Killing is His Business

The Failure Interview: Benjamin A. Valentino, author of “Final Solutions.”

Benjamin  Valentino
Benjamin A. Valentino.

Ask the average American to identify the common causes of genocide and mass killing and he will likely point to ethnic hatred or blame the dysfunctional society. But in “Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the 20th Century” (Cornell University Press), author Benjamin A. Valentino argues that ethnic discrimination and broad societal issues are inadequate explanations. While Valentino acknowledges these as factors, he notes that large-scale intentional violence is typically propagated by small groups of military or political leaders, their directives often carried out without the support of society-at-large.

Valentino—an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College—identifies six primary motives for mass killing which twentieth century perpetrators mixed-and-matched in various combinations. For example, Hitler was motivated by territorial expansion, ethnic hatred and imperialism, while communist dictators aimed to suppress guerilla resistance and impose communist doctrine. With tens of millions murdered in a dizzying array of mass killings during the past century, “Final Solutions” is an eye-opening reminder that genocide is almost always taking place somewhere in the world, although the general populace is usually oblivious.

How did you get interested in genocide and mass killing?
I got into it in a strange way. Whereas most people come to this subject from a human rights background I came to it from a subfield of political science called “security studies.” When I was an undergraduate—this was right at the end of the Cold War—everybody was worried about nuclear war. Of course, just about the time I went to graduate school this fear that nuclear weapons were going to be our undoing quite literally was going away, and a lot of us in security studies were casting about for what to study next. I think it was the combination of news on the former Yugoslavia and then Rwanda that made me think something interesting is going on that I'd like to be able to explain. As is typically the process with academic research I went to the library figuring there would be some good books on it and I'd satisfy myself and go back to studying more technical security studies issues. But when I did go to the library I was very dissatisfied with most of what I read. That caused me to look deeper and deeper and before I knew it I was writing my dissertation and that dissertation eventually became “Final Solutions.”

Most people would be surprised at the long list of mass killings that took place in the twentieth century. So much for the post-Holocaust vow of “never again,” right?
Absolutely. Genocide has been far more common than people tend to realize. It has not just been Armenia, the Holocaust and Rwanda—the ones that come to most people's mind. Even those who adhere to a much stricter definition of genocide usually include a considerably longer list than that. The broad definition of mass killing that I use is slightly different than the way most people use the term “genocide” [defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group”]. The primary difference is I count all cases of violence against civilians in which 50,000 or more people are killed in [a span of] five years. Most don't use a numerical standard; they are interested in the effort to destroy a group as a whole. So they end up with a somewhat shorter list of cases. But there's actually quite a bit of overlap—at least sixty or seventy percent. The ones that don't overlap are examples on my list that killed huge numbers of people but where you might not say there was a coordinated effort to wipe out every man, woman and child. There are cases on other lists where the victim group was quite small, so it didn't take that many people actually being killed for people to believe that there was a threat to the existence of the group. 

Your work certainly highlights how poorly informed the public is about mass killings. Why does the subject receive so little media attention and—based on what you've said—relatively little scholarly attention?
That's a question I don't think I have a satisfactory answer for. Of course, everybody knows about the Holocaust, but what has become clear to me over time is that the Holocaust is unique in the way it has entered the American and international consciousness. It's just so far better understood—even by scholars—than all these other cases, some of which have killed as many or possibly more people. It's particularly puzzling why cases of mass killing by communist states don't get more attention. One would expect that in the United States—a country that had a 50-year crusade against communism—we would be well aware of all the things communist countries did. But it's still sort of kitschy to wear a T-shirt that says “CCCP” on it, or to wear a Chinese Red Star cap or something like that.

Why have communist regimes been responsible for the deadliest episodes?
They wanted to fundamentally reorganize society at the expense of the way of life of certain groups. People think about Hitler's attacks as somehow being worse because they were directed at specific ethnic groups. But in terms of the total numbers, more people were killed in both China and the Soviet Union—possibly several times more—than Hitler killed, even if you include his non-Jewish victims. The reason why these regimes have been so violent is that they wanted to take control of people's lives in ways that went far beyond what your typical dictator might want to do. 

In all three cases I look at in the book—China, the Soviet Union and Cambodia—peasants made up 80 to 90 percent of the population. When most people think about violence in the Soviet Union they think of the Great Purges [in the 1930s], which of course were brutally violent, but far worse than that was the violence associated with collectivization. The same was true in China during the Great Leap Forward [1958-60] and in Cambodia. Basically, the violence occurred because all these peasants—millions upon millions of people, hundreds of millions in China and the Soviet Union—were asked to make extraordinary changes in their lives, give up the way they were growing food, and adopt untested methods. That results in death and dying for at least two reasons. When the communist cadre's showed up and told these peasants what was expected of them—that they were supposed to move off the farm they had lived on all their lives and move to a collective farm, and grow food in ways the peasants thought was unwise—some of them resisted, both violently and non-violently. The response to that by those regimes was to kill people. The second reason—and the reason that actually takes more lives in both China and the Soviet Union than the actual violence—is that these new methods of agriculture were so poorly thought out that in both cases they resulted in the collapse of the food production system. The peasants bore the brunt of that and so huge waves of starvation occurred in both countries. Some estimate that the famine in China during the Great Leap Forward killed as many as 30 million people—the largest famine in history. 

In “Final Solutions” you note mass killing is often described as “killing for killing's sake.” But reading your descriptions it rarely seems that simplistic.
One of the major themes of the book is to try to understand why leaders consider violence like this. What struck me when I looked at these cases in some detail is how little it really looked like “killing for killing's sake.” Instead, it appeared to be a means to an end. In other words, what the perpetrators really wanted was not the death of these victims, per se. They certainly didn't care about those victims and didn't lose much sleep over the fact that millions of them were killed. But that was not the end in itself. As I said, in the case of collectivization, they had to kill in order to implement this new system of economic organization. If they could have done that without killing so many people I think they would have. 

In the case of the well-known ethnic genocides, you can often see genocide emerge when efforts to remove people from society fail. Killing is a way to get people out of society, even if in many cases it seems the perpetrators would have been content to let them go to some other country far away where they would no longer be considered a threat. If you believe it's “killing for killing's sake” then there's not much the international community can do short of directly intervening to protect the victims. But if you believe the perpetrators might actually be willing to not kill if those victims could be relocated, then one has to look more harshly at the failure of the international community to consider accepting refugees from countries where this is going on.

So that's where the title “Final Solutions” comes from—a method of last resort?
This kind of violence is a final solution in two ways. From the perpetrator's viewpoint it takes care of the problem once and for all. But it's also final in that it's almost always not the very first attempt by the perpetrators to deal with the victim groups. Sometimes it's the last in a long line of efforts, some of which are violent but not genocidal, some of which might even involve concessions and negotiations. But when perpetrators ultimately see those efforts as having failed and still believe strongly that the goals they want to achieve with respect to the victims are absolutely necessary to achieve that's when the idea of genocide or mass killing starts to become more attractive. Leaders are faced with this choice, to give up the goals they have defined their regime around or to escalate violence to this horrendous level. 

Who is typically responsible?
We often tend to think about genocide as being a problem of entire societies erupting in violence where neighbors end up killing neighbors. But I found that rarely is true. Oftentimes the victims outnumber the perpetrators by quite a large margin and in many cases the perpetrators constitute less than one percent of the entire adult male population. Obviously a lot more people are playing some role in it, even if it's only standing by doing nothing. But in terms of how many people are actually required to carry out the violence, it's very small. Cambodia may be the most striking example. In 1975 the entire Khmer Rouge organization numbered only about 70,000 people. Yet, this tiny group managed to take over a country of eight million and less than four years after that as many as two million people were dead. 

The fundamental thing people have to realize about this kind of violence is it's not like war where one considers the balance of forces on either side and the violence is somehow related to that balance. In this case the perpetrators don't have to protect themselves because the victims are unarmed civilians. That means that the amount of violence they do is simply proportional to their numbers, how quickly they kill, and how long they have to do their work. So even in Rwanda—maybe the example people think of most when they think about a whole society erupting in genocide—the best estimates put the actual number of killers at somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000. But 200,000 only amounted to about nine percent of the adult male population. Yet that group was able to kill 500,000-850,000 people in less than four months, primarily with small arms, edged weapons like machetes, and grenades. They didn't need the industrialized killing processes that the Nazis developed. It gives you a sense of how small, well-organized, determined groups of killers can wreak incredible havoc.

Have you uncovered any reliable indicators for when a mass killing is imminent?
That's a harder question. In part, the reason why it's so hard to determine is because it's possible for small groups to have such a great influence. Broad societal indicators are probably not going to be all that useful. In other words, if you look at a society and see there's a lot of hatred between certain groups—lots of discrimination—that's not necessarily indicative that violence on this scale is likely to break out. What matters is whether a small group of people with an interest in killing manages to come to power, adopting policies that might eventually lead them to consider violence on this level. 

I always think it makes sense to look at the interests of those groups that are in power or near to power. If we see groups that are trying to bring about social transformation on a scale and pace of those transformations that we saw in communist societies we should be quite concerned about what might happen. Social engineering on that scale almost never succeeds. Usually it's associated with a lot of intentional violence and dislocation that results in fatalities—starvation, malnutrition, etc. The second thing we should look for is attempts to carry out ethnic cleansing because a lot of times genocide emerges out of failed policies of ethnic cleansing. When one sees groups trying to move large populations of minority groups around or out of a country, one should be worried that those policies might eventually escalate beyond simply trying to move people around, which is in itself a violent process. Then the third thing—and the one kind of mass killing we haven't discussed yet—is large-scale guerilla warfare. That's another situation that provides incentives for leaders to consider violence against civilians on a massive scale. When we see states fighting very large, very popular guerilla insurgencies there's always got to be a concern that the state will eventually begin to consider violence against civilians if conventional military methods are failing.

Has mass killing ever been a successful strategy for those that employed it—and by successful I mean did the perpetrators ultimately achieve their objectives?
Although leaders think it might be a way to achieve their ends—that it will be a successful strategy for them vis-à-vis their victims—if you take the longer view it almost always fails. In the short term massive violence did force people into collectives in the Soviet Union, in China and in Cambodia. But all the regimes that did that are now gone. The collectivization—even in China, where the communist party remains in power—has been rolled back. It didn't achieve its objectives in terms of what people hoped it would do for the Soviet or Chinese or Cambodian economy. Instead of increasing agricultural productivity it decreased it to such an extent that the rural economy essentially collapsed. It was probably a large reason why there was so much discontent with those regimes and a large reason why—in the Soviet Union and Cambodia, anyway—they eventually were overthrown. 

If you look at the regimes that carried out ethnic mass killing their regimes were also overthrown. Some have speculated that part of the reason is they were so busy killing unarmed civilians that they didn't devote enough attention to defending themselves from their better-armed international adversaries. Obviously, there's the common story about Hitler diverting trains away from the front in order to ship Jews to the gas chambers. There's a good case to be made that in Rwanda the Hutu army was so busy trying to slaughter Tutsi civilians that it failed to defend against the RPF [Rwandan Patriotic Front] and its army, a Tutsi army that eventually occupied Rwanda, kicked out the Hutu government and is still in power today.

Also, mass killing of civilian populations has not been successful in achieving victory against guerilla organizations. Maybe the best example is the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the '80s. The Soviets killed hundreds of thousands and maybe millions of Afghani's in the process of trying to put down the insurgency. Although they didn't lose the war in strictly military terms they did ultimately feel that the price was too much to bear. Rather than putting down the insurgency the killing of all those civilians simply drove more and more of the Afghan population into the arms of the insurgents and, if anything, made them stronger over the longer term. So in general this policy has been a failure. That raises the question of why states continue to pursue it.

Historically, what factors bring mass killing to an end? 
It's interesting especially when you look at the Soviet Union and China. Both countries were going through wave after wave of mass killing under Lenin and Stalin in the Soviet Union and under Mao in China. But that pattern ceased almost overnight when Stalin died and in China when Mao died. Obviously, Hitler was deposed by an international war and the Hutu regime was deposed by an international war. The Soviets in Afghanistan decided to give up and eventually left. It is usually the demise of the political regime that decided on the policy of mass killing that brings it to an end.

In your estimation, in these situations, is intervention likely to be futile as many politicians would have us believe?
My view is that we should walk a middle line between saying intervention is futile and saying it's simple and easy and won't be much of a problem. On the one hand, I don't think it's futile in the sense that these aren't necessarily poisoned societies that are doomed to conflict again and again and again. [The argument is] unless we could somehow resolve all of their problems—something that people say is beyond the capability of the international community—we'll never be able to end the cycle of violence in these countries. I don't think that's true because I don't think that's the cause of mass killing. Again, the cause is small groups of military and political leaders who find it in their own strategic interest to use violence against civilians in this way. We need to focus our efforts on getting rid of those leaders. That doesn't mean that people in those societies will love each other the next day or that there will be no violence at all. But it could mean that coordinated massive killing of civilians would come to an end. 

That might sound like a more hopeful perspective. But it's also important to note that in some of these cases the leaders have themselves very well entrenched. It's very difficult to imagine, for example, what kind of international intervention against the Soviet Union or China during the heyday of Stalin and Mao could have gotten rid of those leaders and their regimes. They were entrenched in power and backed up by large armies that would have resisted any kind of military intervention. Other cases might be easier but generally it's a mistake to think that these things will always be cheap and easy. 

There's also the danger of half-hearted intervention. When the international community gets involved on behalf of victims it can sometimes make those victims appear more threatening than they were beforehand. As a result, the perpetrators might feel that dealing harshly with those victims is more urgent than ever. If in those cases the international community is not willing to come to the defense of the victim groups on the ground then the result can be more violence against victims rather than less.

In your opinion, what should the United States' role be in preventing mass killing? Certainly, the U.S. can't intervene in every potential situation. 
No, we can't. Although we are the country that has the greatest capability to intervene there will be cases in which military intervention will be out of the question. The costs of it will simply be too much to bear. But there are other cases—I believe Rwanda was one of these—in which we could have saved many lives, even if we couldn't have prevented the genocide altogether. I do believe that on a case-by-case basis the United States has a duty to evaluate intervention and to consider whether it's possible. We've been hiding too long behind the view that these conflicts are the result of age-old ancient hatreds and there's nothing we can do to prevent them therefore we don't even need to try. We need to focus on practical efforts to protect victims and defeat perpetrator groups. Sometimes we can do that at relatively low cost to ourselves and save hundreds of thousands of lives. We ought to do so in conjunction with other countries. Europe has often gotten out easy on this because they lack the capability to intervene in these places all on their own. So when genocide is imminent they call for the U.S. to do something and if we don't they blame the lack of intervention on the United States. Europe and other countries also have a responsibility to intervene to stop these crimes. 

What kind of intervention do you see as most effective at preventing mass killing?
We need to be aware of those situations in which leaders are likely to consider mass killing in the first place. At the most basic level there is intervention to get rid of those regimes that sponsor mass killing or that seem to be set on that path. That could be direct military intervention designed to help the victims depose those regimes or defend themselves. Or intervention could take the form of helping refugees as they attempt to flee the country. Again, the argument being that in many cases the perpetrators will actually allow the victims to flee under the right conditions if the international community will accept them. I point to Kosovo as one example of this—when 800,000 Kosovar Albanians fled across the border into Albania after the ethnic cleansing campaign by Milosevic. One has to ask what would have happened if Albania wasn't there for the Kosovars to flee to. If the United States had not been providing assistance, protection, food and shelter what would have happened to those refugees even if they had fled across those borders? Certainly there would have been massive mortality among them. In general, we need to focus on impacting potential perpetrators' calculations about the costs and benefits of mass killing while doing our best to physically protect victim groups on the ground.

What countries are at highest risk right now?
Certainly countries with large ongoing guerilla wars. These are probably the most common places to see mass killing occur and there are many of these conflicts across the world. I think we could say mass killing is underway in Sudan. There's also a large-scale civil war going on in the Congo that's killed millions of people. There's a real serious risk of this kind of violence in that country. 

I'm also worried about countries with radical Islamic governments. These governments are trying to seize control of the lives of their citizens in ways that strike me as similar to the ways some communist states sought to do. I was always worried about the Taliban for that very reason. As governments try to reach that deeply into the day-to-day lives of their citizens there's always the chance that the people try to resist those changes and in an effort to overcome that resistance violence is the result. Or the effort to change society so abruptly and massively results in the kind of economic and social dislocation that collapses the economy or results in mortality. 

Why does Africa seem to be especially prone to this problem? 
I think it's for one main reason that manifests itself in two ways. There are a lot of weak states in Africa and in a weak state a relatively small radical group can come to power with interests and ideas that don't necessarily match those in most of society. Second, because these governments are weak they often invite challenges from insurgent groups. That means there are a lot of guerilla wars going on in Africa at any given time. Because mass killing is so often a response to large-scale guerilla conflict on the part of governments trying to defeat those insurgencies we see a lot of this kind of violence in Africa.

Is Iraq vulnerable? In the book you mention how failed democratic initiatives often lead to mass killing and that seems to ultimately be a possibility there.
There certainly were mass killings in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was in power—primarily directed at putting down insurgencies within his own country, particularly by the Kurds. Now there are two questions about Iraq. One is whether the United States itself will engage in this kind of violence, which I think is unlikely. Although we are fighting a guerilla war there, right now that war is not backed by the kind of large popular movement that is most likely to provoke this kind of response. Second, before the United States resorted to that level of violence we would declare victory and come home. We'd understand that it wouldn't be in our interest to use that kind of violence. We'd rather withdraw than resort to that tactic.

But the bigger question, and what I think you're getting at, is what happens when the United States leaves. Insurgencies will arise against whatever government takes power, and those insurgencies will be strong and popular and receive support from the civilian population. It will be those conditions that make that government—in an effort to ensure its own survival—attempt to target those civilian populations that they believe are supporting the insurgency. Of all the different scenarios for mass killing that would be the most likely one. But how likely it is in absolute terms I don't know. The situation there is still so fluid that I wouldn't care to guess what would happen. 

Where do you go from here with your research? 
I'm still interested in the question of violence against civilians so I'm beginning a larger project, trying to understand why some wars take a much greater toll on civilian life than others. We already have part of the answer from “Final Solutions.” Certain kinds of guerilla wars are likely to provoke massive violence against civilians but there are other conditions in wars that might make violence against civilians more likely. 

I'm also interested in trying to understand terrorism—large-scale terrorism against civilians. Because oftentimes some of the same misconceptions about mass killing and genocide apply. In other words, a lot of people tend to see the violence like that which occurred on September 11 as killing for its own sake. But it's possible to discern more strategic political motives behind a lot of terrorist violence, including the violence that Al Qaeda has carried out. Al Qaeda is a deeply strategic political organization and has political goals beyond simply hurting Americans.