DUNANT'S DREAM

War, Switzerland and the

History of the Red Cross

By Caroline Moorehead

Carroll & Graf. 780 pp. $38

Reviewed by Deborah Shapley

It is hard to imagine the modern world without the International Committee of the Red Cross, given all the good it has done in wars and disasters since it first met in Geneva in 1863. Slobodan Milosevic recently allowed Red Cross workers to check on the treatment of three captured U.S. servicemen. The red cross on a white field is seen in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Congo, Eritrea -- even Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, in Russia.

So Caroline Moorehead's history is timely. It is also compelling to read, from her opening scene, on June 24, 1859, when a so-so Swiss businessman, Henri Dunant, happened upon the Battle of Solferino, a horrid, day-long slaughter in which Napoleon III of France defeated the Austrians. Thirty thousand soldiers died, but what moved Dunant were the 30,000 wounded. He persuaded passing travelers, including two doctors, to help. One doctor got so exhausted from continuous amputations -- the only way known to stop death from gangrene -- that he went on cutting with two soldiers holding him up. As the hours of gruesome work ticked by, helpers forgot the nationality of the wounded; they were "tutti fratelli" (all brothers).

The book Dunant wrote about this experience was a rare piece of journalism that changed history. Enlightened people across Europe awoke to the horrors of war. And the time was right for an idea he posed at the end: Why not have groups of medical volunteers, organized by societies in each country, bring aid to all wounded regardless of nationality? This was Dunant's dream. The International Committee formed by his hometown patrons in Geneva spread the movement so widely, and has remained so tight-lipped, that a history of the Red Cross could wander or turn into officialese. But Moorehead's tale is well organized -- no doubt to track with the BBC documentary it accompanies.

It is also critical of the actions and inactions of the committee, scions of Geneva's Protestant elite. They were so cautious they could not tolerate Dunant's foibles (though he shared the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901). They were so ingrown as to delay putting a Catholic on the committee until after World War I. Yet these burghers devised and promoted adoption of humanitarian laws: the Geneva Conventions of 1864 and amendments and four more conventions in 1949, plus two 1977 protocols. The committee also coordinates national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in nations that ratify these treaties. Finally, it runs services, such as a massive tracing operation for millions of missing people, and appoints delegates to the field. It has achieved much, given that its only weapons are its rare public criticisms.

The exciting heroes of the story are the delegates sent out often with little besides a supply chain and the moral standing of the treaties. Marcel Junod, delegate to both sides in the Spanish civil war, inspected republican treatment of prisoners and then navigated 1,000 miles around roadblocks and freshly executed bodies to inspect Franco's prisons. Working for the British Red Cross in World War I, Millicent, Dowager Duchess of Sutherland wrote in her diary that she found it "natural, to wash wounds, to drag off rags and clothing soaked in blood." She won concessions from the opposing German commander, with whom she had dined before the war. In 1915 Mrs. St Clair Stobart, a British horsewoman, ran a flying Red Cross hospital in Serbia. When the Serbs were pinned by Austrians, Bulgarians, and typhus, she led an overland march to the sea through the treacherous mountains of Montenegro and Albania. The author writes, "an immense sea of men, guns, horses, refugees [struggled] up passes blocked by landslides and mud" -- 200,000 Serb soldiers plus thousands of boys.

Many words describe the Red Cross: brave, inventive, persistent. Its unique feature is its neutrality, which was key to success. But neutrality carries baggage, including the dead weight of caution. Moorehead argues that the organization's defining moment was a meeting of the committee on Oct. 14, 1942, to consider a public appeal on behalf of the Jews of occupied Europe, who were being deported to camps to which the Red Cross was denied access. Sentiment first favored an appeal but swung the other way at the urging of Switzerland's president, a committee member, who declared with terrible irony, "Surely, the good Samaritan was a man who broke his silence only by his actions." With a scalpel, Moorehead dissects the motives behind the committee's relative inaction in the three years until 1945, when Himmler finally let it in. One excuse was the Nazified German Red Cross. Another was Genevans' fear of German retaliation and invasion. Did they not also fear an invasion of liberated Jews?

Many Red Cross actions in the war were heroic, but no one comes off free of taint. Did wartime member Carl-Jacob Burckhardt purge the files of evidence that he tried to get the camps liberated in 1942 but gave up? For that matter, Mrs. St Clair Stobart was reprimanded for her reckless march in which over 40,000 died.

Neutrality also means that delegates can observe but not publicize, lest they seem to take sides. But in today's world shocking images are needed to focus public support for relief operations. Increasingly, the Red Cross takes a back seat to what Moorehead calls "more straightforwardly campaigning" groups who believe that "the provision of relief and the denunciation of human rights violations must go hand in hand."

Moorehead is pessimistic about the Red Cross's ability to lead the humanitarian movement in the future. Good work is being done, such as tracing prisoners from World War II who were lost behind the Iron Curtain and the disappeared of Latin America. But millions now fighting with butchery, drought and scourge neither know nor care about the Geneva Conventions. At headquarters Moorehead senses "desperation that the Red Cross, one of the world's best known symbols, is in danger of completely losing its potency."

One cannot read Moorehead's final two chapters -- excellent assignments for any current affairs course -- without wondering what a modern Dunant would do if he stumbled on today's conflicts without borders, rules, or limits on atrocities -- let alone with the coming threats of bioweapons, infectious disease and disruption from global warming. We may face these without a Red Cross imaginatively energized to the problems at hand, and be worse off for it. But as Prince Charles of Sweden said, in retiring as president of that nation's Red Cross in 1945, and surveying the wreckage of World War II, "We get, in the end, the world we deserve."

Deborah Shapley writes on communications, technology and international affairs. Her most recent book is "Promise and Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara."

CAPTION: American Red Cross poster painted by A.E. Foringer in 1918