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Victims of violence in the world's `little' wars


by Scott and Jon Lee Anderson

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New York: Dodd, Mead. 336 pp. Illustrated. $21.95

THE world, editorial writers everywhere say, is at peace. But spring the wondrous news on the 150 or so people Scott and Jon Anderson interviewed in five death-glutted countries for ``War Zones.''

The Andersons spent a year looking in on the endless agonies of Northern Ireland, El Salvador, Uganda, Israel, and Sri Lanka - five smallish, horse-and-buggy wars, where the rope, razor, stone, and homemade mine are often the weapons of choice, and the irenic spirit is pretty thin on the ground. ``A mixture of ideology, religion, economics, and tribalism'' drives each of these bottomless enterprises, the authors say.

Soldiers and cadres sat down with the Andersons, but their focus was on modern war's ``primary victims,'' the vast wash of civilians, the squabs in the middle, who do most of the passive suffering brought on by civil war (read: guerrilla war, most of the time), to say nothing of the dying. The old, the very young, women - traditional noncombatants - have accounted for 90 percent of the world's 30 million war dead since 1945. Civilians made up just 5 percent of the World War II dead in all countries, the Andersons remind readers.

These civilians on the sidelines in their combined witness supply the real heft of this book. The Andersons are able to give a sense of the increasingly polymorphous nature of war and peace, and the horrible arbitrariness of violence in the world's many little wars fought down below the level of summit meetings, and sadly beyond the attention span of most journalists.

War is always and everywhere a weird mingling of idealism and barbarity, farce and terror, and the authors let it be known. The hard tenancy of revenge, the political derangement of language across all cultures, classes, and parties (the vagrant coinages of freedom fighter, terrorist, liberation, oppression, revolution, progress, reaction, among others), get good workouts in the conversations in ``War Zones,'' and an attitude of bafflement expressed by victims toward the meaning of the violence dominating their lives appears throughout the Andersons' transcript.

It is a good and important work, but one would have liked to see the authors argue their conclusions with less diffidence and cut-rate existential resignation: They say nothing of weight. They might have tried, for one thing, to identify a vein in human relations that unites their subjects from these five irrational tracts of the globe - for there are many, many more such places.

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Lawrence Walsh is a former editor of The Progressive.

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