Does Genocide Matter?

Matt Yglesias has an interesting piece in The American Prospect arguing that the brutal killings in Darfur are not technically “genocide” but merely “counter-guerilla mass slaughter.” He believes this should be cause for reflection.

Does it matter? On one level, no. War crimes are war crimes, brutality is brutality, slaughter is slaughter, and we all have a duty to reduce its incidence. But once ambiguity re-enters the picture, so should common sense.

Megan McArdle retorts that genocide/not genocide is a meaningless distinction and wonders why “genocide is somehow so much worse than normal killing.”

It’s an interesting philosophical question. As a practical matter, however, despite our professed revulsion at genocide and the “never again” pledge taken so solemnly after the Holocaust, the international community has more-or-less ignored genocide or near-genocide at will. Granted, most of them have been in the context of at least a nominal civil war and none have been quite so systematic as Adolf Hitler’s.

Further, I would dispute the notion that we have a “duty” with regard to mass slaughter elsewhere, regardless of whether it rises to the level of genocide. Humanitarian intervention in the case of famine, drought, and natural disasters is arguably a “duty” and regardless something I tend to support. Stopping other cultures from butchering one another in civil wars, however, falls outside the realm of reasonableness. Stopping the slaughter in Burundi, Zaire/Congo, or Rwanda in the 1990s would have been great but were not vital national interests worth the sacrifice of substantial American blood and treasure. Ditto Sudan now.

Coupling humanitarian motives with national security objectives also makes sense. Would it be worth the commitment of tens of thousands of American troops to establish democracy in a random country in the world that is currently led by a bad guy? Nope. If the bad guy has been a repeated nuisance, is funding international terrorists, and threatening to destabilize a key strategic region? Yep.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. And just where would we stop?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Don: A good question indeed. The answer, as with whether to go to begin with, should depend on a calculation of U.S. strategic interests rather than on humanitarian sympathies.

  3. Jim Henley says:

    The holocaust against the Jews really was unique in the scope of the slaughter. The Germans weren’t just killing the Jews in their way: they went out of their way to get ahold of every Jew they could. They made earnest representations to Japan to turn over the handful of Jews in *China*. (Japan refused.) It was a mission to extinquish every last Jewish life on Earth. No “genocide” before or since has been so sweeping in its ambitions: not the Turks’ depredations against the Armenians; not Saddam’s suppressions of Kurdish insurrections; not whatever is going on in Darfur today. It’s not even clear that the Rwandan Hutu would have carried their rampage as far as the Burundian Tutsi. The various atrocities we’ve dealt with since “never again” became a catch phrase haven’t been the same thing.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Jim: I think that’s true, although I’m dubious that we would have fought WWII if the Holocaust was fully understood and yet the only provocation.

  5. legion says:

    I understand your point, but I’m not sure I agree… Hitler, more than any of the other examples, actually had the _means_ (at least potentially) to exterminate every Jew in the world – there was a very real threat that he could have ‘won’ WWII.

    While the other atrocities you list, as you say, were limited to the targets they could reach, one must wonder where they would have stopped… What I mean is, most of the groups you list – Tutsis, Armenians, etc. – don’t exist in significant numbers (AFAIK) beyond the areas they were slaughtered in. Only the Jews (thanks to the various Diasporas and attempts to end them previously in history) were spread-out enough that to kill them all you’d need to have control of most of the planet.

    Then again, once someone is evil enough to actively try to kill off an entire race, do we really need to define further levels of evil to rate just _how far_ they’d go to accomplish genocide? 🙂

  6. Jim Henley says:

    No we wouldn’t have. We didn’t raise a finger to shorten it once we knew it was going on. And our refusal to take in refugees in the 1930s and early 40s was one of the things that convinced Hitler to go all the way with the Final Solution.

    But the implication is pretty clear: Hitler would have wanted America’s Jews sooner or later, and would have been willing to fight us to get them. Which is why, isolationist that I am, America’s entry into the European war makes much more sense to me than the pointless decision to pick a fight with Japan and hand China to Mao.

  7. anjin-san says:

    Its pretty clear that the current admin is only interested in “saving” people who happen to sit atop an ocean of oil. It would be nice if they spared us the BS about humanatarian goals in Iraq.

  8. Its pretty clear that the current admin is only interested in �saving� people who happen to sit atop an ocean of oil.

    You do realize that Sudan has a huge amount of oil, and supplies China with a large percentage of what they need? And that the Darfur region is the location of much of that oil?

    So by your reasoning, Bush will be going into Sudan. Yet, he’s not, despite the urging of people who fault him for actually going into Iraq.

  9. legion says:

    You do realize that Sudan has a huge amount of oil, and supplies China with a large percentage of what they need?

    If I were a tinfoil-hat type, I’d say you answered your own question 🙂

  10. RJN says:

    Jim Henley:

    You seem to be maligning the U. S. with so much ease, and with so much speculation.

  11. Jim Henley says:

    You seem to be maligning the U. S. with so much ease, and with so much speculation.

    Find someone who falls for ploys like this and try it on them, kid.