Issue 2, 2006 | Martin McKenzie-Murray

A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide

A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide
Samantha Power
Flamingo, 2003

An Introduction

According to the Bureau of Meteorology, Perth reached a maximum of 32 degrees on February 15, 2003. There was high humidity, no rain, and some cloud cover. I checked this because on this date Western Australia's capital accommodated its largest public protest since Vietnam. 10,000 citizens marched and moped through the CBD's streets, waving anti-war banners and speaking to each other in hurried, heated tones. I checked the above statistics because I was one of those 10,000 people, and time and trauma will make it that memory is rarely accountable.

I checked some other things: an estimated 300,000 people joined anti-war rallies across the country that weekend, but Howard said that public opinion could not be fairly measured by the numbers. Then Opposition leader Simon Crean, citing these numbers, said Howard was "out of touch" on the impending war, but no-one listened and in November that same year Crean announced he would abandon the leadership.

There are other details from that day that I can not check--they have not been recorded in any online news archive. But they are the details that stuck.

In Perth's CBD on February 15, 2003 there was no mention of Saddam Hussein. Nor was there mention of his Anfal campaign, an Iraqi design to kill Kurds with bureaucratic precision. In these streets, on this day, there was no mention of genocide. The American myth of Lincolnian intervention had been replaced with the myth of malevolent empire: "No Blood for Oil!", and history had been skewed and condensed so we could protest.

Joan Didion once wrote that we tell ourselves stories to live, but the stories we tell ourselves to protest are slim indeed. On that day protestations rhymed in red paint on cardboard--US history had been condensed to pithy lessons in evil.

Certainly there were genuine concerns about our increasing subservience to Bush; certainly there were concerns about US and British intelligence. But if there was nuance, and I suspect there must have been--deep down, in the pockets of the protesters--there was no sign of it, and rationale played second to the rules of public protest. The rules are much the same as the rules which govern the 6 o'clock news bulletin, or the world's fish-wraps: condense, colour, perform. The protest body did just this, and moved and marched itself colourfully against the Howard government. It did this with slogans and papier-mâché dolls of the PM, his features cruelly distorted, his hands covered in mock-blood. A protest must move in unison, on the grounds of consensus, and it finds this by divining the lowest common denominator. By its very definition this march had to defy calm questioning of the post-invasion plan (the seeming absence of which was the reason behind my attendance). It had to defy questions on the general justifications for intervention, and on the grim history of Hussein's rule. In short, it had to defy sense, and the 10,000 yelled and ached with the passion found in contemplating what Christopher Hitchens once described as the US' "unlovely interests" in the region.

Durability is a precious thing, rarely found in our 'papers or news bulletins, and it certainly is not found in the slogans we use for protest. Perhaps the rallies over that weekend can boast a durability, but it is within their numbers, not with their actions. Certainly, Samantha Power's important work--A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide--is a durable blessing, and perhaps, just perhaps, it may have assisted with our public discourse on these matters. But more on this later....

A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide

A dim knowledge of the 20th century will still afford you this one fact: never before had so many been victim to mass killings. The 20th century is marked by two world wars, but also by at last six major examples of genocide: The Turkish slaughter of Armenians in 1915; Hitler's extermination of Jews, and other minorities during the Second World War; the Khmer Rouge's crimes against the Cambodian people; the gassing of Kurds by Saddam Hussein in Northern Iraq; the destruction of the Tutsi of Rwanda by the Hutu, and, finally, the genocidal treatment of Croats, Muslims and Albanians by the Serbs. As astonishing as these acts are (and Power's gift for research and methodology amply provide the ghastly scope of these crimes), what rivals the acts themselves is Power's central thesis: that the West, and the US in particular, had sufficient intelligence about these crimes, not only while they occurred, but often before. The horror of Power's book is her persuasive argument that nothing was done to prevent these acts of genocide, and that "no US president has ever suffered politically for its indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on".

Needless to say there are few heroes in this book, but if there is one, it is Raphael Lemkin, a figure who represents the impassioned goodness capable in individuals, but not often permitted by political machinery. This month will mark the 47th anniversary of Raphael Lemkin's death, and you may be forgiven for believing that the man who saw that the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was presented to, and adopted by, the UN General Assembly, and who had been nominated seven times for the Nobel Peace prize (he never won it), died in salubrious conditions. Not so. On August 28, 1959, the man who had spent a quarter-century trying to ban genocide collapsed in his law office in Manhattan with a fatal heart attack. Power writes: "Lemkin had coined the word 'genocide'. He had helped draft a treaty designed to outlaw it. And he had seen the law rejected by the world's most powerful nation. Seven people attended Lemkin's funeral".

In the year of Hitler's appointment as chancellor the League of Nations sat to discuss international criminal law. Lemkin, at the time a public prosecutor in Warsaw, was piqued by the Turkish atrocities against the Armenians, and addressed the League of Nations Legal Council arguing that the crime of barbarity (a crime that would later linguistically evolve into "genocide") be considered as a crime against international law. Lemkin was not only sensitive to the Ottoman slaughter, but presciently wary of Hitler, and he argued that if mass slaughter had happened before, it could happen again. For his comments, the Polish foreign minister forced Lemkin to resign, and Lemkin became a private prosecutor.

Lemkin's remaining 26 years were remarkable. When his fears about Hitler materialised in 1939, Lemkin joined the Polish army and fought to defend Warsaw. Six years later, when Europe lay in ruins and Hitler's body was smouldering in a ditch, Lemkin had lost nearly 50 family members in the Holocaust, caught a bullet in the hip, and had become a special foreign affairs advisor in the US War Department. He had also, before war's end, coined "genocide" and its first printed appearance came in the widely read Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. An impressive litany then, and on December 9, 1948, Lemkin's moment arrived--the vote in the UN General Assembly to ban genocide: 55 votes for, none against. Just four years before had Lemkin introduced the term to the world. But sadness and disappointment were never far from Lemkin, and Power registers a note of grief when she writes: "Unfortunately, though Lemkin could not know it, the most difficult struggles lay ahead. Nearly four decades would pass before the United States would ratify the treaty, and fifty years would elapse before the international community would convict anyone for genocide".

Lemkin's presence in this book is a sombre one. His heroic story, and his sad, final days preface Power's painstaking accounts of genocide in the last century, and as she deputises vast and persuasive evidence that the US government consciously chose not to intervene in each act, Lemkin's legacy hovers somewhere strong, sermonising on the power of a driven individual, but also upon powerful political antipathy.

Whilst Lemkin's legacy can be debated, Power's painstakingly researched thesis is difficult to argue against: it has never been in any US president's political interest to intervene in genocidal activity. What's more, the startlingly banal reasons for inactivity are astonishing. During the Ottoman slaughter, the US ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau Sr. dispatched this cable back to Washington:

I earnestly beg the Department to give this matter urgent and exhaustive consideration with a view to reaching a conclusion which may possibly have the effect of checking [Turkey's]government and certainly provide opportunity for efficient relief which now is not permitted. It is difficult for me to restrain myself from doing something to stop this attempt to exterminate a race, but I realize that I am here as Ambassador and must abide by the principles of non-interference with the internal affairs of another country.

Power writes: "Morgenthau had to remind himself that one of the prerogatives of sovereignty was that states and statesmen could do as they please within their own borders". It is here that we reach the nut of Lemkin's concern: that infrastructure, welfare, culture--they were a nation's responsibility, but sovereignty should not be extended to conceal, or even encourage genocide.

What of the Allies' knowledge of the Holocaust? Power writes: "The Allies' suppression of Hitler's Final Solution has been the the subject of a great deal of historical scholarship. Intelligence on Hitler's extermination was plentiful in both classified and open sources. The United States maintained embassies in Berlin until December 1941, in Budapest and Bucharest until January 1942, and in Vichy France until late 1942". Power continues: "In November 1942, Rabbi Wise, who knew President Roosevelt personally, told a Washington press conference that he and the State Department had reliable information that some 2 million Jews had already been murdered".

If it appeared that the Nazis had left little room for expanding barbarity, the Khmer Rouge would horrifically disprove this in the 1970s. Here Power explains the proximity of the rise of the Khmer Rouge to the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam--the US, quite simply, would not countenance re-deploying troops to the same a region, not after the nightmare years of Vietnam. But when a few senior officials voiced concerns about the Khmer Rouge, they were shot down for crying wolf--the sad result of the dubious circumstances that Johnston conceived to place America in Vietnam, and the rotten methods deployed by Nixon and Kissinger to keep them there. In short, the re-deployment of troops to the region would have been political suicide, and Nixon's visit to China in 1972 all but nailed inactivity in the face of genocide. The Khmer Rouge, finally forcibly removed from power by the Vietnamese, enjoyed the patronage of the Chinese--arms and money--on the outskirts of Cambodia, and so the US, in favouring its freshly minted relationship with the Chinese, became de facto supporters of the Khmer Rouge, and the Russian-backed Vietnamese were left to pick up the pieces.

Power forcefully demonstrates the various geopolitical concerns which conspire to political lethargy. But what of the US public? Power is just as convincing in arguing that newspapers have known, and published, plenty of horror stories, but it does little in fermenting public outcry. Power argues that the magnitude of the atrocities is difficult to report (a regime's reclusiveness; hostility to foreign journalists; a reliance upon questionable sources etc.), but that further still, the ghastly scale of genocide is impossible to fathom appreciably. Power tells the story of Jan Karski, a Polish diplomat and Roman Catholic who disguised himself as a Jew and smuggled himself into the Warsaw ghetto, before smuggling himself back out and to London. When Karski travelled to the United States he met with Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, who heard Karski's stories before telling him: "I don't believe you". Karski protested, before Frankfurter interrupted him and explained, "I do not mean that you are lying. I simply said that I cannot believe you".  Here was a difficulty of conception, and I'll leave the last thought on that not with Power but rather with British comedian Eddie Izzard:

Pol Pot killed 1.7 million people. We can't even deal with that! You know, we think if somebody kills someone, that's murder, you go to prison. You kill 10 people, you go to Texas, they hit you with a brick, that's what they do. 20 people, you go to a hospital, they look through a small window at you forever. And over that, we can't deal with it, you know? Someone's killed 100,000 people. We're almost going, "Well done! You killed 100,000 people? You must get up very early in the morning..."


It is disingenuous to isolate the Iraqi chapter here, because it suggests that it holds a unique significance. It doesn't. Power's strength is deep research, an avoidance of polemic, and a consistent and persuasively held argument. I isolate this chapter, not because it is any different from the others, but because it should have had, and perhaps still should have, an influence upon public discussions of military intervention. When we marched, back then, back before 2, 790 coalition deaths, and an estimated (and highly disputed) 40, 000 civilian deaths, well, back then, it was the drive of distrust that put bodies on streets. And why not? The intelligence seemed dubious even then, and when our own leader played deputy to the child president, well... But the anti-war drive never really got out of first gear, publicly melted as it was to crude understandings of geopolitics. Oil. Empire.

While the endemic failings of public protest can not be measured against the gross failings of this war, it may be useful to hear what Power says on Iraq, when operation Anfal enjoyed its perverse zenith:

Hussein did not set out to exterminate every last Kurd in Iraq, as Hitler had tried against the Jews. Nor did he order all the educated to be murdered, as Pol Pot had done. In fact, Kurds in Iraq's cities were terrorized no more than the rest of Iraq's petrified citizenry. Genocide was probably not even Hussein's primary objective. His main aim was to eliminate the Kurdish insurgency. But it was clear at the time and has become even clearer since that the destruction of Iraq's rural Kurdish population was the means that he chose to end that rebellion. Kurdish civilians were rounded up and executed or gassed not because of anything they as individuals did but because they were Kurds.

With the Congo bloody, and Kim Jung Il posturing madly over a hopelessly sick country, the question "why Iraq?" is fair. But Power's firm explication of the devils of Iraq should leave us not postulating whether war is wrong, but rather when it is justified. Administrative bungling and military zealousness is this US administration's disease--but it does not alter the fact that Saddam Hussein committed genocide. If the bloody quagmire of Iraq only serves to support theories of rabid empiricism gone wrong, then I believe we move from an appreciation of the US as benevolent intervener. History certainly proves me wrong, but Power has left me convinced that genocide needs the world's strongest nation to assist in its prevention. Decades of "unlovely interests" have certainly deeply undermined the US' reputation, but what happens if it folds?

If we establish genocide as the worst case scenario, and Power would argue that there is nothing worse (we'll exclude a nuclear apocalypse and natural disasters), then perhaps we can still breathe life into Lincoln's Last Great Hope: pleading and begging and believing that the US can assume a position of judicious intervention. Power's despair, however, seems to be that of Lemkin's: that the banal sum of Realpolitik and conceptual frailties denies a public and political appreciation of the worst crime of all. Perhaps then we need another individual like Lemkin; a man preternaturally in-tune with what is right, and who would sacrifice his nervous system for it. It is a great deal to ask of anyone.