Tag Archives: The Holocaust

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.


Why “Genocide” Had To Come First, And Why “Mass Atrocities” Should Come Next

19 Nov

In 1943, Polish resistance member Jan Karski secured a meeting with American Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.  Karski was desperate to find a sympathetic audience for the intelligence he had obtained by sneaking into Nazi concentration camps.  At the time, there was little understanding in United States or Western Europe of the scale and intensity of Nazi atrocities.  In Samantha Power’s telling of the encounter, Frankfurter waited for Karski to finish before saying, “I don’t believe you.”  Karski protested, before Frankurter responded, “I do not mean that you are lying.  I simply said that I cannot believe you.”  Frankfurter was unable to comprehend the scale of atrocities Karski was accurately describing.  Frankfurter wasn’t alone.  At the time, the concept of massive violence directed at civilians didn’t exist.  Civilian casualties were certainly accepted as a part of war, but no specific word or phrase existed to fully encapsulate the deliberate targeting of civilians.

Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer who had narrowly escaped the Holocaust, fought hard for years to make the world fully appreciate the realities of mass killing.  Beyond his personal experience during World War II, he was also fascinated by the horrors of the Armenian genocide and other episodes of mass killing.  Lemkin had a keen understanding of the capabilities of governments to murder civilians on a large scale.  To help others gain the same understanding, Lemkin placed in faith in language, feeling that if there were just a distinct word to describe the extent of the crimes of the Holocaust, societal rejection of future potential mass killing episodes was more likely.  In A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power describes Lemkin’s quest:

“Ever since Lemkin had heard Churchill’s 1941 radio address, he had been determined to find a new word to replace “barbarity” and “vandalism,” which had failed him at the 1933 Madrid conference. Lemkin had hunted for a term that would describe assaults on all aspects of nationhood-physical, biological, political, social, cultural, economic, and religious. He wanted to connote not only full-scale extermination but also Hitler’s other means of destruction: mass deportation, the lowering of the birthrate by separating men from women, economic exploitation, progressive starvation, and the suppression of the intelligentsia who served as national leaders…Lemkin saw he needed a word that could not be used in other contexts (as “barbarity” and “vandalism” could). He self-consciously sought one that would bring with it “a color of freshness and novelty” while describing something “as shortly and as poignantly as possible.” But Lemkin’s coinage had to achieve something Eastman’s did not. Somehow it had to chill listeners and invite immediate condemnation.”

The word Lemkin chose was “genocide” which combined the Greek root “geno” (meaning “race” or tribe”) and the Latin root “cide” (meaning “killing”).  Lemkin’s persistence assured the word was in fact ingrained in international law, and almost single-handedly, Lemkin planted the notion that governments can and do kill huge numbers of civilians in the world’s collective conscience.

At the time, Lemkin’s success was revolutionary.  However, it’s time to move on from using the word “genocide”.  “Genocide” simply doesn’t cover all episodes of mass killing because its legal definition excludes political groups from potential victims and genocide and stipulates that there must be an intent to destroy “in whole or in part” the victim group.  The definition is too focused on the specific experience of Jews during the Holocaust, which problematizes the generalization of “genocide” to other episodes of mass killing with different characteristics.  The Khmer Rouge’s action in Cambodia and counterinsurgent mass atrocities (the Syrian conflict) don’t count as genocides, but one would be right to question why certain types of mass killing are any worse than others.  Does it really matter if something constitutes genocide if large number of people are dying as a result of an intentional policy?  The use of “genocide” privileges certain types of killing over others, and as activists seek to draw attention to mass violence by using the word “genocide” whether or not it’s accurate, the meaning of the word is simultaneously diluted.

Ironically, Lemkin’s success in promoting the word “genocide” allows us now to abandon it.  The idea that “genocide” exists and is something we as a global community should fight is a well-diffused norm.  From my anecdotal experience telling people what I’m interested in, regular Americans with no connection to politics or academia understand the basic tenets of a genocide.  Now that the concept of “genocide” has been successfully propagated, there is a perfect opportunity for civilian protection advocates to diffuse a new norm that leads to a more complete understanding of the nature of mass killing.  “Mass atrocities” is the most widely used term in the academic and activist discourse on episodes of mass killing, and adopting it  in place of “genocide” to describe various types of intentional mass killing makes sense in the future.

For various reasons, “mass atrocities” makes the most sense in the present historical moment to serve as a catch-all term for different variations on mass killing.  Unfortunately, it is not without its flaws.  From my own personal experience, different people have different interpretations of what “mass atrocities” implies.  In my personal view, it’s limited to lethal attacks, but a very reasonable argument could be made that rape and mutilation should also be included.  Even if we decide that rape and mutilation are a potential component of mass atrocities, can a death-less mass atrocity exist?  Do a certain number of rapes and mutilations equate to a death?  Therefore, perhaps “mass killing” is more appropriate, but it suffers from a lack of use outside of certain academic circles.  Another problem is that both “mass atrocities” and “mass killing” suffer from not fully conveying that the killings must be a part of a fairly coherent and intentional plan, rather than an aggregation of totally unrelated violence.  Perhaps in the future, another time will present the need to diffuse another norm.

Are We Violent By Nature?: Reconciling Milgram, Browning, Collins, and Grossman

1 Oct

Stanley Milgram, Christopher Browning, Dave Grossman, and Randall Collins have all provided important contributions to the academic debate on the attitudes of humans toward violence.  All of these projects have attempted to answer the same question: “How willing are we to commit violence?”  On the surface, it would seem they provide contrasting answers.  The Milgram experiment and Browning both show that no matter whether individuals are opposed to violence, they tend commit violence when told to do so by an authority figure.  Collins and Grossman, however, paint a different picture.  In their work, individuals do their best to avoid killing, often going to incredible lengths.  Despite these differences, Milgram, Browning, Grossman, and Collins actually make complementary arguments that when aggregated, provide a good explanation for why individuals commit violence.

I’ll briefly sketch out the arguments presented in the three books (the Milgram experiment is well-known enough to omit).  Browning examines the experiences of Reserve Police Battalion 101 during WWII.  The battalion was made up of individuals unfit for regular combat, and contained few hardcore Nazis.  However, it was one of the most deadly units that made up the Einsatzgruppen, killing thousands of Jews on the eastern front over the course of the war.  He writes that while many soldiers expressed disgust and even disapproval of murdering Jews at the beginning, over the course of the war, the incidence of refusals decreased.  Browning argues a mixture of authority, peer coercion, and a warped morality structure that saw killing as the moral thing to do made the men of Reserve Battalion 101 kill with alarming efficiency.

Collins and Grossman, in Violence: A micro-sociological theory and On Killing, respectively, both examine the way soldiers react to killing opponents.  Many of their arguments are similar, so to prevent repetition, I’ll summarize them as if they were a single narrative.  They write that most soldiers do their best to avoid killing others in combat.  They will likely find the act of killing more traumatic than the fear of being killed.  In WWII, firing rates among soldiers stood at only 15%, with no difference between new and seasoned troops.  Troops unable to see the consequences of their actions, such as artillery units, have much higher firing rates.  Following studies of this phenomenon, militaries changed their tactics.  Larger fighting units were divided further into smaller, groups to encourage interdependence.  This, along with other changes, increased firing rates in the Vietnam War to 95%.

Despite different approaches to studying human dispositions toward committing violence, Milgram, Browning, Grossman, and Collins all have overlapping arguments.  Ultimately, in each project, they present a picture of most humans as reluctant to commit violence, but at the same time, vulnerable to social processes that promote the use of violence.  These social processes can be broadly divided into three categories: authority, values, and interdependent coercion.  Milgram is the canonical example of authority.  However, as Grossman and Collins demonstrate, even the strict authority structures of WWII militaries was not enough to convince the vast majority of soldiers to attempt and kill opponents.  In chaotic battlefield situations, the ability of leaders to exert their authority and punish those who resist is limited, differentiating it from a laboratory setting.  As for values, Browning argues that the Nazis were at least partially successful in creating a new morality in which getting past inherent adversity to killing, while difficult emotionally, was the correct thing to do.  However, Ben Valentino has demonstrated that for regular perpetrators, ideology is seldom a primary motivating factor for combatants to commit atrocities, and this logic can be extended to killing in general.  Finally, interdependent coercion is likely the most powerful factor in convincing the large percentage of civilians who avoid killing to do so.  In Ordinary Men, Browning shows how soldiers did not want to appear weak in front of their colleagues or leave unpleasant work to others.  Therefore, most chose to participate in killing.  Another facet of in-group coercion is interdependence.  If a small unit of soldiers feels that any hesitation by one soldier will likely mean death for another, firing rates will be much higher.  Militaries picked up on this phenomenon, and sought to create more cohesive and interdependent fighting units.

The debate on the attitudes of humans toward violence is not new and will not end anytime soon.  But to me, asking “are we violent?” is flawed, as answers to the question are too prone to over-generalization.  Collins, for example, writes that soldiers at the front lines tend to treat prisoners much more humanely than rear-guard soldiers, demonstrating the variation of human attitudes toward violence, and thus problematizing an all-encompassing conclusion.  The better question is “what makes us violent?”  As someone who’s interested in applying lessons learned from academic methods of study to decrease violence, hypothesizing on true human nature has little applicable value or even intellectual significance.  Hobbes’ theory of human nature was flawed because it imagined an ideal world, the state of nature, in which true human nature could be revealed.  We know, as Kalyvas argues, that even in ‘ungoverned spaces’, mutually understood rules govern the nature of conflict.  Ultimately, the world is not a laboratory, and attempting to strip away the complexity of human interaction to make it such is methodologically dubious.  We will always have violence and the absence of violence in this world, and scholars of conflict are better off understanding what makes human oscillate between the two rather than speculating on what is natural.