Slaughter Strategy: On Genocide’s Calculated Origins


One of the more curious features of the international liberal order is the frequency of solemn declarations to “Never Again” tolerate genocide, given how the vast majority of recent genocides have gone largely ignored. Naturally, many thus assume that this platitude is empty posturing. However, cold apathy towards the lives of hundreds of thousands is not the (only) reason why “Never Again” never happens. One of the greatest flaws in the public idea of genocide is that it has been oversimplified, by being depicted only as an incomprehensible outburst of raw hatred. In fact, genocide has historically occurred most frequently as a coldly calculated act of military strategy. When we cast an image of genocide in theory that looks very little like most actual genocides in reality, we end up entirely overlooking many of these complicated and horrifying crimes against humanity as they happen.

When people think of genocide, they think of the pogrom writ large. In mass media and pop culture, we envision an outburst of racial violence that systematically targets helpless civilians on the scale of a nation. While this sufficiently describes some genocides, it does not actually capture most historical genocides. There are three defining characteristics of this incomplete concept of genocide: the civilian innocence of the targeted people; the essentially inexplicable and incomprehensible motivations of the génocidaires; and the intuitively obvious moral break between petty authoritarian violence and fully genocidal ethnic cleansing. Michael Walzer’s A Foreign Policy for the Left [1] provides a perfect example of this mindset when he describes his threshold for humanitarian intervention. He describes “the far side of the chasm” between “nastiness” and true genocide as such [emphasis mine]:

“the people directly at risk may have no capacity to respond, their fellow citizens no will to respond. The victims are weak and vulnerable; their enemies are cruel; their neighbors indifferent or frightened. The rest of us watch and are shocked. This is the occasion for intervention.”

There are at least two major reasons that this is the most popular understanding of genocide. The first reason is that the most famous and most horrifying example in recent history, the Holocaust, largely exemplified this sort of genocide. Depictions of the Holocaust in mass media are (rightfully) abundant, and it features prominently in textbooks and history classrooms. Our memorials to the Holocaust show, in great detail, the unimaginable horror visited upon millions of defenseless innocents. The Holocaust was the single largest and most devastating genocide in recent human history, in which at least six million Jews were murdered, alongside millions more who were slaughtered by the Nazi killing machine. Therefore, everyone knows what the Holocaust was like, and everyone knows it was the genocide. Through the lens of the most widely known and most devastating recent genocide, everyone likely expects that genocides will resemble the unambiguous slaughter of defenseless civilians that characterized the genocide we all know.

The second reason is that this idea of genocide is painted starkly in moral black and white, and allows us to falsely believe that we would certainly know genocide when we see it. The mass slaughter of a people is a crime so great, that everyone wants to think that no petty excuse or authoritarian obfuscation would cloud our awareness of the crime. Indeed, if every genocide looked like the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, with an inhuman horror visited upon only the defenseless, perhaps we would usually recognize genocide as genocide. This brings us to the problem: most historical genocides are utterly unrecognizable, when compared to this schema of genocide.

Historically, the most common feature of genocides is that they usually targeted very real, very armed insurgencies. The most frequent targets of a genocidal campaign are not simply defenseless civilians, but the broad civilian population which houses armed anti-government insurgents. I will explain further what characterized these genocides and why they happened so frequently in a moment. First though, to illustrate my point, here is a very incomplete chronological list of generally acknowledged genocidal campaigns that targeted insurgencies in recent history:

The French conquest of Algeria; the 1888 Hazara uprisings in Afghanistan; the Herero and Namaqua genocide in German Southwest Africa; the (attempted and failed) Morelos campaign in Mexico 1913; the Belgian massacres at the start of WWI; the Armenian genocide; the Balkan genocide; the Nazi ethnic cleansing of Ukraine; the Bengal genocide; the Guatemalan Maya genocide; the Anfal genocide against the Kurds; the Bosnian genocide; and the recent Rohingya genocide. This list is by no means complete, and omits the relatively common use of genocide in pre-modern times to end uprisings—for example, the extermination of the Khwarezmid Empire by Genghis Khan, or the Roman extermination of the Samnites.

Each one of these was certainly a genocide, and almost all of them resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands of people for no reason but their shared ethnicity. Yet their targets were not solely civilians, and their perpetrators were not exclusively rage-blinded racial purifiers. Each of these campaigns was a cold, strategic attempt to end an insurgency by slaughtering en masse both the source of and the hiding places of the insurgents. They were campaigns of population extermination, yes—but ones with a primary purpose above and beyond mere incomprehensible racial hatred. Stopping genocide requires a clear understanding of this purpose, both to recognize genocide when it happens and to effectively pressure genocidal regimes to fix their problem with insurgency without resorting to genocide.

In a deeply twisted sense, it is somewhat intuitive why authoritarian regimes would commit these sorts of insurgency-targeting genocide. Insurgencies are very difficult to fight; there is no standing army to defeat, and the cities are all already captive. Powerful officials are assassinated, high-visibility military and civilian institutions are bombed, and for every one armed insurgent killed outright, there always seem to be two to replace them. Insurgencies come from and melt back into civilian populations, so defeating them outright without resorting to collective punishment can seem nearly impossible. As T. E. Lawrence put it, trying to fight an insurgency is like trying to eat soup with a knife.

Further complicating matters is the problem that virtually all insurgencies are clearly not protected by the current laws of war. Article 4, section A of the Third Geneva Convention defines the current international understanding of a prisoner of war, and the rights afforded to them. Section A(2) establishes that even irregular militiamen have these rights—with a huge catch. Such militiamen must carry their arms openly and wear some manner of uniform insignia, which obviously, virtually all insurgencies do not do. If a combatant does not meet these standards, the Convention does not grant them the rights of soldiers, and allows for them to be summarily executed as spies. Therefore, one can see how a military fighting an insurgency would quickly find themselves trying to kill a large number of people who look exactly like civilians. In this situation, when the enemy is visually indistinguishable from the civilian population, it can be very easy to stop trying to tell them apart.

These facts makes genocide no less of a crime against humanity fully deserving of international action. They only makes genocide more difficult to recognize before it is too late. Too often, genocide is given the cover of legitimate military action, because people have come to incorrectly believe that genocides are not generally related to the prosecution of a war. Collective action against genocide requires an acknowledgement that the veil of legitimate military operations is not a unique excuse, but instead the single most common historical backdrop of this atrocity. In order to stop genocide, we must recognize that evil is not merely banal; it is also uncomfortably ambiguous, and endowed with paper-thin excuses that nonetheless usually dissuade all who can take action from doing so.

Once we recognize genocide where it happens, collective action is necessary. The requisite action to stop genocide comes in multiple forms. One method is a military invasion, plain and simple. However, for many reasons, this should be the method of last resort. As exemplified by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the years of war that followed, invasions can kill hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, and there is no guarantee of stability in the wake of the overthrow of a government. When authoritarian governments are fighting insurgencies, we should take every effort to pressure such a government to never engage in collective punishment, and push them to fight insurgencies in a more just way.

This pressure likely should look similar to the sort of international sanctions regimes that are used to combat nuclear programs, but with greater intensity and urgency. For example, one set of the sanctions on Iran forbid any business which dealt with Iran from doing business with American and European financial institutions, which in practice would make business functionally impossible. These sorts of sanctions can be economically crippling to the point of threatening regime collapse. As both the pursuit of nuclear weapons and scorched-earth counterinsurgency are attempts at guaranteeing regime survival, responding with a threat of regime collapse by rapidly implementing and ratcheting up sanctions can make self-serving authoritarian regimes rethink whether a genocide would end up destroying themselves in the process. Using economic pressures, as well as limited military strikes, also carry the benefit of having an off-ramp. Once a full military intervention happens, there is no going back, and should only be used when the situation has clearly crossed a point of no return. With more limited but still high-pressure methods, such as powerful economic sanctions, sanctioned regimes have the option of backing off from their actions, and averting both genocide as well as the catastrophic loss of life that occurs in an invasion.

In terms of what we must demand, we should push governments to genuinely seek to win back the population that supports the insurgency. At their heart, insurgencies are a crisis of legitimacy. Insurgencies happen when large swaths of a population believe that the government is no longer their legitimate ruler, and are willing to take the radical step of taking up arms or broadly supporting those who do in the pursuit of a legitimate government. In the face of such a challenge, the international community must pressure a government to re-establish its legitimacy, rather than indiscriminately killing those who question it. This may include a degree of autonomy (for example, that granted to the Kurds by Saddam Hussein in Iraq under international pressure), or economic relief, or simply reducing the level of persecution they faced in the prior status quo. While everything short of military force should be the tool of first resort, stopping genocidal anti-insurgency tactics may still require threats of military action and even limited military strikes. Preventing slaughter is worth it.

One may note that this method would not suffice to defeat a relatively small terrorist organization, perhaps even backed by a foreign country, that does not survive via the support of a broader population in the way that insurgencies do. In this case, there is no military reason to engage in collective punishment anyways. This is not an insurgency; punishing the population could not possibly stop a terrorist group which does not depend on it.

For a final, modern example, look to Yemen. As an international community, we have already failed to stop the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar. It is not too late to stop Saudi Arabia’s genocidal counterinsurgency campaign against the Houthis. Their campaign shows all of the signs of a budding strategic genocide. Saudi warplanes have targeted civilians, medical facilities, refugee camps, schools, and other clearly civilian targets. Further, the Saudis have used a virtually impenetrable blockade on even the most basic civilian goods to create one of the worst famines in the past century in Yemen: 13 million people are at risk of starvation, and the non-profit organization Save The Children estimates that 85,000 children have died of starvation so far. The Saudis have sought to use this crippling blockade to starve the Houthis out of al-Hudaydah, the most crucial Yemeni port for imports into the country.

This blockade extends to medical supplies, and the Saudis’ have eagerly egged on the massive cholera outbreak in Yemen through the targeting of hospitals and doctors in Houthi-controlled areas. Meanwhile, the millions of civilians who are suffering under the horrifying conditions imposed by Saudi Arabia are overwhelmingly Zaydi Shi’ites. The large civilian Zaydi population are the primary source of support for the Houthis; therefore, the Saudis are likely driving for the eradication of Houthi support via an intentional mass starvation of the Zaydi people as a whole. The Saudis are seeking to drive out the Houthis through a campaign of national-scale mass atrocity, and are entirely willing to slaughter hundreds of thousands of civilian Zaydi Shi’a Muslims in the attempt to destroy the Houthis.

Few in the western media have identified this attempt at ethnic cleansing via starvation and disease as such, likely for at least two reasons. First, the perpetrator is nominally an ally of the United States. Second, the Saudis do not seem to outwardly harbor any of the shouty, explosive racial animus towards the Zaidi Shi’a that we have come to expect from génocidaires. Indeed, the Saudi campaign is the perfect example of why expecting fire and brimstone speeches about racial purity obscures most actual genocides. We have on our hands a campaign by one of America’s allies which is defined primarily by the mass slaughter of the Zaydi Shi’a people of Yemen. The fact that the Houthis are fighting back is irrelevant; it is insane to ask that a people targeted for genocide via a 21st-century Holodomor lay down and die quietly.

The mass murder of a nation by virtue of their ethnicity is a genocide, regardless of whether they take up arms. In fact, there is no more common context for genocide than a repressed people who have taken up arms against their oppressors. If we ever want to truly make “never again” a reality, we must acknowledge the complicated military nature of genocide. To be a truly moral nation, we must fight back against atrocity, even in the face of the deep ambiguity that so frequently surrounds it.

Follow Davis on Twitter at @lark_notes.


[1] To be fair to Walzer, I am only singling him out because I have recently read his highly intelligent and very necessary book. His argument is presented as an example solely due to convenience, rather than as part of any general critique of his work.

Banner image: Shoes confiscated from prisoners at Majdanek, on loan from the State Museum of Majdanek, Lublin, Poland. –US Holocaust Memorial Museum

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