The Politics of Genocide

Brendan O’Neill writes in Spiked Online about the West’s obsession with genocide, whether cracking down on genocide-denial at home (as the Germans are trying to make illegal across Europe) or searching for genocides in Africa:

In some circles, ‘genocide’ has become code for Third World savagery. What do the headline genocides (or ‘celebrity genocides’, perhaps) of the past two weeks have in common? All of them – the Serbs’ genocide in Bosnia, the Sudanese genocide in Darfur, the Turks’ genocide of Armenians – were committed by apparently strange and exotic nations ‘over there’. Strip away the legal-speak about which conflicts can be defined as genocides and which cannot, and it seems clear that genocide has become a PC codeword for wog violence – whether the genocidal wogs are the blacks of Sudan, the brown-skinned, not-quite-European people of Turkey, or the Serbs, white niggers of the post-Cold War world.

Consider how easily the genocide tag is attached to conflicts in Africa. Virtually every recent major African war has been labelled a genocide by outside observers. The Rwandan war of 1994 is now widely recognised as a genocide; many refer to the ongoing violence in Uganda as a genocide. In 2004 then US secretary of state Colin Powell declared, on the basis of a report by an American/British fact-finding expedition to Darfur: ‘We conclude that genocide has been committed in Darfur and that the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed bear responsibility.’ (4) (The UN, however, has not described Darfur as genocide.) Even smaller-scale African wars are discussed as potential genocides. So the spread of instability from Darfur into eastern Chad has led to UN handwringing about ‘genocide in Chad’. During the conflict in Liberia in 2003, commentators warned that ‘Liberia could be plunged into a Rwanda-style genocide’ (5).


#1 Attilla on 03.04.07 at 7:30 pm

Not really: it may be a misapplication of genocide, but it is used in a more specific context than generally woggish behaviour. The word is [mis]applied to wars where civiliians, especially women and children, are particular targets for personally directed violence, rather than formal armies and where the purpose is the destruction of a people or culture. It’s been used to describe the Russians in Chechnya and Burmese government policies against border tribes. It’s actually a continuation of the main tradition of warfare rather than an innovation. The aberration was the western concept of two armies facing each other and fighting, rather than the armies attacking all the ‘enemy’ civilians they could find.
In Africa it’s very probable that with many subsistence farmers death by starvation is a very probable result of such warfare for millions of people; again a reversion to older traditions of warfare.

#2 Muhammad on 03.04.07 at 8:40 pm


“The aberration was the western concept of two armies facing each other and fighting, ”

The history of armies facing each other in battle is not western invention nor is it an aberration

The battle of Kadesh between the Hittites and the Egyptians 1270 BC or thereabouts was recorded as a conflict between two organized armies

Marathon 490BC was a battle between greeks and persians

Khalid bin Waleed’s conquest of Sassanid persia was a series of battles between two armies with an generally unaffected population

Tariq’s invasion of Vandalucia when he defeated Roderic at the battle of Guadalete

The battle of Ain Jalut between the Mamluks and Mongols was also a formal battle between two armies

And there are numerous examples of western armies using the tactics of widespread civilian slaughter in war

The british war of slaughter of the kenyans in the Mau Mau “insurrection”

The Belgians in the Congo

Churchill’s use of Mustard Gas in Iraq against a civilian population

The firebombing of Dresden and the “unfortunate” instances in Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Your assertion therefore is untrue,

#3 Ali on 03.04.07 at 9:51 pm

And what about the genocide of the Palestinian people by the Jews? Or what the United States is doing now in Iraq where they are trying to genocide the Iraqis?

#4 E. Mariyani on 03.04.07 at 11:59 pm

The definition offered by the Oxford English Dictionary is remarkably concise and unambiguous:

1944. Annihilation of a race.

Etymologically, it is apparently an incoherent composite of Greek (genos) and Latin (cidere), literally meaning “killing of a race/kind.”

#5 Attilla on 03.05.07 at 2:33 am

Sorry, Muhammad, i was too terse. Certainly, there have been many wars where the clash of arms between two armies has been the decisive factor. All the same, the idea that this is normal warfare is a fairly recent development. Usually such a clash was provoked by devastating crops, destroying settlements and killing civilians and quite often the decisive ‘clash of arms’ didn’t occur- both armies simply destroyed their opponents’ bases of supply until one or ther other gave up or someone else invaded both.
The examples you give of ‘western armies using the tactics of widespread civilian slaughter in war, aren’t actually very accurate. The British activities in Kenya were concentrated on the Kikuyu, not Kenyans in general. They involved mass arrests and brutality to civilians. They did not set out to wipe out the population or destroy their ability to survive. Belgians weren’t fighting a war in the Congo; they faced no military opposition at all. The use of mustard gas was supposed to be more humane that ordinary military ‘punitive expeditions’. Dresden was a communications centre and was defended by military forces which inflicted casualties on the attackers and both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were important military bases. Again, they were not attacks concentrating on exclusively civilian populations. This isn’t meant to excuse them; merely to point out that they were different in kind from a policy of destroying the food supply and population resources of the enemy.

Ali: the behaviour of Israel and the invasion of Iraq are bad enough without misusing the term genocide. Given that the
Palestinian population is one of the fastest growing in the world it certainly isn’t the victim of genocide and the Iraqi peoples are rather more eager to ‘genocide’ one another than the USA are. The US crime was not realising this and invading and giving them the chance to do it.

E. Mariyani: the UN definition goes further than the OED:

#6 Prof Anon on 03.05.07 at 2:24 pm

“… All the same, the idea that this is normal warfare is a fairly recent development.”

This is simply untrue.

Muhammad has provided compelling evidence of the orthodox understanding of military history. You have not provided any evidence to support your assertion beyond repeating it and asking us to believe you.

What is your evidence?

#7 George Carty on 03.05.07 at 7:51 pm

Prof Anon: Muhammad has provided compelling evidence of the orthodox understanding of military history. You have not provided any evidence to support your assertion beyond repeating it and asking us to believe you.

Muhammad’s experience was probably with the pre-civilized pagan Arab tribes, not with the existing civilized states of his time.

#8 Baybers on 03.05.07 at 8:03 pm

I think he Muhammad, who made the comment above

#9 Muhammad on 03.06.07 at 11:01 pm


I have read your comments and cannot find any evidence you provide to back your point, other than repeating it.

Quote Atilla:

“The aberration was the western concept of two armies facing each other and fighting, rather than the armies attacking all the ‘enemy’ civilians they could find “

Also you misrepresent my points, I have provided ample examples of western armies attacking civilian targets causing mass civilian casualties such as Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden, but also London and Stalingrad. I do not say that these are evidence of genocide (that is a straw man of your own creation). There may have military or tactical facilities located within them but the scale and mode of assault ensured mass civilian casualties, and must have been expected by the military planners (and most probably desired).

Your points that it was Kikuyu rather than all Kenyans that were targeted by the British, so what? The premise is the same, British soldiers attacking civilians, men women and children (source: Imperial Reckoning by Caroline Elkins).

Your reply to the other points is so bizarre that that they do not warrant a response, I leave it to the reader to judge comments such as

Atilla quote

“The use of mustard gas was supposed to be more humane that ordinary military ‘punitive expeditions’.”


“Belgians weren’t fighting a war in the Congo; they faced no military opposition at all”

Your defense of this point actually undermines your first assertion that:

“The aberration was the western concept of two armies facing each other and fighting, rather than the armies attacking all the ‘enemy’ civilians they could find.”

the Belgian behavior is documented here:

so what evidence do you have that the concept of two armies facing each other, rather “than attacking all the enemy civilians” is a “western aberration”?

#10 George Carty on 03.07.07 at 4:43 am

Isn’t attacking the enemy’s civilian population the only way to win against guerrillas?

This is why the traditional Western laws of war (eg Hague convention) imposed restrain on war between uniformed armies, but offered no quarter for guerrillas.

#11 sindbad on 03.07.07 at 10:21 am

Well, the racist war against Vietnam was a genocide, and so was the bombing of North Korea by the US Air Force which in my view is the number one terrorist organization from the victim’s standpoint. Other genocides I can think of are the ethnic cleansing of Jews in Europe, not just under Hitler. Even the bombing of Dresden in Germany was a great crime against humanity, and the popular sentiment was to demonize every German possible. In Dresden, even the animals from the Zoo came out to the streets and trembled in fear from the bombs. Other genocides are the extermination of indigenous peoples of North America or the Native Americans, and other indigenous people around the world. There is no doubt that genocide has occurred in African countries, the so-called Third World countries and in Asia. The name Pol Pot is well known. Over 1.5 million people were killed in the Iran-Iraq war, and the victims basically served as guinea pigs for Washington to test their new weapons. Of course, the fault mostly lies with Saddam Hussein who was a dangerous nationalist and puppet of the people who put him into power.

#12 Attilla on 03.07.07 at 8:53 pm

Prof anon: look at the old-fashioned way of waging war. This relied on taking food from the population of the country invaded, destroying growing crops, killing and eating livestock and leaving them to starve. This was standard warfare for a very long time. It was the only way to supply an army and served to damage the resources of the invaded country. That was why horse using nomads were so successful in invading and conquering settled populations for so long. The reason many wars then lasted a long time was because the armies didn’t actually meet and fight one another until they were forced to or- as with the nomads- only after they had destroyed the society that supplied and fed the army. The Thirty Years war is probably the classic example of such a war; there weren’t many battles but an awful lot of corpses. The same is true of Caesar’s invasion of Gaul when you look at it without Caesar’s self-serving gloss. The reason the armies of the Greeks had such an effect on the much larger Persian armies was because they went for clashes of arms as soon as possible and intended to destroy the enemy army.

Muhamad: I was not disputing that Dresden, Hiroshima etc caused massive civilian casualties. However, the civilian casualties were a consequence of operations justified on military gounds. If you think Stalingrad another significant example you don’t know much about siege warfare through history; in sieges any civilains in the besieged fortress were the chief targets of the attackers. The number killed by the Luftwaffe’s attacks on London were statistically insignificant.
The difference between the Kikuyu and Kenyans in general is important: quite a lot of other Kenyans joined in enthusiastically to attack the Kikuyu. More important, horrible though it was, it was not a genocidal war of extermination or a war of starvation. What makes you think i am ‘defending’ the methods used in either Iraq or the Congo? I am distinguishing between them and any kind of warfare.

Sindbad: the only ‘war against Vietnam’ recently was the Chinese invasion. The US had South Vietnamese allies, which rather disproves your accusations of racism, though not other accusations. The same is true of Korea. Pol Pot was a Cambodian kiling other Cambodians. He didn’t kill them because they were Cambodians but because they belonged to the wrong class in his eyes. The extermination of some of the smaller tribes may have been genocidal or it may have been bureaucratic convenience.
What ‘new weapons’ did Washington ‘test’ in the Iran-Iraq war? Iraq was almost entirely armed by the USSR and France and one reason Iran had to make peace was because the USA wouldn’t supply spare parts for thir US-made equipment. As Saddam Hussein put himself into power and made it plain through his long and controversial reign that he wasn’t anybody’s puppet you can’t really blame anyone else for his activities, unless you blame the USA for not destroying him sooner. If he had been willing to be someone’s puppet he’d probably still be in power.

The point I was trying to make is that the contemporary ideal ‘norm’ for warfare, the complete destruction of regular armed forces and establishment of a new government in the defeated country, the sort of warfare that western armed forces are supposed to train for and fight, is actually the aberration and that what happened in RWanda, the Congo, Yugoslavia etc is much more like what has usually happened in history and that western armed forces ought to either accept this and recognise that the way to win wars effectively is to exterminate the enemy or not to go to war at all unless they are actually directly threatened. The economic powers of the west- as the example of Vietnam shows- are much more powerful than the willingness of their sentimental peoples to accept the logic of warfare unless they are immediately in danger.

#13 sindbad on 03.08.07 at 1:06 pm

Atilla, have you watched the documentary “Pay the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq” by John Pilger? It is clearly proved that Washington played a major role in installing Saddam Hussein. An American CIA official infamously said: “Saddam is a son of a ***** but he is our son of a *****.” Saddam Hussein would still be in power if he had been a bit more humble and forthcoming to Washington’s demands for oil. The very sanctions imposed on Iraq were a great crime against humanity.

#14 Andrew Reynolds on 03.08.07 at 5:32 pm

No, sinbad – the day he went beyond the pale was when his forces crossed into Kuwait. But for that invasion he probably would still be in power. He was always happy to supply oil to whoever would pay for it – he needed the funding to build still more palaces.

#15 George Carty on 03.08.07 at 8:59 pm

No, I think that fear of Islamism (either Iranian or home-grown) was the main reason for Western support of despots like Saddam Hussein.

France was against the 2003 invasion of Iraq not out of any moral conviction, but because after the experience of 1990s Algeria (where a free election produced an Islamist victory that had to be invalidated by military force) they believed in “Better Saddam than Shari’ah”.

#16 Andrew Reynolds on 03.09.07 at 10:32 am

When the US started supporting Hussein militant “Islam” of the Osama Bin Laden variety was not even a shadow on the horizon. The US was concerned about the influence of the Soviet Union and the survival of Israel.
Fascistic despots like Saddam were seen, as sinbad rightly points out, as “our sons of *******” (lets use “SOB” from now on). The US did not see it as being their job to care about how the people were treated, provided their leaders were prepared to supply oil and support the US geopolitically.
The long term results of this were either not appreciated or not cared about.
I think this attitude started to change with the Iranian revolution when the US realised that one of their SOBs could be replaced, not by the communists, but by their own people. The collapse of the Soviet Union made the SOBs redundant and a potential liability. The growth of the militants, partly originally funded and encouraged by the US against the communists made the situation worse.
US policy in the Middle East has been largely reactive ever since.

#17 sindbad on 03.09.07 at 12:20 pm

Andrew, I agree with your Kuwait argument but that’s not fully right, because the US played a role in the invasion of Kuwait:


Their objection was merely to do with the fact that Saddam’s plan was a bit more ambitious than they bargained for. Saddam was actually more of a Socialist than anything. As for him being fascist, indeed. To kill people or invade them for oil or other resources is pure fascism, just as it is exhibited by the the governments of the countries that are scanveging for oil in Iraq these days.

#18 sindbad on 03.09.07 at 4:33 pm

Pardon the ’scanveging’ in my previous comment ;) .

#19 George Carty on 03.09.07 at 9:13 pm

Actually Ba’athist ideology was very much an Arab version of Nazism. Fortunately Saddam’s personality was far more Stalin-like than Hitler-like, and Iraq did not have an industrial capacity even close to as strong as Germany’s…

#20 George Carty on 03.09.07 at 9:19 pm

Andrew Reynolds:

When the US started supporting Hussein militant “Islam” of the Osama Bin Laden variety was not even a shadow on the horizon.

Yes re Sunni jihadism, but Iranian Islamism was very real, and seemed very threatening to the US.

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