"Crimes of War"

A mixture of reportage and legal discussion adds up to an encylopedia of evil.

By Akash Kapur
August 16, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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"Crimes of War" exists in a curious place between despair and hope. There is something unnerving about this book, which seeks to clarify the laws that might prevent barbarity at the end of a decade scarred by the horrifying barbarity in Chechnya, Rwanda, Iraq, Liberia and, especially, the former Yugoslavia -- places that have burned themselves as emblems of hopelessness onto our collective consciousness. Roy Gutman and David Rieff hope that, in some small way, their book will help "sweep away" violations of humanitarian law; they have set themselves a daunting task.

The book was conceived, according to Kenneth Anderson, its legal editor, "to combine technical accuracy and readability." This it does, by interspersing first-hand reporting from crime scenes with accounts of the legal issues surrounding such topics as "Safety Zones," "Civilian Immunity," "Prisoner of War Camps" and "Genocide." Both types of accounts are presented in an alphabetized and cross-referenced encyclopedia format.


For all the information packed into the legal discussions, however, this is not a legal manual. There is little in "Crimes of War" to tie together the various statutes and treaties that make up the firmament of international law. The only overview -- and it is an excellent one -- is by journalist Lawrence Weschler, who compares the attempt to build an international legal framework with the little-by-little reclamation of flooded land in 16th century Holland. His essay is less a summary of the current legal situation than a history of the evolution of laws of war; more specifically, it is a history of the impotence of such laws. "The porous ramparts sag and leak," he writes, "and seem subject to random collapse."

But as Weschler also points out, the publication of "Crimes of War" coincides with a moment of sudden and unexpected optimism in international human-rights law. With Pinochet facing possible extradition, Milosevic under indictment and real hope at last for the establishment of a permanent war-crimes tribunal (the ones on Yugoslavia and Rwanda are both ad hoc), war-crimes law has acquired an unprecedented authority. It is no surprise that this new strength emerges against the backdrop of what is arguably the most vicious decade since the end of World War II; indeed, the last time the prognosis for human-rights law seemed as positive was during the postwar Nuremberg trials. There is nothing like an informed and outraged public to make governments throw their weight behind humanitarian law; and there is nothing like extreme barbarity to inform and outrage an otherwise indifferent public.

This is something the editors seem to understand, and it is the key to the book's success. "Crimes of War" draws strength from the immediacy of its journalistic accounts. David Rohde on the massacre in Srebrenica, Charles Lane on a hospital blown up in El Salvador, John Burns on teenage suicide squads in Sri Lanka -- these gripping descriptions, supplemented by often shocking photographs, give the book a gruesome voyeuristic fascination. (The pictures of the conflict in Liberia, which Mark Huband describes as "a horror story pure and simple," are particularly graphic.) Though "Crimes of War" bills itself as a book about war and the law, in a sense the law takes a back seat: This is, ultimately, an encyclopedia of evil. But because the kind of despair it creates can hit hard enough to inspire an informed public to demand more from its leaders, it is a hopeful book as well.

Akash Kapur

Akash Kapur is a contributing editor at Transition magazine and co-host of Stop the Death Penalty, an online petition against capital punishment.

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