Michael Ignatieff’s The Warrior’s Honor is a graphic and unflinching portrait of modern warfare and humanitarian engagements to make war more “civilized.” While Ignatieff is skeptical towards avowedly “neutral” engagements such as the Swiss Red Cross, he retains a measure of hope or at least reserved optimism for the prospect that warring parties can reconcile if “rituals in which communities once at war learn to mourn their dead together” (190). The tone of the book is both journalistic and literary, and the conclusion could be described as visionary and prophetic. Ignatieff offers a challenge to individuals to challenge their assumptions about themselves to break the cycle of narcissism, bigotry, and violence. He has an anthropological understanding of why groups of people act in particular violent ways given their histories and myths, but he tempers this with a social psychology drawing from Freud and Hobbes to understand what happens in anarchic situations of brutal warfare. He is at his best when he shows that recent liberal humanitarian engagements are not so removed from the colonialist legacy of the 20th century and Conrad’s depiction of Kurtz’s “moral disgust.”
Ignatieff’s work is very political, arguing that governments or NGOs simply cannot take the neutral political stance towards modern wars. He argues that war should first be seen as a natural human condition (a very Hobbesian view), and secondly, that war is one solution to ethnic conflict. Is he arguing for a return to T.R.’s “Gunboat Diplomacy?” I assume that he believes that since the UN, or the U.S. or EU, will become involved in these armed conflicts around the world anyway, they should act decisively, firmly, and quickly rather than make half-fast engagements and muddy up the situation through food-aid relief, inadvertently prolonging conflicts. The harsh criticism over the UN’s foot-dragging in Rwanda makes this an easy argument to make. The opposite stance would be an isolationist position, but in the current political climate, this is a morally unacceptable option. By beginning the book with a discussion of the power of the television, Ignatieff shows how this powerful medium has led to the emergence of a moral universalism, while at the same time conflicting with the general feeling that family has a moral priority over the welfare of strangers. The end of this argument is that the moral stakes of siding with the victims may lead to misanthropy. Arguing for a more ethical television treatment of atrocities is a step in the right direction. Ignatieff touches on the issue of distance and space issues, but these could be expanded more. There is perhaps an anxiety, which may be an undercurrent of current immigration policies, that horrors around the world cannot be contained, and the sovereign borders of the U.S., for example are not immune to such crises. Cries of “secession” are currently being heard among separatists in Alabama. Will there be a call for “revenge” sometime in the U.S.’s future for the dead Confederates of our own Civil War? With the recent change of leadership in Austria and the continuing woes of the former Yugoslavia, it is increasingly obvious that problems of wartorn disintegrating states are not confined to borders of first or third world. Ignatieff offers no solutions for the mess we are in – he is certainly not an advocate of civil disobedience – nevertheless, there are some directions we can work towards, and two methods, reconciliation and shame, combat for a temporary peace, or at least for an illusory justice.