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 sickening.) 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.
This unique reference offers a compendium of more than 150 entries that broadly define "international humanitarian law," a subject that involves most of the legal and political aspects of modern conflict. The contributors include scholars, journalists, and international civil servants qualified by practical experience. Entries for Bosnia, Cambodia, and Rwanda help explain why the lexicon of recent warfare includes terms like "siege," "child soldiers," and "belligerent status." Although some of the accounts are more anecdotal than substantive, the style achieves the stated goal of the editors, both journalists: combining "technical accuracy and readability." In addition to cross references, most entries are enhanced by dramatic photographs. Overall, the effect of the book is to convey how modern warfare has obliterated the distinction between the military and the civilian. Highly recommended for reference collections at academic and larger public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/99.]--Zachary T. Irwin, Pennsylvania State Univ., Erie Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Leading photojournalists, reporters, and legal and military law scholars present a compelling, detailed, and important A-to-Z account of armed conflicts worldwide. Entries range from Acts of War and Enforced Prostitution to Safety Zones and Weapons. Graphic b&w photographs from war zones around the world. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Pulitzer-winning Newsday journalist Gutman (Banana Diplomacy: The Making of American Policy in Nicaragua 1981•1987, 1988) and Rieff (Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West, 1995) present an encyclopedia on the laws of war and on the willful violation of these laws in so many recent acts of barbarism. War happens. Over time, however, international covenants, in particular the series of Geneva Conventions from the mid-19th century to 1977, have made reasonably clear (there is always some ambiguity in law) what is allowable in war and what is not. Paradoxically, while the laws of war have never been more developed, war crimes, especially against civilians in such places as Bosnia and Rwanda, continue on an epidemic scale. In this A-to-Z guidebook, the editors have gathered together contributions by experts in international law as well as journalists who have experienced war firsthand to try to make sense of both the laws of war and where and how they are violated. They succeed admirably. The book is loosely constructed around three major themes. Short pieces define particular terms and concepts within the international laws of war: aggression, genocide, just and unjust wars, etc. Longer essays explore particular violations of these laws: biological experimentation, children as soldiers, the use of chemical weapons, and others. Finally, ten detailed case studies•among them Chechnya, Cambodia, the Iran-Iraq war•are presented. While the A-to-Z format is often confusing (a definition will be followed by a totally unrelated case study simply because it comes next alphabetically), sufficient cross-referencing does allow following a particular idea or episodeacross sections. Adding to the richness of this work is the inclusion of an abundant number of photographs of the atrocities and horrors of war crimes. These serve to counteract any tendency toward dispassionate analysis that prose alone might allow. The book both informs and appalls, and it is meant to. As war-crime tribunals on Rwanda and Bosnia proceed, and as public consciousness of the atrocities that have occurred in such places increases, this is a work of singular importance.