the timid of heart. As a result, Ignatieff is cautious about the role outsiders will play in ending faraway spirals of violence. Ultimately, reconciliation requires a realization among victims and perpetrators that more killing is senseless, that another round of death does no honor to the dead. A simple fact, but nationalism sustains itself upon myths of greatness or injustice, and myths, as Ignatieff notes, are resistant to facts. Sadly, we will have to learn how to live with the detritus of ethnic warfare.

Callahan, a fellow at the Twentieth Century Fund and author of two previous books on foreign policy, picks up where Ignatieff leaves off. His “Unwinnable Wars” amounts to a rationale and a road map for greater American activism to contain ethnic conflicts. His reasoning is steeped in common sense (for instance, early involvement pays off by lessening the scope for full-scale warfare down the road), and he does an admirable job of explaining why this is so and how it should be done. Isolationism is not a cure but a disease. Callahan notes that before genocide occurred there, Rwanda was known in America (if at all) as the place where Dian Fossey studied gorillas; hardly anyone was prepared for the hurricane of violence that swept through the country.

Callahan is perceptive enough to realize that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for dealing with the Rwandas of our world; policymakers must use a range of strategies—political, economic and, if appropriate, military—to deal with nascent conflicts, and they must not expect to succeed every time they go to bat. “The central lesson of past preventive efforts is that when the United States harnesses its national power it can often stabilize a tense situation,” he writes. Of course, the flip side is also true; preventive efforts can be disastrous, but in cases such as Lebanon and Somalia, Callahan notes that glaring errors of judgment were made by policymakers in Washington. For example, Callahan points out that the U.S. was generally viewed as a neutral player when it deployed Marines to Lebanon in 1982. But its evenhanded standing was undermined once it adopted political stances and military actions that supported the Christian side, and this directly led to the complete and humiliating unraveling of the U.S. intervention effort.

Every age seeks its doctrine. Many generations ago, we had the Monroe Doctrine, and the Cold War brought forth the doctrine of containment. In the wake of the Gulf War, the Powell doctrine has emerged as a favored strategy of the Pentagon: the notion that force should be used in overwhelming doses only when there is a virtual guarantee of success. The credibility of the Powell doctrine owes much to its key proponent, Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Callahan rightly points out that the Powell doctrine is, in many ways, boneheaded. As war broke out in Croatia and Bosnia, Powell opposed limited intervention; he saw another Vietnam or Lebanon. His thinking was simple: Air power leads to ground troops leads to quagmire. As most everyone associated with the Bosnian morass now realizes, the use of limited force early in the conflict might have succeeded and lessened the need for a long-term deployment of peacekeeping troops. “A central lesson from the Yugoslav episode is that the clear-cut standards of the Powell doctrine are incompatible with the demands of preventive action, at least as applied to ethnic conflicts,” Callahan writes.

Callahan does not call for a military response to every ethnic flare-up; far from it. Better intelligence gathering, more diplomatic engagement—these offer the greatest hope to head off wars or lessen their impact. “There is little glamour or excitement in much of this work, just the potential for steady progress toward a world with less killing,” he explains. It may not be the cure-all answer we’d like to hear, but it’s a realistic one. Curiously, the best approach for coping with ethnic conflict in the future may have something in common with our approach to the Soviet threat: to realize that it can’t be eliminated but it can be contained.