Magazine article The Spectator

Jaw-Jaw about Civil War

Magazine article The Spectator

Jaw-Jaw about Civil War

Article excerpt

WAR, EVIL AND THE END OF HISTORY by Bernard-Henri Lévy Duckworth, £12.99, pp.371, ISBN 0715633368 . £10.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Bernard-Henri Lévy is possessed of a large fortune, great intelligence and film-star good looks (if now a little ageing). He therefore had the wherewithal to go through life like a hot knife through butter, but yet has chosen many times to expose himself to great danger in the continuing wars of torrid zones. Why?

In this book, he reprints his reportage from five lengthy, indeed seemingly eternal, civil conflicts -- Angola, Burundi, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Sudan -- and then appends philosophical reflections as footnotes to what he wrote. These footnotes form two thirds of the book.

The author suffers from one of the besetting sins of French intellectuals, a tendency to torrential, undisciplined abstraction, presumably in the hope that profundity will eventually emerge of its own accord. It would have been better for the author's prose if, during his youth, he had sat at the feet of the clear and concise Raymond Aron rather than at those of the mad and muddy Louis Althusser (anyone who has read the latter's prose will be surprised only that his wife did not kill him before he killed her).

Nevertheless, many of Lévy's reflections are interesting, if in the end unsatisfying. He characterises the wars he has here written about as 'meaningless, ' in the sense that they no longer have a place in any grand narrative of history. For example, what was once in Angola a proxy confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, between the ideals represented by communism and anti-communism, became, after the end of the Cold War, merely a struggle for loot in the form of oil and diamonds, with child soldiers not knowing what they were fighting for but committing acts of savagery (so much for the intrinsic innocence of childhood, Lévy rightly remarks).

Did this emptying of the conflict of ideological meaning represent a moral advance or a moral retreat? The author cannot quite decide whether wars fought, at least ostensibly, for ideologies are better or worse than wars fought for no such reason, which are wars that are for him -- a pale Hegelian -- outside history, or rather History.

I personally find the characterisation of large events, such as people being massacred by the hundreds of thousand, as being outside history both mystifying and profoundly distasteful. It implies that there are some people who take part in history and others who merely experience events. There is an echo here of Marx's disgusting and proto-genocidal contempt for unhistorical nations. …

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