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Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond

by Michael Ignatieff

Michael Ignatieff requires little introduction to booksellers and librarians. He is the award-winning author of several non-fiction books including The Russian Album, which won the Governor General’s Award. This is the expatriate Canadian’s third book in his Balkan trilogy. This time Ignatieff turns his attention to the Kosovo crisis. The roots of his fixation with the region may lie in his childhood; he attended Belgrade’s international school for two years when his diplomat father was stationed there. Many of Ignatieff’s friends are Serbs, but he endorsed NATO’s bombings of Kosovo as a member of the “something must be done” brigade. He conveys the injured innocence among his Serb friends, but has relatively little to say about the Albanian Kosovars.

The book’s collection of essays is a mix of reportage and analysis. The best, and by far the longest, is the final essay, which confronts some of the ironies and contradictions of the Kosovo quagmire. Five key personalities involved in the Kosovo situation are profiled including Richard Holbrooke, General Wesley Clark (the son of Yugoslavia’s most famous communist dissident), and Canada’s Louise Arbour, who parlayed her War Crimes Tribunal role into a seat on the Supreme Court.

Ignatieff surveys the war in the air, on the airwaves, and in the killing fields. The book is streaked with virtuality: chapters and sections detail “virtual justice,” “virtual enemies,” “virtual values,” and “virtual victory.” His ruminations on modern warfare encompass its varied theatres and fallout. The Kosovo upshot – with not a single NATO combat casualty – leads him to conclude that perceived impunity will fuel more wars.

With a public philosopher’s bent, Ignatieff thinks passionately and writes engagingly about a complex issue. Most readers will quickly realize how little they understand about war.