Traditional Methods of Avoiding Genocidal Slaughter

30 Mars, 2008
Chirot Daniel

There are many ways of defining genocide. If we want to limit ourselves to the gigantic mass slaughters that successfully attempted to physically wipe out a whole or most of a category of people defined by their ethnicity, religion, or nationality, then such events are rare. The best known examples in the twentieth century – Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Jews in Nazi occupied parts of Europe, Tutsis in Rwanda – were unusual events. The numbers killed were huge, but each case seems almost unique. If we extend the definition to include mass killings on the basis of supposed economic class, particularly the murder and deadly deportations of kulaks by Stalin, or the deaths of city people and those “infected” by Vietnamese thinking by the Khmer Rouge, we are still talking about catastrophes caused by very unusual circumstances. But to limit ourselves to such huge cases obscures the fact that mass slaughter of non-combatants in all kinds of internal and cross-border wars has been much more common; moreover, even in small scale stateless societies in conflict with each other, we know that there were occasional massacres of whole villages, clans, or tribes.

We should enlarge the meaning of the term “genocidal” by including cases in which a large proportion of people in a particular group, including non-combatants, died because of deliberate action, even where the number killed was smaller, or the massacres more localized than in the famous big cases. In many colonial wars, including the slaughter of indigenous people in the Americas and Africa, the outcomes were certainly genocidal, even when the total number killed was in the low thousands rather than hundreds of thousands or millions. What about when the people in one town have been slaughtered, every last one of them? Was this full-fledged genocide if the rest of that ethnic or religious group was then left alone? Perhaps not, but we should still analyze such events within the same framework. These tragedies were genocidal for those who were killed just because they were in that town, village, tribe, or clan.

The question is not simply one of scholastic definition. Could we classify what happened in Srebrenica in 1995, when Serbian soldiers slaughtered most of the Muslim men and boys over a certain age in cold blood as genocide? Historically, such events were far from unusual. We know that Greeks and Romans engaged in such practices from time to time, and the historical record of every civilization has its share of them. The Hebrew Bible describes genocidal events, as do other foundation tales about the origins of many agrarian states from Sparta to Shaka’s nineteenth century Zulu empire. Ethnographic evidence about pre-state societies shows that many experienced genocidal episodes, though usually most warfare at that level was more limited (Chirot and McCauley, 2006).

If we demand a definition of genocide that is too tightly circumscribed, and includes only the most extreme cases, we lose sight of the more common slaughters such as that of the innocent residents of the city of Béziers in 1209 during the Albigensian Crusade, of members of Confucian families hunted down by a vengeful Ming Emperor in the early fifteenth century, or of Congolese villagers in parts of Ituri in the Congo in the twenty-first century, targeted because they were of the “wrong” ethnic group (Niel, 1955: 79; Chan, 1988: 196-202; Human Rights Watch, 2003).

On the other hand, if we make our definition too broad, then all sorts of small-scale tragedies could be defined as genocidal, and the term loses its meaning entirely. If a certain number of civilians are killed in a war – and in every war there are always some such deaths – but there is no intent to wipe out a particular category of non-combatants just for the sake of killing them, then the event, however unfortunate, is not genocidal. Thus, to take an extreme example, the bombings that killed so many Germans and Japanese during World War II could not be considered genocidal in so far as they were meant to defeat these countries by destroying their capacity to fight wars. We can debate whether or not the bombing of Dresden by Anglo-American forces in 1945 was against a non-military target, in which case it could be labeled a case of mass murder of civilians, or whether it was because Dresden was a legitimate transportation hub contributing to the German war effort, in which case the civilians deaths were, in a sense, incidental. (Pape, 1995 takes the conventional, former view, while Taylor, 2004 argues the latter.) The fact is that once they had surrendered, there was no mass slaughter of German or Japanese civilians. This is quite different from the order given by the Japanese high command to rape, torture, and kill hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians in Nanjing at the end of 1937 after that city had surrendered, or, to take an older example, the massacre of civilians in Jerusalem by the First Crusade after the city had fallen (Chang, 1998; Runciman, 1964: 286-287). In those cases, the massacres clearly had a genocidal character. Chinese civilians in Nanjing were targeted because they happened to be Chinese in Nanjing, and Jews and Muslims, including women and children, were slaughtered in Jerusalem because of what they were, not because they were still fighting.

We should therefore limit ourselves to deliberate genocidal massacres in which all those in that category were targets, whether fighters or not. This has happened many times in the past, and continues in several parts of the world. Yet, compared to the number of violent conflicts between states, civil was, wars between tribes, clans, or villages, or those between religiously defined groups, such politically inspired massacres have been much less frequent than the number of conflicts themselves. Most wars do not result in genocidal massacres, even localized ones, and the killing of non-combatants has been fairly limited. At first glance, we might be tempted to say that this is natural. But a quick look at the causes of genocidal slaughters would suggest that in fact genocidal massacres as we have defined them ought to be more common.

The Causes of Genocidal Massacres

The causes of genocidal killings can be put into four categories, though often more than one is present at the same time (Chirot and McCauley, 2006: 11-50).

There is, first of all, targeting a population for elimination, or what we now call ethnic cleansing for purely instrumental purposes, as a matter of convenience. White Americans did this to a number of native tribes, most notoriously to the Cherokees, but in other cases too. So did white Australians to aborigines. The reasons were quite simply that hungry settlers considered the indigenous populations pests who impeded the use of the land and resource. Even if, as in the case of the Cherokees, they did not fight back, they were still in the way. Ethnic cleansing that began in the case of Cherokees as expulsion from their lands resulted in such large numbers of deaths that the term genocide could properly be used. This kind of mass expulsion and killing is old. Caesar did it to some of the Gallic and Germanic tribes that resisted him in Gaul, Russians did the same to Circassians in the nineteenth century, and William the Conqueror did it in Yorkshire in the late eleventh century because that was the one area of England that would not submit to his rule (McCoughlin, 1986; Tocqueville, 1954, I: 352; Kiernan, 2007: 249-309; Caesar and Hirtius, 1980: 189; Shenfield, 1999; Kapelle 1979: 118-90).

In such cases, the perpetrators used their overwhelming military superiority to get rid of unwanted or resisting categories of people; however, the large majority of conquests by agrarian kingdoms and empires did not result in mass genocides or ethnic cleansings for the obvious reason that the aim usually was to use the conquered populations by taxing them or otherwise using their labor. Only if the conquered people were considered useless or too recalcitrant were they slated for such treatment. If the vanquished were not hopelessly outclassed, it was more efficient to come to some agreement and turn them into tribute paying populations rather than provoking resistance to the death. This was the general policy of almost all agrarian empires.

The second main reason for large-scale massacres was the desire for revenge. This is less subject to purely rational cost-benefit analysis. We find in many of the most notorious cases in history that the passions of war provoked bitter resentment against enemies who fought too hard or who were presumed to be guilty of having done wrong. When the Germans decreed the mass expulsion and extermination of Herero people in Southwest Africa in 1904-05, this was not merely to get their colony back under control, as the policy continued after that goal had been accomplished; nor was it to clear the land and expel all natives. The motive was revenge. The Germans had been humiliated and frustrated by some early losses to the rebels, particularly because they had held Africans in contempt (Dedering, 1999). Similarly, the Japanese massacre of hundreds of thousands of Chinese in Nanjing in 1937 was in revenge for their having put up a strenuous resistance earlier in Shanghai, combined with contempt for the Chinese (Chang, 1998). Genocidal revenge has a long history. Though there were strategic reasons for Genghis Khan’s massacres in some cities his troops had seized, to convince others to surrender quickly, one of his most notorious mass killings of hundreds of thousands in Herat was provoked by the Mongol Emperor’s sense that this city had double crossed him. At first, the city had surrendered, and then gone back on its word (Morgan, 1986: 74-76; Prawdin, 1961: 192). The desire for revenge is characterized by a strong sense of anger directed against those who are assumed to have behaved unjustly. Psychological explanations stress that a sense of injustice and also frustration against a group judged to have harmed the eventual victors are powerful incentives to exact revenge against entire communities. Given the costs of violent conflict to those who engage in it and their very common belief to assume they are doing the right thing, massacres of the vanquished should be very common (Chirot and McCauley, 2006: 66-74). On top of this, getting revenge, as Genghis Khan and the Romans well knew, would serve as object lesson to others who might think of resisting or betraying prior agreements (Mattern, 1999). The wonder is that it has not occurred far more often.

A third cause of genocidal massacres is fear. If the enemy is presumed to be so dangerous that it threatens “us” with extinction, then it might be a wise policy to exterminate all of them first should the occasion arise. Some of the major genocides in history have resulted from such a sense of impeding doom for ruling elites. When the Ottoman leadership decreed the massive ethnic cleansing and murder of hundreds of thousands of Armenians, it was because they were engaged in World War I and threatened to completely destroy the Empire and its Turkish Muslim population. To say this is not to justify what happened, but to point to the realistic danger posed by an Armenian nationalist movement allied to Russia, and the context of the World War that did, in fact, ultimately dismantle the Empire. Even the earlier persecution and killings of Armenians in the 1890s under the rule of Abdul Hamid II was prompted by the fear that rising Armenian nationalism, in alliance with European Christian sympathizers, would continue the dismantling of the Empire that had been going on throughout the nineteenth century (Akçam, 2006). This was the reasoning, also, behind the Hutu government’s decision to launch the genocide of 1994 against Tutsis and Hutus who wanted an accommodation with the invading Tutsi army of Paul Kagame (Prunier, 1997: 192-212; Kuperman, 2004). It also explains the dreadful events in Sudan’s civil wars in both its southern portions and in Darfur (Prunier, 2005). Again, this is not to justify what happened, but to say that such decisions were far from purely irrational. Similarly, Saddam Hussein’s massacres of Kurds, and later of Shia Arabs were a direct reaction to perceived threats to his hold on a united Iraq (Power, 2003: 173-245). Many of the historical ethnic cleansings and massacres of hostile populations in the past were based on similar fears.

Nevertheless, despite the reasonable expectation that defeated enemies might strike back and threaten the very existence of the victors, the combination of circumstances leading to such slaughters is relatively unusual. The collapse of empires, kingdoms, and other political units have occurred thousands of times, and have usually been associated with wars and killings, but most of these have not involved attempts to murder all of the nations, tribes, religious groups, clans, or even towns and villages involved in these wars. Combining fear and the desire for revenge provoked by the death and destruction that normally accompanies violent conflicts, we should expect mass slaughter of vanquished communities to be very common. What usually limits such killing? The reasons for this need to be examined more closely because they lie at the heart of the traditional methods used to mitigate the effects of such conflicts.

The final reason for genocidal killing is the most difficult to understand. Sometimes the very existence on earth of an enemy community is considered so polluting, so offensive, and so unnatural that harmony cannot be reestablished until every last one of this group has been eliminated (Semelin, 2007: 33-51). This goes beyond the fear of retaliation, or any direct perceived threat, or a mere wish for revenge. For Hitler, Jews were so racially polluting that the mere survival of a few threatened to racially pollute the world (Hitler, 1971: 296, 325; Kershaw and Lewin, 1997: 7). Such sentiments could be provoked by the horror of religious heresy. This is why both the Albigensian Crusade, and even more, the civil wars in Europe between Protestants and Catholics provoked massacres, tortures, and a degree of violence against non-combatants rarely seen in European history until World War II (Greengrass, 1999; Crouzet. 1990; Davis, 1975). This should not surprise us, as the Bible itself is full of calls to genocide, and this is associated with God’s demands to purify the land of Israel by ridding it of those who do not follow the one true faith (Lane-Fox, 1992: 66-67, 181-182; Douglas, 1984: 42-43, 54-58,107). Cromwell’s troops slaughtering Irish Catholics in the mid-seventeenth century held up Joshua’s massacres of the Canaanites, as ordered by the Lord, as a divine justification for what they were doing (Lane-Fox, 1992: 232). We can find examples of this in many religious wars, including contemporary ones, such as those waged by extremists Muslim jihadists, but also in modern ideological ones. It was not only Nazis who wanted to purify the earth, but some communist regimes, most obviously the Khmer Rouge. Stalin’s murderous campaign against kulaks which wound up killing some eight million was provoked in part by his own sense that the entire social classes had to be eliminated if socialism was to survive (Kiernan, 1996; Courtois et al., 1999: 146-168).

In such cases, the only way to contain slaughter is for perpetrators to abandon their ideologies or to be defeated. Fortunately, such extreme purification and the accompanying fanaticism are relatively rare phenomena, but when they occur, they can only be contained with difficulty, if at all.

Given all this, we need to go more deeply into the ways in which societies at all levels of political development, ranging from small village and clan based ones to complex states, developed ways of containing violence within somewhat limited bounds. This will give us some insight into techniques that could still be useful in preventing genocidal massacres.

Traditional Ways of Mitigating Violence

Though Michael Mann (2005) has made the claim that genocides are essentially modern and the product of democracies that define the nation as “us” to the exclusion of those minorities that do not fit, there is very good evidence that genocidal massacres have a very long history, and that, in fact, even in pre-state societies there were periodic massacres of whole villages or tribes (Heider, 1970: 104-123). That the Bible speaks often of religiously sanctioned genocides does not prove that the events described in it actually took place, but they certainly testify that such slaughters were viewed as something that could happen and be legitimate. When Zygmunt Bauman wrote that compared to twentieth century mass killers, people such as Genghis Khan were mere “dilettantes”, he not only grossly underplayed the effects of Mongol massacres, but twisted history to emphasize his anti-modernist perspective (Bauman, 1989: 90). To be sure, nothing on the vast scale of the Shoah or Stalin’s murderous series of purges would have been possible without modern communications, but that does not mean that human beings were so different in the past. But then, why have there not been even more of these tragedies? There have been endless wars within and between societies, but we know that most did not end with the extermination of large portions of the vanquished population.

An important reason is that all societies have been well aware of the damage they can inflict on each other, and over time developed ways of mitigating conflicts so that even when violence broke out, it produced less than total killing. Some of these strategies have been deliberate, while others developed more or less spontaneously. They can be broken down into three main categories: (1) fostering exchanges between potentially rival communities, clans, tribes, or nations; (2) ritualization of conflict; and (3) moral restrictions on killing. Each of these, however, covers several different approaches.

Meyer Fortes cites a proverb of the Tallensi, a people who now live in northern Ghana and who were one of the many pre-state societies in that part of pre-colonial West Africa: “We marry those whom we fight.” The Tallensi lived in small villages that were frequently in conflict with neighbors over land and other resources. They sent daughters to marry men in other villages, thus creating linkages that limited violence. Fortes points out that this was extremely common in pre-state societies. Presumably, no matter what conflict arose, having relations by marriage through the practice of exogamy with one’s potential enemies created bonds that mitigated violence (Fortes, 1969: 234-235). This was also one of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s explanations for the widespread rules of exogamy prescribed by Australian aboriginal people (Lévi-Strauss, 1969: 478-497). Given their need to forage over long distances, they needed alliances with neighboring groups to limit the kinds of wars over scarce resources that inevitably broke out. Without such bonds, conflicts were far more likely to turn into extermination campaigns. Edward Evans-Pritchard offered a compatible explanation in his study of Nuer exogamy rules that went very far beyond normal rules against incestuous marriages (Evans-Pritchard, 1940: 225-228). Other examples, from the Amazon to highland New Guinea provide more evidence that such practices were extremely wide spread among pre-state societies (Gregor, 1990: 113; Heider, 1970: 62-133).

Those tribes, villages, or clans in closest contact with each other were most likely to compete for resources, and therefore the most likely to engage in violent conflict. To limit damages, many developed marriage exchanges that could at least normally limit the damage and reduce the chances that the victors in any conflict would simply decide to exterminate their enemies to be rid of them once and for all. Mass killings did happen, but not usually.

Exogamy mitigated conflicts in state societies as well. The mass murderer Tamerlane, who so despised urban Persians and Christians that he did not hesitate to massacre whole cities, was much more careful in his endless wars with other Turko-Mongol tribes. There, vanquished enemies were offered much better terms, including the opportunity to have their leaders marry Tamerlane’s kin. These other nomadic tribes were within that part of humanity that Tamerlane understood and respected, even if they were enemies, and the point of war was to make them part of his empire and potential allies, not to exterminate or terrorize them (Manz, 1989: 128-131). European monarchies gradually intermarried to such a degree that most of the royal houses were related to each other. This hardly stopped wars, but it did mitigate conflicts as today’s enemies could well become tomorrow’s allies (Lamaison, 1994). If, in fact, democratization did contribute to making genocide more likely, as Mann asserts, it was the breakdown of the authority of these royal houses and of aristocratic codes of honor in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that destroyed the mitigating effects of such arrangements.

The importance of exogamy in reducing conflict and making genocidal massacres less likely is attested by the opposite, widespread existence of rules of endogamy. When marriage to outsiders is strictly prohibited, this creates boundaries that exclude those others in ways that often make them seem less than fully human. Therefore they can be killed with moral impunity, and if they are part of a group that is supposed to remain subservient, any resistance, or perceived insubordination is much more likely to trigger a genocidal impulse. Thus, rules against inter-racial marriage in the American South, though they did not lead to genocide, did legitimize lynching and occasional local massacres, as in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, and the continuing subordination of African-Americans long after the end of slavery (Madigan, 2001). In Haiti, growing racial barriers erected by the white French planters in the latter part of the eighteenth century, combined with the exceptionally harsh treatment of slaves, led to a slave revolt that turned into a series of truly genocidal massacres and counter-massacres (Dubois, 2004). Looking once more at the Bible confirms this, as both the book of Joshua and Deuteronomy make exogamy, marrying non-Jews, an extreme sin, and the reason for the Lord’s turning his back on the Israelites who often violated this law. It was precisely in order to avoid the pollution of exogamy that involves the mixing of blood as well as the importation of foreign idols that genocide was prescribed (Finkelstein and Silberman, 2001: 296-313). Indeed, the ultimate and tragic irony is that Hitler’s laws against racially polluting marriages resonate bizarrely with these ancient Biblical injunctions.

Exogamy was only one of several other kinds of exchange that could mitigate the severity of violent conflict, but before looking at others, we should turn to ways in which rules of conflict were developed with similar, palliative results.

Warrior societies have always tended to develop codes of conduct that prohibit the unrestrained killing of non-combatants. Turko-Mongol tribes had such rules that pertained to other, similar tribes, even if they did not apply to more foreign populations (Manz, 1989: 151). In medieval Europe there were codes of honor among knights meant to limit the destruction wrought by what was essentially a noble class of professional killers (Duby, 1977: 86-87, 129-131). Though these codes broke down during wars of religion as well as during the great crisis of the fourteenth and fifteenth century, in more stable and less ideological times, they did limit killing and prevented the kinds of massacres that could occur when the regulations were abandoned (Fossier,1986: 175-176, 445-448). Indeed, the most extreme form of such codes ritualized warfare by making the duel the ideal form of combat. Unfortunately, such stylized fighting could not be sustained when large numbers of men were involved and the stakes became too high (Keegan, 1978: 322-323).

There was an interesting illustration of this when French prisoner knights taken at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 were ordered slaughtered by Henry V of England. He had to bring archers, who were commoners, to do the deed, because his own knights considered this dishonorable. Killing enemies in fair combat was one thing, but going beyond this, when they were helpless, even if they were fighting men, was quite another. As it happens, once it became evident that the French would be unable to regroup, and so their cause was lost, the slaughter was stopped (Keegan, 1978: 108-112).

For much of European history, codes of conduct did limit damage done to non-combatants, and included also prisoners of war who had surrendered. These codes persisted through most of World War I, so that when Germans executed some 800 civilians in Louvain, Belgium, in retaliation for what they thought was shooting at their army, there was an international outcry and for most of the rest of the war, codes of honor were more or less maintained despite the dreadful military slaughter (Murray, 1995: 268, 284). It is important to contrast this with colonial wars in which Germans, Belgians, and to some extent French and British forces as well as settlers from European countries behaved without regard for such codes in their frequently genocidal warfare against indigenous people. Just as Tamerlane considered Persians and Christians to be outside the pale in which codes of honorable conduct had to be followed, so Europeans often considered “natives” to be mere subhuman barbarians unworthy of such consideration.

After World War I, when the old codes of European combat fell by the wayside, World War II turned into nothing short of a whole series of dreadful massacres committed against civilians, particularly by the Germans in the East where Jews, many categories of Slavs, Gypsies, and Soviet prisoners of war were massacred. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Japanese in World War II also abandoned the traditional codes of Samurai warfare that had limited the killing of peasants, women, children, and others not involved in warfare. Even more recently, traditional codes of conduct in the Quran that exhort fighters to kill only enemy warriors, and to limit destruction have been abandoned by extreme jihadists who seek to wage the kind of ruthless religious warfare that demands the elimination of all heretics.

A footnote explaining Surah 2: 190 in a recent official version of the Quran published by Saudi Arabia’s Wahabbi authorities specifies: “War is permissible in self-defense, and under well-defined limits. When undertaken, it must be pushed with vigor, but not relentlessly, but only to restore peace and freedom for the worship of Allah. In any case, strict limits must not be transgressed: women, children, old and infirm men should not be molested, nor trees and crops cut down, nor peace withheld when the enemy comes to terms” (Quran, 1411: H, 79). This is the very opposite of a command to commit genocide or any kind of mass slaughter, even as it recognizes the legitimacy of certain kinds of war. There are similar exhortations in Christian rules about just wars, in Samurai codes of contact developed in Japan, and in many other traditions (Johnson, 1999: 121-125).

Codes of conduct in modern times have been taken much farther. Though they often have been violated, the various Geneva conventions, starting in 1863, have sought to limit the damages of warfare, and they have, to some extent. More recent additions cover the protection of civilians and the treatment of prisoners (Johnson, 1999: 96-101). It is clear that if such rules were more solidly accepted, even without an international enforcement system, warfare would be more contained.

On the other hand, the fact that even a supporter of such codes as the United States has violated such conventions in the early twenty-first century suggests the world is in a period of inherent instability that augurs very badly for the near future. Codes of conduct that attempt to put moral boundaries on the killings that are a legitimate part of warfare are a critical part of the way in which massacres can be prevented. Such codes have worked to some extent in the past, and in more recent historical periods, but when they fail, or are not applied, the consequences can be catastrophic.

Enlightenment philosophers seeking ways to tame the passions that led to the bloody wars of religion that had plagued their societies concluded that if men would pursue their material interests rather than honor, glory, or faith, they would be more peaceful (Hirschman, 1977). This led to the supposition that mercantile interests were a better way than “honor” to tame the passions that led to such dangers. If true, this would suggest that more mercantile societies, and especially more capitalist ones, should engage in massacres less often than others. Is this true?

Classical mercantile states from Carthage to Venice were engaged in very frequent warfare, and so have the great modern capitalist ones, from the Netherlands in the seventeenth century to Great Britain, and more recently, the United States. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for the argument that material interests act as a limiting factor. Just as agrarian empires in the past conquered territory to tax and exploit their neighbors’ peasants, so do trading ones seek profitable commerce. They wage war to protect their profits, not to purify the world, and if a defeated enemy can yield some commercial advantage, then slaughtering helpless civilians is counterproductive once a war has been won. This is why the Papacy and Spain were always suspicious of Venice when they fought against the Muslim Ottoman Empire. The Church and Spain, especially in the time of Philip II, sought to push back Islam and establish Christian supremacy in the Mediterranean, whereas Venice was always ready to bargain with the unbelievers for trading advantages (Braudel, 1973: 906, 1078-87; Guilmartin, 1989: 171).

Similarly, the Dutch and English could fight bloody naval battles in the late seventeenth century, and then make up because their conflicts were commercial. Earlier the Dutch fighting for their independence against the Spaniards had nevertheless continued to trade with them. Not surprisingly, the Dutch who were ruled by their commercial elites conducted their internal wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants far less brutally than France or most of the rest of Europe (de Vries and van der Woude, 1997: 370; van Nierop, 1995: 38-44; Jones, 1996: 25-37, 221-223).

British behavior in its empires was neither peaceful nor kindly, but as long as commercial interests prevailed, genocidal massacres for revenge or ideology were not part of the agenda. The genocidal killing of natives in North America and Australia was a consequence of the belief that these “backward natives” were not only a nuisance, but were not even worth trading with. The French in North America, whose settlers were more interested in trading furs than in taking over vast portions of the land, got along much better with the natives, though English companies that were engaged in the fur trade also relied heavily on alliances with certain tribes. The expansion of fur trading in North America provoked whole new sets of competitive wars between various tribes, and ultimately led to the destruction of traditional ways of life, but as long as there was profit to be made, genocide was not part of the Europeans’ agenda (Wolf, 1982: 158-176).

One of the more curious ways of mitigating conflict was the potlatch, or competitive giving of goods practiced by the Kwakiutl and related people along the Pacific Coast of the Northwestern United States and Canada. These were intensely conflictual rituals that frequently stopped just short of war. They were not, however, ancient rituals as these people before the mid-nineteenth century had been very warlike, took slaves and massacred large numbers of their enemies, including enslaved women. One of the reasons for the transformation of warfare into potlatches was that the British and Americans who took over this region insisted on establishing peace and forced the indigenous people to change their ways, presumably because they were far more interested in trading furs than in exterminating the natives (Ferguson, 1984: 307). The potlatch stands out as one of the more ingenious ways of turning brutal warfare into something of a ritual.

The point is that exchanges of all kinds, of spouses, of goods, or of rituals between different communities as well as between states, mitigates conflict as long as deeply held ideological principles or passionate demands for revenge do not come into play, and as long as there is little fear that a vanquished enemy might come back and try to exterminate the prior winners. Therefore, in most stable conflictual situations that last long enough for rules of the game to be established, and for the enemy parties to see that they have some mutual advantage in limiting the extent of killing, mass murder is unlikely.

Conclusion: Establishing the Right Moral Atmosphere

If we look at the contemporary world, we can see that the old techniques, conventions and exchanges developed by past societies may still have a protective effect. Close trading relations between nations decrease the likelihood of genocidal war, whereas isolation increases it. The same is true of relations between different ethnic and religious communities within states. The more exchanges, whether of marriage partners, or economic relations, or even of regular communications, the less likely it is that conflicts will degenerate into mass murder. As Ken Jowitt has put it, closed, or in his terms, “barricaded” entities “whose primary imperative is absolute separation from what are seen as contaminating others,” are most likely to engage in very violent conflicts with those others. “Social, religious, ideological, cultural and political connections among members who share a barricaded identity are dogmatically and hysterically defined and defended, as are disconnections from nonmembers….Violence between barricaded entities tends to be recurrent. The threshold for violence is very low” (Jowitt, 2001: 28-29).

When Ashutosh Varshney looked into why certain cities in India had episodes of mass killing between Muslims and Hindus, he found that those communities with strong community organizations in which the leaders of those groups were in frequent contact with each other were far less likely to experience violence (Varshney, 2002).

After the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union opened closer communications, and eventually regularized greater commercial and human exchanges. This decreased the likelihood of what would have been the ultimate genocidal war reduced as rules evolved regulating the conflict, and these were maintained until the end of the Cold War despite the continuing hostility between the two powers and the peripheral wars they fought against each other’s clients (Hilsman, 1996). One of the more peculiar aspects of American-Soviet relationship was also in some ways reminiscent of potaltching, the deliberate, competitive destruction of resources. The space race to the Moon in the 1960s could be interpreted in exactly those terms, a ritualized, expensive, and very serious but non-lethal way of conducting conflict.

Ultimately, however, neither exchanges nor ritualization of conflict are enough to prevent massacres when deeply ideological civil wars break out, or when international and domestic conflicts turn into wars of perceived survival. At that point, moral restrictions on mass killing become crucial. When these broke down completely during World War II, all sides engaged in slaughter that went well beyond what was necessary to pursue purely military objectives. The Germans and Japanese were far worse offenders than the British or Americans, or even the Soviet Union, but the British and Americans were not exempt from vengeful behavior that went beyond the supposed rules of war. For example, substantial numbers of Japanese prisoners of war were killed after surrendering (Dower, 1986: 71-73), and the mass bombings of both Japan and Germany remain controversial because they killed so many civilians, perhaps quite needlessly. Surveys of American soldiers in 1944 indicated that among those fighting in the Pacific, 43 percent thought it appropriate to “wipe out the whole Japanese nation” when the war was won. Among American soldiers fighting in Europe, an astonishing 61 percent believed that “wiping out” all of Japan was a good idea, and among American soldiers still in training in the United States, the proportion advocating the elimination of the entire Japanese nation was 67 percent (Stouffer et al, 1949: 158). Could it be that the most removed of the soldiers from any contact at all with the Japanese were the most vengeful? In any case, it is quite clear that if the American government had decreed the mass slaughter of Japanese civilians after the war, there were more than enough supporters of this notion in the armed forces to carry out such massacres.

Still, at the end of that war, the victors did not engage in mass murder, whereas the Japanese and Germans did just that in places that they controlled. Was this entirely because it was inconvenient and impractical to kill large numbers of the former enemy population, or was there something in the Enlightenment, liberal ideology of the Anglo-American powers that was itself a restraining factor?

The worst monstrosities of the twentieth century were committed by states whose ruling ideologies explicitly rejected liberal Enlightenment philosophies. Nazism and Communism both saw human history as one of endless warfare to the death between, in one case, races, and in the other economic classes. Both rejected any notion of sparing enemies who were considered so devious, polluting, and dangerous as to be fit only for elimination. Whereas the Enlightenment, at least the version espoused by Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Kant recognized that no ideology can ever claim to be perfect, that no government should be allowed to be too powerful, and that dogmatic certitude could only lead to intellectual and political tyranny. The great ideological killers of the twentieth century had no such doubts. In many other cases, where grand ideology played less of a role, governments responsible for initiating massacres were wedded to nationalistic, xenophobic ideals and contemptuous of liberal, tolerant values (Semelin, 2007; Weitz, 2003; Valentino, 2004; Chirot, 1996).

As long as international relations and the world economic system are led by the United States and its West European allies, respect for human rights is accepted, at least in principle if not in fact, by most states. International tribunals that prosecute violations of these principles have been very limited and generally ineffective, but at least their existence shows that the world still condemns the most extreme forms of genocidal murder (Johnson, 199: 198-207).

How to spread and consolidate these values is therefore an important question, though one that would take us far beyond the confines of this article. Teaching history that is truthful but does not foster a desire for revenge or belittle former enemies as less than human is one step. Creating an intellectual atmosphere that eschews blind certitude is another. Accepting the importance of individual rights that are both distinct from and in many ways superior to those of group rights is also important because it reduces the tendency to essentialize all groups by claiming that “they” – whoever they may be—are all alike and therefore to be treated as a single entity. If Jews, Tutsis, Germans, Armenians, Blacks, Turks, or any other identifiable group are all composed of different individuals with their own ideas and ways of behaving, then it is much more difficult to kill all of them in case of conflict.

In the end, recognizing that “they” are like “us” and not subhuman, intrinsically evil, or all dangerous is the only way to guarantee that codes limiting warfare’s damages are respected. This is, if anything, even more necessary in civil wars that today kill more civilians than international ones.

If the United States abandons its own Enlightenment principles, something that is conceivable, then where will the world be? It is far from certain that rising powers in the world such as China seriously believe in those ideals, though Daniel A. Bell has argued that contemporary discussions about human rights in China and elsewhere in East Asia are much closer to John Locke’s version than has been generally recognized (Bell, 2006: 62-72).

Whatever the answers to these pressing questions, we have ample evidence from the past that ideological extremism, the demand to purify the world of all of some category or people, overrides the normal, traditional restraints on unlimited violence. Therefore, adapting old techniques of conflict mitigation, and expanding them to fit the modern world remains an important task. At the same time, being on constant guard against religious, ethnic, or nationalistic absolutism and extremism is even more important. This was true in the past, and remains true today.


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Chirot Daniel, Traditional Methods of Avoiding Genocidal Slaughter, Violence de masse et Résistance - Réseau de recherche, [en ligne], publié le : 30 Mars, 2008, accéder le 27/04/2020,, ISSN 1961-9898
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