Trying to understand genocide(s)

I know that it is unfair to use someone’s name against him, but who ever heard of “Doubt” as a family name? If I had it, would I press categorical claims insistently, as Keith Doubt does in his very disappointing Understanding Evil: Lessons from Bosnia?


(Parliament building in Sarajevo burning in 1992)

To understand evil is a tall order. Many have tried to understand the genocides of the Third Reich without much success. Hannah Eichman famously found the Nazi genocide-professional Adolf Eichmann astoundingly banal. The disjunction between how the Croatians and Serbians on trial for war crimes in the Hague seemed and the atrocities they had encouraged is central to Slavenka Drakulic’s book They Would Never Hurt a Fly. With Ottoman genocide against Armenians, Japanese slaughter of Chinese civilians, US fire-bombing of German and Japanese civilians, and Serbian shellings of Sarajevo and Dubrovnik in mind, I resonated with the following from Richard Ford’s story “Leaving for Kenosha” in the New Yorker: “Because he was a lawyer, Walter knew you didn’t expect to know why most things happened. You made the reasons up [post hoc]. It was difficult enough just to admit that things did happen.”

The Japanese, Serbs, Turks, and (US) Americans have been unwilling to acknowledge what happened (crimes against humanity). The US government officially apologized and indemnified Japanese Americans who were rounded up on the Pacific coast and shipped to inland concentration camps, but has not acknowledged that fire bombing of cities (including intensive strikes against Tokyo after knowing that Japan was going to surrender) was wrong or that following centuries of genocide against Native Americans, ethnocide continued in the twentieth century, after all had been driven off their traditional lands (many guaranteed by the US government in treaties) to concentration camps (reservations). The reluctance to admit to systematic slaughter of Armenians in the early 20th century by the post-Ottoman Turkish government and Japanese denial of “the rape of Nanjing” (or of the PRC to take responsibility for the millions of Chinese who starved because of lunatic policies of Mao) are well known.

Professor Doubt goes back to Socrates, who as rendered by Plato said that no one knowingly does evil. Action that is recognized as “evil” is unthinkable: “Doing wrong, according to Socrates, is a matter of ignorance — a matter of not knowing what is right and nothing more” is the simplistic position that Doubt has Plato’s Socrates maintain. “Once evil becomes action, once it aims toward some good, it is no longer evil.” Nationalism — “protecting” and promoting one’s own nation/people (greater Serbia or Croatia in the instance of Bosnia) is often the good, and although wanting to supplant the “Socrates position,” Doubt eventually comes back to it.

Along the way — in chapters that were previously published separately and which contain a great deal of repetition that should have been removed in cobbling together a book — Doubt pushes the concept of “sociocide,” i.e., attempts to destroy the society, not only to slaughter whatever “other” is being eliminated from the land. There certainly is something to the recognition that a part (that may be analytically distinct) of genocide is an attempt to obliterate the society of the gens. The “total war” pioneered by General Temseh William Sherman during the US Civil War (which did not involve slaughtering of civilians) aimed to obliterate not only the infrastructure of the Georgia and South Carolina economies, but of the society (based on slave labor). As Secretary of War, Sherman applied this destruction of the bases of society to the unpacified Indians (Wounded Knee was condoned but slaughtering civilians was not official policy). The genocide in Armenia aimed to destroy culture and society as well as remove Armenians.

In Bosnia mosques and Muslims were particularly targeted (by Croats as well as by Serbs), but along with eliminating Muslims, a clear aim of the Serbs in particular was destruction of the society in which Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and Roman Catholics co-existed and intermarried. The Bosnian Muslims (often enough called “Turks” to link Muslim Slavs to the former multiethnic empire whose capital was Istanbul) were systematically raped and murdered and extirpating “Turkish” Muslim culture/religion was pressed as a worthy endeavor. To a lesser extent, terrorizing Bosnian Serbs who did not turn on their neighbors was also part of the project of “greater Serbia” (and, on a much smaller scale, Croatians militias punished Bosnian Croats who “collaborated” with Serbs and Muslims.

Doubt does far too little to specify the “evil” that he aims to explain. Not only are his explanations weak, but he provides little specific information about the evils to be explained. Drakulic did this better along with examining individual perpetrators and sponsors of crimes against humanity. To try to understand motivation(s) requires examination of specific whos who did specific whats. Doubt’s passive verb constructions undermine this, exacerbated the lack of historical particulars about the evils. I would like to know far more about the motives of destroying Bosnian society/ies on the part of those killing Bosnians (by bombardment or up close and personal). Doubt neither documents “sociocide” nor has much of anything in the way of evidence about motivation of those committing it.

(The Nazi project of exterminating Jews — though not the Nazi projects of exterminating other social “enemies” — much material cultural (artifacts) was preserved with plans for museums displaying Jewish culture/society. I have not read of anything at all similar in the assaults on Bosnian society and particular Bosnian ethnic groups.)

And, ultimately, far from providing an alternative to “Socrates’s position,” Doubt extends it to very dubious claims that humans are not consciously “aggressive” unless there is no alternative to protect themselves. I don’t buy this at all. Many individuals revel in aggressiveness. For that matter, I think that some revel in being/appearing evil.

I found the meandering argument of the book unconvincing; many of the categorical assertions dubious; the evidence about motivation thin to nonexistent; the writing repetitious, vague, and agentless. There probably is something to the notion of “sociocide” (though I don’t see a distinction between “sociocide” and “urbicide” for attempting to destroy the cosmopolitan ethos of Sarajevo and the mutual acceptance of ethnic groups)… and campaigns of terror in Bosnia probably exemplify it, but Understanding Evil fails to enhance understanding of why some seemingly ordinary folks kill and terrorize pariahs/scapegoats/whatever one wants to call those treated as subhuman enemies of whatever kind is doing the killing and terrorizing.


©2008, 2017, Stephen O, Murray

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