US Rule in Occupied Earth (or Everything You Need to Know About Genocide, but Never Knew to Ask) Part 4: You Are Next


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Lemkin defined genocide as being a form of warfare, but instead of it being military warfare “against sovereigns and armies” it was war against “subjects and civilians”. We do not need to distinguish between the sort of internal “war” declared against a minority within a state and the sort of “war” that is waged against a foreign people. So, for example, the Japanese “3 Alls Policy” of “Kill all. Burn all. Loot all,” was genocidal because it was aimed at the Chinese people and was not a truly military scorched earth policy.

Lemkin focussed originally on occupied Europe, but he saw the same processes in the conquest of the Americas and he spent much more time studying and writing about genocide in the Americas than about Germany’s genocides in Europe. He characterised Indian reservations as being a form of concentration camp and symptomatic of genocide. As you can imagine, this sort of thing did not go down well in 1950s USA. He was unable to find publishers for his later works. As John Docker has said: “We can only mourn that Lemkin’s manuscript writings were not published as he hoped, for in them the inherent and constitutive relationship between genocide and settler-colonialism is strongly argued, given subtle intricate methodological form, and brought descriptively to life.” Lemkin died poor and comparatively obscure 1959. Only 6 people attended his funeral. Had he lived longer he would have recognised that the strategic hamlet programme in Viet Nam was also symptomatic of genocide and I am sure he would have made the leap that links genocide to all forms of imperialism, not merely settler-colonialism.

Whether related to settler-colonialism or not, genocide reveals itself best in military occupations because they allow the full panoply of genocidal behaviour to manifest. Lemkin saw genocide as a combination of ancient and modern practices. On one occasion it might be the visceral slaughter of a massacre, on another the dispassionate exercise of issuing papers that reclassify people as no longer having the right to live in their homes. One might reduce the food intake available to a people who have been previously deprived of subsistence resources, or create a policy of retaliatory violence. One might order a carpet bombing raid or institute a military doctrine of “force protection” guaranteed to cause mass civilian death and widespread terror. In short, genocide can manifest as wanton violence and destruction or targeted violence and destruction. It can involve policies designed to control, to destroy, to immiserate, to alienate, or to provoke.

Perpetrators of genocides like to claim that their actions are military in intent. Sometimes they are deliberately deceiving and sometimes they are wilfully lying to themselves. The greatest lie they tell themselves and others is that attacking the civilian population and its infrastructure is a valid way of degrading military strength. This is the lie that was behind of the “strategic bombing” of civilian areas in World War II and was used to implement the genocidal sanctions against Iraq. These are very instructive examples of genocide undertaken in the guise of warfare, yet, instead of looking at those I want to focus on counterinsurgency.

Imagine a materially and/or numerically inferior people who occupy land that you covet. You start taking their land by force and/or start using your superiority to coerce their departure through inflicting some form of pain. Eventually resistance will ensue. The resistance may or may not have been part of the plan, but it now becomes the excuse for ever greater violence against the people as such. War against a people as such is, by definition, genocide. When you deconstruct counterinsurgency programmes throughout history you will find that this pattern of genocide is common to many.

I already mentioned the Japanese “3 Alls” campaign. The excuse for this genocidal behaviour was that it was a way of combating the People’s Liberation Army which drew sustenance from the people themselves. Mao said, “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” But the point is that the people wouldn’t have supported the PLA if it did not in some way embody their collective will. The Japanese, by contrast, were inimical to the Chinese people. Their occupation was already genocidal, if they hadn’t been strategically inclined to inflict destruction of Chinese people as such, then they would have dealt with any insurgency by actions, policing or military, that were restricted to the PLA itself. In fact, the genocidal strategic imperative was greater for the Japanese than the military strategic imperative because such “counterinsurgency” is inherently counterproductive militarily.

To put it in simple terms you win a counterinsurgency by winning the “hearts and minds” of the people and thus isolating the guerillas from the material support of the people and delegitimising them so that violence against them does not cause the people to hate you. But, if your strategic designs are against the fundamental welfare of the people themselves you cannot win their hearts and minds and so it is inevitable that when armed resistance arises the response, if you do not alter your strategic aims, will be genocidal.

It is no great secret that the way to win against an insurgency is to win the acceptance of the people and then treat the guerillas as a separate military or policing operation. The reason this is not done is not that people don’t know it, but because they cannot accommodate the will of the people even to the degree that would get them to cease supporting the conflict of armed resistance. In short, for demostrategic reasons they are enemies of the people and they are at war with the people. It doesn’t matter of it is a tribe of 300, or a nation of millions, the same applies. Just as the genocidal acts of the Japanese drove people into the arms of the PLA, the same pattern has been enacted throughout Latin America, Southeast Asia, and in Eastern Europe during the Partisan War. In fact, Hitler said: This partisan war has its advantages as well. It gives us the opportunity to stamp out everything that stands against us.” It is well worth remembering at this point that Lemkin described Hitler’s genocides as being “a new technique of occupation aimed at winning the peace even though the war itself is lost.”

Since the First Indochina War, the US has shown unmistakeable signs that it welcomes and even fosters insurgent resistance as a way to channel its military might into genocidal violence and destruction. Few people realise how much of the US effort in Indochina went into systematically attacking civilians without even the pretext of a nominal insurgent presence. They did this on the basis that the people themselves were the sea in which the guerilla swam. The entire Phoenix Programme, for example, was aimed at civilians. “Free-fire zones” were, among other things, designed to re-designate non-combatants as legitimate targets for death. Under this logic missions of mass death could be carried out without any hint that an actual combatant might be present. US personnel were also trained to view the people of Viet Nam through a hostile racial lens. That and the way the GIs were deployed created a systematic situational predisposition for US personnel to view the the people of Viet Nam to be their enemy. If the US had wanted it to, a fraction of the money they spent on fighting in Indochina could have been spent in ways that won the “hearts and minds” of the local peoples. But that would have empowered the people. The Vietnamese, for example, would have been very thankful and then have firmly continued to move towards reunifying their country and exercising self-determination.

The US now exerts more hegemony over Viet Nam by having visited genocidal destruction and lost the military struggle than it could ever have done by making the concessions needed to allow it to achieve military victory. The state of Viet Nam was far less damaged by US destruction than the people of Viet Nam. The war had actually left the country as a military powerhouse and regional hegemon. On the other hand, bottom-up development was crushed. When industrialisation took hold it was not some form of strategic development that empowered the proleteriat and the nation, it was low-wage light manufacturing for the benefit of Western multinationals and Western consumers. That is a profound strategic victory for the US empire.

Viet Nam’s ongoing weakness means that it is subject to the governance of the “Washington Consensus” institutions which use debt and trade to prevent development in a for of structural violence, but at least there seems to be little prospect of hostile military action from the US. Iraq, on the other hand, seems to be slated for an eternal grinding and inhuman violence punctuated by periods of mass slaughter. Iraq has become like Prometheus to the US Zeus. Zeus ordered his servants Force and Violence to chain Prometheus to a rock where each night an eagle would tear out his liver. This was partly in revenge for Prometheus tricking Zeus out of what Zeus thought he deserved to be given as offerings by humans, and partly because Prometheus, a friend to humanity, had given fire to humans. In many respects the analogy is chillingly apt. For the US, even backing successful coups in Iraq didn’t produce regimes that were willing to make sure that Iraqi oil wealth was used to benefit US hegemony, thus Iraq cheated the US out of its due.

Due to a combination of petroleum, geography, demography, culture and history the Iraqi people, as such, are indelible enemies of US empire. Even under Saddam Hussein oil resources were nationalised and oil profits went into national development. Iraq is too large to be a rich rentier state with a small wealthy citizenry and it is too small for the oil profits to be inaccessible by the bulk of the population as in Nigeria. This is a big problem for an imperial polity, ie the US empire, that specifically uses control of petroleum as a method of strategic hegemony.

The result is that if you want to see an almost exhaustive exemplar of genocide then you should look to what the US has done in Iraq. It has been, to paraphrase Lemkin, “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of [Iraqis], with the aim of annihilating [Iraq itself]. The objectives of [the] plan [are the] disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.” To outline the Iraq Genocide I can go through each one of Lemkin’s “techniques of genocide”. He enumerated these in Chapter 9 of Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, which, as you will recall, is where the term “genocide” originates. His descriptions of techniques of genocide can be very closely mapped to US actions in Iraq. And remember that this is the original defining document on what genocide actually is and you can go through it point by point and see how well it applies to US actions. The process is far too complex to detail fully here, but I will give a rough outline and hopefully you can use your own faculties and prior knowledge to fill in some gaps.

  1. Thee first technique of genocide was labelled Political – this would include the entire “De-Baathification” process; the period of rule by Paul Bremer; the suppression of mass demonstrations, of political dissent and of organised labour; the subversion of sovereignty; and the imposition of constitutional arrangements.

  2. Social – changing the legal structure; abolishing unionism; targeted killings of community leaders; fomenting sectarian division; disruption family social and economic life by targeting “military-age males” for disappearance or death. One of the biggest social impacts has come from the eliticidal killings of intellectuals and certain professionals such as doctors. This began with “Debaathification”, and then there were kidnappings, then the US instituted the “Salvador Option” and since that time intellectuals have often been targeted by death squads.

  3. Cultural – To paraphrase Lemkin by merely changing the word “regimentation” to “chaos” and the word “Poland” to “Iraq”: “Not only have national creative activities in the cultural and artistic field been rendered impossible by chaos, but the population has also been deprived inspiration from the existing cultural and artistic values. Thus, especially in Iraq, were national monuments destroyed and libraries, archives, museums, and galleries of art carried away.” Let me repeat: “…national monuments destroyed and libraries, archives, museums, and galleries of art carried away.”

  4. Economic – to quote Lemkin again: “The destruction of the foundations of the economic existence of a national group necessarily brings about a crippling of its development, even a retrogression. The lowering of the standards of living creates difficulties in fulfilling cultural-spiritual requirements. Furthermore, a daily fight literally for bread and for physical survival may handicap thinking in both general and national terms.” In 2013 Iraq passed the $100 billion US dollar mark for post invasion oil sales, and yet Iraqis still languish in poverty.

  5. Biological – in this category Lemkin discussed measures that the Germans used to lower birthrates particularly by geographically separating the men and women. The US has pursued policies which separate men from women en masse, but not to such an extent that it would affect the birthrate significantly. Bear in mind, however, that the physical and environmental aspects of genocide against Iraqis have also acted to reduce birthrates and may be even crueller than dividing families.

  6. Physical – Lemkin divided this into 3 subcategories: a) Discrimination in feeding – by 1998 it was calculated that 1 million had died because of sanctions imposed on Iraq. In infants particularly this was from a combination of disease and malnourishment. The perpetrators – the US and the UK – blamed the Iraqi government, but the rationing system in Iraq was as efficient and equitable as could reasonably be expected. In fact it cannot be denied that in this regard the Ba’ath government provided a far better and far less corrupt service than any large-scale service provided by the US government or any US contractor in Iraq. In reality, the deaths were the result of the deliberate withholding of essential nutrition and medications; b) Endangering of health – in addition to the sanctions preventing medications from reaching Iraq they also prevented medical equipment from being replaced. This was a slow torturous atrocity whose intentionality cannot be questioned. Then during the invasion and occupation US military forces systematically targeted medical personnel and medical facilities. This was something that Dahr Jamail was at pains to document at the time and compiled into an alarming report in 2005. Not content with merely bombing hospitals and systematically murdering health workers, the occupation authorities also used the same sort of destructive policies they used on economic assets – giving both US and Iraqi money to corrupt contractors who had been formally been made immune to both Iraqi and US law and were thus guaranteed impunity in advance. While facilities struggled to cope with mass violence and to rebuild that which was degraded during the sanctions period, Iraqi funds were misspent on lining the pockets of rich US contractors. c) Mass killing – the shocking results of the mortality survey in 2006, known as “Lancet2” or “L2”, have now been vindicated. As well as a very high rate of violent death L2 showed that up to 2006, where known, most people were killed by coalition forces and most people were killed by small arms. Total mortality in Iraq due to the invasion is above one million. If this is added to the fatalities caused throughout the previous 13 years the figure in considerably in excess of 2 million.

  7. Religious – Here I could cite the numerous attacks on and destructions of Mosques carried out by Coalition forces in the first few years of the occupation. But it is impossible to avoid mention of the sectarian and religious conflicts caused by the occupation. This is portrayed as something that is an endemic problem, but that is a complete lie. Westerners don’t seem to grasp how unusually blood-drenched Christianity is, and how sickeningly racist it is to project that peculiar tradition of violent intolerance onto others in order to avoid seeing Western culpability in fomenting bitter divisions. Just to be clear, it is not Christian theology that originated the violence of the religion, but rather the fact that it became the state religion of a thousand year-old empire that had the established habit of brutally killing those it considered to be ideologically heterodox. Indeed, Christians themselves had frequently been victims of this impulse. Once Christianity was bedded in to Roman politics it was inevitable that the Roman approach to heresy would reassert itself. Then the Church split, with Rome becoming the centre of a quasi-sovereign multinational “Papal monarchy”. This Western church found that its power was greatest when it was fighting heretics and infidels and it became addicted to bloody Crusades. These were not just to the Holy Land, but also included the brutal genocide of the Albigensian Crusade. After that was the Inquisition and then the Reformation set off the wars of religion which killed millions upon millions. That is not even to mention the indelibly Christian flavour of Western imperialist violence which continues to this day. Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam all have violence in their past and present, but none have a history that compares to this. For that reason I get very angry when people talk about the sectarian violence in Iraq as being the result of some ancient enmity. Very little of the violence in Islam’s history has a sectarian origin. Western historians talk about Shi’a political participation in the original Sunni ruled Caliphate as being “political quietism”, but even that is projecting a Western standard coloured by things like the massacre of Huguenots in Paris. I could go on, but I hope you get the point.

  8. Moral – Lemkin wrote: “In order to weaken the spiritual resistance of the national group, the occupant attempts to create an atmosphere of moral debasement within this group. According to this plan, the mental energy of the group should be concentrated upon base instincts and should be diverted from moral and national thinking. It is important for the realization of such a plan that the desire for cheap individual pleasure be substituted for the desire for collective feelings and ideals based upon a higher morality.” I think that this is a subjective area, but I think that the imperial pattern that the US tries to replicate everywhere, including at home, is one of atomised consumerism. In Iraq’s case this meshes with the social, cultural and economic destruction mentioned above.

  9. Environmental – Lemkin did not have this category, but it seems now a salient and highly important technique of genocide. Lemkin had no environmental awareness, as such, because of the times in which he lived, but some people now use the term ecocide to refer to systematic environmental destruction and I believe that ecodide is best understood as being one of these techniques of genocide. In Iraq the US has systematically caused environmental degradation by destroying infrastructure and contaminating areas with toxins, radioactive material and unexploded anti-personnel ordnance. Perhaps the most well known pollutant is depleted uranium, but recent studies in Fallujah show that it is only one part of a toxic cocktail that causes birth defects and cancer. Practices like using burn pits have also created deadly exposure to toxins for both Iraqis and US personnel. Like Agent Orange, these are slow motion chemical weapons attacks, and like a gas attacks there is always some “blowback” onto your own personnel (for a war leader, sacrificing pawns is necessary to win the game). Like Agent Orange, the pollution will kill for generations, causing health problems and heart-rending grief. Worse than even Agent Orange, however, some of these pollutants will stay for as long as we can foresee – a legacy of death and suffering that is practically eternal.

The Iraq occupation was a watershed moment, but it was not an aberration. It was part of an increasingly genocidal imperial policy that has blossomed into a series of ongoing neocolonial postmodern holocausts. The US sows conflict and instability and ensures that there is never any conclusion. Through direct or proxy interventions the US has created one eternal warzone after another. There is now a string of destabilised states, many of them so-called “failed states”, whose people are denied any path to peace. The situation is proliferating: Yemen, South Sudan, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, western Pakistan and eastern DR Congo. These are the acute cases, but there are many other countries have a lower level of chronic violence and instability.

These spreading zones of violence are a new form of genocide that slowly effectuates “the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups”. Can it be said that the goal is to “annihilate” these nations? Yes it can, because the goal is to annihilate them as such. It is imprinted in the logic of the genocide. Because the violence provokes resistance, the logic of the genocide will demand unending violence. The violence creates its own strategic imperative for continuation while at the same time the institutions created to carry out that violence gain substance and a life of their own.

History will record the current era as a time of neocolonial slaughter much like the spasm of imperialist violence at the end of the 19th century – an increasingly mechanised blood-letting that foreshadowed the slaughter of World War I. However, genocide is not a discrete and absolute phenomenon. It is never the case that “a genocide” is committed in isolation. The current genocides have long historical roots. US “counterinsurgency” in the “Indian Wars”, in Latin America and in Asia, is cross-pollinated with South Africa’s “Total War” against its neighbours, and Indonesia’s genocides, and Israel’s invasions of Lebanon. This has created a system of in institutional knowledge rife with various techniques of Balkanisation and destabilisation.

By playing Hawks off against Doves, US imperialists create room for themselves to inflict unending violence without ever allowing the perception of control that a military victory would give. Retired General Mike Flynn believed that the US needed to use more military force to defeat IS but has also said: What we have is this continued investment in conflict. The more weapons we give, the more bombs we drop, that just … fuels the conflict.” This is a complaint that has gone right back to 1950, becoming particularly prominent during the 2nd Indochina War. Military officials try to explain that they are hamstrung and prevented from achieving military victory, but rather than taking their claims seriously they are written off as being overzealous madmen. The fact is that apart from some insane proposals to use nuclear weapons, the military types do have a point. Military decisions are avoided for the same reason that counterinsurgencies become counter-productive, because the real enemy is the people and a military victory would only hinder the strategic goal of crushing the people themselves.

It would also be wrong and artificial to separate genocidal wars abroad from domestic governance. The institutions of genocide that Germany created when it committed genocide in East Africa are considered important antecedents of the later genocides in Europe. But the first people that the Germans put in concentration camps were German political dissidents. The first Nazi mass killings were of disabled Germans. Military war, genocide, and the quotidian oppression of domestic governance partake from each other. In the US there is a long interplay between the criminal justice system and the genocidal attacks on peoples of other countries. This is inseparable from the past genocides of colonisation. Ajamu Baraka, writing on the recent death in custody of anti-police brutality activist Sandra Bland wrote “The struggle in the U.S. must be placed in an anti-colonial context or we will find ourselves begging for the colonial state to violate the logic of its existence by pretending that it will end something called police brutality and state killings.”

Mass incarceration, domestic torture, police killings, and mass surveillance are all institutions that feed and feed from genocide abroad. In this sense you can see that it becomes an impediment to argue that a given phenomenon is “a genocide”, instead we need to acknowledge that a phenomenon such as US mass incarceration is genocidal and not “a genocide”.

A famous quote from Martin Niemöller begins: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist.” It ends: “When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.” That is the nature of genocide. If we do not find a way to end the genocidal interventions in the Third World our turn will come, and collectively it already has. An elite habituated to meeting obstacles with genocidal violence will enact it on their own people, and that has already begun. If an innocent Caucasian is brutalised by a US policing and mass incarceration system that is primarily aimed at people of colour, that does not make that person an aberration of collateral damage but rather an indication that those institutions will be used against whomever it serves. The divisions between some “Them” and some “Us” are lies. They mean nothing, but we are made to feel that the mass violence perpetrated by our governments on distant foreigners is no threat to us, and may even be to protect us. It is not true. Every death we allow to happen places us all at greater risk, places our loved ones at greater risk. And one day, when it happens where you live, those who might speak for you will be dead or silenced.

But speaking out now has to be an act of true revolt. Ours is an age in which there is no more crucial imperative than that of demolishing the lies of elite ideology. Western regimes are almost impervious to the opinion of the masses, so mass education is far less important than deprogramming the apparatchiks that populate our boardrooms, newsrooms, seminar rooms and lecture theatres. We do not need to educate the masses. What will they do when they are educated, be knowledgeably powerless? No, we need to enrage the masses and delegitimise the elites. Their intellectual and moral pretensions are hollow.

To do this more than anything we need two things. One is to rediscover the knowledge and analysis of imperial power, and the other is to understand that imperialist violence, including structural violence, is genocidal in nature. Elite Western ideology was struck a blow by the end of the Cold War. By the late 1990s analysis of “globalisation” had begun to merge with a new, and not exclusively Marxist or Marxian, interest in the US empire. By now this has been almost completely expunged. In its place we have the traditional dullard stance of those who, without ever having to trouble their brains for confirmation, take it as granted that the default approach of the US is to seek to create stability and spread democracy. Less Pollyanna-ish, but equally blind are those who view US foreign policy as a variety of “realism” in response to “national security threats” such as “Islamist terrorism”. Most infuriating of all are the opponents and critics of US foreign policy who are now dominated by beliefs that US foreign policy is controlled by the Israel Lobby and/or acts primarily in order to deliver profits to the military-industrial complex. These are not only tropes of repugnant apologism, they are fatuous ahistorical and anti-intellectual conceptual cul-de-sacs which make cogent analysis impossible. They clearly satisfy deep-seated psychological needs, but they mainly fulfil the role of concealing continuities and preventing people from seeing the true shape of US imperial interventions.

To illustrate the potency of the term genocide imagine how difficult it would have been for the US to justify its actions in Iraq, if academic and media interlocutors had seen the pattern of genocide in US actions. Currently continuity and intentionality are concealed by simply replacing and recycling varying excuses made to limitlessly amnesiac intelligentsia. No one steps back and asks whether the current excuse for genocidal violence actually makes sense in the larger picture. Saddam might invade his neighbours again? Bomb the water infrastructure! Saddam has WMDs? Starve the people! There is resistance to our occupation? Dismantle all of the economic infrastructure and destroy historic sites! Insurgency? Kill! ISIS? Bomb! Iraqis don’t love us? Bomb some, arm others, then arm the ones you bombed and bomb the ones you armed! If it wasn’t so horrifically serious, it would be a pathetic joke.

Understanding the genocidal nature of this violence is the only way to end the cycle of mutating rationalisations. If they can’t launch a bombing campaign with a lie about a gas attack, the next lie will come along shortly and eventually one will stick. Take Gaza, for example. Israel’s violence has been justified as being: “Because Hamas. Because rockets.” But already you can see the beginnings of a new trendier discourse being established, where it is the failure of Hamas to control Salafists that will justify future genocidal violence. “Because ISIS. Because rockets.” And when that wears out there will be another excuse. And if we don’t escape the parameters of discourse set by the idea that Israeli actions are related to security (whether you agree with them or not), then there will never be an end to potential excuses. While we debate the merits, they will kill more. And so it will continue.

To conclude, then, I hope that Anuradha Mittal learns what I have said here and I hope she decides that it is not a good idea to give a detailed hour-long account of a genocide and to baulk at using the word “genocide” itself. What she described was a people who were dispossessed, had their movement controlled, were cut of from the native soil that provided them economic and psychological health, had family lives shattered, were traumatised, were deprived of materials of culture and religion, had social networks destroyed or degraded, and finally had their history, their agency and ultimately their humanity expunged from the official state narrative of history. If that isn’t genocide then there can be no such thing.

I would also like Chris Hedges and Laila al-Arian to reflect on the fact that they published a book in 2008 that specifically claimed that US personnel were systematically murdering Iraqis in large numbers, but never used the word genocide. Perhaps they can now see that they effectively orphaned their work and made it irrelevant by not giving the systematic killing its rightful context as being genocidal mass killing. To put the murders they talk about in any real context that relates them to the bombing, sanctions, economic destruction, social disintegration and civil war absolutely requires that the word and the concept of genocide be used.

The word must be used because the genocide continues in Sri Lanka just as it does in Iraq. The situation in Iraq is well known, but what Mittal describes is also alarming because the Sri Lankan government seems to use weakness to deepen persecution. They seem to have exploited the military weakness of the Tamil Tigers at the end of the civil war to conduct mass murder and they have used their victory to rewrite history to further denigrate the Tamils. That forebodes further armed mass violence. By the appropriate use of the term genocide, however, public alarm and discontent can be wakened. Once people actually grasp the meaning of the word it will be much easier for groups such as Tamils to awaken people and much harder for perpetrators to convince them to stay asleep.

Perhaps most important of all is the potential to cause a “revolt of the guards”. This is something that Howard Zinn famously advocated at the end of a People’s History of the United States and it is also something that Chris Hedges refers to frequently. The fact is that when people come to understand that they are engaged in a necessarily atrocious and criminal enterprise they are liable to stop. The concept of genocide can open peoples’ eyes to the cruelty in which they have become enmeshed.

But the power of the word does not end there. Many of the war resisters within the US military who acted against the genocide in Indochina used the term genocide to justify their actions, or refusal to act. It is a very powerful position to take, to say: “This is genocide, and I will not partake in genocide”. If someone says “this war is immoral” the counter-argument is that it is not for them to decide what is moral. But if you say “this is genocide” then any disputant is inevitably going to have to argue that it is not genocide and that opens up the discourse to discussions of human suffering as opposed to notions of threats and security and combat that dominate the discourse of war.

The fact is that there are clearly people out there who will actually argue that it is sometimes right to commit genocide. In that sense perhaps spreading a greater understanding of the term does risk “debasing the coin”. These people will crawl out of the woodwork, and then there will be a discourse of genocide and genocide-lite. Various reasons will be put forward that some genocide is tolerable, maybe necessary, and even, perhaps, sometimes a moral good. But most people will never buy into that. Genocide necessarily means deliberately inflicting suffering on the innocent. In practice military warfare also means this, but proponents can always argue that such suffering an unfortunate side-effect of an otherwise perfectly moral enterprise of destruction killing and maiming. When something is appropriately labelled and understood as genocide, the perpetrators have no place to hide. That is what we need.

US Rule in Occupied Earth (or Everything You Need to Know About Genocide, but Never Knew to Ask) Part 3: Lemkin’s Logic




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The misuse of words is a key way to ensure that the ideological hegemony of the powerful is not disrupted when they commit acts that ordinary people find abhorrent. In 1946 George Orwell wrote “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties.” A couple of years later he famously satirised this as “Newspeak” – a language of journalists and intelligentsia which systematically stripped the language of all meaningful terms, replacing them with good, bad, plus-good, plus-bad, double-plus-good, and double-plus-bad. A key aspect of using a concept of double-plus-bad or double-plus-good is that it cannot be argued against because it doesn’t have a concrete definition. We do this in a low-grade level as human beings because we are lazy and proud. We like to impress and to win arguments by using buzzwords in the place of thought. But at the higher levels of discourse (at the double-plus-bad and double-plus-good level) the use of language becomes systematically controlled in a way that shows clear purpose.

The higher one’s social ranking, the more constricted and controlled one’s vocabulary and hence thought. In part this is due to conscious propaganda manipulation coming from government and corporate interests which have long targeted “opinion leaders” with propaganda and left the messaging to “trickle down” (in the words of the US Government’s “Vietnam Information Group”). Orwell satirised this as being a “Party Line”, portraying it as a centrally coordinated effort, but what he was really suggesting is that the system functions the same whether there is a “Politburo” giving orders or not. The point is, that the ideology is internalised and the elites become their own and each other’s thought police. That was what Orwell analogised as being constant surveillance and inescapable broadcasting. The constant unstoppable nagging of the television and the inescapable omnipresent surveillance in 1984 were allegories for the internalised orthodox ideology.

The actual centralised dissemination of ideology is relatively crude, as the comparative failure of the Vietnam Information Group illustrates. The decentralised co-optation of elites is more subtle, more profound and more robust. It harnesses people’s imaginations, but more importantly it harnesses their ability to avoid imagination and thought. In real life what this may mean is that a word that does have a definition, has that definition suppressed and people use the word as if there was no actual definition at all. An obvious example is the word “terrorism”.

The word “terrorism” is used in a manner that has little to do with any actual stable definition. Originally terrorism referred to advocating the use of terror during the French Revolution. It was actually put forward as a way of minimising state violence because the emphasis on generating terror would maximise the disciplinary effects of violence. In other words, if you scare the shit out of people you don’t need to kill as many to make them all behave the way you want them to. It’s an old idea, of course, just named and given a post-enlightenment rationalisation. That form of terrorism is still very current everywhere that there is a military occupation. More broadly, though, terrorism came to denote a warfare technique where violence is used to terrorise the general population as a way of exerting pressure on a state power without having to inflict military defeats. As a technique of asymmetric warfare it has an obvious appeal, but it is usually counterproductive and a gift to your enemies. Indiscriminate attacks, like the terror-bombing campaign waged by Britain against Germany, tend to consolidate public support behind government and military leaders.

In real terrorism, the regime that rules the target population generally benefits. Moreover, ever since there has been the asymmetric use of terror, state regimes have labelled all asymmetric warfare as terrorism. In fact they have lumped in as many actions of their enemies under the category of terrorism as possible and, without exception, this is done as a way of garnering support for their own acts of terrorism, which they call “policing”, “security operations”, “counterinsurgency” or “counterterror”. The use of the term “counterterror” is quite interesting because it allows states to overtly signal to their personnel that they are to use terror tactics, but it has enough linguistic slippage to provide deniability.

In propaganda discourse terrorism is never something that stands alone, you tie it to other things like ethnicity and religion. The Germans of the Third Reich were not induced simply to hate distinct groups of people. Their propaganda system, just like ours, conflated various plus-bads and double-plus-bads to make them all seem like a great interlocked multifaceted double-plus-badness. Criminals were bad and perhaps deviants, sexual deviants who were decadent, devolved creatures, Jews or Jew-like, who are all lefties, socialists, Communists, and they want to destroy Germany. So the enemy was the criminal-queer-Jew-decadent-racial-deviant-Commie. If someone was shown to be one, they were tainted with all others. And if they were demonstrably not homosexual, for example, it didn’t matter because there was a more profound way in which they actually were – they embodied the real essence of the category rather than the mere outward form. And even though the Nazis related all of this to racial and cultural hygiene, the fact is that the most common immediate excuse for using violence against these Chimerical enemies was terrorism.

Germans used the concept of terrorism for exactly the same reasons as it is used now:

1) Because regimes like to pretend that terrorism threatens the stability of the entire society, notwithstanding that actual terrorism does not generally destabilise regimes, even if it disrupts society.

2) Because each individual will feel that they could be a victim. Terrorists are not going to stop to ask your political opinion before they kill you. This makes people feel as if they are on the side of the government because they share a common enemy.

3) Because calling people terrorists provides the all important sense of reciprocity that makes state violence against the “terrorists” seem justified. Britain, France, Israel and the US have all, just like Germany, used the label of “terrorism” to denominate entire populations as being terroristic in some essentialised way. This is used to make genocidal violence and terrorism against those populations seem justified.

In one of the most striking examples of late, Israel has just passed a law giving themselves permission to force feed hunger strikers in the manner practiced by the US and recognised elsewhere as torture. Telesur reports that security minister Gilad Erdan explained: “Prisoners are interested in turning a hunger strike into a new type of suicide terrorist attack through which they will threaten the state of Israel.”

Once upon a time, academics would have at least kept in the backs of their minds the notion that terrorism was a politically misused term. However, instead of that translating into publicly railing against the hypocritical misuse of the term by Western terrorist governments, their public contribution would tend to be along the lines of reminding people that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. Like most fatuous clichés, this has the advantage of seeming thought-provoking whilst, in fact, being thought-killing. That was the typical liberal educated view – not to actually attempt to put things into a robust linguistic framework that could facilitate real analysis, but to imply that it is all a matter of opinion anyway.

As bad as that sounds, it all changed for the worse after 2001. Suddenly there was a boost for academic “security” specialists. People who had perhaps been more marginal in terrorism studies and security studies found that their way of defining terrorism (by taking the people they wanted to call “terrorists” and working backwards) were suddenly more prominent. The response from more level-headed academics was, of course, to immediately concede the middle ground to them and allow them to set the agenda. This meant that state terrorism, which was never incorporated into “terrorism studies” anyway, was now unmentionable. The idea that no definition of terrorism should prejudicially exclude a certain type of perpetrator is apparently alien to respectable scholars. Dissenting academics turned to “critical security studies” and the new “critical terrorism studies”. But these are self-marginalising positions which by their very names tell us that practitioners do not study a thing, but rather study the way that thing is discussed. The existence of something like “critical terrorism studies” necessarily embeds an orthodox “terrorism studies”. In practice, this provides a dual academic track wherein those who question what they are told voluntarily concede the greatest authority to those who are more inclined to parrot what they are told.

To force those who use words like “democracy” and “terrorism” to only do so in accordance with robust fully contextualised definitional criteria would be to deprive potential aggressors of a potent tool against thought. This is just as true of the term “genocide”, but there is an additional significance to the term. A true understanding of genocide will do more prevent its misuse as a way of eliciting a desired uncritical emotional response. This is because genocide differs as a concept in that understanding genocide will also strip away ability for perpetrators, especially repeated perpetrators such as the United States of America, to conceal the immorality of their intents as well as their actions. The meaning and applicability of the term genocide not only belies the rhetoric of moral righteousness, wherein the US strikes for freedom and to protect the innocent from evil-doers, but also the equally repulsive rhetoric of blunders, of inadvertence, and of self-driven systemic dysfunction. Applying the concept of genocide to US foreign policy reveals a conscious systematic intentionality in a project that very few people would consider morally acceptable. But to apply the term genocide, we need to recover the original meaning, which is to say a stable meaning that does not contradict itself and can be reconciled with historical usage.

To understand what genocide means it is best to trace the thinking of Raphael Lemkin, who invented the term. Lemkin was a Polish Jew who was passionate about history. When he was a teenager the Armenian holocaust had a huge impact on him. This was understandably emotional but was also a profound intellectual impact. He saw in these horrible events something related to the history of the persecution of Jews and the violence of pogroms. He became a lawyer and in the 1933 he advocated that new international laws be passed banning acts which would be considered crimes against the law of nations. He proposed two new international crimes which were, in brief terms, killing people on the basis of their ethnic, religious or national identity (barbarity”) and the destruction of items of culture, places of worship and so forth (vandalism”). Amusingly, his collective term for the crimes of “barbarity” and “vandalism” was “terrorism”.

Lemkin’s genius was not, despite his intents, in naming a crime but rather in naming a strategic behaviour. It would be better if genocide had never been thought of as a crime. Genocide is something that the powerful do to the weak and, despite the mythology, legal remedies do not work between parties of highly disparate power. Whilst people like to claim that laws are an equaliser that provides the weak with a tool to fight the powerful, that is not the historical experience of criminal law nor of international law. Power includes the power to police and enforce law and the power to defy law, thus the law must always be obeisant to power. Admittedly, one can theorise a society wherein a social contract made all people equal before the law, such as posited by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but in practice that would have to be a society with no significant hierarchical differentiation. The hegemonic group in any society has always used different forms of law, including criminal law, against lower classes and ethnic minorities or, when desirable, women, the LGBT community, religious groups, or people who hold undesirable political opinions. Law, in short, is inescapably predisposed to be a tool of the powerful against the weak. That is not to say that people cannot use the law for the benefit of the weak, but that is a function of individuals working against the general inclination of the system.

The limits of laws can be be demonstrated by a counter-factual thought experiment. Imagine that Lemkin had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in 1933 and that the current UN Genocide Convention had been signed and ratified by all countries including Germany in 1933. Would that have impacted the passage of the Nuremberg Race Laws in 1935? Well it didn’t stop South Africa instituting draconian “Pass Laws” in 1952, so one would have to say no. In fact there is no way in which our historical experience of the UNCG seems to suggest it would have constrained Germany in any way at all. By the time people in Allied countries were reacting to German genocides with demands for action, their governments were already at war with Germany. Moreover, their excuse for not acting against the infrastructure of extermination was the over-riding need to win the war, and argument that would not have been altered by the existence of a genocide convention. On the other hand, in 1938 the existence of a genocide convention might have strengthened Germany’s claims that ethnic Germans were being persecuted in the Sudetenland and given more legitimacy to the Munich Agreement which gave Germany the Sudetenland and left Czechoslovakia nearly defenceless against future German aggression.

That is why it is actually a pity that Lemkin was a crusading lawyer, because his great insight was in inventing a theoretically rich term which was the crystallisation of considerable historical knowledge. The breakthrough he made was to realise that the violence he had called “barbarity” and the destruction he had called “vandalism” could be reconceptualised as a single practice called “genocide”. This is absolutely fundamental to understanding what genocide means.

Here is how Lemkin introduced the subject:

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.

“The following illustration will suffice. The confiscation of property of nationals of an occupied area on the ground that they have left the country may be considered simply as a deprivation of their individual property rights. However, if the confiscations are ordered against individuals solely because they are Poles, Jews, or Czechs, then the same confiscations tend in effect to weaken the national entities of which those persons are members.”

So Lemkin’s first example of an act of genocide is the confiscation of property from “Poles, Jews or Czechs….” This is a concept in which mass violence against people’s physical bodies is only one facet of a larger practice. In other words, when the Canadian government admitted recently to committing “cultural genocide” they were not truly apologising, but using slimy evasive apologetics. There is no such thing as “cultural genocide”, there is only genocide. Pamela Palmater introduced her reaction thus: “What happened in residential schools was not ‘cultural genocide’. It wasn’t ‘language genocide’. And it wasn’t ‘almost genocide’. What happened in residential schools was genocide. Canadian officials targeted Indians for assimilation and elimination purely for economic and political reasons.”

When Palmater wrote that she was merely introducing an extended argument, but she made a much more revealing comment about the nature of genocide when speaking on Democracy Now!:

“I know there was a focus on culture and that people were abused and beaten for speaking their language and culture, and they were clearly denied their identity. But for many of these children, upwards of 40 percent, they were denied their right to live. And that goes far beyond culture. Think about at the same time the forced sterilizations that were happening against indigenous women and little girls all across the country. Sterilization has nothing to do with one’s culture, but, in essence, the one’s right to continue on in their cultural group or nation-based group. The objective was to get rid of Indians in whatever way possible. Culture was one aspect of it, but also denying them the right to live or to procreate was an essential part of this.”

The key sentence is: “The objective was to get rid of Indians in whatever way possible”. Palmater knows that that does not mean the literal extermination of every single person that is even nominally Indian. What it means is erasing Indians from the places that they are not wanted at that historical moment. As Lemkin wrote, “Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization by the oppressor’s own nationals.This can be achieved through killing, assimilation, immiseration or dispossession. This can be achieved through transmigration – the ancient Assyrians, the Atlantic slavers, and the Soviet Union all uprooted populations to weaken them by taking them from their native soil. Equally, mass settler migration to the US, to Aotearoa, to West Papua, to Tibet or to Palestine imposes a new “national pattern” on the land.

The connection to native soil has profound personal aspects that might be considered spiritual, cultural or psychological, but let us not ignore the more immediately physical and concrete factors. Uprooting people utterly destroys their economic independence and can seriously degrade social interconnections that help provide the essentials of life. Thus, the famous susceptibility that colonised people have to Old World diseases has often struck when they are forced away from the land on which they rely for sustenance. People use the excuse of a purely biological fact (namely, the lower efficacy of immune response in populations that have not had generations of exposure to certain pathogens) to conceal the degree to which those who die of disease are often outright murder victims. When those who survive are relocated it may be to camps, ghettos, or reservations that provide little for independent existence. In fact the genocide perpetrator will place them in a subordinate and precarious position, exerting as much control over them as possible whilst creating the greatest degree of appearance that the victim population are separate and autonomous. Once again we are referring to the position of included exclusion, but with the pretence that the situation is the inverse – that the victims are autonomous and choose their own situation. All of this makes victim blaming much easier and allows further genocidal depredations to take place should the perpetrators discover the need for further dispossession.

This is what is facing a number of Western Australian Aboriginal communities currently. These communities are dependent on government supplying services, as are we all, but the cost of supplying services to Aboriginal communities will no longer be subsidised by the federal government, and the WA state government is refusing to make up the shortfall. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said: “What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have.” That could be said about any rural community because they all cost more to provide services to. In fact, mathematically there must always be places that cost more to provides services to than the average, and this same Western Australian government has just announced that it will be spending $32 million to upgrade rural water facilities that happen to be in the electorate of the Minister for Water.

Abbott’s words are particularly incendiary, though, because even if these are the traditional lands of the people living in these communities, when you look at the whole picture of colonisation in Australia the most heavily populated and resource rich lands are now all full of the descendants of settlers. The places that Aboriginal people can most easily maintain cultural autonomy and cohesion are those that were economically marginal to the early settlers, and those places were generally more marginal and sparsely by the indigenous people for the same reasons. Moreover, there is the fact that continued occupation of traditional lands might lead to the granting of native title. (You might think that 40,000 years is long enough to justify any such claim, but in legal terms let us not forget that until 1967 Aboriginal people were counted as wildlife not humans.) Some of these communities might be economically underdeveloped, but they do happen to be adjacent to large amounts of mineral wealth. Many put this latest attack against Aboriginal communities in the context of the 7 year old “intervention” in rural Northern Territories communities. As John Pilger has documented in the film Utopia the intervention was based on lies and seems more to do with exerting control over lands that are a potential source of strategic mineral wealth.

If official Australia is trying to dispossess Aboriginal people as such from land over which they want to exert control it is genocide. However, I do not want to overemphasise the significance of “ethnic cleansing” in a way that replicates the over-emphasis on mass murder that is more common. As scholar John Docker puts it, Lemkin took great care to define genocide as composite and manifold”. Acts of genocide are interrelated and interlocking events that create a network though space and time. Genocide against Aboriginal peoples has at various times and in various places meant extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, theft, fraud and impoverishment. Famously the genocide of Aboriginal peoples also involved the “stolen generation” of abducted children taken from Aboriginal parents and raised by “white” Australians.

The UN Genocide Convention specifically references the “forcible transfer” of children. This came from Lemkin’s observations of the Germanisation of other Caucasians. Lemkin and all those who contributed to the wording of the Genocide Convention would have had this sort of “denationalisation” in mind. Even though the abduction of Aboriginal children was occurring at the time that the Convention was written, I don’t think the people of the time really thought that it would apply to different “racial” groups, or at least those with generally distinct appearance. Regardless of the rhetorical equivocations on the subject, nobody thought that Aboriginal children would become white because they were raised by white parents or in white institutions. It was not a transfer into the hegemonic group, it was a transfer out of connection with others of the victim group. In fact, taking children was and is a way of trying to create that which all wielders of political power are innately inclined to want. They want to create human husks, cyphers who act only according to the stimuli given to them. Taking children functions in the same way that transmigration or concentration functions. It strips agency and magnifies the power of the perpetrator over the bodily existence of the victims. It is intended to also provide control over the mental existence of the victims, usurping their decision-making and imposing the “rationality” of the perpetrator.

There is a lot to unpack here. Genocide is actually the expression of a desire for complete power, a fantasy which is not unique to genocide at all. People become pure objects to be moved and used at will. Their own independent existence and agency is nullified even to the point where if it is determined that they are to die it is achieved with the mere flick of a switch. This sort of power cannot be achieved without exerting destructive violence. For individuals torture might be used to produce “learned helplessness” in order to exert this sort of power over them. Genocide aims to exert this power over defined groups who are connected by familial relations. As with torture, the power relation that it creates and the violence in which it is expressed, become the ends as well as the means.

I will relate this all back to mass murder and systematic annihilation in Part 4, but first let me mention race. Race and racism are social constructs but the important thing to realise is that racial discourse does not generate genocide. It may provide fertile ground, but the seed itself is from elsewhere.

Genocide has a dynamic relationship with racism or other forms of group hatred. A significant part of that is the systematic inculcation of hatred in a perpetrator population. This is a very old part of warfare and genocide, generally signalled by leaders who promulgate atrocity propaganda. This propaganda might be a story about soldiers killing babies, or it could be about how the enemy leader’s great-great-grandfather murdered an honoured ancestor. The idea is that the intended perpetrators will view any of the intended victims as somehow linked to the crime in some essential way. The violence of warfare and/or genocide naturally fuels the sense that membership in a group makes one guilty of the crimes of any of that group. In the former Yugoslavia it has been found that ethnic animosities were generated by acts of genocide, not the other way around. This is true whether the animosity is towards perpetrators or victims. If you are part of a group that is perpetrating genocide you will have a driving need to hate the victims. This is because we are socialised in such a way that to see some from our group as the “bad guys” in relation to the Other is like an act of painful self-mutilation that hurts, maims, and causes social death.

The point is that genocide is not an expression of racial hatred as such and it does not conform to the logic of racial thinking. If you believe that some undesirable trait or stain is carried in the “blood” in accordance with racial theories, it makes no sense to transfer children from the victim population. Hitler appeared to be conscious of this at least in the case of Jews. In a letter to Martin Bormann he wrote: “We use the term Jewish race merely for reasons of linguistic convenience, for in the real sense of the word, and from a genetic point of view there is no Jewish race. Present circumstances force upon us this characterization of the group of common race and intellect, to which all the Jews of the world profess their loyalty, regardless of the nationality identified in the passport of each individual. This group of persons we designate as the Jewish race. … The Jewish race is above all a community of the spirit. … Spiritual race is of a more solid and more durable kind than natural race. Wherever he goes, the Jew remains a Jew.” This is the other face of the coin revealed by Palmater in the quote above: “The objective was to get rid of Jews in whatever way possible”, not because of some special singular property of Jews but because of the entire multiplicity of everything that created the group identity of Jews.

With Native Americans in Canada and with Jews in Germany the object was to efface a group as such in order to allow the expansion of the hegemonic national identity. For Hitler this was philosophically linked with group will, but the same conclusions can be reached by your average prosaic greedy white supremacist who wants to get their hands on mineral resources, votes, or an expanded tax base. But Hitler’s genocidal activities and intents did not stop at the borders of Germany or Greater Germany. He wasn’t just attacking an internal minority he was also attacking ethnic and national groups outside of Germany’s borders for the purposes of imperial expansion and he was doing so using the same process – the process of genocide.

We have so overemphasised the concept of genocide as being an attack on an internal minority that even genocide scholars write about Jewish victims of German genocide as if they were a German minority. For Lemkin’s memory this is doubly abusive because he was a Polish Jew, as were half of the Jews killed by Germany. Lemkin’s prime exemplar of genocide, when he coined the term, was Poland. He mentioned many victim groups, including Jews, but the most commonly cited group he used to demonstrate “techniques of genocide” were the Poles, as such. He understood that Jews were slated for annihilation, but genocide had to be shown as a much broader phenomenon.

In genocide what is attacked is the sum of all of those things that make the victim group a group. We don’t have a term for this thing. At the risk of creating confusion I am just going to label the entire collection of inherent connections that provide a group identity its “demotic” and I think the unique essence that is created can be referred to as the “demotic idiom”. I do this to ground the terms by reference to the complex, but concrete, phenomenon of language. I also wish to make reference to demos because genocide is a strategic response to demographic circumstances. Genocide can be thought of as a demostrategic phenomenon.

So the demotic of the group is what is attacked in genocide. It is aimed at the victim group – the genos – as such. Thus the demotic is all of those things that make the group the group as such, and those things contribute strength and richness to the demotic idiom, which is, of course, unique. This would be individual and collective property, folklore, places of worship, sports stars, social welfare programmes, poets, statuary, language and public transport infrastructure – to name just a few random things. For convenience I am going to ignore weaknesses and say that anything that contributes in any way to the group identity as such is part of the demotic and is therefore potentially a target of genocide. You can attack an entire group by killing a single poet, for example.

Lemkin didn’t really quite understand the implications of the breadth of genocide. Instead of what I refer to as the demotic, he referred to a “biological aspect” to what had previously been called “denationalisation”. He specifically referenced the fact that Hitler viewed biology in essentialist terms: “Hitler’s conception of genocide is based not upon cultural but biological patterns. He believes that ‘Germanization can only be carried out with the soil and never with men.’” Therefore there is a contradiction here between the public Hitler of Mein Kampf and the private Hitler, confessing to Bormann that he doesn’t actually believe the literal truth of those words.

In fact, there is no “biological aspect”. Genocide is in that sense a misnomer. What Lemkin had mistaken for biological was actually the familial aspect of the demotic. Racial ideology and differences in phenotype notwithstanding, a genos is actually a social construct. It is a socially constructed demographic entity and it is reproduced primarily through child-rearing. The family is where language, customs, and the simple fact of self-identification are passed to the individual by their parents and other relatives. Moreover, even beyond the fundamental inscribing of group character on the individual, without which the group would not even exist, the familial interconnection carries through in later life. Connections with family form the closest social bond. Almost always individuals share group membership in the genos with those relatives with which they share the most significant social bonds. Inevitably, then, the familial interconnections correspond with biological structure and genetics and are the most significant sustenance of the demotic idiom.

Genocide scholars emphasise the fact that it is the way that perpetrators define the group that is important, not the way victims self-identify. Here is where we run into what seems to be a problem, because perpetrators tend to define victims in biological racial terms. However, it may be that someone’s life is spared on the basis that they do not display the “racial” characteristics by which the perpetrator claims to identify the victim group, but then again it might not. Ultimately the racial hygiene pretensions of some genocide perpetrators must be treated as hollow because the biological pretensions of racial discourse are hollow and unstable. No genos can actually be defined by “race”. The nature of human diversity is such that even the originating defining character of a genos is unstable. In fact, the hard defining lines that may form around a genos tend to be in reaction to racism, persecution and genocide. It is these things that prevent pluralistic integration.

I feel that I am drifting away from the central points about genocide, even though the problematics of identity are very important. Getting back to the demostrategic logic of genocide, there are several prominent motives for committing genocide, but in reality they are not as distinct as we might think. A settler-colony that wishes to cleanse the land of the indigenous is ultimately trying to achieve the same thing as an imperial power that wishes to crush and insurgent people which is much the same as a nationalist state that wants to erase a discordant minority and exert greater control through uniformity. The point is that all of these are undertaken by visiting destruction on the demotic idiom in the form of violence against the people and the destruction and degradation of those aspects of existence which collectively provide substance to the group.

Continued in Part 4: “You Are Next”.

US Rule in Occupied Earth (or Everything You Need to Know About Genocide, but Never Knew to Ask) Part 2: Days of Revolt




or direct link to mp3:


Chris Hedges “Days of Revolt” [not directly related]:

[Below is a transcript which is about 95% complete and which contains links to some material that is cited in the commentary]

I ended Part 1 by castigating those who seek justice and redress from authorities like the ICC. This is not an era in which forward progress can be made through existing institutions. I am not against meaningful reform but working towards it has now become a form of rear-guard action in a war that the people are losing. Those who wield power in Western societies have become far too good at wielding power. They are not meaningfully opposed or moderated, and that means that they will continue down a path of social destruction, even at their own expense.

If it makes it easier to swallow, the point I am making is actually very closely linked to a point that Chris Hedges has been emphasising in the last few years. Actually it is more than one point, really, because Hedges is promoting revolt and he is saying that this age is one that needs rebels – true dissidents. He is fond of citing Václav Havel and sentiments he conveyed such as this: “The dissident does not operate in the realm of genuine power at all. He is not seeking power. He has no desire for office and does not gather votes. He does not attempt to charm the public, he offers nothing and promises nothing. He can offer, if anything, only his own skin — and he offers it solely because he has no other way of affirming the truth he stands for. His actions simply articulate his dignity as a citizen, regardless of the cost.” This resonates with the earlier quote from Dr Thiranagama cited in Part 1: “Objectivity, the pursuit of truth and critical, honest positions, is crucial for the community, but is a view that could cost many of us our lives.” Neither sentiment leaves room for sugar-coating the truth or leaving out parts of the truth on the grounds that they are confrontational, or may alienate potential allies. Moreover, they do not allow one to decide that others do not have the intellectual capacity to grasp the whole truth and must be spoon-fed half-truths and white lies calculated to bring support to the cause you think is righteous.

The other key thing about real dissidents is that they don’t think that they can convince the powerful of the error of their ways. It is actually quite disturbing that the voices we hear criticising power are dominated by a privileged tone that projects shared interests and innate benevolence onto people such as Clinton, Obama or Kerry. Whether people overtly state this belief or not, it is inherent in any discussion that suggests that if the powerful could only be brought to see things from our perspective they would end their harmful practices. It is the equivalent of an Auschwitz inmate trying to persuade a guard that the Nuremburg Laws were both immoral and against the interests of Germany. The guard is unlikely to want to hear what you are saying, but if you do manage to persuade them where does that leave you? Or him? It is also a type of fallacy.

To assume that our leaders act with the best intentions is generally treated as being more conservative and intellectually credible than to suggest otherwise. In fact, to do so is to impute motive. It is a bankrupt practice and it is automatically applied selectively in such a way that enemy regimes are assumed to act with ill-intent whilst our leaders are presumed to mean well at least for their own countries if not for humanity as a whole.

The most common argument used to deny that the US has committed genocide is that there was no intention to commit genocide because US leaders have no such intent. Those who use such arguments do not look for evidence of intentionality any more than they would look for evidence of unicorns, because they already know that that evidence doesn’t exist. If you confront them with the fact that there is, say, more evidence of US intent to commit genocide in Cambodia than there is of Khmer Rouge intent to commit genocide, they will be upset because they know that the words and acts that seem to indicate US intentionality are a misrepresentation of the actual inner processes of US officials, but the words and acts that suggest Khmer Rouge intentionality are revelations of their true nature.

In the final analysis, though, whether our leaders are monstrous psychopaths or normal people trapped within a monstrous system is irrelevant. In fact, this is a false dichotomy between agential individuals and mere cogs. Whether or not one considers Western leaders to be demonically evil they must accommodate to the degree to which the regimes in which they function are diseased and criminal. For example, a President of the United States, a US Secretary of Defense and a US Secretary of State must all commit war crimes in order to function within a system that requires it of them. The same can be said of the UK Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Minister of Defence. Even should someone in that position have a change of heart, like Robert McNamara did, they could never be trusted to set things right because they cannot help but live in denial. Likewise, as Chris Hedges points out, there is no longer any point in putting faith in individuals or groups to work to reform the regime within its power structure. In a recent talk with Truthdig editor Robert Scheer, Hedges specifically references Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and says: “…we’ve got to stop placing our faith in particular individuals. That’s just not how power responds. Power responds when it feels threatened.”

Hedges points out that working within the system is not an avenue to change, and closing it may seem negative, but it is actually a source of hope. It is unfortunate that it takes severe crisis and dysfunction to bring this point about, but it is only once people stop placing faith in fantasies that they can act in their own interests. We have seen in the US that faith placed in Barack Obama was taken as unconditional, because there were no electoral alternatives for people who aren’t hateful or stupid. Depending on your viewpoint this has either freed or forced Obama into being a tool of elite vested interest while making enough rhetorical obeisance to public will to keep the shabby and translucent façade of democracy from collapsing into a pile of dust. This is why, paradoxically, our political elites would act with more humanity if we treated them as being baby-eating reptilian invaders from outer space because then they would feel constrained not to act like baby-eating reptilian invaders from outer space.

Just as we cannot elevate heroes to effect transformation it is also true that we cannot transform by debasing villains. Modern states with their Inquiries and Commissions and Committee Investigations have developed a huge amount of expertise in channelling justified outrage into ever-decreasing spirals of ever narrower objection. These processes end with the anticlimax of a drivelling pseudo-apology: “We’re sorry because we tried to bring too much freedom to the world and we messed up because we we’re too damned democratic and our vicious free press stabbed us in the back.” The model resembles the appalling Frost-Nixon interviews where David Frost went out of his way to systematically absolve Nixon of every one of his truly momentous crimes. But every porn production must have it’s cumshot, and after hours of this fellatio Nixon ejaculates: “I let the American people down”. And what a powerful confession that was! A little bit like John Wayne Gacy apologising for bringing disrepute to the amateur clown fraternity as if that was his only crime: “I let the clowns of this great land of America down”.

In this vein, when modern Western states do take actions against their own personnel they follow these rules:

  1. Unless there is an inconvenient senior officer who could do with being taken down a peg, like Janis Karpinsky, ensure that you choose as few people as possible from as low in the hierarchy as possible.
  2. Decontextualise and minimise the crimes. Maintain above all that they are aberrant isolated acts not linked to anything broader. Their isolation shows that they are the exception that proves the rule of our fundamentally benevolent nature.
  3. Portray the accused as victims of the brutality generated by the savagery of their victims’ society.
  4. Give as lenient a judgement as humanly possible.
  5. Reverse the judgement with a pardon or reduction in sentence as soon as humanly possible.
  6. Milk the proceedings as much as possible to provide “proof” that yours is a society of laws whilst tacitly or explicitly reiterating that the genesis of the crimes lay in the unwanted contact with the unlawful and brutal society of the victims.

But going back to the shell game of will-they won’t-they criminal proceedings, Israel has this procedure down to a fine art. And like all truly brilliant acts of public diplomacy, this practice exerts a disciplinary influence on both supporters and opponents of Israel’s foreign policy at home and abroad. Israel can keep Palestinian human rights activists running on a treadmill that they can’t justify leaving because there is always hope that a judicial process will provide some small relief from the greater tides of injustice. But it is some time since Israeli courts have done anything significant to constrain the Israeli occupation forces, which includes the courts themselves, and they barely do anything to constrain Israeli settlers either.

There is also a broader problem that is encouraged by Israel or the ICC dangling the prospect of criminal convictions in that it helps obscure the systematic criminality of the occupation. The recent news of the death of 18 month old Ali Dawabsha has highlighted what Ali Abunimah describes as a “hypocritical display… [of] crocodile tears”. By unreserved condemnation of a singular act, Israel’s leaders quite clearly intend to create a false image that acts to obscure the greater systematic violence. The problem is not just that Zionists use this technique, but that anti-Zionists end up being drawn into doing exactly the same thing in slightly different circumstances.

For example, Charlotte Silver of the Electronic Intifada has reported that an Israeli, Lieutenant Colonel Nerya Yeshurun, was recorded ordering the shelling of a medical facility. Of course it must be reported when such evidence comes to light, but this tends to become what I would term “over-proving”. Not only did we already have eyewitness reports from Palestinians and international observers of such crimes, but Israeli personnel had already confessed such actions to Breaking the Silence.

As it stands, it is good that supporters of Palestinian human rights can point to this recording as being symptomatic because it shows that few Israelis consider it wrong to commit war crimes. On the other hand, if the focus becomes pursuing the punishment of Yeshurun on the grounds that he is a blatant war criminal and the prima facie evidence is impossible to ignore, then you get into very bad territory for the cause of Palestine.

Every erg of human energy that activists put into trying to get Yeshurun punished will be worse than a waste. Focussing on the one criminal risks entering an endless spiral of diminishing convolution. It will produce a discourse that combines screeching to the converted with a naïve belief that you can somehow shame your enemies into admitting that they are actually the bad guys. At the same time every bit of focus on Yeshurun’s blatant crime will devalue the clear testimony of Israeli whistle-blowers, of international observers and, above all, the voices of the Palestinian victims themselves. Perhaps even worse it will devalue the shared consensus experience. The media coverage of Operation Protective Edge in many countries was sufficient for most people to see that the narrative construction of a “conflict” is a farce. Despite the unusual number of Israeli casualties, what people saw and felt in their guts was a one-sided slaughter. Yet that comprehension is being eroded by a continuous miscontextualisation and the focus on individual crimes only furthers that diminishment of the greater truth.

And the odd thing is that the gut response of the uneducated layperson is a more sound legal opinion than than the mediated educated opinions of the mealy-mouthed weasels who function as international jurists. As long as Israel maintains its occupation and/or blockade of Gaza they cannot justify their actions under Article 51 of the UN Charter as being self-defence. That is true even if Gazan militants commit war crimes. That means that every single Palestinian killed by Israel outside of Israel’s borders, whether they are an armed militant or not, has been murdered. You can make a very good argument that even Palestinians who are killed inside Israel’s recognised borders are murder victims, because the Palestinians’ actions are still legitimate self-defence. This all means that by selecting certain individuals and prosecuting them you are inevitably suggesting that murder is legitimate if it is carried out in a certain manner, but not legitimate if it is committed while breaking other rules. You can see why I think that this is problematic. I am concentrating on the practical political realities here, but even in sentimental terms what does it mean to go after Yeshurun? What does it mean for the memories of those children murdered at the behest of Israeli officers and politicians who were careful enough not to be recorded ordering personnel to commit obvious war crimes? Where is their “justice”?

The mass murders committed by Israel are also part of a larger process of genocide. As with the Tamils a slow process of genocide will sometimes incline the perpetrators to commit acts of acute mass violence to weaken resistance to ongoing low-grade state violence and structural violence. Some Israelis, with a kind of schizophrenic and unnerving honesty, refer to this as “mowing the lawn”.

There are distinct genocidal similarities between Israel’s occupation of Palestine, Sri Lankan occupation policies, and US interventions in a number of countries both currently and in the past. However, the real reason that I bring up Israel here is the issue of the ICC, which bears some further attention still.

Earlier I posted a long condemnation of the ICC which was also a condemnation of those who are promoting an ICC investigation into Israel’s most recent crimes. I can’t really summarise the thousands of words I wrote on the issue of the ICC and Israel, but one key relevant point is that the “Rome Statute” states “a case is inadmissible where… [t]he case is being investigated or prosecuted by a State which has jurisdiction over it, unless the State is unwilling or unable genuinely to carry out the investigation or prosecution.” Immediately this places jurisdictional decisions in the realms of political judgement which inevitably favours the powerful over the weak. It is worth considering what that actually means in effect. It means that facts will exert one sort of influence in the form of a discourse of ideas and information, and it means that vested power will exert influence by shaping that discourse. If we view such a process as a contest between power and truth, the first thing we must take into account is the impact of “soft-power” on perception. This is used to ensure that public perception of the truth is muddled, uncertain and contested. When the powerful commit mass violence “soft-power” is used to minimise the perception of suffering caused, but the more crucial task is to conceal intentionality.

Once the manipulation of perception creates the widest possible room for debate in public, then in private the hard-power and the covert power are used to bribe, threaten, blackmail, subvert and co-opt both individual persons and institutions up to and including entire countries. Thereafter the powerful can be sure that officials will take the least action possible, which is quite likely to be no action at all. If a country like Sri Lanka or Israel wants to ensure that occurs it may choose to pursue its own prosecutions using the six rules I outlined above which will then enable the ICC to claim that the perpetrator country is rightfully exercising jurisdiction. Naturally this will be lapped up by journalists and bureaucrats alike, who so dearly love the tautological perfection of what is, to them, the best of all possible worlds. They will then convey this unto the public who will be split between the reassured and the nonplussed, whilst independent observers will rage ineffectually about the fact that we are drowning ourselves in our own smug bullshit.

I know that many people on reading this might think that this is all an extremist’s opinion on tactics, but that there are other equally valid opinions. To them, my opinion is likely to be seen as an expression of anti-authoritarian hatred or even the spiteful envy of one who is justly marginalised. But this is not a matter of opinion at all. The historical record is so clear that the only possible way one could advocate ICC involvement is through wilful ignorance to both the ICC’s record and the entire history of prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Equally, to hold that an elite international judicial body will dispense “justice” that is not desirable to US and European imperial interests is almost laughably intellectually lazy. It is not a secret that rising within the hierarchies of international bodies is a highly political process combining both elements of diplomatic horse-trading for some positions with a need for high ambition and the requirement that personnel be the discreet and disciplined insider type. No one in their right mind should think that the selective processes and the situational factors which constrain the behaviour of personnel at the court would ever allow them to become worthy of any level of our trust. In fact they are worthy of contempt and condemnation because, whatever their self-righteous pretensions, they profit in material terms, and gain very high social status, by taking a key role in a monstrous imperial project that has visited mass violence and immiseration through structural violence on hundreds of millions of people.

It is vital that national and international functionaries be forced to confront the injustices that they perpetrate. That is the most important fight in the world today. Part of that fight is the fight to expose the suffering brought about and the fight to humanise victims. The other part, however, is the fight over contextualisation. Contextualisation is the most crucial issue. It is important to a degree that simply cannot be overstated, because miscontextualised human suffering becomes the fuel for ever more massive crimes of mass violence such as aggression and genocide.

Every atrocity that happens in the world today is being interpreted according to an updated version of the ancient chauvinistic binary categorisation of civilisation and barbarity. We are civilised which means that when barbarians kill other barbarians we must kill barbarians to save barbarians from their own barbarity. When we kill barbarians our intent, if not our actions, must be civilised because we are civilised. It can be true of any self-identified group, but it is most acute and most stoutly defended amongst Westerners who have deep reserves of chauvinism – a sense of exceptionalism that is almost impenetrable.

There are so many ideological components to Western chauvinism that it is hard to portray the entire phenomenon accurately. I propose that we think of it in terms of being a complicated, schizophrenic and contradictory form of “white” racism. I am, of course, acutely aware that African Americans, for example, can expound this racism and no one should downplay the fact that Barack Obama embodies this racism. Nevertheless, the concept of an entity called the West arose at the same time as the concept that there were people who were in some manner “white”. In practical terms the two are inextricable because no matter how imprecise our concept of what white people are, and no matter how expansive our notion of the West is, it will always be that of a hegemonically “white” culture. Because Western Europe experienced a technologically and culturally driven explosion of imperialism that saw them impose domination on people who on average were generally darker, sometime pronouncedly so, an idea of whiteness came about, even though it was very arbitrary in terms of actual pigmentation.

Western chauvinism actually came to combine ideas of progress, capitalism, Christianity, atheism, liberalism, democracy, freedom, humanism and humanitarianism among others, but I choose to emphasise racism because it is so easy to see due to the fact that it is literally constructed as a matter of black-and-white. For that reason it becomes possible to see that whenever we essentialise any notion about the West, such as the idea that it has liberal democratic norms, it is actually a dog-whistle racial reference.

To put it in simple terms, Eurocentrism and US exceptionalism are expressions of white supremacy. That means that they inherently propound the inferiority of non-white people. If we claim that the West embodies values or so-called “norms” of, say, “democracy”, we are of necessity saying the inverse of the non-Western world. Not only does this require a completely distorted reading of history, but it is inevitably racist. Because the concept of the West cannot be disentangled from a concept of whiteness, the implications of making such statements are to reinforce notions that white people are civilised and non-white people are barbaric.

Moreover, because of the need to selectively overlook the atrocious violence of Western imperialism, Western chauvinism (or “Eurocentrism”) is inescapably a form of racism that fuels double standards. It fuels doublethink, it fuels cognitive dissonance, it fuels the vicious contradictory fanaticism of the white-hatted mass murderer of indigenous peoples whose only explanation for such brutality is that he must have caught it like a contagion from the unnatural contact with savage peoples. And thus Westerners construct an ideology in which they themselves are the victims of their own acts of mass murder.

The struggle that must be undertaken, therefore, is to counter this massive agglomeration of ideology with the following understanding – the savagery is in the act, not the actor. Yet at every level in every society since the invention of agriculture, the powerful have always tried to ensure that they are not judged by their deeds, but rather by the good intentions that they assure others they have. From the boss of a small business, to the ruler of an empire we are always enjoined to see things from their perspective and to accept a priori their fundamentally benevolent motives.

Continued in Part 3: “Lemkin’s Logic”.