In the New Killing Fields: Massacre and the Politics of Intervention, a host of prominent journalists, activists, and academics argue that something must be done to stem the tide of genocide, mass murder, and ethnic cleansing that has swept the post-Cold War world.

In the book’s opening essay, Nicolaus Mills writes that while this killing and cleansing has not reached the scale or efficiency of the Nazi genocide, it is not “less worthy of condemnation or less necessary to prevent in the future.” Unfortunately, the West, and particularly the United States, has consistently failed to act, “doing too little too late” to end humanitarian disasters in the absence of geostrategic incentives such as oil interests or a global battle against Communism. What the post-Cold War world needs, then, is a new standard for intervention that facilitates timely action to end or prevent humanitarian disasters.

Michael Walzer attempts to provide such a standard in his chapter. Walzer writes that humanitarian intervention is justified where human rights violations threaten victims’ life and liberty, and leave the international community “shocked.” But Walzer goes on to caution that intervention is not required in these cases; states have an obligation “to consider the interests of their own people, even when they are acting to help other people.” Therefore, outsiders “need to ask what the costs of intervention will be for the people being rescued, for the rescuers, and for everyone else. And then, we can only do what we can do.”

These guidelines are helpful in determining the broad conditions under which humanitarian intervention would be justified. They do not, however, specify when outsiders are required to intervene in target countries, and thus do not address Mills’s concern that the U.S. and the West may not attempt to end humanitarian disasters even when they are morally obligated to do so. In truth, it is hard to see where, by Walzer’s standards, states could ever be morally obligated to intervene; for according to Walzer, states must consider their own self-interest when contemplating humanitarian intervention, and are justified in deciding not to intervene for wholly prudential reasons. States can only do what they can. If Walzer is correct, then Mills’s moral criticism of American inaction would seem to be unfounded.

Unfortunately, The New Killing Fields does not attempt to resolve this tension between its two opening essays. Instead, after Walzer’s piece, the book moves to a series of case studies of genocide, mass murder, and ethnic cleansing in Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and East Timor. These sections offer basic historical overviews of the cases, as well as vivid descriptions of the atrocities inflicted upon victim populations. Gripping survivor testimonials, as well as accounts of the authors’ harrowing experiences covering the disasters as journalists, lend the case studies considerable realism and urgency, and help them to succeed in “shocking” the reader.

A number of substantive themes emerge from the case studies. For example, authors repeatedly emphasize the difficulty that states have had in dispensing justice and achieving national reconciliation in the wake of large-scale killing and ethnic cleansing. They also show how murderous governments can use mass media to organize and manage ethnic violence. And they strongly criticize Secretary of State Colin Powell. According to Peter Maass, Powell’s doctrine of overwhelming force, enunciated when Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has created a casualty-averse U.S. foreign policy that relies “on the military equivalent of a sledgehammer, never a chisel.” The resulting unwillingness to use American military power in anything less than massive quantities has prevented the United States from intervening, and saving lives, in situations that required only modest levels of firepower. The Bosnian Serbs, for example, were little more than bullies who, Maass argues, could have been stopped with “the military equivalent of a nudge.”

Maass has a point; rag-tag forces perpetrated many of the 1990s’ humanitarian disasters, and relatively modest outside intervention probably could have prevented or ended most of them. Rwanda, where 800,000 people were killed primarily by machete-wielding thugs, is perhaps the best example. Nonetheless, a little bit of outside force may not be quite the easy fix that Maass would have us believe. His confidence in intervention rests to a considerable degree on his faith in the efficacy of airpower, which he argues “can turn the tide of a foreign conflict.” But airpower has rarely, if ever, won an easy victory against a determined enemy. Indeed, its failure to achieve rapid success in Kosovo nearly fractured the NATO alliance. More recently, in Afghanistan, reliance on airpower without a major ground commitment allowed large numbers of al-Qaeda fighters, apparently along with Osama bin Laden, to escape U.S. forces.

Maass also ignores the fact that even a modest interventionist “chisel” will cause significant harm within target countries. War is about killing people, and humanitarian war is no exception. Intervenors must be prepared not just to take casualties, but also to fire into crowded streets from helicopter gunships, and to shoot the old women shielding gun-toting toughs, even as they explain to the world’s television cameras that their mission really is to save lives. This is a politically difficult feat, and intervenors have shown a strong aversion to attempting it.

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Despite its generally pessimistic tone, The New Killing Fields ends on a note of cautious optimism, inspired by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The authors believe that the large-scale loss of life that Americans suffered on September 11 will increase our empathy for the victims of mass violence overseas. In addition, as Afghanistan showed, the “state failure” and breakdown in sovereignty that lead to massive rights violations create chaotic environments that are breeding grounds for terrorism. According to Michael Ignatieff, “A crisis of order in a single state risks creating ‘bad neighborhoods’ in a whole region…” These bad neighborhoods constitute “a clear and present national security threat.” Samantha Power puts it in even starker terms, arguing that “States that murder and torment their own citizens almost inevitably target citizens elsewhere. Their appetites become insatiable.”

While it is not clear what impact the September 11 attacks have had on American empathy for suffering overseas, it is true that lawless regions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen have become havens for terrorist activity. And pre-September 11 Afghanistan was indeed a country that not only killed and oppressed its own citizens, but also extended its murderous reach overseas in search of additional victims.

But if they draw a credible link between human rights abroad and national security at home, the authors are not entirely clear what to do about it. They certainly hope for a more active U.S. humanitarian policy. What exactly would this entail? The answer is, “it depends.” According to Power, military intervention would be appropriate in some cases of humanitarian disaster. In other instances, though, “the risk to U.S. soldiers will outweigh the benefits [of] a military intervention….” In these cases, economic sanctions, or simply American diplomatic leadership, might be preferable.

This closing attempt to link human rights to national security thus reminds us of the Mills-Walzer problem earlier in the book. Unfortunately, The New Killing Fields wants to have it both ways, arguing that humanitarian intervention should be understood as self-interested action, and simultaneously complaining of obsession with casualties, oil, or Communism when states actually base intervention decisions on their self-interest. The result is a book that offers gripping descriptions of today’s killing fields, but ultimately cannot formulate a reason why outsiders must intervene in them.