Friday, March 28, 2014

Book Review: “The great collective iniquity called war”

This August will bring the 150th anniversary of the founding congress of what became the Red Cross. The review reproduced below considers some of the issues involved in the existence of such an international organisation, and at how its practice and ethos were modified by the wars of the twentieth century. 

(A far cry from the British Red Cross of recent years, with their doorstep collectors boasting of its presence at the royal wedding, and endless wasteful freebie junk mailings…)

John F. Hutchinson, Champions of Charity: War and the Rise of the Red Cross,  Westview Press, 1996; 448 pp.


John Hutchinson’s well-researched consideration of the first 60 years of the Red Cross is not an official history, in fact there were difficulties in gaining access to sources because of organisational defensiveness. It challenges some cherished assumptions, including the organisation’s very raison d’être, apparently so obvious and  so obviously correct. From the start there were two views on the desirability of setting up an international organisation of volunteers to alleviate the suffering of war. One strong critic (on interesting grounds) was Florence Nightingale: ‘Such a society would take upon itself duties which ought to be performed by the government of each country and would relieve them of responsibilities which really belong to them and which they can properly discharge and being relieved of which would make war more easy.’ (p.40)

The alternative was put by two of the founders,  Gustave Moynier and Louis Appia, in their book War and Charity, alluding to the ’… duty of conscience and humanity, which, by a happy coincidence, harmonized with the acknowledged interests of the belligerents.’ (p.55) For Hutchinson, this ‘happy coincidence’ with belligerents’ interests strikes a sinister note. But both sides of the argument, initially at least, denounced war. Thus Louis Appia:

 ‘Everyone understands that in our era war is not fought to make the enemy suffer… To humanise war – if it is not a contradiction to bring such things together – that is our mandate. Let us protest against the great collective iniquity called war… but after… let us alleviate its distress…’ (p.65).

In spite of such statements, however, Hutchinson discerns evidence of a latent fascination with and glorification of battlefield heroics.

It all began with a book, Henry Dunant’s A Memory of Solferino, (1862) [Battle of Solferino 1859] which he sent out to a target readership of people who might, he felt, be persuaded to take action. It worked, but not perhaps as quickly, simply and straightforwardly as the author and his early allies might have hoped. For anyone seeking to change the world by international action, the saga of conferences, minutes, resolutions, personalities, organisational moves and counter moves form a challenging case-study. There are highlights such as the speech of Rudolf Virchow undermining the essence of the movement and the moral basis of its priorities (p.100):

‘Does it not seek forcibly to annex to war a great many activities that belong to civil life, which can find a natural and abundant source of nourishment in the needs of the masses? As if war were the normal state in Europe, and as if peace existed only to prepare for war?’

In the welter of detail some intriguing stories are relegated to footnotes or parenthetical reference. One such is the role of the Red Cross vis-à-vis the overseas territories and peoples of colonial powers, e.g. an allusion to expeditions to the empire by the British society, p.237, another the behaviour of the French society during the Paris Commune of 1871 (note 14, p.377), when it moved to Versailles and treated only the French Republic’s soldiers. Moynier is cited to the effect that in civil wars the Red Cross was not always well inspired  and that ‘Political considerations have exercised much more influence than they ought to have done.’ The question of extending humanitarian relief to insurgents was addressed differently by the Japanese society, which nevertheless became closely integrated with the armed forces of the state, as did the national societies in general.

Between 1880 and 1906, Hutchinson tells us (p.150), the Red Cross was transformed, from its first allegiance to the idea of civilisation, to the whole-hearted support of aggressive nationalism and militarism, Keeping a distance from movements for peace and disarmament, it became closely implicated in preparations for war and in the patriotism of competing nations, in exchange for official recognition and status. It had arisen (p.27) from a perception that the changing relationship between armies, states and peoples and the spread of information (telegraph, press, mass armies, conscription) meant that ‘in our time public opinion has sought to lessen these evils [of war]’. The evident readiness of the Red Cross to lessen evils may have militated against rejection of the great evil –war– itself. Anticipating war became an unquestioned state of affairs with the prime aim being to further one’s ‘own’ country’s patriotic effort.

In  the First World War this attitude reached its apotheosis with slogans about loyalty to  Red Cross being loyalty to the country – and a treason trial in the United States for speaking against it. (p.271) But the unprecedented experience of war on a global scale in 1914-18 could not leave attitudes unchanged. There were protests, even if belated and ineffectual, against the use of chemicals and violations of the Geneva Convention, and in the aftermath, in 1923, an anti-war declaration. Hutchinson is dismissive about this – they had been warned, and should have known how terrible a modern war would be – underestimating the trauma, shock and widespread change in mentality that had occurred. An article cited from the American Journal of Nursing (pp.274-5), which denounced the ‘repair work’ of patching up victims of war for return to the front line and called on nurses to strike if their patients could not be rehabilitated into civilian life, may have been exceptional if not unique, but the fact of its publication remains significant.

One lesson of this history may be that the fate of well-meaning people who do not confront and refute the dominant ideology of their time is to sink into conformity with that ideology. No recipe is available for prevention of this outcome, other than the implicit one of clear thinking, integrity and ceaseless vigilance on the part of the grass-roots. There is more in the book than can be covered here: the function of the International Committee; the painful definition of a peacetime role; ideas of social class, gender, race; details of what happened in various countries. Many illustrations and a pictorial essay enliven the text and there are copious notes. In the second sixty to seventy years of the Red Cross the organisation and the world have changed, but the issue of humanitarian relief in conflict situations is clearly still only too relevant today.

(L.W., December 1996)

Slightly adapted from Medicine, Conflict & Survival vol. 13, no. 2, 1997 pp. 158-9.

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