Michael Ignatieff has written eloquently from some very cruel places–Rwanda, Bosnia, Afghanistan. In this collection of five essays, he asks what made these wars so brutal, what is the best way to help their victims, what outsiders can and should do–questions as difficult as they are obvious, questions that disturb us all. His viewpoint is that of someone looking back at those few years when a concerned world rushed to intervene before it started to pull away in disgust. “The twin catastrophes of Srebrenica and Rwanda brought to a close a brief period of hope that had opened up in 1989,” he says, and now “the absence of narratives of explanation is eroding the ethics of engagement.” Ignatieff wants to find a way to stop this erosion, and though clear explanations elude him, he does find a place to rest his own hopes. Do not make the mistake of thinking the book’s title is ironic.

The title comes from the most recent essay. To get there it’s helpful to begin, as the book does, with the chapter on television, first published in 1985. The modern conscience is moved by images of Third World disasters, Ignatieff says, even though these images are only “a single banalized commodity of horror,” shallow and voyeuristic. Television mobilizes a “myth of human brotherhood” that developed from Christianity, the Enlightenment and our reaction to the Holocaust. This myth has lost its original optimism; contemporary universalism comes from “a century of total war [that] has made victims of us all” and rests “less on a vision of man as maker of his history than of man the wolf toward his own kind.”

The essay has obviously been revised since 1985, as it mentions Rwanda and Bosnia; yet Ignatieff pays no attention to the actual coverage of events, the way any particular atrocity has been filmed, edited or presented. He sees TV news as a flawed genre, a form that frustrates the intentions of its best practitioners; that it’s a business goes unmentioned. Despite some splendid insults, his indictment is limited to a general distaste for the commodification of suffering; and his ambivalent praise for TV’s acts of witness is just as abstract. We are left wondering at the nature of a humanitarian ethic that could flower from such a medium.

Almost ten years later, Ignatieff hunkered down with a Serb soldier in a farmhouse basement in eastern Croatia, trying “to understand how neighbors are turned into enemies.” When the militiaman, on guard against Croats who were former schoolmates and co-workers, attempted to explain the difference between Serb and Croat cigarettes, Serb and Croat class pretensions, he ended up saying, “We’re all just Balkan shit.” Ignatieff sees nationalist myth struggling with lived experience, and violence momentarily dissolving the contradiction. Before the war this man was many things; now he is only a Serb, “and because he is only a Serb for his enemies, he has become only a Serb to himself.”

Ignatieff goes on to say that nationalism is best understood through the story of Cain and Abel, as a version of Freud’s narcissism of minor differences. “There are no wars more savage than civil wars, no hatreds more intractable than those between the closest kin.” Really? Rome wasn’t sacked, Auschwitz wasn’t staffed, Hiroshima wasn’t bombed, by kin. Milosevic’s television, when it manipulated that Serb soldier into nationalism, didn’t talk about minor difference but about atrocities and massacres.

Never mind. Ignatieff’s main point seems to be that ethnicity “is not a skin, but a mask, constantly repainted.” Yet he quickly modifies this obvious truth, and claims that only brothers are merely masked and painted into difference; outside the family, others are much otherer. The modern universalizing ethic–the belief in one similar being under the mask–is a “liberal fiction.” “It requires a self-conscious screening-out of certain empirical realities… judge and jury are supposed to ignore [defendants’] visible identities–as men, women, black, white, rich, poor–and construe them as if they were simple equal units.”

Why a fiction? (Why liberal, for that matter–don’t radical democrats take this idea much more seriously? Maybe it’s just a fiction for liberals?) Are those differences “major” instead of “minor,” and if they’re minor, is it pure literary convention to dismiss them? If these particular differences are not mere masks, we deserve to hear the reason. Why be so quick to make an “ethics based on supposed facts of human nature, especially our universal susceptibility to pain and cruelty,” a matter of pure myth? Has Ignatieff heard of ethnicities immune to pain? Shouldn’t the biologists be told?

What’s so annoying about Ignatieff’s orotund riffs on myth and morality is that he can leap from them into precise, evocative reporting that captures all the ambiguities turned elsewhere into mere rhetoric. In a chapter based on a 1995 essay, “The Seductiveness of Moral Disgust,” he follows Boutros Boutros-Ghali in Africa at the moment Srebrenica falls. In Rwanda, Boutros-Ghali is led to latrines where corpses are being dug up a year after a massacre. “The secretary-general peers into the stinking darkness, then steps away to draw breath. The expression on his face is of a man withdrawing as deep into himself as he can.”

In Angola, Boutros-Ghali hugs Jonas Savimbi and “smiles his knowing smile.” In Zaire, he thinks he has persuaded Mobutu not to expel Rwandan Hutu refugees (among them, doubtless, many guilty of anti-Tutsi atrocities); Mobutu expels them anyway. Boutros-Ghali negotiates patiently with one leader after another who has “blood on his hands.” Ignatieff, watching CNN, hears that “Bosnian Serb soldiers have lured civilians out of hiding in the woods at the edge of town, lined them up, and shot them all. They say the Serbs were wearing blue helmets.” Boutros-Ghali is hopelessly compromised; yet he is doing all that he can, given the realities.

“I was witnessing the moment when liberal internationalism reached the end of its tether,” writes Ignatieff. The West won’t take strong action because it’s cramped by fear of neocolonialism (only cramped when it comes to things it doesn’t want to do, I’d think) and prone to moral disgust, “an objective reaction to events, to the year-by-year incapacity of elites and societies to help themselves” (a disgust not evident when it comes to subsidizing those elites if their economies head toward disaster). Ignatieff doesn’t address the way disgust with elites–and at neocolonialism–can itself fuel moral action and humanitarian intervention. Most of the field workers I’ve met doing dangerous and often apparently hopeless jobs in the refugee camps or human rights organizations of Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia were moved by rage at the amorality of power. And by their very existence they showed how societies help themselves.

Ignatieff is in a quandary. He is racked by ambivalence, hostile to leftist analysis, a compassionate person in danger of moral disgust, searching for a sustaining myth. In “The Warrior’s Honor,” published in 1997, he finds one. This is the chapter that–after a long and fascinating history of the International Committee of the Red Cross (I.C.R.C.)–finally takes up a point made in his introduction: Savage postmodern wars are fought by irregulars who don’t share our universalist, rights-oriented ethic. If our ends are humanitarian, it’s “far better to appeal to these fighters as warriors than as human beings, for warriors have codes of honor; human beings–qua human beings–have none.”

The time he spent with the I.C.R.C. in Afghanistan taught Ignatieff “to rethink my antiwar culture” and convinced him that effective humanitarianism “means accepting a moral pact with the devil of war, seeking to use its flames to burn a path to peace.” The I.C.R.C., unlike aid organizations oriented to human-rights activism, is neutral. Part of its job is to enforce the Geneva conventions. Thus, in order to help P.O.W.s effectively, it needs the cooperation of the military, so it doesn’t share information with war crimes tribunals for fear of losing that cooperation. Ignatieff’s description of the I.C.R.C.’s work shows a powerful, compromising but brave and inspiring organization full of internal conflicts, failures, half-successes. A true-enough sounding picture. There is, however, no attempt to show that the I.C.R.C. is more effective or helps more people than, say, Médecins sans Frontières or the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Instead, Ignatieff leaps from this complex description into a vision. “In most traditional societies, honor is associated with restraint, and virility with discipline. In the manly bearing of many old Afghan warriors…there is a martial order that is also a proud vision of male identity.” He never elaborates on the meaning of this identity, so I won’t either. But it’s not a subtext to ignore. When the I.C.R.C. refuses to join other relief agencies in protesting a Taliban decree suspending Afghan women from their agency jobs, he asks the Kabul director “whether he considered women’s rights a humanitarian issue. ‘Of course not,’ he replied briskly. I was beginning to understand that the laws of war are one thing and human rights quite another. The I.C.R.C. enforces the laws of war…. Its legitimacy depends on its working with warriors and warlords.”

The I.C.R.C.’s Web site says it’s happy to report that Afghan women are working with the agency again, so please note that this proud male vision is more Ignatieff’s than the Red Cross’s, part of his slippage between “warrior” and “soldier.” The very word warrior is a form of nostalgia. Warriors are medieval figments. Soldiers are real, and Ignatieff believes in soldiers as if they were warriors.

“More than development, more than aid or emergency relief, more than peacekeepers,” he says, nations at risk in the post-cold war world need “professional armies under the command of trained leaders.” Think about professional armies for a moment. Japanese in Nanking, Russians in Berlin or Chechnya, ourselves in Vietnam, Iranians and Iraqis in their mutual war, us again in the Gulf, most any military at any time in Latin America. Doesn’t bombing count? Haven’t there been wars in which irregulars–partisans, guerrillas–behaved better than regular armies? Isn’t faith in the military one of the foundations of the nationalism that fuels the wars Ignatieff deplores?

The Angolan civil war lasted thirty years, he notes, and the Afghan war has gone on since 1979, but “in times past, war observed its own ecological limits.” What about the war in Germany that lasted thirty years, and that cut Germany’s population by a third before it ended in 1648? His yearning for the good old wars is deeply berserk. Bosnia itself is evidence against him. Isn’t career officer Ratko Mladic an even more eminent war criminal than poet-psychiatrist Karadzic? Yugoslavia maintained an absurdly large army, which overwhelmingly supported Milosevic’s rise to power. Its quite professional tanks suppressed the March 1991 Belgrade demonstrations; it armed and supported both Croatian and Bosnian Serbs; it was directly involved in war crimes.

After thinking about the honor of those warriors on whom Ignatieff rests his only hopes, it is difficult to read with any sympathy what he says about truth and reconciliation commissions and war crimes trials. I kept seeing Pinochet, that professional (and in his own eyes honorable) warrior, trying to slither into a Chilean Senate seat so he won’t be called to account. And no matter how elegant many of Ignatieff’s formulations are, how nicely he writes about James Joyce, how good his point is about, say, the way Russia hasn’t come to terms with its Soviet past–the soldiers, his warriors, get in the way. Not to mention that some Russians have set up a Gulag Museum.

The entire book is geared toward creating a “modern conscience” that relies on some sort of Real-Ethik, a parallel to Realpolitik. Realpolitik isn’t the politics of realism, or of reality–certainly not reality seen from below, from the point of view of the dead farmer in the line of fire rather than the warrior aiming at another warrior. It is the politics of things as they are and power as it is. An ethics that mirrors such a politics is useless. It is the result of a completely understandable despair, but that doesn’t make it true. The warrior’s honor has gotten us where we are; now it’s time to celebrate the citizen’s honor.