It is strange to read Michael Ignatieff’s The Warrior’s Honour now, when he is leader of the official opposition rather than a journalist. Back in 1998, Ignatieff described the purpose of the book:
I wanted to find out what mixture of moral solidarity and hubris led Western nations to embark on this brief adventure in putting the world right.
Ignatieff is making reference to the whole notion of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and the ‘responsibility to protect’ which emerged strongly after the scale of both killing and western inaction in the 1994 Rwandan genocide became apparent. The book is certainly dated in some ways, which can be a liability. At the same time, it has value insofar as it does express one perspective of that time, and facilitates consideration of what has changed since.
The central concept of Ignatieff’s book is the ethics of warriors themselves – the internal moral forces that sometimes help to constrain behaviour within the most limited bounds of ethics, even in wartime. He explores the role of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as special representatives (‘enforcers’ is too strong a word) of the Geneva Conventions. He explains how Henry Dunant – founder of the organization – established a continuing tradition in which delegates of the ICRC have “made their pact with the devil of war” and “accept[ed] the inevitability, sometimes even the desirability of war” while “trying, if it is possible, to conduct it according to certain rules of honour.” Ignatieff also describes the consequences when warriors abandon honour, as he alleges took place during and after the breakup of Yugoslavia, when former neighbours destroyed their collective homeland driven by “the narcissism of minor difference.”
The Warrior’s Honour is not an especially practical book. The tone is more mournful and ambiguous than certain or persuasive. It doesn’t offer much guidance to those trying to decide how to respond to the humanitarian emergencies of today. Ignatieff’s book does more to describe the predicament than to suggest paths out of it, though that is a valuable undertaking in itself. In the conclusion, he explains:
The chief moral obstacle in the path of reconciliation is the desire for revenge. Now, revenge is commonly regarded as a low and unworthy emotion, and because it is regarded as such, its deep moral hold on people is rarely understood. But revenge – morally considered – is the desire to keep faith with the dead, to honour their memory by taking up their cause where they left of. Revenge keeps faith between generations; the violence it engenders is a ritual form of respect for the community’s dead – therein lies its legitimacy. Reconciliation is difficult precisely because it must compete with the powerful alternative morality of violence. Political terror is tenacious because it is an ethical practice. It is a cult of the dead, a dire and absolute expression of respect.
One has to wonder whether it wouldn’t be better for humanity to simply forget the outrages of the past, given the tragic way in which they perpetuate conflict into the present and future. Like feuding gangs, human beings feel this constant compulsion to respond to every slight with a larger slight, and pay back every rape and murder with two more.
Given the course of Michael Ignatieff’s life, the book also highlights the tragic theatrical character of government and opposition. As a journalist, Ignatieff could grapple with major political and ethical questions with a kind of integrity and with acceptance that the answers derived from history are usually imperfect and uncertain. As a politician, he must engage in a much less sophisticated slinging back-and-forth of accusations. One of many unfortunate facts about political life is that proximity to power tends to be accompanied by a cheapening of discourse.