Politics of Genocide

Reviewed by John

Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).

In the past two decades, there has been an explosion of scholarly work on genocide. Thanks to this intellectual attention, we now have a plethora of international institutes, programs, and centers devoted to this topic. As academics have institutionalized this new area of investigation, public awareness of genocide appears to be at an all-time high. Apart from the many Human Rights organizations, we have all heard glum-looking celebrities (George Clooney, Don Cheadle, and Bono) plead with us to get involved and help end the brutal massacres in far-off lands. And, with a little surfing of the web, one can easily purchase a “Remember the Rwandan Genocide” T-shirt or a “Radovan Karadzic must pay for the Srebrenica Massacre” sweatshirt. Best of all, on April 29, 2007, New Yorkers could contribute to the International Rescue Committee by eating at a “Dining for Darfur” restaurant. Genocide, it appears, has become a plaything for liberals.

In an era where political enemies of the United States and its clients are demonized as being the second-coming of Adolf Hitler (e.g., Yasser Arafat, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Omar al-Bashir), one would think that all this study of and action against genocide is a good thing. Unfortunately, not all genocides are created and treated equally. Herman and Peterson’s Politics of Genocide provides a concise critique of the bankruptcy and hypocrisy of both genocide scholars and activists. Their book is unique in that it injects politics and analysis into a discussion that usually turns on psychology, culture, or warfare. Although genocide is a political act, much analysis of it is resoundingly descriptive and apolitical, rarely moving beyond localized ethnic/racial conflict and territorial disputes.

The authors situate their discussion of genocide by considering both the geopolitical concerns of the United States and the country’s “exceptional” place within the international community. US foreign policy since World War II has been directed toward maintaining its dominant global position. The success of American transnational corporations has been tied to US support for local elites (or dictators) who ensure that popular demands do not interfere with continued exploitation. If elites cannot do the job, US military intervention follows; the authors report that the US intervened in twenty-nine different countries between 1945 and 2009. Most important, in the eyes of the US public, these interventions were “normalized” via the country’s self-perception as being morally superior and above international law. Echoing a position that Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman expressed in 1973, the authors reiterate that the US has been “the most important single instigator, administrator and moral and material sustainer of serious bloodbaths…” (16).

The authors’ key argument is that regardless of how genocide may be defined internationally, legally, or politically, the term has been applied so recklessly that the crime has actually been debased. Because there is no meaningful “threshold of scale,” identifying genocide becomes a matter of who did what to whom. The designation of genocide, then, is influenced by the “atrocity management” of political officials, the mass media, NGOs, and genocide intellectuals. Atrocity management was seen historically in the genocide denial associated with US aggression and violence against Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, but it is also alive and well today. One of the key aspects of Herman and Peterson’s argument is the importance of political selectivity in assessing today’s crimes of aggression and mass killings.

In order to see recent political selectivity in action, the authors rely on an analytic framework to distinguish among the many different types of genocide. For Herman and Peterson, genocide can take four main forms: it can be Constructive (done by the United States and serving its interests); Benign (carried out by US allies and clients); Nefarious (violence committed by enemies of the US); and Mythical (it did not happen, but we said that it did). For each case, concrete examples are presented and the words and actions of genocide scholars and activists/officials are considered. In addition, the authors attempt to illustrate the amount of atrocity management and propaganda by contrasting the number of deaths within a location against the media’s use of the signifier genocide.

While the authors’ overreliance on atrocity numbers/media references is a weak part of the book, their use of examples is authoritative and clear. For example, both US/United Nations sanctions against the Hussein regime and the subsequent US invasion and occupation of Iraq were cases of a Constructive genocide. In the invasion/occupation, the death toll (more than one million dead) and the displacement of people was great, yet, the suffering of the Iraqi people, the illegality of the occupation, and destruction of the nation were all ignored. US aggression against Iraq did not count as genocide; it was only the price required to subdue a troublesome regional power.

Some examples of Benign genocides include those of Israel against the Palestinians, of Croatia against the Serbs, and of US client regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala against their civilian populations. In each instance, mass atrocities occurred, but no action was taken and very little criticism was offered since the perpetrator was western friendly. Herman and Peterson also argue that Mythical genocides can be engineered to achieve political objectives. They claim that a non-existent 1999 Račak massacre in Kosovo, in which 45 villagers were alleged to have been killed, was the key turning point in getting NATO to authorize airstrikes against the Serbs.

Nefarious genocides, those atrocities carried out by the enemies of the US, are all well known and seemingly straightforward – they include Darfur, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Rwanda. Yet, in the book’s most interesting chapter, Herman and Peterson explore the ways in which the managers of atrocity have engaged in political storytelling to depict conflicts in a specific manner and, in some cases, to force the international community to intervene. According to the authors, for example, the conflict in Darfur has been falsely racialized as involving an Arab government terrorizing Black African Sudanese. In terms of gravity, however, political violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is much more severe than that seen in Darfur. But the government in the Congo is not Islamic, and the United States and its allies already exploit the country economically. Politically, with the world’s attention on Darfur, western violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in the Gaza Strip was largely ignored. In Bosnia and Kosovo, Serb aggression and violence was inflated to further the NATO attack on and dismantling of Yugoslavia. The authors also raise troubling questions about the actions of the pro-Western Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by Paul Kagame, which killed thousands of Hutus per month in 1994 and was a driving force in the conflict. Yet, western apologists maintain that Paul Kagame is the Abraham Lincoln of Africa.

In all, Herman and Peterson have produced a book that deserves to be widely read and discussed. But it is not without some drawbacks. First, the authors do not define genocide in a formal way and they appear to use “bloodbath” as a synonym. They are not the same thing. A more nuanced definition of genocide would keep the book from being reduced to an exercise in body counting, and it would make their arguments more compelling. Second, the book’s brevity is problematic. While everyone (especially students) loves short books, sometimes the subject matter deserves a more thorough treatment. Regardless of whether the genocide is Constructive, Benign, Nefarious, or Mythical, the history and the violence that the authors are analyzing are complicated, and the analysis must acknowledge this. The role of the Serbs in Bosnia and the Janjaweed militia in Darfur needs a fuller treatment than they were given. Finally, there is nothing in the book that deals with prevention, or how to stop genocide (regardless of the variety) once it is underway. It is not good enough to say that the inability of the US establishment to recognize the human and material destruction of Southeast Asia and the Middle East is an intellectual and moral failure.

The Politics of Genocide makes clear that in the attribution of genocide, body counts are irrelevant – the only thing that matters is power. Historically and today, the processes of genocide are used as a window through which to identify US allies and enemies. And in the case of Iraq, NGOs, political officials, the media, and genocide intellectuals have created an image in which destruction of persons is matched only by destruction of the truth.

John O’Connor Department of Sociology Central Connecticut State University oconnorjohn@ccsu.edu