Killing is His Business

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

Killing is His Business

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.”

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