nthposition online magazine

Genocide, war crimes and the West


[ opinion - august 04 ]

In the past 20 years or so, the field of comparative genocide studies has flourished, achieving real prominence in the social sciences. The term "genocide" was coined in 1943 by the Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin, to describe the destruction of national groups by means ranging from physical violence to attacks on cultural heritage. It was subsequently enshrined as a crime under international law in the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, which came into force in 1951. The Genocide Convention is, of course, only one of a host of international-legal instruments developed to govern the conduct of conflict, protect civil society, and preserve civilian life.

The study of genocide, along with other crimes against humanity and war crimes, appears relatively straightforward when the actions of "the other guy" are under scrutiny. The Nazis against the Jews, Turks against Armenians, Hutu against Tutsi - the "classic" cases seem comfortably distant from Western, liberal-democratic experience. But how to approach the complicity of one's own countries, regimes, and societies in genocides and other atrocities of past and present? Some genocide scholars from western countries have addressed this question head-on: I think of Leo Kuper, whose book Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century (1982) is often considered the field-defining work in genocide studies. Others, though, have preferred to indulge in a "sort of doublethink that assumes such criminality is absent on the part of the West, especially the United States," as Gavan McCormack recently wrote.

There has, in any case, been little sustained engagement with the question of Western involvement in genocide and crimes against humanity. This is a gap I sought partially to fill, in June 2004, with my edited collection, Genocide, War Crimes & the West: History and Complicity (Zed Books; see also my online introduction to the volume). According to Richard S Falk, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, the book "provides the most comprehensive treatment of western responsibility for mass atrocity yet published." There are important precedents: in the dissident literature on terrorism that flourished in the 1970s and '80s (culminating in Alexander George's edited work Western State Terrorism), and in some of the more eye-opening contributions to the field of genocide studies. Nonetheless, GWCW is unprecedentedly broad in its geographic and thematic reach. The book runs over 400 pages in a tight typeface, and features fully 22 chapters along with several document excerpts. Again according to Falk, "The cumulative impact is a devastating indictment of state terrorism as practised by the West, both historically, and now after September 11 in the name of anti-terrorism."

Rather than simply reviewing the contents of this book, which are available via the link provided above, let me mention what strike me as some of the most striking chapters, and consider what they tell us about western complicity in genocide and war crimes.

The longest and, to my mind, the most incandescent chapter in the book is Ward Churchill's 'Genocide by any other name: North American Indian residential schools in context'. I grew up in an interior town in British Columbia, only a few kilometres from the reservation of the Okanagan Indians. I'm afraid that for a long time, I shared the common attitude towards Native Canadians - that is, I ignored them until it was time to join in making jokes about them. Reading Geoffrey York's searing study The Dispossessed opened my eyes 15 years ago; I feel that Churchill's majestic chapter for the GWCW volume snaps me fully awake.

The residential schools that Churchill discusses operated in both the US and Canada. They were established explicitly to deculturate Native Americans, and ended by imposing unspeakable and long-unspoken physical suffering (starvation, disease, torture, forced labour, rampant sexual predation, suicide). This produced mortality rates that, astonishing as it seems, rivalled or surpassed those in Nazi concentration camps. The psychological damage inflicted on the survivors and their descendants is examined by Churchill in a section titled 'Worlds of pain', which cites a "Residential School Syndrome" accompanied by alcohol addiction and destructive behaviour towards oneself and one's intimates.

I remember reading Churchill's draft essay for the first time - the published version was condensed from a much longer manuscript - and being stunned that genocide could have been occurring in my own country, in my own lifetime (the last residential school closed just two decades ago), with only the most feeble awareness on my part. Everyone should read and ponder Churchill's chapter. By itself, I think it justifies the time and energy I spent compiling the Genocide, War Crimes & the West volume. (On related themes, the book also includes an excellent chapter by Jan-Bart Gewald, the leading expert on the 20th century's first genocide, the German assault on native Herero in Namibia; and a provocative analysis by Peter Dale Scott that traces the strand of atrocity through America's "Indian Wars" and the Philippine invasion, to latter-day Central America.)

A more difficult and ambiguous case, that of Allied strategic bombing of German cities during the Second World War, is sensitively explored by Eric Langenbacher of the University of Georgetown. Langenbacher does justice to the enormous destruction wreaked by the attacks. "By the end of the war in 1945, every large and medium-sized German city, as well as many smaller ones, had been destroyed or badly damaged by the Allied strategic-bombing offensive... Estimates of death range from about 300,000 to 600,000, and of injuries from 600,000 to over a million. The most lethal single raids were Hamburg and Dresden, with about 35,000 deaths each, and the 'Thunderclap' raid of 3 February 1945 on Berlin, which caused 25,000 deaths" (p118).

On the other hand, of course, this toll was exacted as part of the most titanic military conflict the world has ever known, and in retaliation both for German bombing raids and, more broadly, Nazi invasion and expansion across Europe. (I remember sitting in a house in Oberhausen, in the heart of the Rhine-Ruhr region, listening as the grandmother of my German girlfriend described the storm of bombs that rained down on her city during the war, and nodding my head earnestly while thinking: Hey, you started it. I'm not too proud of that reaction, but there's no doubt it's a common one.)

Langenbacher explores all sides of the debate, before concluding that the bombing "was a violation of international law, military ethics, and war convention" (p128). Indeed, "the questionable legal and ethical nature of the bombing campaign against German cities was recognized by wartime policymakers ..." (p124). In the postwar era, the violations produced a "lingering bad conscience" and a "desire to make amends" (p126), including widespread public criticism of the bombing campaign (as on the 50th anniversary of the Dresden bombing in 1995). Langenbacher's chapter strikes me as an impressively concise yet nuanced contribution. He is forthright in his criticisms, but recognizes that in evaluating the record of the West, and others, in genocide and war crimes, mitigating factors sometimes arise and must be factored in to an honest analysis.

A chapter that takes a rather different angle is Peter Prontzos's 'Collateral damage: The human cost of structural violence'. Often, when we consider genocide and war crimes, we limit ourselves to politico-military conflicts and killing campaigns. But the murderous toll exacted by poverty and social marginalization far exceeds that of genocidal killing. Six million children die from malnutrition alone each year. Prontzos estimates annual deaths from all forms of structural violence (defined as "deleterious conditions that derive from economic and political structures of power, created and maintained by human actions and institutions") as approaching 50 million people!

Nothing can address this crisis, in Prontzos's view, except an "authentic democracy embracing all aspects of social, political, and economic life" (p311). He spends the final section of his chapter outlining social visions that will seem utopian to some, and the simplest of longterm survival strategies to others. It is a ringing appeal for social justice and ecological responsibility, of the kind that Prontzos has been issuing for decades now. (I have had the pleasure of knowing the author for 20 years, and have never failed to be inspired by his energy for changing the world and moving it forward.)

As I note in the introduction to Genocide, War Crimes & the West, "a difficulty with much of the dissident writing on terrorism, war crimes, and genocide is that it is frankly depressing to read." The book tried to rise above the inevitable gloom of the subject matter. Contributors were asked, wherever possible, to include constructive thoughts on how best to approach matters of justice and restitution. A number of the genocides and crimes against humanity discussed in the volume, for example, have generated contemporary claims for formal apologies, accompanied by monetary compensation and other measures both symbolic and substantive. (Here, in fact, symbolism is substance, or can be.) The genocide against Native Americans, the Herero experience in Namibia, and Belgian complicity in the murder of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba - all can be cited as examples.

Perhaps the most vivid case-study of present-day claims for compensation is that of American slavery. Strategies to secure compensation for the descendants of enslaved Africans, and for African-Americans as a whole, have followed in the footsteps of successful claims against countries that participated in the Nazi holocaust against the Jews, and corporations that profited from it. In Part III of Genocide, War Crimes & the West, titled 'Truth and restitution', Francis Njubi Nesbitt examines 'The case for a Truth and Reparations Commission on slavery, segregation and colonialism', considering legal, political, and mass-movement approaches. "The biggest challenge for the growing movement," he writes, "is to develop a global structure that will bring together different parts of the movement for dialogue and development of a global vision and strategy for reparations... The movement must also seek allies outside African communities, particularly in the emerging anti-capitalist and anti-globalization movements of both South and North" (pp365, 373). Njubi Nesbitt's chapter is accompanied by Ernesto Verdeja's able summary of 'Institutional responses to genocide and mass atrocity'; the section is rounded out by Arthur Jay Klinghoffer's learned study of "international citizens' tribunals," bodies launched to confront alleged western crimes in Vietnam and (more recently) Iraq.

Ah, Iraq. Although the 2003 invasion and war was listed as "forthcoming" in the volume, I deliberately chose not to expand my own chapter on the war against Afghanistan to consider the Iraq conflict. It was not the book's purpose to provide a snapshot of currently-unfolding events. Today, the United States, Britain, and a handful of others occupy a quasi-sovereign Iraq with some 160,000 troops; the country teeters on the brink of civil war. The consequences of western interventionism and state terrorism are clearly still with us and all around us. It is my hope that Genocide, War Crimes & the West helps to place them, and still worse acts, in proper perspective.