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The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience

by Michael Ignatieff

Michael Ignatieff’s follow-up to his award-winning Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism uses potent prose to share some of his brilliant insights. In The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience, Ignatieff reflects on his travels to some of the world’s ethnic and religious war zones: the former Yugoslavia, Central Africa, and Afghanistan.

Ignatieff offers up the madness and sadness of war, and challenges the reader on issues of moral conscience and behaviour. Why is the post Cold War world so chaotic? How do societies driven by ethnic strife reconstitute and heal themselves?

Despite the story lines being glum and morose, the author is neither misanthropic nor full of despair. He ends on a hopeful note. Since the Holocaust, the world has slowly but surely embraced the discourse of universal human rights.
Ignatieff incorporates a wide range of philosophic musings and literary reference points: from Joseph Conrad and Sigmund Freud to Roland Barthes and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Extrapolating from Freud, he characterizes nationalism as a variant of narcissism. He has a good feel for Serb-Croat animosities in the Balkan quagmire, communicating how barely discernible differences among them have exploded into violent outrages.

One chapter delves into the logic, power, and limitations of television whose images galvanize and feed our resolve to act. Ignatieff captures some of the contradictions, paradoxes, and dilemmas of foreign intervention in the cause of human rights. The West’s current liberal foreign policy, for example, is laudably informed by moral disgust, but when we finally do pluck up our courage to intervene in others’ affairs (as in Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti), we shun the imperial ruthlessness that is a prerequisite for successful intervention.

The only Canadian reference in the book is a passing one to Quebec. Given the relative lack of spilled blood, Ignatieff wonders in puzzlement how separatism can be justified in light of its costs to both sides. Do his London residence and worldly interests render him out of touch with Canada’s current reality? Are we repressing the spectre of rampages that might be unleashed by the provocations of a few home-grown crazies? Ignatieff may not fully appreciate the tradition of violence in Canada’s past – from the Riel rebellions and the Winnipeg General Strike to Pierre Laporte’s assassination and the Oka crisis. Ignatieff is in the same league as internationally read and respected Canadian thinker John Ralston Saul – but Ignatieff comes across as less flighty, more focused, and less pretentious.