Political mass killing



Human beings are unique in the animal kingdom in the extent to which they kill their own kind. The ubiquity of killing raises the question of whether it is built in to our individual make-up: thus some scientists search for biological or psychological roots of killing (see box 1 below). Certainly killers' minds and bodies are often fully implicated, at all levels, in their activities. 

It is the argument of this book that we will never find the key to understanding killing in such investigations. Killing is always and necessarily an extreme form of social relation. When one person kills another, it is on the one hand an outcome of their social relations, and on the other hand their negation: one person destroys the life, the meaning and the story of the other. This is what the killing of humans by others means.

People kill each other within many different kinds of social relations. You may notice that I write relations, not relationships. Shockingly many relations, in which people kill each other, do not have the consistency to be dignified as 'relationships'. A relationship involves some mutual, although not necessarily equal, understanding. The robber who shoots or the rapist who strangles often does not have a relationship with his victim. The social relation that he forces on his victim is one of transient exploitation, gratification or humiliation. Much human killing is of this kind, casual and instrumental.

Other killing is the outcome of more developed social relationships. Notoriously, a small number of people regularly kill their wives, husbands and sexual partners - even their parents and children. Clearly such killing is the outcome of power tensions within these relationships. However it cannot be understood only in terms of the relationship between killer and killed. Wider social relations in which they are involved also contribute to the killing. A person may kill her spouse because he is having an affair with a third party, for insurance money because she is in debt to a bank, or even because her religious beliefs lead her to think of the victim as evil.

The contrast between opportunist killing and killing arising from relationship tells us something about how we can understand killing in general. Each killing comes out of larger sets of social relations that lead towards the result. These relations may include meaningful relationships between killer and killed, in which case we will want to trace the patterns, immediate and also remote, that lead to the final outcome. But even more in the absence of such relationships, we will want to trace the complex relationships of power which produce the need, greed, obsession or anger that leads one person to destroy another, in this case unknown, individual life.

1 Natural versus social explanations of war

War is a near-universal feature of human societies.  So it is not surprising that many think of it as something that people are programmed to do. In the twentieth century, arguments for the naturalness of war centred on the idea that war was the expression of a universal 'instinct' for aggression. [#Storr?] There was even a feminist variant, that war was an expression of the aggressive instinct in men. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it will not be surprising - given a widespread predeliction for genetic explanations - if someone claims to find the 'gene for war'.

However such naturalistic explanations of mass killing inevitably confuse the relations between the natural and the social. They raise three insurmountable problems:

  • Anger and aggression (like love and cooperation) may indeed be considered universal human traits. But they arise through people's relations with each other, and cannot be separated from the social character of human life. We cannot explain aggressive behaviour except by examining the social circumstances in which people become aggressive.
  • Aggression may be universal, but we don't express it all the time, and certainly not usually through violence or killing. In our one-to-one social relations, anger and aggression are usually restrained by the norms that we live by. We express them mainly in socially designated ways. The ways in which we are aggressive are not universal, but are specific to our culture and social conditions.
  • War and genocide are socially defined forms of mass killing. They are not in any simple sense outcomes of aggression. They are complex collective activities, undertaken by political authorities and other organized groups. They result more from political calculation rather than from instinct or emotion. This is not to deny that emotions enter into political leaders' decisions, nor that organizing killing involves fostering powerful emotions among armies and populations. However leaders keep a powerful grip on their own and their followers' feelings, channel them in particular ways, and have to overcome deep instinctual revulsion at slaughter.

Arguments from the 'natural' character of warlike instincts are deeply conservative. They diminish the areas of peace in human society, urging us to repeat behaviour that has brought catastrophic suffering to previous generations. These ideas can have very unfortunate political consequences. For example, feminists who believed that all men were naturally aggressive divided the 1980s peace movements, by refusing to cooperate with men who opposed nuclear weapons. 

Powerful emotions are involved in political conflicts and the ways that they are used to mobilize violence. But there is no reason to believe that human beings as such have to kill each other en masse in the pursuit of these rivalries. We can look for other ways of expressing and overcoming them.

Mass killing and legitimacy

Killing is always the ultimate violation of an individual human being by another. Mass killing is only the destruction of many individual lives, either more or less simultaneously, or in circumstances that lead the killer, the killed or observers to see the killings as part of the same process.

Individual human beings carry out mass killing, whether or not these individuals are part of a group or organization. Thus mass killing can be the work of a lone mass murderer. Or it may be the work of linked individuals, a group or an organization. When an individual kills repeatedly we call him a serial killer. The most prolific such killers may have more victims than many collective killers - the notorious late 20th century British doctor, Harold Shipman, may have secretly killed as many as 300 people.

Where there is more than one killer, their killing too can be limited to a single incident, or serial in character. What makes it mass killing is simply that a number of people are killed. To be killed along with others often makes a difference to the experience leading to death, as well as to its meaning for people left alive. But the end, the annihilation of life, is the same whether you are alone or among millions. In this sense killing more than one person is not different in quality from killing a single individual. However the process of plural killing may normalize the act of killing for killers. 

There is no intrinsic cut-off point at which plural killing becomes mass - this is simply a label that we use in the modern age. It has something to do with our ambiguous attitudes to plural killing: both a shocking event outside our normal experience and a common experience that we know happens frequently across the world. Plural, even large-scale killing has been common throughout recorded history, long before it was called 'mass'. It is its forms, and the labels we give to it, that change.

The key question about any kind of killing, especially mass killing, is its legitimacy. Although very common in human life, killing is always the subject of intense moral discourse. The simple biblical injunction, 'You shall not kill', is shared within most cultures. It is almost always followed by 'except', but the extent of prohibitions on killings is generally wide. When an individual kills another in pursuit of immoral ends, this is a singular aggravation of his crime. In some societies individual killing in the pursuit of valid ends, for example in revenge for the prior killing of a family member, may be accepted. In most societies, however, the scope of such legitimate individual killing is narrow.

The ways in which killing is defined as justifiable or not enter deeply into how people kill. The strength of the basic taboo, however much it is qualified or transgressed, means that killers are nearly always conscious of a problem of legitimacy. People kill either invoking law or moral right, or in the knowledge that they are violating it. Individual killing, of one person by one other, is never just an isolated act, but is deeply connected to the patterns of social beliefs in which killers are involved.

Even when hunger and disease have made life cheap, deliberate life taking has always been problematic. But modernity has been accompanied by deeper prohibitions. Law rigorously defines who can take life and when. Revenge is often outlawed; punishment and righting of wrongs now belong to states, through formal systems of justice. The circumstances in which individuals can kill have increasingly been limited to (and in) self-defence. Premeditated killing is generally seen as an even more serious offence than killing in a spontaneous rage.

Modern states have taken for themselves the definition of legitimate violence, and have delegitimized much individual killing. Until recently, however, they often retained the right of their own agents to kill. But even this assertion of state power, virtually universal a century ago, has been partially abandoned. Many states have abolished the death penalty and no longer claim no special rights to kill their subjects through judicial process.

These transformations in the scope of legitimate killing throw  into even sharper relief those practices of mass killing, by states and state-like organizations, which continue to be regarded as legitimate. States that generally tolerate neither killing by their citizens, nor continue to practice the judicial killing of individual citizens, nevertheless still practice and legitimate certain kinds of mass killing. Not surprisingly, given our universal and growing sensitivity about ending others' lives, this requires complex justification.

Killing, virtually banned from most one-to-one, interpersonal social relations, can only be made legitimate in mass forms through abstract sets of social relationships. In modern society, these centre on the connections of individuals to states, and depend on key inter-linked sets of ideas. Some of these ideas are about the institutions that claim authority: state, nation, etc. Others are more specific. They are ideas about the particular place of violence in the relations of these authoritative institutions. Above all, they are about war as a set of practices in which it is legitimate not just to kill, but to kill on a large scale, in ways that would otherwise be utterly illegitimate.


War is an act of force by an organized social power to compel an enemy to do its will. It is the conscious organization of large numbers of people to inflict overwhelming force, to destroy the will of the enemy to resist. Such destruction does not necessarily involve mass killing on each and every occasion. But killing is central to war. Just as killing an individual is the ultimate coercion that can be used against him, killing many individuals among a collective enemy is the ultimate means of forcing that enemy to submit. The decisive moment of war is battle, in which slaughter is central. Indeed the German word, Schlacht, used by the classic theorist of war, Karl von Clausewitz (see box 2), to describe this decisive encounter, can be translated both as battle and as slaughter.

To organize a force that can carry out mass killing requires extensive preparation. It takes organization and ideas for warriors to overcome pervasive taboos against killing. It takes discipline to make soldiers aggressive against people they don't know, to inflict force in a way that achieves intended results, and to overcome the powerful instincts of self-preservation and fear. If all human killing requires social relations and beliefs to make it possible, the kind of mass killing involved in war requires peculiarly developed, conscious social organization. War is a highly complex social institution.

War is thus as far as can be imagined from spontaneous outbreaks of violence, even if it sometimes includes them. War is premeditated violence, precisely the kind that is most illegitimate in non-war social relations. War as a social practice is therefore highly institutionalized. States (and state-like organizations) maintain special bodies of armed men, trained and equipped for war, even when no war is in sight. Systems of rewards help maintain armed forces. The production of weaponry and equipment is organized on a huge scale, even if no immediate uses for them can be envisaged. Military doctrines are developed and in the idea-systems of society, special place is usually given to the ultimate necessity and value of war. In this way the possibility of mass killing, on a scale otherwise difficult to imagine, is maintained even during prolonged periods of peace.

2 Clausewitz's theory of war

Karl von Clausewitz (17??-183?) is the classic modern theorist of war. A Prussian army officer who fought in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1793?-1815) he taught at the military academy where he wrote the book posthumously published as On War (183?). 

If social scientists fully recognized the centrality of war in modern society, this work of Clausewitz would figure in canons of social thought alongside those of near-contemporaries such as the philosophers Immanuel Kant and Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, the sociologist Auguste Comte and the revolutionary Karl Marx (1818-83. Key points in Clausewitz's view include: 

  • His famous maxim is that 'war is the continuation of political intercourse [also translated as either policy or politics] by other means'. This is often interpreted as meaning that the course of war is determined by its political objectives. However Clausewitz's real originality is his exploration of the 'otherness' of military means.
  • His emphasis that war is 'an act of force' designed to compel an enemy to submit, and hence has 'no logical limit'. He concludes that escalation is a law of war, and there is a general tendency for war to become absolute. Restricted political objectives can only partially limit escalation, since the unpredictable clash of arms is always likely to surpass preordained political limits. 
  • War was more likely to be contained by friction, created by inhospitable climate and terrain together with the logistical difficulties of deploying armies over long distances.
  • War can be compared as a process to commerce, with battle the moment of realization - the end to which all activity was geared - in war in the same way as exchange in commerce. 
  • War is a trinity of policy (governments), military craft (generals) and raw violence (the people). Thus the involvement of the people (the nation in arms) was partly responsible for modern war's peculiarly destructive character. 

As with all great thinkers, Clausewitz's legacy has been understood in many different ways:

  • For the German and other militaries in the era of world wars, 'absolute war' became a doctrine of the total annihilation of the enemy. This contributed to the development of total war.
  • Since 'the enemy' was coming to include the civilian population, it was not long before this doctrine was applied - first by the Turkish military in the First World War, then by the Nazis - to whole peoples such as Armenians and Jews.
  • For Marx and Engels, Clausewitz's ideas lent themselves to a socio-historical explanation of war and to revolutionary military strategy. War was a continuation of politics, but politics itself was a reflection of economics. War could be understood as the clash of social forces - such as the slave-owning South and capitalist North in the American civil war, or the democratic Poles against the Tsarist empire.

Modern war is sometimes described as Clausewitzian. The main problem with this is that industrial society gave war enormously more powerful means of destruction - not only weaponry, but military and political organization - that Clausewitz did not foresee. Total war combined total social mobilization with absolute destructiveness. From the middle of the nineteenth century, this radically expanded the scope for slaughter beyond Clausewitzian conditions. The logical conclusion of this process was the truly total, simultaneous and mutual destruction threatened by nuclear war. Strategic writers have responded to this change in various ways:

  • Some late-modern strategists like Colin Gray (1998) still regard Clausewitz's approach as viable, indeed foundational, in the world of nuclear weapons.
  • Others, like Michael Howard (1981) have acknowledged that nuclear weapons would abolish friction in warfighting, and have attempted to escape his destructive conclusions by finding more limited roles for force.
  • Mary Kaldor (1982) developed Clausewitz's ideas in a sense more critical of war. She explained the 'baroque' character of much modern weaponry in terms of the infrequency of realization (battle) in today's war. This book relies on a similar use of Clausewitz's ideas.

Thus while all killing is socially prepared, war-preparation is a major social institution. Vast networks of social relationships, which interlock with all the other important social networks, are built around it. Many people live their whole lives within them, often without encountering the sharp end of war. But at the heart of these networks, the process of producing war is taking place. At its simplest, this process consists of three stages: 

The relationship between these stages tends to be complex. It is one thing to mobilize armed forces. It is another to deploy them in war. It is another again to make them fight. In moving from one stage to another, there is always the possibility of what Clausewitz called friction. The physical and social conditions in which war takes place, including the meshing of military with other social institutions, may hinder its practical implementation. The process of war takes varying forms according to the social conditions in which it is developed.

War is a contest of force, and thus (as Clausewitz argues) has no intrinsic limit. Limits are determined, first, by the goals of the contending parties; second, by their capacity to mobilize force to achieve them - here friction may affect things. Thus the extent of mass killing in war depends on the political character of the conflict; the scale of the human forces mobilized and the manner of their deployment; the destructiveness of the means at the disposal of the opposed forces; and their strategies and methods of engagement.

The danger in this kind of abstract thinking about war is, of course, that it leaves out real people's actual experience of war. War is the clash of conscious, intentional activity on the part of two or more organized groups. That clash engages, however, thousands and sometimes millions of individual human beings. Many of them - like this author and most of his readers - are not actually involved at the sharpest end of war. But in the moment of battle many individuals' lives are precariously balanced. The face of battle, as John Keegan (1976) classically called it, is cruel and unpredictable (see box 3).  This remains true although some modern battlespaces are distanced from human interaction, as we shall see in Chapter 5.

3 The face of battle

Battle is the moment of war in which armed combatants face each other in the final test of their collective and individual strengths. Keegan (1976: 297) writes that 'one would like to say that a battle is something which happens between two armies leading to the moral and then physical disintegration of one or the other of them.' But this definition still fails to encompass the reality of battle, which Keegan sees as a quintessentially human as well as an inhuman activity: 'the behaviour of men struggling to reconcile their instinct for self-preservation, their sense of honour and the achievement of some aim over which other men are ready to kill them.'

Battle is a brutally messy social clash - a mix of fear, courage, leadership, anxiety, uncertainty, misinformation, violence, cruelty, self-sacrifice and compassion. 'Above all', Keegan (1976: 298) argues, the study of battle 'is always a study of solidarity and usually also of disintegration - for it is towards the disintegration of human groups that battle is directed.' (emphasis added). Moreover, the forced disintegration of enemy armed forces that is the end of battle proceeds through the physical and personal disintegration of individuals.

The soldier's view of war is always much more complicated than the commander's or the politician's. For the combatant, battle takes place in an unstable physical and emotional environment. For him, Keegan (1976: 48) argues, battle 'is a small-scale situation which will throw up its own leaders and will be fought by its own rules - alas, often by its own ethics.' (emphasis added)

The destruction of other human beings is also destructive, therefore, of those who do the destroying. For a mixture of reasons, including self-preservation, confusion and brutalization, the reality of battle constantly fudges the moral line between legitimate and illegitimate killing. 'Improper violence' is part and parcel of the meaning of battle. However noble the political intentions of governments and however rational the strategies of generals, killing fields are never morally 'clean'. The most just war will be sullied by the harsh reality of battle.

Degenerate war

Battle always contained a tendency towards killing in ways that are morally dubious - even within the general assumption of the legitimacy of war. Moral theory has long recognized this dilemma in the classic distinction between ius ad bellum (the justice of the ends of war) and ius in bello (the justice of the means of war).

In pre-industrial times, great slaughter was committed in hand-to-hand fighting. However with each modern advance in the technology of weapons, delivery and communications, mass killing has become ever easier to inflict, by more and more remote means. Thus by the time of nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles, it became possible to kill, instantaneously, immense numbers of people over enormous distances. In nuclear war, a whole war could be concentrated in a single, brief battle (i.e. exchange of missiles). Friction would barely be part of actual war, but would be transferred back into war-preparation, for example bottlenecks of weapons production and political mobilization.

Although the basic structure of war remains, the process of war has thus changed enormously. At the heart of the changes is the altered character of mass killing. This has two principal dimensions

In the Second World War, even the Western democracies defined German and Japanese civilian populations as enemies. Violating previous inhibitions on the mass killing of civilians, they inflicted slaughter on a vast scale. The killing envisaged in the theory and planning of nuclear war, moreover, is not simply massive but virtually ubiquitous. If ever practiced, it could amount to a catastrophic destruction of human society as a whole.

This extension of the logic of escalation is, in the end, a problem for the theory and practice of war. If war became simple, comprehensive slaughter - nothing but killing - its political meaning would be destroyed. In the last half-century, both theorists and planners of war have reluctantly recognized this danger to their practices. To avoid redundancy, they have been forced on the one hand to seek new limited versions of war, and on the other to reinvent strategy as deterrence. This meant trying to devise political uses, divorced as far as possible from their military realization, for weapons of mass destruction.

4 From the Somme to Slaughterhouse 5

In the twenty-first century concern is often expressed about the growing proportion of civilians, especially women and children, among the victims of war. The link between war and genocide, which this book explores, also points in this direction. It is possible, perhaps, to forget that modern mass slaughter began with the mechanized killing of huge numbers of soldiers. Most soldiers were not warriors by vocation but young men conscripted into mass armies by the powerful state machines of the industrial era.

The nineteenth century has been widely seen as a century of peaceful social and economic development in Europe. In reality it was the period in which modern killing machines were invented and modern killing systems constructed. The 'great' war of 1914-18 was the conclusion to a long period in which the impressive inventions and organization of the industrial system were applied to war. It was prefigured by the destructive civil war in the United States (1861-65), in which many features of the new industrialized warfare were demonstrated.

1914-18 showed that in modern war, the combination of state bureaucracy, mass media and mechanical transportation could deliver unprecedented millions of young men - mainly from working-class and peasant backgrounds - to killing fields where, with the aid of machine guns and other modern weaponry, they would kill each other on an industrial scale. [ADD POEM?]

The stalemate of the trenches, in which mass death still failed to produce military advance, stimulated further technological advances: the tank, the warplane and chemical weapons. These new platforms and methods of killing in turn made it easier for states to attack the civilian populations that produced the weapons

In the Second World War (1939-45), although chemical warfare was not generally deployed, all major states attacked each others' non-combatants on a mass scale. In some cases, as with the Japanese armies in China and the German armies in Poland and the Soviet Union, occupying troops turned guns and bayonets on civilians. In others, notably in British and American attacks on cities like Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo, aerial bombing created massive firestorms that swept through whole urban areas burning alive huge numbers of men, women and children. By the end of the war, the first atomic weapons reduced Hiroshima and Nagasaki to irradiated ashes, killing huge numbers outright while condemning many more to lingering deaths from cancer. [ADD SLAUGHTERHOUSE 5, JOHN HERSEY?]

In the twentieth century, therefore, war's chickens came home to roost. The attempt to treat mass killing as an extension of rational politics began to founder in the killing swamps of Flanders, the burnt-out German cities and the irradiated ruins of Hiroshima, even before the nuclear age opened up. Warfare, on the grandest scale and in the hands of the most advanced, liberal states, repeatedly degenerated into little more than deliberate mass slaughter, first of soldiers and then of civilian populations. Strategy and politics wore very thin in the face of the enormities that their pursuit revealed.

The depth of the problem for war's viability as a social practice lies in the fact that these outcomes were neither accidental, nor deviations from its inner logic. On the contrary, they were direct and (in a broad sense) inevitable results of a classic process of war in modern conditions. Located within a competitive interstate system, fuelled by the technology, socio-economic organization and politics of mass industrial societies, slaughter was a predictable outcome of war. 

Supplied with unprecedented resources, destructive logic overrode all others, producing truly total war. Supplied with an ever wider range of human targets, warfare swallowed up (or threatened to swallow up) whole populations in a more or less indiscriminate fashion. The dialectic between discrimination and indiscrimination in modern war is instructive as to the meaning of degeneration in modern war. It involved simultaneously 

Thus in the name of defeating each other's armies, First World War generals mowed down a generation of young men from across Europe. To destroy Chinese resistance, Japanese troops massacred civilian populations wholesale. To crush Soviet power, Nazi German forces slaughtered civilians and prisoners of war. To attack German industries in the Second World War, British leaders began to destroy whole cities. To crack German civilian morale, they obliterated tens of thousands, refugees and prisoners alongside citizens, soldiers and war workers, in huge firestorms. To defeat Imperial Japan, American leaders blew up two entire urban populations with atomic weapons.

In the all-out use of massive force there was already in the middle of the last century, therefore, an overwhelming tendency for targeted violence to produce indiscriminate mass slaughter on a previously unimagined scale. Politicians and armies have tried since 1945 (and especially since 1989) to reinvent more limited roles, and means, of military force. To a certain extent they have succeeded. But warfare remains fundamentally compromised by this degenerate tendency, which has led war, I shall argue, to produce what has come to be known as genocide. 

Since this argument is controversial, I shall return to it only after a general examination of the three major forms in which large-scale political violence is identified: war, revolution (including counterrevolution) and genocide. I shall first examine the problems involved in delineating these categories, illustrating them by a discussion of revolution, and then deal more fully with the nature of genocide.

Categories of violence

Most writing assumes that the categories of war, revolution and genocide can be clearly delineated, even if we need to investigate the relationships between them. I argue, in contrast, that the categoric distinctions are only partial, and have been all too easily blurred in historical practice. In this sense, the genocidal tendency in war is a manifestation of the internal linkages between the principal kinds of political violence.

War, revolution and genocide are not 'phenomena' in the sense that volcanic eruptions are natural events. All are, in contrast, general ways of representing different kinds of intentional actions by individual and collective social actors. All three concepts have the dual meaning of referring both to the courses of action of specific collective actors, and to the clashes of the actions of opposing actors.

The intentions of those who make war, revolution and genocide are generally supposed to differ sharply. In this sense, there are well established distinctions between the three concepts:

However we should not regard these distinctions as rigid. The tendency to regard revolution, genocide and war as radically different types of social action rests on three fundamental errors. 

The first error is to regard the distinction between 'inside' and 'outside' the state as fundamental. From this point of view, states are established centres of power. It is assumed that contests between two or more states (or groups of states) are of a different kind from the contests that occur between states and social groups within states. However, states are only centres of concentrated social power; they rest on complex supporting relations in society. Conversely, social groups may produce state-like organizations, which form the basis of new state centres, for example in revolutions. Hence the differences between the two types of conflict may not be so great in practice.

The corresponding second error is to regard war as paradigmatically a state-state contest, but revolution and genocide as state-society contests. In reality, most wars are at least partially civil wars, and even the most clearly interstate wars always involve tenser relations and violent clashes between state power and society. In total war, as we have seen, war is normally waged on the enemy society as well as enemy state. Likewise revolutions, at least in their most advanced stages, acquire the character of a conflict between two centres of state power. They often occur in contexts of war and have taken increasingly militarized forms. Genocide is often assumed to involve states inflicting absolute violence on helpless populations. In fact, as we shall see in more detail later in this book, it mostly occurs in the context of struggle - revolution, counterrevolution and especially war - and it is mostly ended by war.

The third error is to regard the asymmetrical characters of power struggle in revolution and genocide as a definitive contrast with the symmetry of war. In fact, wars too, between state centres as well as between established states and insurgents, always involve asymmetries of power. The defining feature of war is not that the opposing forces have similar characters or comparable strengths, but that the two sides share the aim of destroying the enemy's power in a given context.

In this light, revolution and genocide not only involve elements of war and have clear affinities with it. Although both involve more than war, they are in the end variants and often phases of war, in which the relations of state and society, and hence the nature and role of mass killing, are posed in unique ways. But both revolution and genocide are contests that share two defining characteristics of war:

Revolution as war

In revolutions, emergent centres of state power and social groups that support them aim to destroy the power of established state institutions. Established regimes and social groups that oppose change equally seek to destroy revolutionary power. But revolution was classically conceived, like war, as a process. The power necessary to overthrow established state institutions had to be mobilized, through social struggles and political organization. Only in this way would the basis for a new form of state emerge.

Insurrectionary war was classically considered the final stage of revolution, which occurred when the emergent revolutionary centre acquired sufficient strength to openly challenge for power. Insurrection, the military phase, was the conclusion to the process of revolution, and civil war was the probable outcome of the reaction to insurrection by the old power. In this sense, Leon Trotsky could claim that the revolutionary process itself was only minimally violent. The extent of violence depended, he argued, principally on the extent of the resistance to change from counter-revolutionary forces. Certainly counterrevolution has often involved extensive slaughter. 

However revolution itself has also inceasingly taken the form of war, in guerrilla warfare (see box 5). Revolutionaries have pursued armed struggle not as a conclusion to political struggle, but as a central means of that struggle from the outset. Likewise established power has used force not merely to defeat open insurrection, but to stamp out revolutionary forces and terrorize its actual or potential social supporters. As revolution became armed struggle, counter-revolution became counter-insurgency. In this sense there has been a radical change in the character of many revolutionary processes. 

By the mid-twentieth century, revolution had become more clearly a form of war. Moreover the mass killing of civilians as well as combatants was often normal on both sides. Like the mainstream military tradition of total interstate war, the struggle of revolution and counter-revolution became increasingly genocidal. Only in the largely peaceful democratic revolutions of the emerging global era - for example, the 'velvet' revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 - in which those seeking change have sought to transform rather than overthrow established states, has the idea of revolution begun to be rescued from its total implication in war.

Guerrilla war

Guerrilla means 'small war'. Guerrilla wars are small in comparison with the greatest conflicts of states, but they may be carried out across larger areas with more combatants and casualties than many interstate wars. What distinguishes guerrilla warfare is chiefly that it is unconventional or irregular, distinguished from the direct confrontations of the conventional or regular armed forces of states - although it may take place in conjunction with these.

Guerrilla war, as Walter Lacquer (1998: xviii) states, 'is as old as the hills and predates regular warfare.' Guerrilla war has lent itself to many kinds of politics, reactionary as well as progressive, right as well as left, and these can be found in all modern periods. So it is not true to say that guerrilla war was 'right-wing' in the nineteenth century and 'left-wing' in the twentieth. Nevertheless the success of Mao Zedong's guerrilla war in China in the 1930s and 1940s popularized an idea of revolutionary armed struggle, which overshadowed other concepts of both revolution and guerrilla warfare in the succeeding decades. 

  • Mao's struggle, in the world's most populous nation, occurred in the context of the interstate war between the Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-Shek and Imperial Japan, and the world war of which this became a part. It finally succeeded in 1949.

  • The other major success of a Communist guerrilla movement, Josep Brod Tito's in Yugoslavia, occurred in 1941-45 under similar conditions. 

  • The difficulty of repeating these triumphs under different conditions did not prevent many lesser movements from trying over the succeeding decades. But the only major successes were those of the Cuban movement of Fidel Castro in 1958, and the Vietnamese Communists in 1975, after 30 years of war.

  • By the end of the twentieth century, many notable guerrilla movements, such as the Afghan Muhejeddin, were no longer of the left.

Because guerrilla war is irregular and often seeks to overcome the power advantages of orthodox state power, its practice has long been accompanied by violence against (actual or putative) civilian supporters of the state. Likewise established state armies often use widespread violence against civilian populations suspected of harbouring guerrillas. In modern times, large-scale guerrilla and counter-insurgency war has often systematically targeted civilian populations:

  • Chinese Communists killed several million civilians, Nationalist supporters and 'rich peasants', during their struggle for power. 

  • American forces killed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians in their attempt to defeat Communist guerrillas.

Thus guerrilla war, linked with modern political mobilization, has many characteristics of total war. It thrived under conditions of general total war and has had genocidal tendencies, with social and national groups systematically targeted for violence by both guerrilla and anti-guerrilla forces. 

Genocide as war

It might be thought that genocide was completely different from either war or revolution. The conventional definition (see box 6) is the deliberate destruction of a people, above all (but not only) by means of killing members of the group. Uniquely, the definition of genocide depends heavily on an international legal document. The genocide convention was agreed in 1948 by the victors of the Second World War. Accordingly, it took the Nazis' extermination of the Jews as its standard. It implicitly drew a particularly sharp line between genocide and other forms of mass killing.

Thus the convention said that genocide was about the destruction of national, racial and religious groups. It excluded the annihilation of groups defined by other characteristics such as class or political affiliation - so that the extermination of the 'rich' peasants (kulaks) or eastern European political elites by Stalin's Russia could not be counted. It limited genocide to the deliberate destruction of national, racial and religious groups as such. It thereby separated genocide from even the most degenerate war, such as the annihilation of civilian populations for strategic reasons. As we have seen, this was what the Allies themselves had practiced, and it was about to become the norm of the new nuclear age.

It is clearly true that extermination of Germans and Japanese as such was not, for the Allied governments, an end in itself. But mass killing of civilians was an intended and desired consequence of the bombing to produce German and Japanese surrenders. This fine line, which separated Allied mass slaughter from Auschwitz, remained sacrosanct in the convention. Subsequent debate has tended to emphasize, moreover, the uniqueness of the Holocaust's horror, in comparison to other mass slaughters, even those committed by the Nazis. This has helped to enshrine a narrow idea of genocide in legal, popular and even academic understanding.

There are grave problems with this model. In the same year that the United Nations adopted the genocide convention, it also adopted a universal declaration of human rights. From a universal human standpoint, it is untenable to lay down that the destruction of some sorts of human groups, such as races, nations or religions, should be regarded as a particularly heinous crime, while that of others, such as classes, professions or political groups should not. 

The restricted international definition gives special status to the former groups. Given that perpetrators of mass killing often target both kinds of group, in some combination, the restriction often makes little sense in practice. Are we to say, for example, that when the Khmer Rouge targeted people because of their Vietnamese origins, they were practicing genocide, but when they killed people because of their education or social class, they were not? Such a legalistic distinction would fragment the significance of the Cambodian 'killing fields' and stop us understanding the process as a whole.

From the standpoint of historical analysis, this definition of genocide is also in danger of taking the standards of its perpetrators, the genocidists, for reality. Certainly, we cannot explain what these people do without grasping the particular mentality that defines certain social groups as enemies, to be defeated by mass killing and other victimization. And yet genocide, like war, is not just a course of action pursued by power, but a clash of social power and experience. We should define genocide, therefore, by the experience of the victims as well as the mentality of the genocidists. 

The common experience of genocide is of cumulative discrimination of targets leading to indiscriminate slaughter. For victims, the threat to their social, personal and physical existence is very similar regardless of the particular reasons for it in the minds of their killers. The reality of killing in practice has a deeply arbitrary aspect, often appearing 'senseless'. If Nazism is our model of genocide, we need to put alongside the clinical images of selection for the gas chambers the roadside massacres and mass burnings of villagers - often Jews and non-Jews alike - by the Einsatzgruppen in Soviet territory. From the standpoint of the victims, genocide is deeply arbitrary. Whether the Nazis were killing you because you were a Jew, a Slav, a Soviet citizen or a Communist, or all or none of these, was not so important as the fact that you were going to be killed.

All genocidists kill for a range of reasons and at the same time, seemingly, for none in particular. As we shall see later in this book, they target young men because they are potential fighters or producers; old people for the opposite reason, their uselessness; women for reasons of the significance of sexual power. But in the end, killing is killing and tends to lead to more killing. Slaughter can appear utterly casual, arbitrary and senseless. There is (il)logic in terror and murder that surpasses the pseudo-rational discrimination dictated by strategy and political ideology, even as it fulfils them.

Our understanding of genocide needs to grasp this indiscriminate character as well as the categorical discrimination of genocidal killing - as of war. It is rarely the case that killers focus only on one kind of social target. The logic of terror tends towards the multiplication of enemies. Political enemies and social classes (commonly, educated elites) are often targets of genocidal regimes at the same time as ethnic or national groups. Jews were not only a racial enemy for the Nazis, but represented social privilege and political opposition. At all stages they were only one among the social enemies of Nazism, and not always the most threatened. Since genocide often takes place in the context of war, social enemies are often identified with international state enemies. Jews were linked to international finance and Soviet Bolshevism.

6 The definition of genocide

The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted in 1948, states: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: 

(a) Killing members of the group; 

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; 

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring a out its physical destruction in whole or in part; 

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; 

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.' 

(For the full text, see Roberts and ?, 2000, pp. ?-??.) The following main issues arise from the definition and the rest of the Convention:

  • The term genocide (from genos, a people, and -cide, killing) was coined by the jurist Raphael Lemkin. He had stressed that genocide did not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a target group, but applied to a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of the essential foundations of their life, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.
  • In the UN debate before the Convention was agreed, Soviet representatives succeeded in excluding political groups from the list of those protected; as Leo Kuper (1981: 39) writes, this is a 'major omission'. Social classes were also left out.
  • Nevertheless the Convention's phrase 'destruction in whole or in part' left ambiguity about the extent of mass killing required for genocide to be established. Many adopted the term genocidal massacre to refer to episodes of killing with genocidal intent that fell short of the wholesale destruction of a population. 
  • Others continued to regard only cases that approximated the maximum case of total extermination (as with the Jews) as genocide. This could be political convenient, of course, if it excused politicians, from regarding as genocide, cases of mass killing about which they wanted to do nothing. This classification has also been adopted, however, by some some social scientists, such as Mann (2001). 
  • The Convention commits states to 'protect' threatened populations and 'punish' those responsible for genocide. However both commitments have been largely neglected by the United Nations itself and by major states since 1948.

Thus the definition of the concept of genocide, and the application of both concept and Convention to particular cases, remains highly controversial.

In the way in which mass killing partially transcends political logic, genocide turns out to be very similar to war. Just as 'strategic' bombing has led to relatively indiscriminate mass slaughter, so has 'racial' targeting. This is hardly a coincidence. The connection between war and genocide is not merely a strong causal correlation, which means that most genocides take place during or around wars. The link is not just external but internal.

The simplest way to express this is to say that genocide is a form of war in which social groups are defined as enemies

Like war in general, and also revolution, genocide needs to be understood as a process. Genocide is prepared in complex ways within society, and many social forms have genocidal potential. However, genocidal policies, unlike war or even revolution, are generally regarded as illegitimate. Therefore its preparation is not openly celebrated, and the link between genocidal potential and the actual preparation of genocide is not always direct or conscious.

Indeed, institutions and ideas that are mobilized by genocidists are widely accepted in pre-genocidal periods. Many political ideologies and laws have genocidal implications, more or less explicit, as we shall see in more detail in Chapter 4. Racism, chauvinism, religious and class hostilities are very widespread, and expressed in state policies. Discriminations against particular groups are almost ubiquitous. Although they all have genocidal potentials, for the most part these potentials remain abstract. Such practices are not necessarily seen as means of genocide.

A major difference between genocide and war is, therefore, the way in which they are prepared in society. Formal institutions and practices of war-preparation are universal, socially recognized and culturally justified. Genocide-preparation, even more than revolution, exists on the margins of social acceptance. The specific machinery of genocide, like the machinery of insurrection in classic revolutions, is usually a novel construction, begun only in the period prior to its use. Indeed, this machinery generally develops in contexts of pervasive violence, linked to war and revolution. Although perpetrating genocide usually requires specific kinds of organization, it is mostly carried out by or through the general state machine. Thus it often utilizes the machinery of war and takes place under its cover.

We can use genocidal as an adjective referring to genocide, just as we use military referring to war. Genocidal practices are those that treat social groups as enemies whose power may have to be destroyed. It is important to identify the conditions under which forms of hostility towards specific social groups (e.g. racism), move from a general, pre-genocidal to an actively genocidal significance. This is, however, a difficult area. The change occurs when states, or state-like movements, begin to organize the conditions for widespread violence against certain groups. In this context, any hostility against enemy groups begins to take on directly genocidal significance. For example, we know with hindsight that the previously abstract genocidal potential of German anti-semitism started to actively threaten genocide, when it was mobilized in the propaganda and street violence of the Nazis.

Moreover we can see now that terroristic episodes involving relatively small numbers of killings, such as Kristallnacht on 11 November 1938 (when Jewish shop windows were smashed and about 90 Jews killed) often threaten, all they do not make certain, much larger-scale slaughter. As a result of such experience we can now read genocidal dangers in other movements, even if full-scale genocide may still be some way off. Genocide may be discerned, therefore, in relatively limited mass killing, short of 'all-out' slaughter. The concept of genocidal massacre has been proposed to cover smaller incidents, which are often a prelude to larger-scale genocide. These are particularly indicative where they are linked to widespread targeting of given social groups. It is particularly important to identify the early stages of genocide, in order to halt the escalation in policies designed to destroy social groups - which may lead to mass killing.

Thus in the broad sense of genocide proposed here, Nazi policy was already becoming genocidal in the 1930s, in relation to Jews - as well as to the homosexuals and mentally defective people who were physically attacked in this period. It was clearly so during the period 1939-41, when Jews were transported across the territory of conquered Poland, and gradually forced into ghettos. Not only did maybe half a million Jews, as well as many others, die of ill treatment, starvation and disease during this period. These were already policies designed to comprehensively destroy the social power, and existing conditions of social life, of the Jews, well before any comprehensive plans for slaughter were evolved. Moreover, it was not only Jews, but Poles in general, who were targets of genocide in this period.

If genocidal policies and limited genocidal massacres do not lead to all-out mass slaughter, this may be because the aims of the perpetrators can be achieved with limited violence. It may also be, however, because genocidal processes are interrupted. This in turn reflects the fact that genocide, however successfully perpetrated in the short term, is never uncontested. However helpless many of the victims may be, much of the time, there are always resisters, always opposition - either from the population that is directly attacked, or from other forces that see their interests implicated in what is going on.

This, in the end, is another reason why we should understand genocide as a form of war. However unequal the initial struggle between the state that wishes to destroy and the groups whose power and lives are attacked, in the end that struggle is likely to become more balanced. Groups targeted for destruction cannot but resist, and often fight. And since genocide usually occurs in the context of wider warfare, victims will look for and often find more powerful allies. Genocide is generally ended in war, by more conventional military forces: as indeed Soviet and Anglo-American armies ended the Holocaust.

On slaughter

I have argued that war, revolution and genocide are closely related modes of organized political violence. In the end, revolution and genocide can be seen as distinct forms of war. The distinctions are often narrow, and they should not be regarded as absolute categorical differences. Nevertheless they have important continuing significance.

Between strategic bombing and the Holocaust, for example, there is not a simple difference of war and genocide. But there is a difference: between degenerate total war (that has become genocidal), and genocide as a distinctive form of war in the context of larger war. The difference boils down to who was the enemy - whose power the perpetrators of killing intended to destroy. For the Allies, the prime enemy was still other states; enemy civilians were derivative enemies and their mass killing was (however terribly) incidental to the major goals of the war. For the Nazis, Jews - and many other social groups - were themselves enemies, whose destruction ranked as an aim alongside that of the states that they fought.

The importance of such a distinction is, first, that it mattered in practice. When the Allies defeated the Nazi German and Imperial Japanese states, they stopped killing Germans and Japanese civilians. The Nazis would probably not have stopped killing Jews until they had eliminated virtually all Jews in Europe. The paradox of course is that the Allies, through their degenerate war, stopped the open genocide of the Nazis.

The other importance of the distinction is that it continues to reverberate. Mainstream war-preparation became hyper-genocidal with the prospect of all-out nuclear exchanges. But this has led to partially successful attempts by the dominant West to renew military power in more limited forms of warfare, with more discriminating technology and strategy. There is a continuing genocidal implication in strategic bombardments, like those of Baghdad and Belgrade in 1991 and 1999 respectively, but it is muted by tactics and technologies that aim for precise targeting. Arguably UN non-military measures that have indirectly targeted civilian populations, such as economic sanctions, have produced more genocidal results than has Western military power as such in recent years.

In contrast, direct forms of genocide have come to dominate the war strategies of many local states and state-like movements in the non-Western world. From Bosnia to Rwanda, genocide has become a large part of the practice of war. The aim of state elites has been to destroy the power of certain groups, plural urban as well as ethnic communities, and with this the lives of large numbers of their members. In Rwanda, this aim was unprecedentedly open, literally broadcast over the airwaves to simultaneously mobilize perpetrators and threaten victims. In other cases it has been only slightly veiled by more familiar practices of denial.

The contemporary argument about war is framed, therefore, by a new version of the old dilemma. In its simplest form, the question appears to be, can war end genocide? Our discussion should lead us to question this categorical opposition:

These questions will reverberate throughout this book. In showing how war has degenerated and is linked to genocide, I am posing once again the legitimacy of war in human affairs. Strategic theorists and military buffs may find the durable features of warfare the most important. However war is not just a fact of life. It has become a huge problem. Mass killing as a key means of resolving political issues is increasingly unacceptable. War is not yet over, but realizing that age-old aspiration is a central issue of our times.