Volume 12 Number 4
When Neighbours Become Enemies
01 August 1999

Laurie Vogel reflects on Michael Ignatieff's recent book on ethnic conflict.

Talking to a Kenyan I had met in the English Midlands, I mentioned the name of someone I knew in his home country. 'He's a Kikuyu,' was the immediate response, as if his identity was thus fully described. But I knew my friend in Kenya as one of a small courageous band from different ethnicities who were trying to turn back the wave of corruption in their country. I realized that ethnic identification was not limited to the Balkans.

In his book, The warrior's honor*, Michael Ignatieff writes from first-hand knowledge of the ethnic conflicts of our time. He has gone into Rwanda, Zaire and Angola as guest of the UN Secretary-General. He sat in the Serb trenches during the Serbo-Croat war of the early 1990s, as the Serbs fired at their Croat former neighbours, 200 yards away. He experienced the Taliban fighting in Afghanistan and visited Somalia at the height of the military action there.

Central to his book is the question, 'How do neighbours, who have lived together for decades and intermarried across communities, suddenly become irreconcilable enemies?'

Some of the historical background Ignatieff gives is detailed and extremely informative, for example on the present troubles in the Balkans. But he takes issue with those of the Samuel Huntingdon school who would have us believe that the past is the only factor which explains present conflict. Why, after all, did Cain kill Abel? If we are to believe that account, there was precious little history to draw on!

I found this a relief, as someone who has tried to work for peace in the different parts of the world where I have lived. For if the 'only after studying history' school is to be believed, few can try to be peacemakers. We just don't have time in one short life to study the complex historical backgrounds to conflicts on five continents. And having tried sincerely to study the history of on-going conflicts close to me, I have found my newly-acquired knowledge of little help in relating with the present players.

Ignatieff's title, The warrior's honor, refers back to the medieval times when war was seen as an opportunity to display manly virtues and was ruled by its own codes of honour.

There is little relation, says Ignatieff, between that view of war and present day war, where technology may separate the protagonists by many, even thousands, of miles. And even less relation to the disorganized violence when warfare is in the hands of subteenage 'soldiers' and Kalashnikovs are available for the price of a loaf of bread.

Ignatieff concludes that 'identity' is not something innate, but a deliberate choice. For all of us have multiple identities. I, for example, am British, the son of a Swiss, white, Christian, an engineer, a volunteer with a Christian group, a husband and so on. If I--or other people--focus on ethnicity as my identity, all my other identities are suppressed.

Thus the Serbs Ignatieff met during the Serbo-Croat war had had to suppress the neighbourliness they had lived with for decades. They now saw their former neighbours, some of them married perhaps to their sisters, simply as Croats and 'all Croats are....'

Nationalism defines me as part of a group holding imagined values, in contrast to those of another group with imagined criminal traits. The desire to be 'masters in our own home' is justifiable, says Ignatieff. The problem comes when only 'our lot' is welcome there.

As war has changed, bodies like the International Red Cross (IRC) have worked to outlaw certain practices. The Geneva Convention of 1864 has had to be modified as warfare has shifted from encounters between armies to the deliberate targeting of civilians. Some dedicated groups, like Médecins sans Frontières, have questioned the neutrality so central to the IRC's ethos. 'Between aggressor and victim, no one can be neutral,' they say. True, perhaps. But 600,000 Serbs were victims of Croatian 'ethnic cleansing' in Krajina before the Serbs imposed the same 'cleansing' on Bosnia and Kosovo. Victimhood is itself a chosen identity, not an innate state.

Involvement (the inner conviction in millions of people that 'something must be done') turns easily to disillusionment ('To Hell with the lot of them. There's nothing we can do.'). This, says Ignatieff, is not only 'involvement fatigue', a state of apathy. It can as easily be a yielding to the 'seductiveness of moral disgust' ('They are brutes and savages. Nothing can be done with them.').

Thus, towards the end of World War I, millions were gripped by the idealism of President Woodrow Wilson with his draft of a new world order. The Versailles Treaty, imposed by those who wanted to 'squeeze the Germans until the pips squeak', killed the idealism, and decades of disillusion set in.

Ignatieff tries to point towards an answer. He sees it in part as breaking the myths of group identity so that individuals see themselves--and their neighbours--with all the identities they have denied. He is clear that this is a spiritual process.

Another factor is perhaps only touched on. Are our passions directed at the past or at the future? Ignatieff points out that the people who brought into being the United Nations, the World Bank, the Marshall Plan, the International Monetary Fund and the rebirth of Europe at the end of World War II were all looking towards the future.

It puts me in mind of Jean Monnet, who, even in the dark hour when he was imprisoned by the Nazis in 1941, told his friends, 'When this war ends, we must build a new Europe with Germany as equal partner and not humiliated.' Irène Laure, a Frenchwoman who went on to play a role in the heart-to-heart reconciliation of Germans and French people after World War II, once burned with hatred against all Germans--not just the Gestapo who had tortured her family. But even deeper was her longing 'that my children and grandchildren will not have to endure the horrors my generation has had to'.

What then turns an obsession with the past into a passion for a new future? Ignatieff says that, when justice is seen to be done, it can help people come to terms with their personal past. One of the first steps of President Aylwin of Chile, when he took over in 1990, was to apologize to the Chilean people for the crimes committed by the Pinochet regime, even though he had personally opposed it. Thousands of private acts of repentance and apology followed.

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has equally helped aggressors and victims of the apartheid era to find healing. And one of the virtues of properly conducted legal trials is that the false myths of the past can no longer be upheld.

Central to all these processes, I believe, are changed hearts, where human nature with all its good and bad impulses is faced and the divine power of forgiveness achieves the humanly impossible.

*'The warrior's honor: ethnic war and the modern conscience', by Michael Ignatieff, Random House 1998
Laurie Vogel

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