Recent accounts of human suffering in Kosovo serve as a sufficient primer for a book like Crimes of War. For this is a book that examines human atrocities and tries to deepen the reader's understanding by providing historical perspective. Crimes of War is a collection of articles written by journalists, legal scholars, and military law experts. The book is edited by two such experts: Roy Gutman, a Newsday reporter and author who won the Pulitzer Prize for international journalism; and David Rieff, a magazine writer and author of a book on the Bosnian conflict.
The book is timely, not only because of events in Yugoslavia, but also because it arrives on the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, which established principles for ethical conduct in war. It is sad and sobering, for it chronicles the many crimes against humanity in the 20th century.
Three types of articles are featured: vivid descriptions of war crimes in places such as Bosnia, Chechnya, Liberia, and Rwanda; explanations of international law on issues like collateral damage and prisoners of war; and descriptions of key terms, such as limited war and victims' rights. The topics are arranged in alphabetical order and cross-referenced to related subjects.
Highlights include broadcaster Christiane Amanpour's article on paramilitaries in Bosnia, the horrors of civil war in Sri Lanka by John Burns of the New York Times, and mass genocide in Cambodia by Sydney H. Schanberg, whose book on the subject led to the movie The Killing Fields. Just as engaging, and perhaps more gut-wrenching, are the photographs that illustrate each article. The art, by such well-known photographers as Robert Capa and Annie Leibovitz, tells as much about the topics as does the writing. Crimes of War may be too much an instructional text for the casual reader, and too intense a subject for bedtime reading. And the book could be updated to include the latest machinations in Yugoslavia. (Unfortunately, mankind seems eager to write new chapters about war crimes at a faster rate than any book can keep pace.) But for the reader who wants to better understand the historical factors fomenting the violence we witness in the world today, it is an important work.
John T. Slania is a journalism professor and writer in Chicago.