The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience by Michael Ignatieff (1998) – 1

The family of nations is run largely by men with blood on their hands. (p.82)

The main title and the picture on the cover are a bit misleading. They give the impression the entire book is going to be an investigation of the honour or value system of the many groups of soldiers, militias, paramilitaries and so on involved in the small wars which broke out across the world after the end of the Cold War.

Not so. This book is more varied and subtle than that. The investigation of ‘the warrior’s code’ is limited to part of the longest section, chapter 3. No, in the introduction Ignatieff explains that his overall aim in this collection of essays is not to investigate them, the people massacring each other in failing states, but to examine why we in the rich West feel so obliged to intervene in foreign countries to bring peace, feed the starving etc.

The narratives of imperialism are dead and buried but they have, according to Ignatieff, left us with ‘the narrative of compassion’. Why? Is this a novel development in world history, that the rich nations feel such a connection with the poor and such a moral obligation to help them? If so, what does this mean in practice? And why do our efforts seem doomed to fail or fall far short of what is needed? In which case, what is needed to bring peace, order and fairness to the trouble spots and failed nations of the world?

Introduction

Ignatieff sees the modern culture of international human rights and the conviction of so many in the West that we have to help the poor in the developing world – all those refugees and victims of famine or conflict – as a new development in human history, ‘a crucial new feature of the modern moral imagination’.

Our moral imagination has been transformed since 1945 by the growth of a language and practice of moral universalism, expressed above all in a shared human rights culture. (p.8)

I’m not totally convinced. It’s been a long time since 1945, the founding of the UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The situation he describes in 1998 as if it was a sudden new thing was actually the result of a long evolution of legal understanding and organisational practice. The UN, aid agencies and charities have been working since the end of the Second World War, changing and adapting.

And the sudden sense of ‘crisis’ he describes in his 1994 book Blood and Belonging and in this one, may have seemed suddenly more real and acute at the time but now, looking back, tends to seem part of a continuum of disasters, which includes Biafra and Congo in the 60s, the killing fields of Kampuchea 1975 to 79, the first Gulf War 1991 before he was writing, and 9/11, the Darfur genocide (2003 to the present), the collapse of Iraq, the Syrian civil war, the Libyan civil war, the Rohynga genocide and so on, after.

On the one hand, taking the long view, maybe he’s correct that it is a newish phenomenon that people in the West, spurred on by television news feel a moral obligation to help people in the Third World caught up in crises. But I can immediately think of two objections. One is that my recent reading of Victorian explorers and politics shows that the plight of people in the developing world was widely publicised back then, in the 1870s and 1880s, by explorers and missionaries writing books, newspaper articles and going on popular lecture tours. Which in turn inspired societies to be set up to help people in poor countries.

In particular I can think of the Bulgarian Uprising of 1876 which was suppressed by the Ottoman Empire, which sent militias into Bulgarian villages and murdered men, women and children. Maybe 30,000 Bulgarians died in all and the bloody repression was widely reported in Britain and became known as the Bulgarian Atrocities. The Liberal politician William Gladstone wrote a famous pamphlet about it which castigated the pro-Turkish policy of the British government of the day led by Benjamin Disraeli. Eye-witness accounts of western journalists who visited the burned-out Bulgarian villages and described the dead bodies lying everywhere were very widely reported in the European and British press.

All this is not really much different in spirit from the eye-witness accounts of Saddam’s gassing of Halabja or the Serb mass murder at Srebrenica, nor from the way these atrocities were widely reported in the West, and they anticipate journalistic denunciations of the inaction or impotence of the British government which have rung down the ages.

So the basic structure and content of reporting foreign atrocities has been around for at least a hundred and fifty years. On the other hand, maybe there is something to Ignatieff’s claim that television, in particular in the 1980s and 1990s, brought these disasters into everyone’s living rooms with a new urgency and prompted calls for action and triggered mass charitable movements.

He’s thinking of Live Aid from 1985, and that certainly felt like a truly epic event. But surely it was part of a continuum of public sympathy and charitable donation? There had been huge publicity about the Biafran civil war and famine 1967 to 1970, many pictures, news footage, public outcry, pressure on the government to intervene. I’ve seen Don McCullin’s photos of the prolonged Congo Crisis from that decade, ditto. In 1971 the Concert for Bangladesh raised money for UNICEF’s work in the new country born in famine and war, for the first time mixing consciousness raising about an international disaster with fund raising and popular culture.

Like most journalists and commentators, Ignatieff is making the case that the thing he’s writing about is dramatically new and requires his urgent analysis, which, on a bit of investigation, is sort of, maybe new-ish, has new aspects, has become more far-reaching, but is at heart not quite as dramatically novel as he claims.

Chapter 1. The ethics of television

This first chapter focuses on this issue. It reflects Ignatieff’s conviction that one of the things which is new in the 1990s is the way disasters in faraway countries are mediated by television.

He describes the way television news is selected, structured and edited, the way it is a genre in its own right. Fair enough, I used to work in TV news, I know very well what he’s talking about. But hand-wringing about the positive or negative effects of TV now seems very dated, very 1980s and 1990s. Things have, to put it mildly, moved on. He was writing before the internet and a full decade before smart phones and social media began. How people get their news, and how it is packaged for their slick consumption, has dramatically changed. But I find this whole media studies approach to newspapers, telly and social media profoundly boring.

Excitable commentators these days have transferred their moral panic from TV to social media and not a day goes by without hand-wringing articles about the devastating impact of Facebook and the rest. Who cares. It’s not interesting because:

  1. it is an over-analysed subject thousands of articles which all end up with the same conclusion – something must be done
  2. and yet little or no practical result – thousands of articles saying how terrible Facebook is and yet and Facebook is still there
  3. so ultimately it’s boring; in the 1990s people kept on watching TV news despite hundreds of articles and books saying how bad our addiction to TV was, and now, 25 years later, people carry on using Facebook, Instagram, Tik-Tok and all the rest of them, no matter how much the chattering classes tut and tsk

Ignatieff summarises the argument of his first chapter thus:

  • the moral empathy mediated by television has a deep philosophical history, namely the emergence of moral universalism in the Western conscience (which he traces back to Montaigne and Locke)
  • moral universalism (no man is an island; any man’s death diminishes me) is permanently at odds with moral particularism (we should worry most about family, friends and our own people)
  • in the second half of the 20th century moral universalism has increasingly taken an apolitical siding with the victim
  • there is a moral risk involved, which is that too many pictures of too many victims leads to indifference or, at worst, disgust with humans and misanthropy
  • this risk is increased by television’s superficiality as a medium, people watch, are shocked for 30 seconds, then immediately distracted by something else, then something else, then something else: picture of disasters, famines and so on become hollowed out, the viewer becomes more and more blasé

I dislike writing about morality because I think it has so little applicability to the real world. Give a moral philosopher a minute and she’ll start describing some improbably complex scenario designed to force you to make some kind of ‘moral’ decision you would never face in real life. (‘Imagine you have the power to save the world but only by killing an innocent child, would you sacrifice one life to save billion?’ – that kind of thing. Time-passing undergraduate games which have no application to real life.)

I also dislike writing about morality because morality is so endless. It is a bottomless pit. There is no end of moral hand-wringing… but at the same time most moralising writing has little or no impact on the world. It’s a paradox that moral philosophy ought to be the most practical and applicable form of philosophy, but is often the opposite.

I also dislike writing about morality because it is often sloppy and superficial. This first chapter is by far the worst in the book. To my surprise Ignatieff bombards us with cultural references which he himself (ironically, in light of his accusations that television is superficial) treats very superficially. He namechecks the history of Christianity, Roman slave society, early enlightenment philosophers like Montaigne and Bayle, then leaps to the French literary critic Roland Barthes, mentions the racism inherent in imperialism, explains some Marxist theory and practice, namechecks the French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the American politician Robert MacNamara, the theorist of colonialism Fritz Fanon, gives a list of post-war atrocities, civil wars and famines then a list of international charities, a snippet from Don McCullin’s autobiography, the Vietnam War, Bosnia, the Rwandan genocide, CBS’s nightly news, the New York Times, Goya’s Horrors of War, Picasso’s Guernica.

See what I mean? It’s magpie philosophy, feverishly jumping from reference to reference. ADHD thinking. Compare and contrast with Blood and Belonging. In that book each 30-page chapter was set in a specific location. Ignatieff met and interviewed a cross-section of people from the country at length, who we got to know and understand. Their lives and experiences then shed light on the place and the situation and allowed Ignatieff to slowly draw out more general ideas about the world we live in.

This first chapter on telly is the opposite. It addresses a tired theme with a machine-gun rat-a-tat-tat of highbrow references, thrown out at such a rate that there isn’t time for any of them to acquire depth or resonance. I started skipping paragraphs, then entire pages.

This introductory essay shows Ignatieff at his most modish and pretentious and wrong. Take, for example, his passage on the way the state funerals of President Kennedy, Winston Churchill or Lady Diana were covered on TV.

These are the sacred occasion of modern secular culture, and television has devised its own rhetoric and ritual to enfold viewers in a sense of the sacred importance of these moments: the hushed voices of the commentators; loving attention to uniforms and vestments of power; above all, the tacit inference that what is being represented is a rite of national significance. (p.31)

This is not only pompous pretentiousness using breathy metaphors to dress up the bleeding obvious, but it is also largely wrong. The funeral of a much loved president or prime minister kind of is a rite of national significance, there’s no ‘tacit inference’ about it. Television has not ‘devised its own rhetoric and ritual’ for covering these events: I think you will find that funerals had a fair bit of rhetoric and ritual about them centuries before TV came along, in fact a key aspect of Homo sapiens as a species appears to be the care we’ve taken to bury people, as evidenced by graves from up to 80,000 years ago. All telly has done is develop technical ways of covering what were already highly rhetorical and ritualised events. As to ‘the hushed voices of the commentators’, well, you do tend to keep your voice down at a funeral, don’t you. As to attention to ‘uniforms and vestments of power’, again I think you’ll find people at presidential and prime ministerial level have always paid a lot of attention, since time immemorial, to wearing precisely the correct outfits at a funeral, complete with the insignia of office or medals for military types.

In other words, this paragraph is dressing up the obvious in pretentious metaphor to make it sound like insight. But it isn’t thinking or valuable analysis, it’s just being a smart-ass. Having ‘proven’ that TV has a semi-religious, ritualistic aspect, Ignatieff goes on to use this as the basis for further argument. But the argument, as a whole, fails, because it is based on precisely the kind of assertion and rhetoric demonstrated in this passage, rather than on the facts and real insights which characterise Blood and Belonging.

This first chapter, about TV, ends up by concluding that watching a 90-second TV news item isn’t as informative as reading a good newspaper or magazine article about the subject, let alone a book. Well… that’s not a very original or useful thought, is it.

The final few pages call for television journalism to completely change itself in order to give more information about the world. That way, via detailed discussions of gathering crises, viewers might get to learn about famines and wars before they broke out. This transformed TV might help viewers to understand the world so much better that we could all prevent atrocities and catastrophes before they happen.

  1. This is so utopian as to be laughable.
  2. The entire chapter now feels utterly out of date. My kids don’t watch any TV news (and neither do I). All they know about the world comes to them via their feeds on Facebook, Instagram, Tik-Tok and a host of other social media apps I’ve never heard of.

Blood and Belonging is a brilliant book because it examines in detail the political situations of half a dozen part of the world and

  1. although they’re nearly 30 years old, his snapshots of moments in each country’s history remain relevant to this day because they continue to be excellent analyses of the basic ethnic and political situations in each of the countries
  2. so acute is his analysis of different types of nationalism that the general principles he educes can be applied to other nationalist crises elsewhere in the world and still today, in 2021

Whereas this essay about the special power of television news not only felt contrived and superficial at the time (when I first read it, back in 1998) but has dated very badly and now feels relevant to no one.

Chapter 2. The narcissism of minor differences

Chapter two is much better because it starts from a specific time and place. It invokes the time Ignatieff spent in a village in Croatia holed up with Serb paramilitaries in the basement of an abandoned farmhouse, an observation post from which the bored soldiers occasionally take potshots at the Croats, in a similar ruined building two hundred and fifty yards away. How did it come to this?

This chapter picks up themes from Blood and Belonging and digs deeper. The most obvious thing to an outsider like Ignatieff is not the way Serbs and Croats come from distinct ethnic and religious groups, or represent the so-called Clash of Civilisations (the concept promoted by Samuel Huntingdon which became fashionable in the 1990s). It’s the opposite. Serbs and Croats come from the same racial stock, look the same, they speak the same language. Sure, they belong to different religions (Croats Catholic, Serbs Orthodox) but Ignatieff’s point is that hardly any of the men he talks to go to church and none of them gave it a thought till a few years ago.

Ethnic conflict is not inevitable

Ignatieff’s central point is that ethnic nationalism is NOT the inevitable result of different ethnic groups sharing one territory. Serbs and Croats lived happily together in Croatia and Serbia when both were governed by an (admittedly authoritarian, communist version of) civic nationalism.

The ethnic nationalism which tore the former Yugoslavia apart was the conscious creation of irresponsible rulers. It didn’t have to happen. Ethnic conflict is not inevitable where rulers make a sustained effort to inculcate civic nationalism at every level of their society. But once you let ethnic nationalism in, let it gain a foothold, and it quickly spreads. Go out of your way to actively encourage it – as Franjo Tuđman did in Croatia and Slobodan Milošević did in Serbia – and you get disaster.

That 600,000 Serbs lived inside Croatia didn’t matter when Croatia was merely part of a larger federal country. But when Croatia declared its independence on 25 June 1991, those 600,000 Serbs became intensely anxious about their futures.

Instead of doing everything in his power to address those concerns, the ruler of Croatia, Franjo Tuđman, made a series of errors or provocations. He restored the Croatian flag. Street signs began to be changed to Croat. The government announced that Croat would become the official language of the country and taught in all the schools. All of this reminded older Serbs of the Yugoslav civil war of 1941 to 1945 when Croatia allied with Nazi Germany and carried out a genocide of Serbs, murdering as many as 100,000, most notably at the notorious concentration camp at Jasenovac.

In other words, Serbs began to have real concerns that they were being quickly manoeuvred into becoming second class citizens in a place where they’d lived all their lives. Tuđman failed to address these concerns and so left the door open for the leader of Serbia, Slobodan Milošević, to depict himself as the heroic saviour of the Serb minorities within Croatia and then the other Yugoslav states (notably Bosnia) and to send into those territories units of the Yugoslav Army (mostly staffed by Serbs) along with new Serb paramilitaries, to ‘save his people’.

A proper understanding of the sequence of events makes crystal clear that the situation came about because of the complete failure of all political leaders to maintain and promote civic society and their crude rush to whip up ethnic nationalism of the crudest kind.

Nationalism creates communities of fear, groups held together by the conviction that their security depends on sticking together. People become ‘nationalistic’ when they are afraid; when the only answer to the question ‘who will protect me now?’ becomes ‘my own people’. (p.45)

The psychodynamics of ethnic nationalism

So much for the macro scale, the large political picture. But Ignatieff is fascinated by the nitty gritty of what the individual Serbs in the basement of a ruined farmhouse think they’re actually fighting for. And here he makes some brilliant observations about how fake ethnic nationalism is and what a struggle it is, deep down, to really believe it.

He does this through a long consideration of Sigmund Freud’s idea of the narcissism of minor differences. Freud started from the observable fact that people who hate each other are often very close, for example members of the same family or husbands and wives. Nations often reserve their strongest antipathies for their neighbours, the English and the Scots.

To outsiders, these look like people who live in the same place, speak the same language, share the same values and experiences, and so on. And yet they are often divided by real antagonism. It’s as if, in the absence of all the large-scale reasons for difference, all their psychic energy is focused on the tiniest trivialest differences.

This isn’t totally persuasive, but Freud says something else. Which is that when individuals join a group,  the voluntarily suppress their own individualism in order to belong.

Ignatieff stitches together these insights to develop his own variation, which states: a nationalist takes minor differences with those around them and, in bigging up themselves and their cause, inflates them into shibboleths, into stumbling blocks, into the things which define himself and his group.

Nationalism is guilty of a kind of narcissistic attention to trivial details (how you were your hat, how you pronounce one particular letter or sound, this national song instead of that national song) and exaggeration – turning apparent trivia into a matter of life and death.

This systematic overvaluation of our story, our suffering, our language, our patriotic songs and so on always comes at the price of a systematic denigration of other people’s same attributes. An unrealistic over-valuation of the self seems to necessarily involve an equally unrealistic depreciation of others, and this depreciation is most intense at the point where the Other approaches nearest to being like you.

The nationalist thinks his tribe and nation are wonderful, special and unique; so that if someone calmly points out that they are actually pretty much the same as the other half dozen tribes of nations which surround it, the nationalist will furiously deny it, and the more alike they are, the more furious the denial.

Thus there is an anxiety at the heart of nationalism. When Ignatieff talks to the paramilitary in the farm basement he slowly realises the man has a bad conscience, a very bad conscience. When asked why he hates the Croats a couple of hundred yards away, he comes up with all kinds of reasons, many of which contradict each other. Ignatieff realises there is no reason. There is no rational reason why Serb should hate Croat or Croat hate Serb. Instead they have plunged into this mental condition of Group Narcissism in which they find psychological validation, reassurance and belonging by investing all their psychic energy in the Group Ideology, and investment which denies reality. Which denies that they were ever friends, went to the same pubs, shopped in the same shops, were married to people from the other group.

If you allow a rational consideration of the situation to enter, it undermines the unrealistic fantasy at the core of ethnic nationalism and this is why ethnic nationalists get so angry about it, furiously denying that they have anything in common with them, the others. They are all murderers and rapists; we are all heroes and martyrs. The possibility that they’re just flawed people like we are cannot be allowed otherwise it brings the entire artificial and overblown fiction of nationalist belief crashing down.

This explains for Ignatieff what he sees among so many nationalist communities which is a certain amount of fakery and insincerity. It often seems as if the politicians, ideologues, spokesmen and soldiers on the ground don’t entirely believe what they say. Inauthenticity, shallowness and fraudulence. It is if the extravagant violence with which ethnic nationalist beliefs are stated amounts to wilful overcompensation for notions the speaker knows, deep down, not to be true. He knows that his Croatian neighbour is not actually the murderer and rapist which his Serbian nationalism tells him he is, but… but to carry on being a member of the Group he has to conquer his own doubts. He has to march in line, wear a uniform and badge, get drunk with the boys and shout out patriotic songs.

All to conceal from himself his uneasy awareness that it’s all bullshit.

Ignatieff doesn’t say this but it struck me that this explains a common phenomenon, which is the documentaries you watch which interview people caught up in massacres, wars and genocides and… they themselves don’t really understand what happened. They look back and they can’t really explain why they and their friends grabbed their machetes and ran round to their neighbours’ house and hacked him, his wife and children into hunks of bloody meat, as hundreds of thousands did during the Rwandan genocide. Now, calm and quiet, sitting sedately in their garden sipping tea, they can’t quite believe it happened. I’ve noticed this in many TV documentaries about atrocities. Years later the participants can barely believe it happened.

Clearly, this is because it was a kind of mass intoxication. It was a delirium, like a prolonged party in which everyone was in a mad, feverish, drunken mood and did all kinds of wild things… and then they sobered up. Indeed Ignatieff records how everyone he spoke to in Yugoslavia expressed surprise that the boring, everyday society they knew collapsed so quickly and so completely into a Hobbesian nightmare of war and terror. They describe it as a kind of madness or intoxication.

He concludes with words of advice for liberal society which can be summarised in two strategies:

1. His analysis suggest there is a kind of basic mathematical formula at work, an inverse ratio: the more people overvalue their group, their tribe, their nation (and overvalue themselves as a part of this Heroic People), the more, as if by some fateful psychological law, they will denigrate outsiders who are not members of the Heroic People. The more intense the positive feelings for our side, the more intense our negative feelings for the other. The cure for this is, pretty obviously, to moderate our feelings for our side. To cultivate a nationalism which is proud of various aspect of our national life and culture, but not blind to its faults, not exaggerated.

We are likely to be more tolerant toward other identities only if we learn to like our own a little less. (p.62)

Because all historical precedent suggests the more you big up yourself, the more you find someone to denigrate and anathematise.

2. Nationalist intolerance works by converting real people into abstractions.

Nationalist intolerance requires a process of abstraction in which actual, real individuals in all their specificity are depersonalised and turned into carriers of hated group characteristics. (p.70)

The solution to this is to consider everyone as an individual, including yourself. Instead of thinking of yourself primarily as a member of this tribe or nation or people or group, you should consider yourself as an individual person. This then forms the basis for treating everyone else you meet as themselves individuals in their own right, and not as representatives of this or that group, with all the (probably) negative connotations you associate with that group.

The essential task in teaching ‘toleration’ is to help people see themselves as individuals, and the to see others as such. (p.70)


Credit

History judges no one. There will be no reckoning at all. (p.55)

The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience by Michael Ignatieff was published by Chatto and Windus in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Vintage paperback edition.

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