Archive for September 24th, 2010

Mexico, war, genocide, and Richard Rhodes

Friday, September 24th, 2010
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Yesterday, the opening of the Mexico bicentennial exhibition — a true fiesta, with tamales, top-notch horchata, chips and guacamole, and other munchies I didn’t have time to sample, along with a man named William Faulkner playing Mexican tunes on a harp.  I have a personal debt to Mexico, and came to pay my respects — but my conversations tended to turn instead to my article about Norman Naimark and the need to broaden our definition of genocide to include Joseph Stalin‘s millions of murdered people.

Hoover librarian Lora Soroka, who is Ukrainian (land of the Holdomor) and archivist Linda Bernard were particularly pleased that someone was finally nailing Stalin for genocide — the article is featured on Hoover’s home page.  Frankly, I’m surprised there are two opinions about that.  My article on Naimark’s new book, Stalin’s Genocides, left out so many aspects of our discussion. (We spoke on a sunny day on an outdoor patio, overlooking the Bay, at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, where it seemed almost indecently incongruous to be discussing crimes against humanity.)

Naimark said, “Intent is very important in genocide.” In the case of the American Indians, more often than not “the intent was to steal land in any way possible” — which makes it an instance of ethnic cleansing, rather than genocide.  And yet, individuals within that context acted with “the intent to wipe out a tribe.”  Hence, that history is one of ethnic cleansing marked by incidents of genocide, he said.  Evidently, the lines of international law are blurry.

One question I would like to see explored more powerfully is the link between technology and genocide.  Clearly, incidents within archaic society — for example, the Old Testament “bans” where every man, woman, child, and even livestock were killed to remove every trace of a people — show genocidal intent.

But technology has magnified our ability to commit genocide — technology enables imitation, which brings us directly into René Girard‘s territory, and also into Hannah Arendt‘s.  She observed in Eichmann in Jerusalem that once an unprecedented crime occurs, it is likely to repeat itself:  “If genocide is an actual possibility of the future, then no people on earth … can feel reasonably sure of its continued existence without the help and the protection of international law.”

Replication occurs through the medium of modern communication, which also enables the event itself.  Could the Rwandan massacres have occurred without national broadcasters egging the murderers on, announcing the victims’ locations and tracking them as they tried to flee?  It would be impossible to murder a million people in 90 days without coordination, moving the murderers and murdered to locations where they can be effective shot or gassed en masse.

The less glamorous side of revolution: Mexican girl, probably an orphan, on a postcard. (From Stanford collection)

That brings us back to the Mexican celebration.  Andrew Herkovic was barking at me (we were all barking in the din of the gathering) about the work of Richard Rhodes, who wrote 2003’s Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust.  His research discovered how murdering people the traditional way, one by one, proved traumatic for the murderers.  The Nazis escalated cautiously, improving mass murder methods; and finally,  “conditioning” the troops, to avoid “disabling trauma.”

The Jerusalem Post notes that Rhodes’s book “graphically and chillingly details the work of the special killing battalions of Himmler’s SS. . . Extremely well-written. . . [A] fine work of gruesome history.”  But I wonder, by detailing the crimes, do we risk their repetition?  By speaking about the unspeakable, do we ensure that it becomes a blueprint?

Coincidentally, Andrew had Rhodes’s cell phone number — he scribbled it down for me.  I’ll try phoning him today.  My reason:  Rhodes will be here for a November 11 talk during our Ethics and War program.  As war becomes more and more total … what do “ethics” mean in war?