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.