Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Fourth of July

As we celebrate the Fourth of July this weekend, we should appreciate the blessings of our citizenship and American heritage. I think I am rather realistic about the dark side of human nature; yet, paradoxically perhaps, I am optimistic about our country and its history. The history of the United States is like an ever-blossoming flower, as men and women of each successive generation work out the implications of the U.S. Constitution. Sometimes these struggles are peaceful; at other times they lead to civil war, revolts, protests, movements, or riots. Even President Reagan, otherwise known for his abiding optimism, once said: “Our nation, too, has a legacy of evil with which it must deal. The glory of this land has been its capacity for transcending the moral evils of our past.”

We should be critical of our country, warts and all; but as we survey our nation’s great achievements, as we consider instable and oppressive governments abroad, as we recognize the painstaking process of building and maintaining a Republic based on the rule of law, as we think about the peaceful change of power every four or eight years, as we recall generals submitting to the will of civilian leadership, as we acknowledge a political culture that takes for granted the unhindered voices of political opposition, and as we remember the sacrifices in blood and resources along the way, we have much to be thankful for indeed.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dear Mrs. Sherman

To this day southerners have not forgiven, let alone forgotten, Sherman’s invasion deep into the heart of the Confederacy in 1864. At the time, Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, a plantation mistress, watched with horror atop the porch of her manor as Union soldiers set ablaze the only world she had known.

General William Tecumseh Sherman, a Midwesterner who thought African Americans were inferior and who seemingly harbored a genocidal hatred for Indians, once boasted, rightly it turns out, that he did more for the liberation of slaves than anyone else. He firmly believed that Union forces had to take the war to the South to destroy the economy, infrastructure, and morale of the Confederacy. The turning point in the war had already occurred with the battle of Gettysburg in 1863. But over a year later victory was far from complete. The war could have dragged on for years, as in World War II when Nazi Germany and Japan continued to fight another two years even though their ultimate defeat had been assured by the fall of 1943. The U. S. Presidential election and with it the future Northern commitment to the War was at stake.

The carnage of war in battles like Shiloh and Antietam had horrified Sherman. While Grant would continue to use the North’s superiority in numbers to charge en masse in bloody head-on assaults, Sherman sought a way to end the war quickly and at the same time reduce the slaughter of civilians and enemy soldiers. His campaign of total war did not endear him to the South, but it probably did more to end the conflict than Grant’s conventional warfare or the dwindling of Lee’s resources. He virtually destroyed the plantation system of the South and added almost 20,000 slaves to the Union forces along the way. The occupation of Atlanta in the spring gave a great morale boost to the North and guaranteed a second term for the president. If Atlanta falls, Mary Chestnut wrote, “the game is up.” After destroying the city, Sherman’s Army of the West continued its march to the sea and was able to offer Lincoln a Christmas gift, Savannah.

Angered, Ella Thomas resolved to write the wife of the perpetrator, but decided not to publish the following letter when she heard about the recent death of Mrs. Sherman’s infant child.

Mrs Gen Sherman—A few days since I read your husband’s farewell telegram to you dated Atlanta. Will you believe it? for a moment I felt sorry for you. Forgetting who you were and for what purpose he was coming among us my heart went out in womanly sympathy for you. He bids you expect to hear from him only through rebel sources and urged by the same womanly intuition which prompted me to sympathize with you, I a rebel lady will give you some information with regard to Gen Sherman’s movements. Last week your husband’s army found me in the possession of wealth. Tonight out plantations are a scene of ruin and desolation. You bad him “God speed” on his fiendish errand, did you not? ...and this you did for what? to elevate the Negro race. Be satisfied Madam your wish has been accomplished. Inquire of Gen Sherman when next you see him who has been elevated to fill your place? You doubtless read with a smile of approbation of the delightfully fragrant ball at which he made his debut in Atlanta? Did he tell you of the Mulatto girl for whose safety he was so much concerned that she was returned to Nashville when he commenced his vandal march? This girl was spoken of by the Negroes whom you are willing to trust so implicitly as “Sherman’s wife.”

1) Mary Beth Norton & Ruth Alexander, eds., Major Problems in American Women’s History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003; 2nd edition), pp. 165-7.
2) Mary Beth Norton et al., A People and a Nation: A History of the United States (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001; 6th edition), pp. 418-21.
3) Victor Davis Hanson, Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live, and How We Think (New York: Doubleday, 2003), pp. 91-4.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Genocide in the Bible (2/2)

The first excavation of et-Tell, the putative site of the Biblical Ai, occurred in the 1930s. The conquest and destruction of Ai, including the slaughter of 12,000 inhabitants, came about after an earlier failed attack that resulted in the death of thirty-six Israelites. Success followed Achan’s execution for taking booty from Jericho against God’s mandate. So this account of Ai’s destruction has a theological underpinning that casts suspicion on its historicity. Archeologists disagree over whether the mound at et-Tell is in fact the site of Ai and at which time the destruction took place. At best, if this was the site, Joshua’s troops came upon the largely unoccupied ruins of a town conquered decades if not centuries earlier.

The ruins of Hazor located on Tell el-Qedah seem best to corroborate the Bible. The size of the site confirms the greatness attributed to it by Joshua. With a population of 40,000, temples and commercial activity, Hazor was the greatest city in Palestine during the Bronze Age. It appears to have been violently destroyed in the 13th century BCE when the conquest of Canaan would have occurred. Evidence of an attack calls into question the aforementioned thesis that Israelites settled the lands as pastoralists over a couple of centuries through transhumance, but it still doesn’t prove the Biblical story. Archeological data and extra-biblical textual evidence give virtually no support. Though a couple cities can fit the account, that doesn’t mean the Israelites destroyed those places; it could have been someone else for all we know.

In addition to archeology, the Biblical text itself sometimes subverts its own account of genocide. The Amalekites were one of the first peoples to attack the Israelites as they were leaving Egypt. The Lord wanted vengeance. “Now go and smite Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both men, and women, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (Deuteronomy 25). Jehovah promised moreover to blot out the memory of Amalek forever. However, the Amalekites keep reappearing in the Biblical record, leaving the task of killing them to later patriarchs. As if to account for the continual presence of a people that should have been destroyed, Exodus 17 has Jehovah vowing to make war against the Amalekites “from generation to generation.” To wit, Israel’s first king Saul “utterly destroyed all the people [Amalekites] with the edge of the sword” (1 Samuel 15:2-8). The Amalekites leave the biblical record only after a further encounter with no less than King David, who “smote them from the twilight even into the evening of the next day” so that only 400 young men escaped (1 Samuel 30). Initially, God’s vengeance was to wipe them out but, perhaps due to technical difficulties—the refusal of these wily people to die en masse—God’s vengeance was transmuted into an incessant persecution "from generation to generation."

If these events did not take place, why would Jewish scribes fabricate these stories centuries later? How do we read these accounts? What kinds of meanings did the biblical writers embed in the text? If we divest the narrative of its theological message and try to forget the theological significance the passages have come to mean for later generations, we see a brutally frank account of a nomadic ethnic group seeking to carve out a “land flowing with milk and honey” by the removal or destruction of people occupying that land. But again, why brag about such foul deeds if they didn’t occur? One historian has postulated that the Biblical writers were employing the “rhetoric of genocide” in order to give the impression that their forefathers had massacred the Canaanites. The Israelites wanted to instill fear in neighboring communities, essentially indicating to them what would happen if they didn’t relinquish their lands or at least cease from taking up arms. This propaganda, designed to avoid or minimize conflict, was later recorded in Scripture, giving the impression that these events had actually occurred. The ongoing saga of the Amelakites shows that the earlier statement about wiping out this people was just rhetoric, for they kept reappearing in the Biblical record.

The faithful have drawn some interesting applications from these accounts. In a famous 16th-century debate between the theologian Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and the Dominican priest (and ex-slave trader) Bartolomé de Las Casas, the atrocities recorded in the Bible became points of contention. On the basis of Deuteronomy 7 and other passages Sepulveda defended Spain’s brutal subjugation of indigenous peoples in the New World by arguing that God was punishing the Indians for their crimes in the same way that God punished the heathen Canaanites. In short, he likened the Conquistadors to the Israelites as dispensers of divine judgment and the rightful possessors of a Promised Land. Unfortunately, Las Casas, despite his noble intention of protecting the Indians from Spanish atrocities, drew hardly a better moral lesson from these embarrassing passages of the Old Testament. For him, the mandate to destroy entire peoples applied only to communities in the Promised Land. The Lord did not command the Israelites to exterminate peoples living in other lands. Las Casas made an exception for the Midianites and Amelakites who respectively led Israelite men astray and twice provoked a war. He adds that the Hebrew, “especially prone to idolatry,” needed to remove the source of their temptations, namely women and graven images.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Genocide in the Bible (1/2)

The Israelites’ conquest of Canaan is probably the most detailed account of ethnic cleansing we have from the ancient Near East. In the candid narrative of the Scriptures, the Chosen People appear as both victims and perpetrators in the military takeover of the Transjordan under Moses and the Western region of modern-day Palestine under Joshua. If we read the Hebrew Bible less through the eyes of piety and more with historical scrutiny we find it indeed pockmarked with instances of genocidal massacres. The siege of a city ends in the slaughter of the men, sexual enslavement of the women, razing of the town, and the allotment of spoils and territory to the tribes of Israel. Jehovah’s rules of engagement for the Israelites as they come into contact with other nations were rather brutal by anyone’s standard.

The fate of the Midianites, as recounted in the Book of Numbers, goes beyond an act of war and enters the realm of genocide. After victory in battle, the Israelites slew all of the males, razed their towns, enslaved the women and children, and plundered for booty. Angry with the officer staff of the army for taking captives, Moses ordered them to kill all women and boys and save only virgin girls for themselves. These atrocities stemmed from both vengeance and strategy. The women had earlier enticed Israelite men sexually, causing them to worship pagan deities. Moreover, only by defeating the Midianites could the Israelites consolidate their hold over the Transjordanian area.

One of the most famous stories of the Old Testament is the destruction of Jericho. The Lord promised to deliver the city into the hands of his people. The Israelites marched around the city for six days and, after seven times around the city on the seventh day, “the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city” (Joshua 6:20). Often neglected is the next verse that records the wholesale slaughter of men, women, children, and livestock. That Jericho was possibly a center for pagan worship might account for the Israelites’ ferocity in this case.

On the heels of Jericho’s destruction came the siege of Ai. Joshua sent an advance party to draw out the city dwellers by feigning a retreat. After the army of Ai took the bait, a second smaller force entered the city from the rear and set it to the torch. Demoralized, Israel’s pursuers lost the initiative and the hunters became the hunted. The two Israelite forces combined their attack on the hapless people of Ai and crushed them mercilessly. In fact, they killed all 12,000 inhabitants. After having plundered the city with God’s blessing, the Israelites burned the city to the ground “and made it a desolate place to this day.”

Why such drastic measures? We could come up with a theological answer, I suppose, but thank goodness we don’t give our soldiers and marines similar ROE in Iraq and Afghanistan. One could point to the irony of world history’s first known genocidal regime later falling victim to the worst genocide in history, but the historicity of these genocidal massacres is dubious.

Does archeology substantiate any of these massacres? According to the Bible, the Israelites conquered the land of Canaan in the course of seven years through a tenacious military campaign under Moses and Joshua. Among the devastation, God’s chosen people completely destroyed the towns of Heshbon, Edre, Jericho, Ai, Arad, and Hazor and slaughtered all of the inhabitants. Most scholars think that the Israelites entered Canaan not by conquest, however, but by a peaceful “pastoral infiltration” of transhumance over many years.

Let’s look at the archeological evidence. The mound that was once ancient Jericho has yielded scant information to conform the Biblical story. Radio carbon dating indicates the city existed before 7000 BCE and is thus the oldest city still in existence. Its famous walls, dating back to the Early Bronze Age, came tumbling down long before even Abraham came onto the scene. Moreover, the continuous reoccupation of the site after the 13th century BCE disproves the effectiveness of Joshua’s divine curse on the city. Since the Bible states that the Israelites burned the city, archeologists hoping to confirm the story’s historical veracity have made much of the layers of ash found at the site. But the fire more likely occurred in an Egyptian attack centuries before the Israelite “conquest.” The site of Jericho reveals a wealth of information about the prehistoric Middle East in general, but nothing about the Israelites. The most plausible explanation of the biblical Jericho is that it is an etiological saga designed not only to explain the ruins that the Israelites saw around them, but it also provided a national folktale to give confidence to this small nomadic people.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Background to the Destruction of Magdeburg

Name me a powerful and mighty ruler who, given the chance to cross the Rubicon, wouldn’t seize the moment and feel a sense of destiny. Wouldn’t it be nice to slog through the salty sea with determination, waves lapping against your legs, banner in hand, adjutants and retainers in tow, until you reach the shore and stab the flag into the sand claiming the territory by right of conquest? Conquerors from Alexander the Great to General McArthur have had the privilege. Likewise, the ambitious King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, armed with 5,000 troops and subsidized by French coffers, arrived on the Pomeranian coast in 1630, intent on protecting the Protestant faith from extinction and reaffirming the constitutional privileges of German princes. The King’s true intentions, not intended for public consumption, included more so the extension and consolidation of Swedish hegemony in the Baltic ports of Northern Germany.

The interconnection of politics and religion forms the long backdrop to the Thirty Years War. The Reformation of the 16th century shattered Latin Christendom forevermore, dividing up Germany into a patchwork quilt of Protestant and Catholic principalities. The Peace of Augsburg (1555) granted each prince the right to determine the faith of his realm. Cuius regio eius religio, which means “whose government, his religion,” became the slogan for this principle. One author has referred to the Peace of Augsburg as the “mother of modern [ethnic] cleansing.” That’s an exaggeration, but if someone didn’t submit to the faith of the land, they had to pick up and leave. Territorial churches emerged as an arm of the state to supervise the inculcation of Catholic, Lutheran, or Reformed creeds. In what historians once referred to as “confessionalization,” the prince and his officials used religion to establish the realm’s territorial integrity and consolidate centralized power. We would be wrong to impose our modern, cynical sensibility and see the promotion of the faith as merely a means of governance—an “opiate of the masses.” Ruler and subject alike subscribed to these creeds in their heart of heart, albeit some were more devoted than others, and statesmen never let confessional issues dictate their diplomacy, to the chagrin of priests, chaplains and pastors. Political expedience and religious devotion went hand in hand.

By 1629, Emperor Ferdinand II wanted to turn back the clock. The Habsburgs had promoted the Counter Reformation for decades in a partially successful effort to reverse the gains that Protestants had made since the early 16th century. Based in Austria, they were also looking for ways to centralize their power to the North. With the Edict of Restitution Ferdinand hoped to achieve these objectives in one fell swoop. But if he thought this bold move would distinguish him from his predecessors, he was sorely mistaken. In addition to outlawing the Reformed faith throughout the empire, the Edict called for the restitution of land taken by Protestants since 1552. The greatest Protestant principalities of Germany, Brandenburg and Saxony, would have to deliver up wealthy bishoprics under this brash mandate. Motivated more by political expedience than religious devotion, these princes had worked with the Empire; however, Ferdinand had now jeopardized this relationship.

Meanwhile, France, concerned about the territorial ambitions of the Habsburg Empire, brought Sweden into the war to thwart its traditional enemy. Whatever the war had been before, by the 1630s it had turned into an extension of the dynastic struggle that had characterized the two realms for centuries. Ostensibly Gustavus Adolphus (see right), the “Lion of the North,” sought to defend the Protestant cause and protect the constitutional liberties of German princes—twin pillars of resistance to Habsburg power. But the Swedish king needed a victory to secure sufficient money and troops; he had to convince the Protestant princes that he could take on imperial forces. Magdeburg was one of the few cities to form an alliance with Sweden and thereby became the lynchpin for control in central Germany. As mentioned elsewhere, Count Tilly, commander of imperial forces, was well aware of the city’s strategic importance and symbolic significance for Protestantism. Magdeburg had withstood the onslaught of Catholic forces almost a century earlier. Once Tilly had surrounded the city by November of 1631, but it would take him another six months to gather sufficient troops for an attack.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Maybe Never Again!

How does one prevent genocide? That’s a good question. Despite the efforts of diplomats, scholars, and human rights organizations, we haven’t been able to figure this one out. Even predicting a mass murder is tricky business, let alone the international resolve to do something about it once it’s underway. Genocide, it appears, requires a confluence of events and developments, and the idiosyncrasies of a specific region or regime might entail some of these events and not others. Typically, ingredients for a genocidal cocktail include a history of ethnic animosity, a dictatorial regime, a postwar culture of victimization, censorship of the press, hateful propaganda, the creation of scapegoats, the formation of paramilitary militias, and so on. The international community isn't going to intervene just because a minority group is suffering from discrimination or because the regime has censored the press. Besides, we must recognize that certain things are beyond our control, try as we might.

In a way, taking on the factors that can ultimately lead to mass murder involves going against the dictates of human nature. As social psychologist Neil Kressel writes in his book Mass Hate: The Global Rise of Genocide and Terror, “a large percentage of every population seems ready to obey authorities, conform to peers, and subordinate moral principles to personal self-interest or the wave of the moment.” The prevention of genocide seems too presumptuous and utopian when you consider the number of genocides since the Holocaust and the creation of the United Nations. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to lessen the impact or decrease the duration of a genocide.

The potential deterrents to genocide that scholars and activists have come up with include education, democracy, prosperity and justice. Giving more and more people access to education across the globe is a noble enterprise, but while it might give individuals a better life economically and culturally, I’m not so convinced that education will deter genocide. Teaching independence of thought and regard for other ethnic or religious groups is difficult and over time it can devolve into a sinister form of social engineering. Anyway, educational programs that do this sort of thing presuppose that one can appeal solely to reason. I don’t think they adequately appreciate the dark side of human nature.

For many, democracy is the panacea for the world’s problems. The conventional wisdom is that democracies do not war against one another, but this is more of an assertion than an indisputable fact. But more to the point, democracies, like the United States and Britain, are not immune from dirty wars and colonial massacres. While political parties peacefully changed the government every four or eight years (thereby testifying to our great democratic ideals) U.S. troops, ranchers and farmers slaughtered North American Indians, placed them in internment camps, obliterated their culture, and raped both their women and land. The deterrent of “prosperity” says that if you give a society or culture economic stability it will less included toward ethnic hatreds. Too many questions arise here. Even if the wealthier nations of the world are willing to pour their largesse into these impoverished countries, who’s to say that the money will go where it’s intended and not remain in the hands of dictators, their cronies, or a host of other middlemen? Trying to build up a region with wealth and prosperity could just as easily sink a country into the abyss of hate and bitterness.

Justice as a deterrent has merit, but heretofore the international community has not put enough bite into it. Why? Countries with human rights have sat on the UN Security Council, and they’re not about to sign off on any measures that would constrain their hand. But that’s only part of the story. The real problem is finding these people and using force, if need be, to bring them to trial. Still, a regime would think twice about committing acts of genocide if the United Nations had a strong record of punishing these murderous thugs. The indictments of Slobodan Milosevic, Charles Taylor, Omar al-Bashir and the Hutu ringleaders mark an advance in international justice, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg.

Let me end on a positive note. One year ago Iran became center stage on the news programs, as protestors unhappy with the rigged presidential election took to the streets. The Tehran regime had cracked down hard on protestors in the past, and this time was no different. However, daring souls exposed their government’s barbarity via Twitter, email, and cell phones. The Supreme Leader, the president, and their minions could not control the information highway. Genocides will occur in the future, but it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to carry out mass murder in secret. With just about every act of genocide exposed, whether through iPhones or satellites, only the resolve of the world community to take action keeps us from obliterating this scourge from our midst.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Lex Talionis and the Vigilante Within

Vengeance. Retribution. Recompense. Retaliation. Payback. Vendetta. Tales of revenge, I suspect, have been around since the Neolithic period, and audiences today flock to the theater to watch a Batman or Gladiator witness the murder of loved ones, gradually overcome fear or adversity, rise from the ashes, and finally exact overdue vengeance on the culprits. The satisfaction of having found justice, especially when the “system” appeared to lack the resolve or legal force to punish the offender, is like quenching one’s thirst after a long trek through a barren land. If we believe movies, this impulse isn’t limited to the young. Charles Bronson in the Death Wish movies and Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino took up arms against a sea of injustice. More recently, Michael Caine, in the movie Harry Brown, depicted an aging widower and former British Marine who takes out a number of repulsive thugs in his neighborhood after the brutal slaying of a friend. We should point out that these characters aren’t merely avenging a crime, but in true vigilante spirit they’re committed to protecting defenseless citizens and keeping the streets clean—and in the case of “Walt K0walski,” Eastwood’s character, concern for neighbors even leads to a Christ-like self-sacrifice.

These stories have a particularly visceral appeal to males, for whatever reason. Most men intuit the advantage of righteous anger when it comes to a fight. Now, if your opponent is twice your size or is built like an ox, then you're facing an uphill battle. Moreover, if you know you’re in the wrong, or if you provoked the fight, you’ll lack any kind of moral rectitude that could be an added bonus in the struggle. On the other hand, if you’ve been wronged, you receive an extra wind in your sails when you come to blows.

Should someone harm me or a loved one, I’m still a man of physical capability and resources to respond in kind—immediately or eventually, as the circumstances dictate. Hopefully I won’t be put to the test, for I fear that I’d risk imprisonment for homicide or the loss of my life in such a situation. The psychological or emotional preparation and willingness to take such an action is another matter; but if your temperament or the nature of the injustice has led you to overcome these scruples, then be prepared for the consequences of your action; any hesitation can be deadly.

Are vengeance and justice the same thing? When does revenge become a vendetta? The quick answer to these questions is that the nomenclature one employs depends on one’s vantage point, but I’ll let the wordsmiths waste time on definitions and etymologies. One observation about human nature is unmistakably clear, however: Too often the avengers seek “justice” that is incommensurate to the original offense. If you steal my bike, I’ll rob your house. If you rape one of my loved ones, you and your family members will pay with their lives. For this reason Moses enacted the Lex Talionis, though this Latin phrase would have been foreign to him! The Law of Retaliation. An Eye for an Eye, and a Tooth for a Tooth. This principle marked a leap forward in the historical development of laws. If someone takes out your eye, you can take this person’s eye—but no more than an eye. When it comes to a personal crusade to right a wrong after going vain through the "proper" channels, then I say all bets are off. I’m well aware of the “rhetoric of victimhood” that perpetrators often adopt and some even believe. Disgustingly, the genocidal killer and the rapist see themselves as the true victim; they've suffered under the cruel dictates of society or perhaps the abuse of a parent. On the other hand, when someone is truly a victim of a heinous act, one can’t slap a Lex Talionis on him or her. If you vigilante within you is strong, and you have the means and wherewithal to exact “restitution,” then you need to do what you need to do. Who knows? Maybe they’ll describe you some day with the words from the Death Wish II trailer:

When violence rules the city, when the police can’t stop it, one man will….his way.....He's doing it for you.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Darfur and the Politics of Genocide

When the slaughter raged on in Rwanda for three months, the Clinton administration, fearing yet another military commitment in Africa, refused to use the “G-word.” Secretary of State Colin Powell and both chambers of the U.S. Congress referred to the mass rape and killing in Darfur as genocide back in 2004, as if to atone for our previous sin of indifference; ironically, while Rwanda, one of the worst genocides in history, went unnamed by the world’s superpower, the United Nations has not defined Darfur with this category of killing. About 300,000 people have died from deportation, rape, and murder since 2003 in Darfur, the Western region of Sudan roughly the size of Spain. Almost three million people now live in refugee camps on the border or near main towns.

A UN investigation has concluded that the massacres in Darfur do not qualify as genocide under the UN’s 1948 definition of the term; investigators failed to find any intent to wipe out an entire ethno-religious group. Human rights organizations disagree and, frankly, not being privy to the details, I’m withholding judgment one way or the other. Careful commentators and journalists refer to the Darfur “Conflict” or “Civil War,” but not genocide. Nonetheless, the rape and slaughter is horrific enough, regardless of the label we choose to use. I’m not an advocate of genocide-inflation, that is, referring to any massacre abroad with this broad brushstroke. Aid workers and activists like to attach this word to just about any instance of bloodshed in order to raise awareness, but genocide is a specific crime and laxity in its use will only serve to downgrade it and ultimately hinder efforts to stop it. Keep in mind that the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide has its critics; some socialist scientists and journalists think the burden to prove intent to commit genocide sets the bar impossibly high for prosecutors. At the least, the killing in Darfur amounts to a “genocidal massacre," a helpful term used by historians and sociologists to refer to genocide on a smaller scale than, say, the Holocaust or Rwanda.

Who’s responsible for the mass killing in Darfur lo these many years? In modern history genocides are inevitably state-sponsored events. Indeed, the Arab government of Sudan has supervised the slaughter from Day One, though President Omar al-Bashir has of course denied responsibility repeatedly. Helicopter gunships have left the villages of the Fur, Massaleet, and Zaghawa, the target ethnic groups of Western Sudan, in smoldering ruins. Inevitably, the hideous Janjaweed, Afro-Arab militia with an eye for booty, would ride into the villages and hamlets on their horses and camels before the smoke cleared to pillage, rape, torture and murder. Genocidal governments rely on paramilitary death squads more than the regular armed forces. In the wake of German military victory in Poland and the Soviet Union, SS Einsatzgruppen swept through the area to round up Jews and shoot them into makeshift pits. The Hutu-based Interahamwe in Rwanda organized the killing on the local level. The Janjaweed, meaning “devil on horseback,” roam freely under the tacit approval of Khartoum. Publicly, the president tries to distance himself from these “thieves,” but the central government could stop the militia were it not benefiting from their murderous patrols.

What has the international community done to stop the killing? The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has made the bold move to indict al-Bashir on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The effort has been largely ineffectual. Two precedents paved the way for the indictment of a sitting president. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia charged Serbian President Slobodan Milošević with genocide in the case of Bosnia and war crimes for Croatia. The Special Court for Sierra Leone indicted Liberian President Charles Taylor on crimes against humanity. The Iraqi Interim Government tried and executed Saddam Hussein also for crimes against humanity. Until these recent cases, international law considered national sovereignty sacrosanct. A head of state and his regime could persecute minority groups with impunity provided the killing didn’t spill over the borders. Fortunately, the civilized world has changed this stance since the bloody 1990s.  In any event, the conflict in Darfur has spilled over into neighboring Chad, as many refugee camps exist on the border. Similarly, the Hutu killers of Rwandan Genocide escaped into Congo and started a chain of killings in that country that continues to this day.

UNAMID, the United Nations Mission in Darfur, is a joint peacekeeping operation conducted by the United Nations and the African Union. Complicating matters are rebel groups who’ve either cut deals with Khartoum or refused to negotiate. Moreover, they’ve committed atrocities of their own. Western diplomats and representatives of both the AU and Arab League have had little luck with the various factions. The UN's record on keeping the peace has been mediocre, to put it mildly. It might pay off to rely more on regional international bodies like for example the aforementioned African Union, European Union, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  Still, Darfur is the latest reminder that international resolve is impotent and effective peacekeeping a chimera.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


I went to my youngest daughter’s Middle School graduation this morning. The ceremony occurred at the mezzanine floor of a large hotel. I experienced a bit of déjà vu, because my other two daughters graduated there as well. Monika played stand-up bass in the band and orchestra at the beginning. The principal recognized her for highest honors. She was only one of four students to describe her fond memories before the audience and only one of two who presented a gift to the school—a mural painting that she partly designed. The audience consisted of the usual suspects, those malodorous mammals I mentioned a few blogs ago. Some of those parents dressed up as if they were at a White House ball. What the heck? For her part, Monika looked good in her new dress outfit; she exuded confidence and maturity.

Life is like that asshole in a green Tahoe who almost veered into me from the fast lane.  It passes by quickly.  I vaguely remember my own Junior High graduation in California. I was playing drums in the band.  It doesn't seem too long ago.  And now the last of the Viator girls, our baby Monika, has graduated from Middle School.  Four more years and they'll all have left the nest.  We must relish these moments while we have them; yet, we won't get too sad at their passing, for the excitement of life is always having that next stage to look forward to.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Learning about Humanity

Yesterday afternoon I pulled out a DVD from my little stash of historical films. I wanted something to view while I ate dinner, something that had been on my mind lately. Sometimes in April is a 2005 HBO movie about the genocide in Rwanda. I’ve already mentioned this flick in two previous blog entries. I’d like to remind readers that I teach courses on the Holocaust and genocide at Hexington College and for this reason such macabre topics preoccupy my dark mind.

To my pleasant surprise, my younger daughters, Jessi and Monika, watched the whole thing with me. The film is not pleasant; in fact it’s downright somber and depressing. There are some intense scenes of violence and an allusion to mass rape. I’ve seen more graphic violence on film, however; and if the rape scene were graphic I wouldn’t even own the DVD. Why my girls decided to watch this film with me is unclear, but I don’t think it has to do with boredom pure and simple. Monika is currently going through the Holocaust in her language arts class. (On a side note, I think the teacher should stick to his discipline and leave this topic for history or social studies.) So I suspect she was keen on the topic of genocide for this reason; to her credit, she made the comment that the teacher ignores these other genocides in recent history.

Jessi’s interest in the film is even more of an enigma to me, as her taste in movies, shall we say, is far from mine, apart from one exception. The exception is psychological thrillers or quality horror films; we both like these genres, it seems. She was familiar with the principal actor of the movie, so that might have drawn her in.  Besides, a good drama will draw her in, and this film is rich in character development, especially regarding the two brothers on which the story hinges. Moreover, I think both of them had heard of the Rwandan genocide and maybe figured that this movie was as good as anytime to learn what really happened. Another makeshift thesis I developed was that they felt obligated to spend time with me because I had brought them pizza and breadsticks for dinner.

Sometimes in April is a dramatic film with a great story and superb acting, but it’s also educational. Every once in a while my kids would ask questions or make comments. That was great. You can learn a lot about humanity in a movie like this one. I must concede that a couple of scenes make me quite emotional. When the best friend of the main character essentially sacrifices himself for his buddy at a roadblock I had a tough time explaining what had just happened, for I was choked up.  So I waited a few minutes to explain what the guy did.  The last thing I want to do is explain a scene from a movie to my kids with tears in my eyes.  Anyway, it was a more enjoyable Sunday afternoon than I had anticipated.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Fun at an Indoor Waterpark

When my wife and eldest daughter took a trip to Los Angeles last September for a wedding, I decided to take my younger daughters, Jessika and Monika, to an unspecified waterpark. Fortunately they had a good time there, but I must concede that I didn’t have the greatest experience.

First, we parked what seemed like 170 miles away in the vast parking lot. Once I got into the lobby I paid an arm and a leg to get a room and they slapped some red wristband on me as if I were in a concentration camp or something. Then my kids whisked me away into the pit of hell: the indoor water park. Everyone and their dog must have come to Kalahari that weekend (though dogs weren’t allowed in the whirlpools). I was looking forward to a comfortable rest in a whirlpool when, to my horror, I see this beer-bellied guy with two children under the age of two having too much fun. “Sir, can you make sure your kids fill the Jacuzzi with another third of urine before I enter.” Well, I came close to saying that, but that’s what I was thinking.

I came across another cesspool of humanity when I climbed with my kids to the top of the raft ride: a bunch of tattooed, potbellied white dudes with beer and bikini-clad bimbos. I thought: “Give me the whiff of burnt rubber and that’s all part of my NASCAR fantasy”—though I didn’t know I had such a fantasy until then. My kids and I made the long trek up the waterslide tower outside. Only after waiting in line for an eternity did we discover that they wouldn’t take the double raft we carried up onto the “yellow” ride. By now I was pissed. I felt like ending it right there and jumping 100 feet to my death, but that wouldn’t make a good impression on my kids. I swore right then that I’d stick around in this vale of tears at least until they get through college, which probably won’t happen now because I had just spent their college fund at Kalahari....er, I mean, at an unspecified waterpark.

Later in the evening Jessika and Monika wanted to watch girlie stuff on TV. I grabbed a book from my knapsack and took the elevator down to the lobby. I plopped down on a sofa chair in the “elephant lounge” of the main lobby where I was about to get into a good book on antisemitism, as I’m sure you would do on a vacation, when I heard some guy ostensibly singing and playing guitar in the restaurant near the lobby. Hearing his guitar strumming ability, I assumed he must have had a few fingers amputated. I thought to myself: “Maybe he lost them in some industrial accident and now was cursed to make a living by playing songs with all the life sucked out of them.” The cover of Johnny Cash was obligatory, I suppose, but when he cut into an acoustic rendition of Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” my thoughts, as Hamlet said, “be bloody, or be nothing worth!” So I went back up to our room on the fourth floor and found that Ella Enchanted had ended but the kids were now engaged in a Disney teenybopper sitcom “That’s So Raven.” I consoled myself by putting some of those little shampoo and lotion bottles into my suitcase. I’ll get something out of this, you sons of Bs!

The next day, Labor Day, it rained. The African deities didn’t smile on me. Now, after mortgaging my kids’ future with the cost of the hotel, they wanted to go out to eat. The snacks I brought didn’t go the distance: beef jerky and peanuts. So we drove across the other end of the Dells from Kalahari in search of a particular fast-food joint that we wanted. So I guess that means we reached Timbuktu, but it in fact ended up being the blue hills of Kentucky because the hillbilly cast from Deliverance was evidently serving the meals. It was lunchtime and the traffic was awful. I felt myself wanting to pull a gun out of the glove compartment, but I reminded myself that I wasn’t in L.A. anymore. Life is hell, but at least my kids had a great time.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Creative, Confident, Kind

This morning I attended an awards ceremony at my daughter’s Middle School. Monika won a number of medals and accolades for jazz band, orchestra, French, volunteer work, and a 4.0 GPA. One certificate of merit nicely described Monika as “creative, confident, and kind.” I’m proud of her and was glad I could attend. I can’t say the same for anything else about the occasion, however. At first I thought the nausea in my stomach came from the coffee I had this morning. Then I thought it was perhaps the pathetic spectacle of all these malodorous mammals congregating in the school gym to clap like seals every five seconds when a teacher announced an award for their offspring. Eventually I realized that the principal’s voice and her less-than-stellar speaking ability were the culprits.  If Dante had a Tenth Circle, she'd be giving a welcoming speech as the reprobates entered their doom.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Hitler, Germany, and World War I

“The First World War made Hitler possible," writes Ian Kershaw, Hitler’s most recent biographer. One cannot properly understand the rise of Nazi Germany without an appreciation of the physical devastation and cultural impact of the “War to End All Wars." Without it we can’t account for a demoralized and embittered people looking for a savior, a new level of brutality and industrialized killing, and the voices of appeasement in the 1930s. The Great War between 1914 and 1918 set new precedents in the history of armed conflict. It introduced or more fully employed aerial combat, tanks, chemical gas, submarine warfare, and flamethrowers. Like never before, the combatant nations marshaled their industrial resources for war. The battlefield losses were staggering. At the Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916, the British, French and German casualties numbered well over one million. The Battle of Verdun yielded even more dead and wounded. Like the Second World War, the first one too included a genocide: Ottoman Turkey, an ally of Germany and Austria, deported, murdered and raped about 1.7 Armenians in 1915.

A new violent spirit of antisemitism emerged in the latter half of the war in Germany and the East. The Bolshevik Revolution virtually took Russia out of the war and introduced a savage civil war. The counterrevolutionary White army and Ukrainian nationalist militias killed thousands of Ukrainian Jews in late 1919. The stab-in-the-back legend continued to generate hatred of Jews throughout the Weimar Republic in Germany.

The toll of the war on Imperial Germany was quite high. It bore the brunt of the war on two fronts and had only moderate help from its much weaker allies, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman empires. Less than a fifth of the population served in the war; 2 million died and 5 million suffered wounds. But the biggest injury came to Germany’s honor, for the Treaty of Versailles blamed the war predominantly on Germany. (In fact, Germany’s role in starting the war is not so clear, unlike World War II that Hitler unequivocally started.) The Allies, particularly prompted by war-torn France, demanded harsh reparations, occupied a portion of the Rhineland, and stripped Germany of its military. Lastly, the Allied powers imposed a new government on their defeated foe, the Weimar Republic, which, as Ian Kershaw has written, was a democracy without democrats. Most Germans despised this weak parliamentary democracy which would come to an end in 1934 when Hitler combined the offices of Chancellor and President and dispensed with the constitution altogether.

Demagogues and organizations from the left and the right sought to fill in the power vacuum with their own vision of Germany’s future. For their part, war veterans of different stripes drew upon their war experience and added to the tensions in the post-war era. Some fought for the Freikorps, freelancing paramilitary squads that provided muscle for any right-wing cause; others became part of the Red Brigades to usher in a socialist revolution.

Let’s hear some of the multifarious experiences and post-war activities of German war veterans. The artist Otto Dix depicted the horror of war visually, as in his 1924 print above, “Machine Gunners Advancing.” Five years later, Erich Maria Remarque coped with his horrific experience of the war through the fictional character Paul Bäumer in All Quiet on the Western Front, perhaps the greatest anti-war novel of all time:

I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another…Through the years our business has been killing; -- it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?

Remarque went on to try his hand at writing screenplays for Hollywood. The Nazis condemned and burned his book. Armin Wegener, a medic, secretly photographed the Turks’ brutal treatment of the Armenians in the first genocide of the 20th century. In later years he criticized the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews and was awarded the “Order of Saint Gregory the Illuminator” in Armenia before dying at the age of 92 in 1978.

But not all of them disapproved of the war. Some brought back different experiences and conclusions. The highly decorated warrior Ernst Jünger, who died in 1998 at the age of 102, glorified the war in his published memoir, The Storm of Steel. He would also serve as an officer in World War II but became critical of the SS and Adolf Hitler. Hitler, a dispatch runner who acquired two Iron Crosses, joined the Reichswehr (Germany army) because he had no other prospects in his life and he was ecstatic about fighting for the Fatherland. While recovering from a mustard gas attack in the Pasewalk military hospital, he heard about Germany’s surrender, and, by his own account, had a kind of conversion experience. Thus the radical antisemite was born. The future Führer also learned another lesson from the war. Addressing the SS before the invasion of Poland that would unleash another world war, Hitler remarked:

I have issued the command — and I'll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by a firing squad — that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness — for the present only in the East — with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Rwandan Genocide

Imagine a group of men, juiced up on banana beer, wading through a misty marsh on a hunting expedition. They’re not stalking pigs or fowl or sitatungas, but the sweat on their brow and the cautious look in their eyes suggests a more dangerous prey. The weapon of choice is the machete, but some of them brandish iron bars, clubs studded with nails, a butcher knife, a sickle, a sharpened metal file, and other makeshift tools of destruction. Ibises probe the slough for insects seemingly oblivious to the biped mammals in their midst.  Hunters usually pursue game quietly; however, these men are singing songs as they slog through the mud, startle the water lilies, and weave through the papyrus. If this isn’t odd enough, they’ve been talking about killing cockroaches in the swamp since receiving the morning briefing at a soccer field. For the most part these “cockroaches” are their Tutsi neighbors—men, women and children—people with whom they’ve lived for decades. Once the whistle blows, the members of the local death squad will call it a day, as if they’re punching the clock; indeed, they’ll go home and nourish themselves on brochettes of goat meat and Belgian beer before a good night sleep. Killing, especially without firearms, is grueling work. Besides, none of these men are professional assassins or serial murderers or “natural born killers.” They’re neither soldiers nor even members of the paramilitary organization known as the Interahamwe; rather, we can imagine them as simple farmers, tavern keepers, and even members of the clergy.

The Rwandan Genocide occurred in the spring of 1994. In the early evening of April 6 someone shot down the plane carrying Rwandan President Habyarimana as it neared the Kigali airport. The explosion was apparently the signal for slaughter, for after a few hours of uncanny quietude, shots rang out and killers started to drag Tutsi elite from their homes and butcher them on the spot. No less than the Presidential Guard gunned down the Prime Minister as blue helmets stood by helplessly. This was no murderous rampage in a spontaneous paroxysm of hate and violence; rather, it was a systematic, premeditated, and carefully planned massacre. The history books have agreed on the casualty count: in a hundred days over 800,ooo Tutsis and "moderate" Hutus succumbed to a horrific death. If math serves me well, that averages to 10,000 murders per day. That’s practically an assembly line of carnage, and only Treblinka in 1943 and Auschwitz in 1944 can match it.

Historians of genocide like to divide the participants into three categories: perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. Each of these categories can be complex and in some cases they even overlap. In this instance, the killers, now known as génocidaires, were unequivocally Hutus, the ethnic majority of Rwanda, a country the size of Maryland. Firebrands, fueled on the slogan of Hutu Power, had worked up their kin into a hateful frenzy via newspapers, pamphlets, and radio broadcasts. Most infamously Radio et Television des Milles Collines (RMTL) broadcasted the names and addresses of victims. The so-called Hutu Ten Commandments exhorted Hutus to show no mercy toward Tutsis. Among the sources of their grievances were decades of Tutsi domination, as European colonizers had tended to favor this largely pastoral people because of their more European features. The target victims were the Tutsis, but the tens of thousands of murderers took the lives of Hutus as well, for the two ethnic groups had intermarried for years.  Many Hutus even turned in their spouses and children or even killed them before a menacing crowd of Hutu onlookers. Finally, we have the third category of “bystanders,” which is complicated enough to merit a separate paragraph.

The world’s superpower, the United States, did nothing, for the Clinton administration was not about to get involved in another African debacle six months after Somalia. In the fall of 1993, mobs dragged the naked corpses of Army Rangers through the dusty streets of Mogadishu. Infamously, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and his staff refused to utter the G-word, for a recognition of the bloodbath in Rwanda as genocide would obligate the international community to intervene. We now know that a few non-military options, like jamming the radio transmission via high-tech aircraft, were possible and not taken. President Clinton issued a formal apology ten years after the genocide. France, jealously watching over the last vestiges of its African empire, inadvertently (or otherwise) helped Francophonic Hutu killers flee the country when it established a safe zone in the southwest. The role of the United Nations, by anyone’s reckoning, was a tragedy of errors, with only the small and ineffective peacekeeping force under the command of General Romeo Dallaire offering any hope for humanity. Despite the warning signs and heads-up they received, the higher-ups in New York either did not appreciate the gravity of the situation or simply turned a blind eye. Hutu killers continued to intimidate and select victims unhindered in the UN refugee camps. The West did virtually nothing to stop the genocide. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a political and military organization formed by Tutsi refugees in Uganda and led by Paul Kagame, liberated the country and chased the killers into Congo. The international community’s failure to act is a complex story, but the bottom line is that Rwanda is an impoverished country with no significant natural resources or major industrial exports to offer. Mountain gorillas, bananas and the bags of Rwanda coffee beans I saw at Starbucks the other day can’t compete with the West’s insatiable thirst for oil.

The génocidaires, let us not forget, are the real culprits. They stabbed, slashed and shot their hapless victims in the streets, homes, and churches. The mass rape of Tutsi women, both a strategy and a fringe benefit for the murderers, was no less effective in the Hutu program of ethnic cleansing. The ringleaders, rapists, propagandists and other prominent individuals who took part in the genocide will hopefully pay the piper at the UN Tribunal set up in neighboring Tanzania. Most of the 100,000 rank and file killers have either escaped justice altogether or since 2002 have appeared in tribal court system known as a gaçaça for a hasty trial and slap on the wrist. The men gathering on the soccer field to receive their instructions bring to mind the Christopher Browning’s depiction of an SS death squad in his profound study, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. These reservists were ordinary men from the city of Hamburg, with regular jobs and normal families; yet most of them followed instructions to round up Jews and shoot them into pits. Like their Rwanda counterparts in the marsh, these ordinary Germans liquored up and justified their actions in the name of a “greater good.”

Among the many high-quality books, documentaries and movies about Rwanda, I would like to single out a few excellent works for readers who might want to follow up on this grim topic. The best overall account, and highly engaging and readable, is Philip Gourevitch, We Would Like to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (1999). The author is a journalist who traveled to Rwanda a couple years after the genocide. A compelling eyewitness account from inside the UN and bearing a telling subtitle is Romeo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (2004). General Dallaire, the commander of UN peacekeeping forces, has committed his life to public awareness of genocide in the last decade. Jean Hatzfeld, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak (2005) lets some of the perpetrators give their story. I drew heavily on this book for the opening of this essay. The two-hour PBS documentary The Ghosts of Rwanda (2004) is superb and its viewing an emotional experience. A few good movies set in Rwanda have come out, but the best one is Sometimes in April (2005) starring Idris Elba.