By Monica Tincopa
Can an understanding of the relationship between armed conflict and mass murder prevent future holocausts?
With at least six countries — the Sudan, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Algeria, and Afghanistan — considered at “very high risk” for genocide, it is especially urgent that we attempt to identify and then understand the motivating factors leading to genocidal movements and the activators allowing these atrocities to occur. Only then can we begin to create a means by which to prevent and intervene in genocide. Central to this task is the ongoing discussion of the interdependence and intricate interplay of warfare and genocide. At the crux of this debate are the notions of causality and temporal antecedence, i.e., the precise nature of their relationship. Is warfare a necessary precursor to genocide? Or does genocide in fact necessarily lead to warfare? Or is it perhaps the case that neither causal relationship necessarily exists?
Many attempts to resolve this debate and determine the genesis of genocide in relation to conflict have hinged on the identification of the underlying factors and forces driving genocide. Although in-depth studies of the motivations behind genocidal movements reveal certain common tensions, this information ultimately fails to explain the whys and wherefores of genocidal occurrences. Its fundamental theoretical failure is understandable given the psychosocial dynamics that mediate our actions and decision-making processes. To determine whether or not genocide (or indeed any action) will occur, it is necessary not only to establish a motive, but also to determine whether or not there exists an opportunity for this motive to be acted upon. While motivation does originate with a call for action, its existence is meaningless if the conditions making the action feasible are not met. Because context mandates when and to what extent a society can act, the situational context of a given society is the most important indicator of whether or not genocidal tendencies will be realized.
Mediating the extent to which context influences a given action is the extremeness of the situation. The more extreme the circumstances, the greater effect the situation will have on a course of action. With peaceful harmony and total war representing the two extremes of a society’s contextual spectrum, these situations can facilitate extreme actions that may be otherwise unfeasible. With respect to genocide, the presence of armed conflict plays an integral role in providing conditions conducive to mass killings. Warfare then acts as a powerful precipitating factor for genocide in large part through the impact of its subversive subculture. The overriding “Fog of War” and underlying “Culture of War” pervades society and puts in place the structural, logistical and psychological processes necessary for a population to act on its underlying tensions and commit genocide.
Warfare’s strength as a facilitator of genocide lies in its ability to catalyze the ideology and put into place the mechanisms required to act on it. The social catastrophe that is war creates an emotionally charged atmosphere that can intensify tensions and ultimately lead to a profound ideological transformation. Given its power to trigger immensely powerful psychological events such as insecurity, fear, and anger, it is not surprising that “major genocides often occur under the cloak of war” (duPreez 82). Indeed, shared fear swiftly and unconsciously bridges perpetrators of violence together and serves to rationalize their hatred. Collective fear can also lead to increased feelings of nationalism as well as blind support of those in positions of power, both being “forces [that] often foster increasing interethnic violence and genocide” (Hirsch 13). A simple reflection on the overt anti-Arab racism that has emerged in post 9/11 American society painfully illustrates the aggravating nature of fear in response to conflict.
With preexisting, albeit heretofore nonviolent, tensions and discrimination taking on a new form and significance, an “us versus them” mentality develops and begins to dominate. As the fear of the people grows, so too does the ease with which a society can extend the label of “enemy” to target population: “[g]enocidal parties have a particular appeal since they clearly identify the enemy and attribute responsibility for the anxiety and sufferings which people are experiencing” (duPreez 101). Invoking ideals of patriotism, with which people are especially indoctrinated during wartime, the same tactics of marginalization and demonization used against the enemy state is then effortlessly and stealthily applied to the intended victims of genocide. This collective grouping is a vital step, for “genocidal movements believe that they can defend themselves and achieve their goals only by complete elimination of a defined enemy” (duPreez 100).
Once this labeling has been effectuated, interaction between the perpetrators and the victims of genocide is mediated by the perverted social norms and underlying “culture of war” at work in a war-torn society. The existence of this unique subculture makes genocide less unreasonable, both physically and mentally. In times of war, or of other serious crisis situations, civilians adopt a warrior mentality. This outlook rationalizes a “kill or be killed” doctrine, for “in a war zone, how do you survive? You become a killer rather than a victim. You adapt to the circumstances that will most readily assure your survival” (Hirsch 13). Viewing the homefront as part of the battlefront, themselves as soldiers, and their enemies as anyone who poses a threat to their values, civilians come to believe that “individuals must depend on themselves, and they arm and use weapons to achieve what cannot be achieved through other means. The code of the street becomes the rules of the game and the socialization of the street guarantees a form of often brief survival” (Hirsch 13). The ease with which citizens embrace this mentality is driven by the subversive culture of impunity that develops as a natural product of war. A horribly skewed set of norms becomes socially acceptable within this brutal subculture. Violence becomes the standard, moral imperative is abandoned and society as a whole becomes desensitized to pain and loss.
Destruction of this enemy becomes not only justifiable and justified, but a patriotic duty, “the goal of the war response” (duPreez 101). It becomes impossible to distinguish between former friend and current enemy. Perpetrators are thus allowed to act with a clear conscience, as demonstrated by the intimate murders in Rwanda and the isolation of Armenians in Turkey. Assumption of an unrestrained warrior mentality channels energies like fear into violence; it creates a numbed existence and “erodes the understanding of the pricelessness of life along with a capacity for outrage at injustice and cruelty” (Hirsch 14). This lowered moral bar during wartime means that increasingly unfathomable acts can occur and be obscured by the “fog of war.” The work done by social psychologists on this reaction to crisis situations indicates that “[w]hen we are terrified of nonlife, we are inclined to wish no less than the same nonlife or death for our fellow human beings” (Charny 91).
Once a genocidal movement is underway, the group psychology ensures its continued progression and minimizes any potential criticism and opposition. This effect is perhaps most pronounced in the military, where “[the] culture of obedience, the close interdependence of men together in danger, the fact that killing is normal in war, and the ever-present fear make it easier to obey than to disobey” (duPreez 107). The group dynamics at work cement one’s adherence to the group and its activities. Three mechanisms in particular that are often institutionalized in military or paramilitary organizations help perpetrators to disregard or distort the effects of their actions: 1) diffusion of responsibility 2) deindividuation and 3) conformity to peer pressure. In this way, “their agentive role in extraordinary evil is obscured and minimized” even to themselves (Waller 212).
Unfortunately, no degree of cognitive dissonance seems to counter the effect of group culture in times of war.
In acknowledging how strongly people are influenced by group culture, we can begin to understand how even the most clearly illegitimate orders come to be followed in times of war. Caught in the grip of a powerful social process, “they run a serious risk of accepting values that normally would not be acceptable to them in their independent judgment and conscience” (Charny 114). Indoctrinated into the aforementioned culture of war and having adopted a warrior mentality, civilians adhere to these military principles and “are inclined to follow leaders, no matter how mad they are [as they are] inclined to follow the momentum and direction that already exists in a given situation or structure” without justification or explanation (Charny 163). Unfortunately, no degree of cognitive dissonance seems to counter the effect of group culture in times of war, as “the majority of human beings are sheep like in their obedience and conformity to authority, even when they are instructed to commit heinous acts that go against their real values and beliefs” (Charny 195). It is through these continual submissions that further and grosser acts come to be ignored, accepted, and eventually expected.
Established that warfare provides the emotional, psychological and social conditions necessary for genocide, it is now our task to assess whether it also puts into place the logistical and structural mechanisms necessary to the carrying out of mass murders. Systematic killing of monumental quantities of people requires considerable planning and complex logistical preparation. To initiate genocide, the prospective perpetrator “must prevent or overcome resistance by the victim, isolate the latter from potential allies, cut off escape routes, and ensure an appropriate combination of collaboration, acquiescence and ignorance among the rest of the population” (Hirsch 7). Given the nature of their responsibilities and their functional experience, military personnel can be considered resident experts in these matters.
In addition to providing logistical expertise, an engaged military can also provide the structure and legitimacy necessary to facilitate the commission of acts of war. Since genocide “is not a random event, but grows out of the structure of the state, which must give its approval…there must be an ongoing climate in a culture that will permit, invite, and support what become orders” (Charny 328). Because a society already engaged in warfare has previously acknowledged the legitimacy of the military’s actions, prospective perpetrators of genocide need only extend the application of its acts, which they have already condoned, to these new “enemies.” Persuaded by what a perceived increase in the pervasiveness of war, this extension is legitimized through “a process of professional socialization into the military. In this sense, even extraordinary evil behavior can be socialized – particularly during a period in which recruits are brought to full commitment” (Waller 205). A military engaged in war has the societal conditions amenable to further militarization at its disposal, for society has already “condoned, officially sanctioned, and encouraged the spread of armaments” (Charny 304); as a result, societies “with localized warfare are societies in which fuller onslaughts of mass murder are likely to take form” (Charny 304). The act of genocide can be portrayed as a simple extension of the greater conflict, as an effort to purge internal enemies.
Perhaps the most basic, yet essential, contribution an active military can make is that of a vehicle by which weaponry and tools can be made available and distributed. Warfare, by nature, exponentially increases access to tools of violence. In societies entrenched in conflict, weapons are “easily, even promiscuously, available with little or token regulation. Official use of weapons is automatically justified by position of authority and arms development is maximized. Culture of society glorifies the use of weaponry” at all levels and with no objections for they are viewed as necessary tools of protection (Charny 304). In addition to providing a “legitimate” and more covert means by which to obtain weaponry, the military can also provide considerable manpower. Soldiers can fight on both fronts, as it were. The adoption of this “double duty” allows the government to “conflate warfare and genocide into a single function, utilizing a trained military for both purposes” (Kressel 190). The military is therefore particularly well equipped to commit genocide.
Once the “culture of war” has made genocide both psychologically and physically possible, the “fog of war” serves to confer immunity on the state. Portrayal of genocide as a private and internal concern of a sovereign state relating to its politics and a consequence of armed conflict is necessary to stave off attempts at intervention. In international relations, war and its management is seen as the specific and unique right of the state and the state alone. The ability to engage in war has traditionally been fiercely defended as a means by which to protect state sovereignty. Because war is typically regarded as being between two states, and is looked upon at the state level when assessing events of war, we generally concentrate on what is going on between – and not within – the two states. Our respect for state sovereignty focuses the lens of our attention and consequently can distort the significance of each state’s actions. Fully aware of this tendency, leaders can then exploit it in order to commit crimes against their own people.
Warring states can target unpopular groups within their respective states with impunity. For example, State A can accuse an internal target group of supporting the enemy, and neither State B, its enemy state, nor the international community can say anything because it is a wartime internal sovereignty issue. State A has a right to protect its security and livelihood, and in portraying this group as a supporter of the enemy, it can get away with crimes that, under other circumstances, would be denounced. While genocide is a crime distinct from warfare, “armed conflict obscures genocidal killing, obstructs victims’ calls for assistance, desensitizes bystanders to cruelty, and impedes intervention from outside states. Concurrent warfare confuses international observers about the nature of genocidal conflict” (Kressel 181). As the fog thickly settles in, intrastate conflict is obscured, ignored while interstate war is closely scrutinized.
It is not just any war that can provide conditions conducive to genocide. Rather, it is those wars that “verify” the teachings of hatred within a society and that appeal to a society’s collective memory that are the most efficient catalysts. For example, a turning point that led to the massacre in Rwanda was attack by the Tutsi-dominated Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) on the Hutu government. This tangible militarized assault on Rwanda by the RPF provided the “internal logic” that fueled the Hutu Power movement and led to nearly one million murders. The movement gained momentum mostly because it was seen as justified “retribution” against an internal enemy that actively threatened Hutu livelihood.
While war is almost universally recognized to be an important facilitator of genocide, there is some controversy as to whether it is the most important one. It is true that war is by no means a necessary precondition for genocide. Genocide can and does occur outside the context of war, as a comprehensive survey of history shows. Yet, where both exist, war serves to fan the existing flames of conflict. Its role is explosive and, in that respect, similar to that of lighter fluid. It can make it much easier for an already combustible situation to burst into flames, but if the roots of conflict are rubbed together vigorously enough, fire will result regardless.
Twentieth century genocides were described as being the consequence of the leadership of people like Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Lenin. If the evil people could be eliminated, so too could be the source of the problem.
Cultural tension and ethnic hatred are motivators even in the absence of war. In elucidating the genesis of genocide, tenuous societal tensions and innately evil individuals prove to be necessary but, on their own, insufficient facilitators of genocide. If hate and discrimination alone are sufficient causes for genocide, why then is it not more prevalent? Surely racial tensions and ethnic divides currently exist and create conflict in nearly every nation? For a long time, the response of many historians and psychologists alike was the simple, yet satisfying, argument that the root of the problem lay not in the circumstances of the situation, but in the presence of evil people. Twentieth century genocides were described as being the consequence of the leadership of people like Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Lenin. If the evil people could be eliminated, so too could be the source of the problem. While this is feel-good interpretation allows “normal” people like us to shake off responsibility and concern, it is too simple to be a real solution. This Fundamental Attribution Error fails to attest to the continued and even increased occurrence of genocide today and leaves scholars with a flat, foundationless answer. Most often, certain potent and pervasive societal activators are required to initiate and perpetuate the mass killings, for although genocide undeniably requires this underlying conflict, “we can’t explain genocide in terms of psychological abnormality, for behavior is a product of social situations” (duPreez 90). Genocide occurs at the hands of “ordinary people” in opportunistic times. We must again conclude that genocide is a problem of social ecology and that war is one of its most powerful instigators.
Through an understanding of the conditions necessary for genocide, we will begin to “understand the ordinariness of extraordinary evil [and] we will be less surprised by evil, less likely to be unwitting contributors to evil, and perhaps better equipped to forestall evil” (Kressel 180). An awareness of the ideological transformation that can be provoked by the culture of war can provide us with a means by which to assess the psychosocial aptitude of a society for genocide. Complementing this with a similar appreciation for the complications stemming from the “fog of war,” the logistical and structural readiness of a population for mass murder can also be gauged. Armed with an understanding of the motivating factors that lead to genocidal movements and the activators that allow these atrocities to occur, we can move towards creating an effective means of prevention and intervention. If these conditions “could be altered or, alternatively, we could understand what propels individuals to commit violence, there conceivably could be greater opportunities to stop genocidal violence” (Hirsch 12). Deconstructing the facilitative effect of warfare is an important first step toward putting an end to genocide.
About the Author:
A Southern California native, Monica Tincopa, who graduated in May 2005 with a BS in Psychobiology and a minor in Peace and Conflict Studies, recently made the big move to Baltimore, MD to study medicine at Johns Hopkins. She hopes to work in public health and international medicine.
Charny, Isreal. How Can We Commit the Unthinkable?: Genocide: The Human Cancer. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1982.
duPreez, Peter. Genocide: The Psychology of Mass Murder. New York: Boyars/Bowerdean, 1994.
Hirsch, Herbert. Anti-Genocide: Building an American Movement to Prevent Genocide. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.
Kressel, Neil. Mass Hate: The Global Rise of Genocide and Terror. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2002.
Waller, James. Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. New York: Oxford UP, 2002.
Wilshire, Bruce. Get ‘Em All! Kill’ Em!. New York: Lexington Books, 2005.
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