See evil, speak no evil

Dunant's Dream
August 21, 1998

Not long ago, junior members of the British Red Cross Society had to promise to serve God, Queen and Country, and to join with others all over the world to help the sick and the suffering. They also had to abide by a number of health laws: 1. Wash your body daily and hands before meals and after using lavatory. 2. Brush teeth night and morning. 3. Be regular every day in using the lavatory. 4. Hold yourself straight while sitting and standing. 5. Play in the open air as much as possible. 6. Use a handkerchief and cover the mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing. 7. Do not spit, this spreads disease. 8. Drink milk, eat vegetables and body building foods. 9. Drink plenty of water daily. 10. Try to have ten hours in bed every night and sleep with the windows open.

This improving mixture of charity and regularity, comportment and deportment, rectitude and quietude, speaks eloquently of the whole history of the Red Cross. It is no surprise to learn from Caroline Moorehead that the first recruits to the British society had to be certified healthy by a doctor and pious by a clergyman. These tests were not mandatory for the International Committee of the Red Cross itself - the guardians of the faith and the custodians of the Geneva Conventions - but there were others. They had to be patrician, and they had to be Swiss. They did not have to be cautious, jealous, impervious, and self-righteous, but it helped. The personal specification has been modified somewhat in recent years, but the nationality and gentility requirements remain. Humanitarianism is polyglot. The International Committee is not. ICRC=DWEM.

Out in the field, of course, there were renegades. Lady Muriel Paget, for example, a veteran of two Balkan wars, set up a Red Cross unit in Serbia in 1915, coped with a typhus epidemic, caught typhus herself, dispatched that, led a field hospital to the Russian front in 1916, roamed the countryside, picked up survivors, fought mud and gales, played bridge when the sun shone - she was said to over-call - got caught in a four-day battle along the banks of the River Stokhod, nursed 538 wounded, performed 74 operations, lost only 21 patients, and received the medal of St George, Second Class, for her trouble. She was later seen in Odessa, later still in Yokohama, intrepid as ever, overcoming and over-calling wherever the world had need.

Lady Muriel had competition. Constance, Duchess of Westminster, ran the Number 1 Red Cross Hospital at Le Touquet in the same period. Basil Liddell Hart, then a young subaltern, passed through twice. "The duchess herself, the quintessence of elegance, glided round the wards in a dark dress, with a faint suggestion of nursing uniform, superbly cut and moulded to her figure, while adorned with a string of lovely pearls. The sight of her was a tonic in itself, and ... it became stamped on my memory." Liddell Hart was not alone. Dunant's Dream, however, does not extend to patients' fantasy. The erotic capital of the Red Cross is a subject regrettably little explored.

According to its author, this is a book about people - "eccentric adventurers, moralists, visionaries and canny political manipulators", the animators of Henri Dunant's original inspiration - and about war: "what successive generations have thought could and should be done to control it and to lessen the sufferings it causes". It is better on people than war. Moorehead's strength lies more in evocation than in evaluation. The book has drama, colour, pathos. After all, a history of this sort ought not to be anaemic. But it lacks bite. The analysis of the Red Cross in general and the International Committee in particular is not sustained. No sooner has the dance begun than the next war cuts in. Moorehead has done a great deal of research - perhaps too much - but the material hangs heavy upon her. Dunant's Dream is a report of her diligence, a compendium of cases, rather than a remade whole. The scholarly apparatus is inadequate to the purpose. The text itself is excessively long, and strangely unmodulated. The same arguments, the same figures of fun and speech recur throughout. The book is beautifully produced, with a plenitude of diverting photographs. And yet it is as if a step has been missed. The indexer has triumphed over the editor.

Inside this fat book there is a thin book - a better book - signalling to be let out. The essential antinomies of such a work are encapsulated in the preface. "The International Committee", Moorehead writes, "calls itself international, yet is a private Swiss company, based in Geneva and governed by 25 Swiss citizens; prides itself on being closer to victims than any other humanitarian organisation, yet does not speak for them; exists to help and heal victims of war, yet does not itself lobby against war; has its roots in precedence and institutional memory, yet thrives on action and sometimes seems curiously uninterested in history; employs 'delegates' - some 800 in 1997, for the most part Swiss - who gather information about torture, 'disappearances' and summary executions that no one else has access to, yet under its mandate cannot reveal to the public or media what they know; fears the word 'politics', yet is one of the shrewdest political actors of our day; has no enforceable authority, yet its moral power is, and always has been, considerable."

The most troubling of these conditions is its acquiescence. The Red Cross takes the world as it is. Does it also leave the world as it is? In the words of one of the founding fathers: "To humanise war, if that is not a contradiction, is our mission ... but once we have voiced our undisguised rejection of war, we must take it as it is, unite our efforts to alleviate suffering." Such a posture underpins its personal and institutional omerta. Red Cross delegates are trained to say what they do and where they go but not what they have seen. Medecins sans Fronti res, almost an anti-Red Cross, was founded in 1971 in the wake of the Biafran war because a number of doctors and other aid workers could not stomach what one called "this forced mutism". The rupture, however, was merely fallout from the defining humanitarian issue of the 20th century. Faced with Hitler and his henchmen, the behaviour of the International Committee was positively autistic.

Shaming visits were made by senior members of the committee to concentration camps in 1935, 1936 and 1938. These visits elicited little more than craven apologies. "The camp of Dachau," they concluded, "is a model of its kind from the point of view of installations and administration. The regime inflicted on the prisoners, undoubtedly severe, cannot be described as inhuman. The sick, in particular, are treated with kindness, understanding and conscientiousness." A week after Kristallnacht in 1938 the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Max Huber, brought his full dignity to bear. "In this undoubtedly anguishing moment," he declared, "we must keep our sangfroid." Silence, if not sangfroid, is what the ICRC determinedly kept throughout the night and fog of the Final Solution.

Confronted with such impregnable self-regard - "we quickly realised that it was crucial for the International Committee to retain its image as a circle of wise men, wise and infallible"; "its abnegation is the source of its grandeur and its strength" - even Moorehead quails. "The 1930s", she writes, with Huberian restraint, "had not gone well for the International Committee." The Holocaust, one might say, had not gone well for the International Committee. The truth is that for the Red Cross, as for the Swiss themselves, "bottomless neutrality" was an ambiguous construct, and in some respects an unsavoury one, as we are gradually beginning to learn. Swissness, in fact, is increasingly problematical - but not for the ICRC. Its current president has delivered himself of the following pronouncement. "The world needs an International Committee of the Red Cross such as it is, neutral, independent, mono-national and Swiss." Discuss.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

Dunant's Dream: War, Switzerland and the History of the Red Cross

Author - Caroline Moorehead
ISBN - 0 00 255141 1
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £24.99
Pages - 780

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