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 as good. In part this was due to competitiveness among the agencies, as well as their arrogance and gullibility; in part to the cleverness of the Vietnamese who, in order to strengthen their position in the country they invaded in 1979, spread reports of a Cambodian famine affecting millions that in fact never occurred, and thus got more attention from the aid organizations than they would otherwise have received. Thus, Mr. Shawcross writes,

in the case of Cambodia one of the effects of humanitarian aid was actually to reinforce the political stalemate. In 1979, the Vietnamese had sought and gained from the humanitarian agencies the wherewithal to build what the international community saw as an illegal administration in Phnom Penh; the Thais and the Chinese had sought to bolster a resistance based upon the Khmer Rouge; and the donors had sought, for a complex variety of reasons—some to do with politics, some to do with passion—to help both sides. As a result both the infant Heng Samrin regime and the defeated Khmer Rouge had been made viable.

At one point, Shawcross describes a boat trip he took on a narrow river whose waters he soon discovered to be jammed with thousands of dead fish. The Khmer Rouge had built a huge dam at one end of the river, which had made the water too shallow at the other. “In the heat of the dry-season sun the fish had, quite simply, cooked.” Mr. Shawcross does not offer this anecdote as a fable of cross purposes, but it could serve as one.

Not that The Quality of Mercy is an unremitting criticism of the relief agencies. Mr. Shawcross is hard on the organizations when their failures were the result of timidity, excessive ambition, or incompetence. But he sympathizes with their real problems too. At times the UNHCR, UNICEF, and especially the Red Cross appear cynical or cautious to the point of corruption. The UNHCR comes off considerably worse than UNICEF; the World Food Program (WFP) and Oxfam generally conducted themselves well, though the WFP was mismanaged, and Oxfam’s industrial program in Cambodia was criticized severely for disorganization. Then suddenly the author will remind us that Cambodia created dilemmas that none of these organizations had encountered before. Could UNICEF and the ICRC ignore their own principles and charters, for example, and refuse to feed the Khmer Rouge on the Thai border who were suffering as badly as the Cambodians who had been their victims? True, the UNHCR failed to protect the Cambodian refugees whom the Thais forcibly repatriated to Cambodia, sending them back toward death. But the one authority in the region with the power to stop the Thais from expelling them was the United States, and the embassy response was too weak.


Then, too, the aid programs were often blamed for not delivering their goods within Cambodia’s borders. Mr. Shawross criticizes John Pilger, an Australian journalist working in Britain, for launching “one of the most negative campaigns against the international organizations” and for insisting that “the Vietnamese were not placing any obstacles in the way of an aid program.” Mr. Shawcross states that “this…was not quite so. The delays were almost all due to the authorities in Phnom Penh”—that is, the Vietnamese and their client regime. He is also severe with Pilger and other antiwar journalists who, “while the Khmer Rouge were in power…had not written about their atrocities,” as if being opposed to the American war obliged them to overlook murder committed by communists. Still, he credits Pilger’s later reports with making Cambodia an issue in Great Britain.

He is fairminded in other conclusions as well. On regional politics he notes, “it is true that [American] casual acceptance of what was a fundamentally Chinese strategy to rebuild and support the Khmer Rouge exhibited at best a loss of memory and lack of imagination, at worst a cynicism that will have long and disturbing reprecussions on international consciousness.” But he adds that “throughout this stage of Cambodia’s agony,” it is Vietnam, not the United States, that bears the principal responsibility for the crisis. As for the relief agencies, “the humanitarian instincts of people around the world, and the mandates of the organizations that are supposed to protect and to implement our collective conscience, were exploited by almost all sides to serve political ends.” On the other hand, “thousands of ordinary people of many nationalities, including Thais and Vietnamese, were moved by their perceptions of the Cambodian crisis to try to alleviate—with their time, their money or their prayers—the suffering of a people who had endured endless wrongs.”

The story Mr. Shawcross tells is complicated. Often the impression is of a series of eddies, with the relief organizations swirling generally in the same direction, while governments move in different directions of their own. Somewhere in the midst of the turbulence are the people who actually need help.

Shawcross describes the experience of two representatives of UNICEF and the ICRC who were taken to a hospital in Phnom Penh in July 1979. “There were only three doctors for over eight hundred patients, half of them on the floor. No sheets, no soap, no sterilizers, no surgical equipment, one tray of drugs, many of them pre-1975 and useless, no food except rice soup. They were shown an orphanage where hundreds of children were in a pitiful condition, without food, without drugs, near death. One blind sixteen-year-old girl heard their voices, pulled herself up and greeted them in Cambodian fashion, with her hands before her face. They wept.”

In the fall of 1979, President Carter sent his wife Rosalynn to visit refugee camps in Thailand. The only large group of refugees who were accessible were at Sa Kaeo, a camp that held both the Khmer Rouge soldiers and the Khmer Rouge victims. Mr. Shawcross describes a zoo of reporters and cameramen shoving one another to get close to the action.

One of Mrs. Carter’s aides kept screaming at Mark Malloch Brown, the UNHCR man in charge of the camp, “Create a photo opportunity. Create a photo opportunity.” Exasperated at his failure to do so, the aide dragged a priest from Catholic Relief Services away from a dying child. The First Lady was then alone with the helpless infant, and she and the press had their chance.

In that scene are all the terrible confusions with which the book deals: composed of guilt, innocence, ignorance, stupidity, and pity. These are feelings and conditions that also affect the reader, in spite of the fact that Mr. Shawcross almost always makes his case not through generalizations, but by scrupulous attention to details—relief agency office politics; food deliveries; dollar costs. When his details take their full effect, however, one feels a strange sense of emptiness that goes deeper than the subject at hand.


For the theme of The Quality of Mercy—or what I understand to be its theme—has only a practical connection with the activities the book describes. In fact, the theme is not even directly connected with the book’s title, which is not quite on the mark. The Quality of Mercy is not at all about Portia’s idea of mercy as the compassionate treatment of an offender. Mr. Shawcross writes not about leniency or clemency, but about charity in two senses. There are the charitable organizations. And there are the human impulses that give rise to, and are meant to sustain, those organizations. The feeling of emptiness produced by Mr. Shawcross’s book has to do with the charity of human impulses, or their lack of charity.

Mr. Shawcross makes no secret of telling us what his book is about, yet once he does so the subject almost never explicitly arises again. He recalls a passage in George Steiner’s Language and Silence contrasting the simultaneous mass killing of Jews in Treblinka with the mundane business of living in places like New York, and comparing the experience of “good time” with that of “inhuman time.” Shawcross states at the outset:

It is one purpose of this book to ask how the inhabitants of “good” time do or do not relate to those incarcerated and often murdered in the “enveloping folds of inhuman time.”

Choosing to examine this relationship through the workings of humanitarian institutions, he leaves it to the reader to consider the matter more personally. Yet the matter is fundamentally personal. “The story of Cambodia,” he writes at the end, “demonstrates that despite the plethora of communications to which we are now subjected, the fast succession of awful images, the world is still capable of responding to [what Rebecca West termed] ‘living pity.”‘ If that is true for the institutions, is it also true for the blessedly safe individuals at home? Do the “inhabitants of good time” really care?

Nothing in The Quality of Mercy answers that question in a way that should give comfort to most of us. To the contrary, the effect of reading about the various defeats, victories, and temper tantrums of the relief organizations is not much different from reading about the workings of an oil company or a baseball team. One condemns or applauds, but one has no sense of identification with the players. Yet these humanitarian organizations are the concrete, formal, bureaucratized expressions of what conscience exists in the world. Observing their efforts, shouldn’t we have acute feelings about them?

What one feels instead is a disturbing distance from these institutions. Having discharged our moral responsibility toward suffering in the world by casually approving of them and supporting them, may those of us who live in “good time” now sit back and judge the quality not of mercy, but of management? When the stories of the Khmer Rouge genocide began leaking out, George McGovern proposed an American invasion of Cambodia. McGovern the dove was proposing armed intervention in Indochina; naturally the hawks were derisive and his fellow doves disapproved as well. One does not, they said, violate the territorial integrity even of a nation ruled by murderers. Better to send in the Red Cross for the survivors. But political precedents aside, which is the stronger humanitarian impulse? Is the idea of sending in relief organizations a widely and genuinely felt humanitarian impulse at all, or is it simply part of the machinery of humanitarianism? One sends in the Marines, or one sends in the nurses.

Such questions may seem to have no pertinence if we can claim that the international relief agencies, whatever their stumblings, do in the end save and protect lives. What does it matter how the people at home really feel? Shawcross’s book suggests that it matters very much. The central conflict in The Quality of Mercy between politics and morality inevitably becomes a problem of personal engagement. Most of us have only the haziest idea of the suffering these organizations deal with and no idea at all of what they actually do to relieve it. One has to ask oneself how much, or if, one cares about what Mr. Shawcross calls “distant cries for help” before deciding how institutions, including governments, should conduct themselves. This, I believe, is what Mr. Shawcross is quietly driving at, and why he wrote this elegant, valuable, troubling book.

This Issue

August 16, 1984