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A character in an Evelyn Waugh novel once remarked that "There's nothing wrong with war--except the fighting." In Champions of Charity, John Hutchinson argues that while they set out with a vision to make war more humane, the world's Red Cross organizations soon became enthusiastic promoters of militarism and sacrifice in time of war.The mass armies of the nineteenth century were stalked by disease and slaughtered by ever more destructive weaponry, arousing the indignation and humanitarian concern of self-appointed battlefield Samaritans, who envisioned a neutral corps of volunteer nurses who would aid and comfort wounded soldiers, regardless of nationality. But the champions of charity soon became champions of war.Florence Nightingale was among the few at the time to recognize the dangers lurking in the Red Cross vision. She refused to join, and warned its founders that the governments of the world would cooperate with the Red Cross because "it would render war more easy." She was right; starting in the late 19th century armies simply used the Red Cross to efficiently recycle wounded men back into the frontlines.In World War I, national Red Cross societies became enthusiastic wartime propagandists. This was true in every combatant nation, and it is a transformation well portrayed by the fascinating selection of art in this book. Soon Red Cross personnel were even sporting military-style uniforms, and in the United States, the Red Cross became so identified with the war effort that an American citizen was convicted of treason for criticising the Red Cross in time of war!The Red Cross played an especially important role in encouraging the mass involvement of women in the "home front" for the first time. It did this through magazines, postcards, posters, bandage-rolling parties, and speeches that blended romantic images of humanitarianism and war into a unique brand of maternal militarism. A true pioneer in mass propaganda, the Red Cross taught millions that preparation for war was not just a patriotic duty, but a normal and desirable social activity.The Red Cross societies had proven their usefulness in mobilizing civilians in wartime, and most of their functions were taken over by government agencies by the time of World War II. Gradually the Red Cross became better known for its work in public health, disaster relief, and lifesaving classes. But the legacy of a darker past still lingers: the red cross on a white background found on army ambulances, or the unsubtle subtext of sacrifice and heroism in Red Cross television advertising.It is a legacy the Red Cross itself has preferred not to acknowledge in its own self-congratulatory literature. For not only was the humanitarian impulse that inspired the creation of the Red Cross easily distorted, but this urge to militarize came from within its own ranks. This startling and provocative history of the Red Cross reminds us of the hidden dangers that sometimes come cloaked in the best of intentions.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780813333670
ISBN-10: 0813333679
Format: Paperback
(229mm x 152mm x 33mm)
Pages: 496
Imprint: Westview Press Inc
Publisher: The Perseus Books Group
Publish Date: 29-Aug-1997
Country of Publication: United States

Other Editions


US Kirkus Review » A convincing but dense history of the early years of the Red Cross, presented as a cautionary study in moral and political compromise and of assimilation into the international military machine. Beginning with the shared interest of Swiss philanthropist Gustave Moynier and French writer Henry Dunant in a soldiers' aid society, historian Hutchinson (Simon Fraser Univ.) moves quickly to the Geneva Conference of 1863, where the Red Cross, and the conflicts associated with it, take shape. Social crusaders aiming for "higher civilization" and military opportunists who believe the organization can serve nationalistic and military goals are the book's central antagonists. Changes over the years show the winner: By 1906, according to Hutchinson, the Red Cross had shifted toward the needs of "states and armies," not social betterment. WW I Red Cross posters make the marriage of voluntary aid and patriotism plain: One poster depicting the American and Red Cross flags announced, "Loyalty to One Means Loyalty to Both." The conflicts among the founders of the Red Cross are fascinating, but they are not as successfully highlighted here (in part, possibly, because Hutchinson did not have access to the papers of Moynier and another early Red Cross figure, Louis Appia). Only Henry Dunant, with his naturally dramatic life of high-mindedness, inspired rhetoric, financial scandal, and social rehabilitation (he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901), emerges as a captivating character. Florence Nightingale, who appears to have rejected the Red Cross on grounds that it "would render war more easy," is more a thematic marker than a historical personage. An even more vexing problem is the wordy prose, with interminable sentences punctuated by parenthetical statements, as well as multiple dates and acronyms. This study sustains its theme and convinces readers of its view of this "sacred cow," but prolixity and lack of narrative drive make it slow going. (Kirkus Reviews)

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Author Biography - John F. Hutchinson

John F. Hutchinson is professor of history at Simon Fraser University and is the author of Politics and Public Health in Revolutionary Russia, 1890--1918.