Who Cares?

The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust and Modern Conscience

by William Shawcross
Simon and Schuster, 464 pp., $19.95

When William Shawcross investigated relief work in Cambodia after the Vietnamese invasion of 1979 and the defeat of the Khmer Rouge it may have seemed a part of his family inheritance. His father was the British chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials; as a boy Shawcross would play a 78-rpm recording of his father’s summation speech to the tribunal, repeating the account of a German engineer who had witnessed the slaughter of hundreds of Jews at Dubno. He quotes from this terrible recording early in The Quality of Mercy, and it serves as part ghost and part muse to the book. Hitler’s exterminations and the refugees created by the Second World War gave rise and shape to many of the humanitarian organizations whose work in Cambodia Shawcross deals with here, and much of his inquiry centers on how these organizations were able to respond to the holocaust created by the Khmer Rouge.

But the memory of Hitler’s death camps raises a different problem as well. Organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), UNICEF, the World Food Program, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and Oxfam were set up as international agencies to help people in distress. How well they work is the immediate subject of Mr. Shawcross’s book. The underlying question it poses is whether or not the nations of the world that support these agencies genuinely are concerned about those in need or peril, or whether these humanitarian institutions have instead assumed a merely formal and dutiful burden, subject to pressures from conflicting powers. The Quality of Mercy does not confront this question directly, but it is the question one carries away from his book.

It may seem odd for Mr. Shawcross to have chosen such a subject after writing Sideshow, his persuasive demonstration of how the American bombing of Cambodia both ravaged the country and helped to cause the turmoil from which the horrors of the Khmer Rouge emerged. Until Seymour Hersh’s recent The Price of Power, Sideshow must have been Henry Kissinger’s least favorite book. When it was published, those who believed in America’s war in Southeast Asia denounced Mr. Shawcross’s account as slanted and naive. Reviews in The Economist and The Wall Street Journal criticized Mr. Shawcross for contending that Pol Pot’s brutal movement and policies arose in response to the American bombings. In fact, Sideshow did not claim this, but made the subtler point that by indiscriminately bombing the Vietnamese encamped in Cambodia, the United States, out of carelessness, set in motion catastrophic circumstances.

The Quality of Mercy will not raise a comparable political storm, but it makes a similar point about the erratic consequences of apparently purposeful actions. What Mr. Shawcross shows is how acts of care, almost as much as carelessness, can do accidental damage in a politically precarious situation. After tracing the labyrinthine activities and machinations of the various relief organizations, he concludes that some of their work may finally have done as much harm…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.