War and genocide

By Richard Schmitt

It’s this time of year again, the season of genocide remembrances and conferences; President Barrack Obama went to Turkey and without using the dreaded word “genocide,” spoke harshly about the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Turks. It is the time of year to remember genocides and its victims.

The local paper displayed a bar graph of different genocides: 200,000 persons killed in Bosnia – Herzogovina from 1992 to 1995; 800,000 in Ruanda in 1994; 2 million in Cambodia under Pol Pot, 1975 – 1979; 6 million in the Nazi Holocaust, 1938 – 1945; 300,000 killed by the Japanese in Nanking, China, 1937- 1938; 7 million killed in Stalinist Russia during the forced collectivization of agriculture; 1.5 million killed in Armenia in 1915.

In this chart the word “genocide” is applied very loosely. The Nazis set out to wipe out the Jews. They were aiming to destroy a people. Stalin was trying to rid Russia of perceived enemies of the modernization project set in motion by the Communist party. The large loss of lives had nothing to do with ethnic identities. If they were seen to be enemies of the Stalinist state, they would be killed, whether they were Russian or belonged to some other nation. Similarly, the killers and killed in Cambodia were for the most part Cambodians (Khmer). National identities were not the primary issue. The word genocide here is simply a synonym for “mass murder.”

But if that is what genocide has come to mean — the killing of large numbers of people in a fairly short time. — Why does the chart not mention Word War II, which is reputed to have cost the life of 50 million people? Why is there no mention of the Korean war 2,800,000 victims) or the war in Vietnam (3,500,000 victims)? It is common to distinguish genocide from wars. Genocides are deplored and remembered tearfully. Many holocaust museums and commemorations have been erected. There are some but many fewer war memorials or remembrances of its many, many victims. Few, if any, university institutes study war; more study genocide. But if genocide refers to mass killings, wars should surely also be included.

Wars are different from genocide, but not that different. The carpet bombing of German cities and the methodical bombing of London and other cities in England had as their goal the destruction of civilian populations. In genocide, the destruction of a people is the end; in methodical bombing of cities, the destruction of a people is a means. For the persons who fall victims to either, the difference is non-existent. All die a horrible death. Modern wars in which the distinction between combatant and non-combatant has disappeared involve genocide. The distinction between war and genocide becomes blurred.
Of course we Jews should mourn our dead. But we must strenuously resist the temptation to think that death of our people is a more serious tragedy than that of others. We must not be tempted to acquiesce in the killing of more than 1,000 residents of Gaza in retaliation for 14 Israelis killed by the rockets of Hamas. We must not for a moment accept the argument, often offered to justify dropping atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, that these bombs served to save American lives. Upward of 700,000 persons died in these twin bombings. The number of American lives saved would certainly have been much smaller. The justification for dropping those two atomic bombs assumes that American lives are worth much more than the lives of Japanese.

But that sort of thinking—that some lives are worth a lot less than ours—legitimates genocide: Jews could be killed because the Nazis called their lives worthless. That sort of thinking stands behind slavery—including the sexual slavery of our day. That sort of thinking makes war and mass killing thinkable.

Holocaust remembrances and museums thus are very ambiguous. They allow us Jews to mourn our terrible losses and to mourn and protest the hatred so many people have felt for us in the past and still feel for us in the present. But when these remembrances reinforce the belief that Jewish lives are more valuable than the lives of Palestinians, they become a justification for repeating genocide, only this time the Jews are not the victims.

Holocaust remembrances, accompanied by the strident insistence that genocide is different from war, conceal the evil of war, conceal the millions and millions of persons who die miserably in war, and allow us to continue to use violence as our chief tool in international relations.
When Holocaust remembrances remember only “our” dead, they support the widespread nationalist assumptions that “our” lives—whether they be American, or German, or Israeli, whether they be Sunni or Shia, Hindu or Muslim, Chinese or Tibetan—are worth more than those of our enemies. A people that believes that, will ruthlessly kill its enemies and not shrink back from genocide. The cry “Never again” is emptied of all content once we fail to accept the value of all human lives as equal.
Until we learn to consider every human death a tragedy whatever the victim’s ethnic affiliations, the world will continue to suffer bloodbath after bloodbath. Hundreds of thousands, millions will die whether we call it genocide or not.

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