Killing in Vain: “Unstrategic” state-led mass killing during wartime

9 Jul

*This post originally appeared on the Center for Genocide Prevention’s blog.

For all the hatred, fear, and chaos they produce, mass killings are, at their heart, strategic endeavors, as Benjamin Valentino so persuasively argues in his landmark study Final Solutions. Leaders with extreme political goals only settle on mass killing when other, less costly means have been eliminated. Just because mass killing is an instrumental process, however, does not mean that it’s always successful. There are many examples of states carrying out mass killings during wartime, only to lose power through military defeat; Nazi Germany, Cambodia, and Rwanda come to mind.

The correlation makes sense. Committing mass killings risks sparking international and domestic opposition, and requires massive financial and human resources that could be used to fight armed opponents. Mass killing also frequently has corrosive effects on the perpetrating organization, a point frequently made by Daniel Solomon. This presents a puzzle: why do some states carry out mass killings when they are “unstrategic,” or in other words, clearly detrimental to a war effort?

Three influences can explain this phenomenon: ideology, misperception of the effectiveness of mass killing, and intra-organizational competition. Any one of these factors can cause a state to carry out an unstrategic mass killing, but they may also all be present in a single episode.

The first factor, ideology, is really at the center of the three cases mentioned above. For these regimes, their extremist goals mean that even during wartime, certain ideological projects (such as creating an ethnically pure society) supersede military success, even when facing an existential threat. Valentino’s logic is consistent here. Mass killings are indeed instrumental process, but the specific goals of perpetrator organizations shift their perception of what actions are “strategic”.

The misperception of mass killing’s effectiveness is itself a result of two potential influences: ideology and an increased potential of military defeat/attrition (which are likely interrelated phenomena). Just as extremist ideology can shift perpetrators’ goals during war, it can also make perpetrator leaders excessively paranoid. For example, Hutu extremists before the Rwandan Genocide came to believe that all Tutsi were actively assisting the RPF, and therefore the only way to preserve Hutu life was to indiscriminately target Tutsi. Though the Genocide certainly played a role in hindering the fight against the RPF, for Hutu extremists, one front of the war could not exist without the other.

States frequently begin or enter wars believing victory will be quick and easy (the “planning fallacy”), but the reality of violent conflict is often quite different. When states face either the prospect of defeat or an extended entanglement, they often seek to quickly change their fortunes. Mass killing becomes an act of desperation. Alexander Downes writes, “Even if leaders did not previously believe in the efficacy of civilian victimization or think that they would use such a strategy, the costs of the fighting convince them that something must be done to win the war but also limit losses. Civilian victimization is a promising option on both counts.”

The third factor, intra-organizational dynamics, can be a powerful driver of unstrategic mass killing. Wendy Pearlman, writing in the compiled volume Rethinking Violence, argues applying the strategic logic of an individual to a group is empirically flawed. Instead, violent actors—in this instance, states—should be viewed as interactional organizations with complex structures and hierarchies. Decision-making power is diffused throughout the institutions, but to varying degrees depending on the organization. Consequently, in the right context, a mass killing may result because some individuals (who may not be formally recognized as leaders) see it as beneficial to their own goals, rather than the objectives of the entire organization.

Intra-organizational competition is another potential driver of unstrategic mass killings. Especially in a regime without a solidified power structure, different factions will vie for power. During wartime, these aspiring factions may see killing civilians as a low-cost method of proving themselves militarily and gaining political prominence.

A similar dynamic operates during counterinsurgencies. Selective violence, as Kalyvas writes, is unquestionably more effective, but a certain amount of intelligence is needed to carry out selective violence. To gather that intelligence, commanders must either expend significant human and financial resources or use selective violence to coerce it. If commanders are either unable or unwilling to commit to the slow and expensive process of intelligence-gathering, a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma ensues. And, lacking the ability to commit selective violence, commanders may choose mass killing to avoid appearing inactive or ineffective, even if indiscriminate violence is ultimately strategically counterproductive.

Mass killings are primarily instrumental processes directed by leaders with extreme political goals, but individual mass killings emerge through a wider range of dynamics. Mass killing is, at its core, a strategic endeavor, but ideology, misperception, and intra-organizational dynamics can detach mass killing from its military objectives.

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