Reviewing the Review: October 18 2009

I’ve been walking around lately with a thick book called Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, and noticing the way people react when they see the title and the cover illustration of a bloody machete. Like other significant books about the culture of genocide (A Problem From Hell by Samantha Power, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch), there is an aura of hopelessness about this heavy volume, even though the author writes with measured optimism as he pleads earnestly for change. I believe books like these are important, but the reactions I get from others convinces me I’m in the minority here. Many people do not think there is any point in reading or writing books about the problem of genocide, because the problem can never be solved.

I think it’s amazing that people give in so easily to hopelessness and helplessness with regard to one of the worst problems of our time, and I am glad this weekend’s New York Times Book Review pays attention to Goldhagen’s book (though the book doesn’t get cover treatment) in the form of a respectful review by James Traub. Since I’m in the middle of the book myself, I read this review with special interest. Traub apprehends what seems to be Goldhagen’s main thesis: we are mistaken to think of political mass murder (whether in Africa, Eastern Europe, China, Russia, Latin America, Bosnia, Kosovo, Darfur or Hiroshima and Nagasaki) as consequences of war, or poverty, or ethnic strife. In fact (Goldhagen argues) the political impulse to murder population groups has greater force in and of itself than the impulse to wage war or fight for economic gain or combat ethnic rivals. Goldhagen invents and urges the adoption of a new word, “Eliminationism”, to name this force, this political embrace of genocidal practice, as the first step to a new way of thinking about its role in our world.

Goldhagen’s intellectual opponents here are those writers like Hannah Arendt (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil) who strive to explain historical genocides as if they were unintentional horrors. Like Arendt, I have generally believed that war is the greatest enabler of genocide — Goldhagen would turn this around and prove that in fact nations sometimes conduct wars for the express purpose of killing large population groups. It’s a subtle but important difference. James Traub doesn’t seem to be buying most of Goldhagen’s theory and lays out a few objections in his review, but he does find the book meaningful. Myself, I’m bewildered by some of what I’m reading — the apparently true claim, for instance, that far more human beings were killed by “eliminationist” genocide in the 20th Century than by war itself, which explains the title “Worse Than War” — and this inspires me to keep reading. I don’t know yet if I agree more with Hannah Arendt or with Daniel Jonah Goldhagen on the meaning of genocide. I suppose the only people I disagree with are those who see me walking around with this book and ask why I bother reading about a horrible situation that can never be improved. Why the hell can’t it? It’s the responsibility of every single human being on Earth to prove that it can.

Worse Than War is one of two depressing books about political mass murder in today’s Book Review. Mark Danner’s Stripping Bare The Body: Politics Violence War is about the horrors the author witnessed on journalistic expeditions to places like Haiti and Sarajevo, and critic George Packer is even harder on Danner than James Traub is on Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Packer is impressed by Danner’s hands-on reporting but can’t stand his writing and even, strangely, accuses him repeatedly of being “erotically” attracted to the horrors of war and political terrorism. I suppose Packer’s got to call the shots the way he sees them, but the evidence presented here does not strongly back up the rather shocking charge, and by the end of this review I simply wish another reviewer had explained the book better.

I bet many people who pick up this Sunday Book Review will skip both of these articles and instead read about Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls, which Liesl Schillinger seems to like in a non-committal sort of way, or Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs, which David Kamp also seems to sort of like but completely fails to get me excited about. I bet many people will also skip William Vollmann’s review of Philip Caputo’s novel Crossers, though, and I only believe this because it’s my theory that readers have been skipping over William Vollmann’s writings for his entire career. That’s the only way to explain his success, because he’s a terrible over-writer. Here’s the opening paragraph today:

Once when I was so weak with amebic dysentery that all time not spent on the toilet was passed in bed, I found in my host’s house one book in a language I could read. It was one of those storm-tossed but ultimately upbeat women’s romances, a genre I had not yet sampled. I read it, then read it again and again, since there was nothing better to do. If I ever have the luxury of repeating such an experience, I hope to do so with a Philip Caputo book. For how many decades in how many used bookstores have I seen “Horn of Africa” standing steadfast, a Rock of Gibraltar compared with the mere boulders of Ken Follett and Sidney Sheldon? And only now, with a half-century of my life already over, have I finally learned whom to turn to for a good potboiler in my next wasting sickness!

Gosh. I’ll have a better time reading about genocide.

12 Responses

  1. I dont know that genocide can
    I dont know that genocide can be divorced from the issue of war to an extent suggested by Goldhagen’s argument since it seems to involve not only murderous intent but also the military capability of one group to commit the genocide of another (even with ‘state forces vs militia’ kind of conflicts). In the cases where there isn’t such an unevenness of power, my thought is that there would be something that more resembles war. Im just skeptical of the suggestion that genocide may be an instinct of humanity and significantly disconnected from the same issues of power and interest that we know war to be (an idea that tends to encourage the hopelessness you describe)

  2. In military combat soldier
    In military combat soldier fights soldier. That’s altogether different from systemic killing of civilians — be it by a military, the police, goon squads, mobs, what have you.

    And I’m not talking about collateral damage. I mean when the guns, machetes, grenades, what have you are aimed at women and children — who have been dying by the thousands and millions — with the premeditated purpose of wiping out them and everybody like them — because it serves some crazy dictator’s agenda.

    Goldhagen’s book is so very important to the rest of us, because it helps us understand what the is really going on.

    I’m about half way through the book, too. I was surprised that so many people have been killed this way — more than military combat. The other thing that surprised me is that we’re back to knives and machetes as the weapon of choice. That the killing is technology independent. All you need is one group of people to hate another group of people so much and a two bit dictator to say “have a good day”.

  3. To those who are reading
    To those who are reading Goldhagen’s book: how much, if at all, does the author attribute genocides to religious motives?

  4. From my reading, an essential
    From my reading, an essential element is that one group wants to rid itself of another group. Sometimes it’s one group vs. a religious group. In Bosnia Muslims were targeted. During the Holocaust, Jews. In other places and times there were other means of identifying targets. Cambodia: It was members of dozens of different groups (such as teachers, doctors, lawyers) perceived as a threat to the communist Pol Pot regime (2 million people died). In the U.S, Native American Indians. In Guatemala it was an ethnic group: Mayans. The key according to Goldhagen is the targeting of a group to be eliminated from society. There are many justifications. From my reading of it, occasionally the religion of the perpetrators is a motivating factor, but not a necessary ingredient.

  5. Consider the story below, an
    Consider the story below, an example of nonmilitary genocide. So, there’s that too.

    (Worse is the rape in general of Earth herself, at her very mouth, The Amazon, but I digress.)

    Decline of a Tribe: and Then There Were Five

    The last surviving members of an ancient Amazonian tribe are a tragic testament to greed and genocide

    by Guy Adams

    They are the last survivors: all that’s left of a once-vibrant civilisation which created its own religion and language, and gave special names to everything from the creatures of the rainforest to the stars of the night sky.

    Just five people represent the entire remaining population of the Akuntsu, an ancient Amazonian tribe which a generation ago boasted several hundred members, but has been destroyed by a tragic mixture of hostility and neglect.

    The indigenous community, which spent thousands of years in uncontacted seclusion, recently took an unwelcome step closer to extinction, with the death of its sixth last member, an elderly woman called Ururú.

    Considered the matriarch of the Akuntsu, and shown in these pictures (which were taken in 2006, and are the most recent images of the tribe), Ururú died of old age, in a hut built from straw and leaves, on 1 October. News of her death emerged last week, when the tribe was visited by human rights campaigners, who have spent the past decade campaigning to preserve their homeland from deforestation.

    “I followed the funeral,” says Altair Algayer, a local representative of Funai, the Brazilian government agency which protects Indian territories. “She died in a small house. We heard weeping and rushed over, but she had already died.” Ururú’s death means the entire population of the Akuntsu now consists of just three women and two men. All of them are either close family relations, or no longer of child-bearing age – meaning that the tribe’s eventual disappearance is now inevitable.

    The slow death of this indigenous community is far more than an unfortunate accident, however. Instead, it represents the long-planned realisation of one of the most successful acts of genocide in human history. And the fate of the Akuntsu is seen by lobby groups as an object lesson in the physical and cultural dangers faced by undiscovered tribes at so-called “first contact”.

    Much of the Akuntsus’ story is – for obvious reasons – undocumented. For millennia, they lived in obscurity, deep in the rainforest of Rondonia state, a remote region of western Brazil near the Bolivian border. They hunted wild pig, agoutis and tapir, and had small gardens in their villages, where they would grow manioc (or cassava) and corn.

    Then, in the 1980s, their death warrant was effectively signed: farmers and loggers were invited to begin exploring the region, cutting roads deep into the forest, and turning the once verdant wilderness into lucrative soya fields and cattle ranches.

    Fiercely industrious, the new migrant workers knew that one thing might prevent them from creating profitable homesteads from the rainforest: the discovery of uncontacted tribes, whose land is protected from development under the Brazilian constitution.

    As a result, frontiersmen who first came across the Akuntsu in the mid-1980s made a simple calculation. The only way to prevent the government finding out about this indigenous community was to wipe them off the map.

    At some point, believed to be around 1990, scores of Akuntsu were massacred at a site roughly five hours’ drive from the town of Vilhena. Only seven members of the tribe escaped, retreating deeper into the wilderness to survive.

    [more at link]

  6. Glad to see from these
    Glad to see from these responses that I’m not the only one interested in this topic.

    Kevin, I’m not far enough into the book to know for sure but, as Sam suggests, Goldhagen does not seem to find religion to be a main cause of eliminationism (as he calls it).

    The Akuntsu story is a good example of the kind of tragedy that has apparently been taking place regularly all over the world, and still is today.

    As for the relationship between war and genocide, this is a really difficult knot to untangle, but it is a fact that the largest genocide/political mass murder of the 20th Century took place from 1958 to 1961, when no war was going on. I’m talking of course about Mao Zedong’s incredible manufactured famine, said to have starved 25 million citizens of China to death, under the guise of the “Great Leap Forward”. Similarly, Stalin’s manufactured famine in Ukraine (now sometimes known as the Holodomor) took place when no war was going on.

  7. Last spring, I sat down with
    Last spring, I sat down with my kids and watched Hotel Rwanda with them as a learning tool.(They are a little to young to read such a book as mentioned above).

    Afterward, my youngest daughter asked me why people do that to each other. My explanation, in an over-simplified nutshell, was that it was deep-seated, demonic/satanic hatred. It’s up to us to not allow ourselves, or our children and their children, to ever be influenced in such a way.

    Combatting hatred with love is the only logical solution I see.

  8. I think religion is used
    I think religion is used artificially by dictators to stir people into committing genocide, but I doubt that the underlying cause for genocide has anything to do with religion.

  9. To me, Vollman’s opening
    To me, Vollman’s opening paragraph harkens back to the style of Henry James, but also brings the style up-to-date, because Henry James’ overwriting can be really obtuse.

  10. Thanks for the feedback.
    Thanks for the feedback. That’s my impression: Religion is an ingredient (usually) but not a necessity for genocide. It can definitely be an accelerant.

    And now for something completely different…Stephen Colbert referred to the flu virus as “H-to-the-N-1.” Thought you would enjoy that.

  11. Not to get off topic, but
    Not to get off topic, but it’s wonderfully symmetrical that Vollmann would review Caputo, another author whom I find to be largely overlooked. However, unlike Vollmann, Caputo writes tightly scripted novels that get the reader from point A to point Z with minimal digression.

    I can’t help think that if Caputo’s name was Vollmann, he would have spelled it Volman.

    For those who haven’t read Caputo yet, I would suggest starting with “A Rumor of War” — the most take-you-there book about Vietnam I’ve read — and then checking out “Delcorso’s Gallery”. Caputo had one hell of an interesting life, and he makes the most of it in his writing.

    Oh, and if you ask me, “Horn of Africa” is overrated and Vollmann does have a lot to say if you’ve got enough time to hear him out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!