This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Mass Killings And Modern History

From March 2009

Twenty years ago, if you remember, the ‘winds of change’ were blowing across the world and communist governments were, as they say, ‘toppling like ninepins’. In April of the year of dog 1989, massive student protests – the sort of thing that had sent governments packing in Eastern Europe – jammed Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. These protests, which, among other things, called for “democratisation” and an end to the Communist party’s rule, snowballed into a confrontation that led to a massive military crackdown on the “unarmed” protestors (who retaliated with Molotov cocktails and some firearms, somewhat oddly for unarmed people) in which several hundred to several thousand (depending on whom you believe) people died.

After a period of widely expressed “outrage”, the West and its allies returned to doing business with China, which is now stronger than ever and whose Communist government remains firmly in control today, and the average Chinese citizen (despite growing economic disparities) is better fed, better clothed, and has a longer lifespan than the average Chinese citizen then.

In August 1991, in what was then still the Soviet Union, a group of generals and apparatchiks launched a coup attempt to save, as they saw it, the country from the disastrous policies of Mikhail Gorbachev, who was taking it down the road to disintegration. The coup collapsed in only three days, not the least because massive protests against it were allowed to take place and not decisively crushed, as they could very easily have been. The aftermath included the dissolution of the USSR, which its citizens (but for five of the constituent republics) had only in March decided to preserve, in a general referendum. This collapse – social and economic as well as political – led to wiping out of savings, massive inflation, a complete collapse of healthcare and lifespans, and to this day none of the constituent states has fully recovered from it.

So, which was the right way out? The bloody crushing of (even if actually unarmed) demonstrations which enjoyed, at the time, a measure of popular support, or the tolerating of demonstrations that led to the destruction of the country and society? If Tiananmen hadn’t happened, would China had become a fractured entity like Russia today, impoverished and ruled over by thinly-disguised oligarchs and mafia dons? If the August 1991 protestors in Moscow had been wiped out, would the USSR have still survived as a great and strong nation today, its citizens still enjoying cradle to the grave welfare benefits?

Or take another example, that of Chechnya. In 1999, Chechnya was a “dagger drawn at the heart of Russia”; a centre of Islamic fanaticism and jihadi terror modules, on the one hand; and a potential source of further disintegration of Russia, a pale shadow of the USSR as it was, into small Bantustans, something which was and still is a dream of some armchair Cold Warriors you-know-where. The Second Chechen War, which began in August 1999, involved massive and brutal suppression of the Chechens, including civilians who had no direct role in the conflict, and destroyed Grozny; but it led to the virtually complete destruction of the Chechen rebellion and the end to any real possibility of further vivisection of the Russian state. 

Or, to take another of my favourite other examples, the much-maligned figure of Iosif Vissarionvich Dzhugashvilli, nicknamed “Stalin”; he took over one of the least developed countries in the world, and that after a disastrous military defeat and a ruinous civil war; he starved masses of people, he sent thousands to labour camps, he shot officers he even suspected of possibly conspiring against him in future (kind of like the neocon doctrine of “preventive war”), he did this, he did that – but he led the USSR to a virtually unimaginable victory in the Second World  War, and he took over a poor agrarian nation which still used wooden ploughs and left it with nuclear reactors and a vast industrial economy.

Can one, for instance, imagine any Soviet soldier fighting to the death for...Gorbachev, for instance? Or Yeltsin? Yes, Stalin killed an unknown number of his own people, although the estimates sometimes bandied around of sixty million are undoubtedly many times exaggerated; but he fought to a victory in a war that killed twenty million Soviet citizens. Under a more “liberal” and “democratic” regime, like Yeltsin’s, for instance, the population of the USSR would have been wiped out completely by the Nazi victors, except perhaps for a few thousand preserved as slaves. Hitler had said as much, many times.

Stalin is supposed to have said, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”. In that view of things, which is generally misunderstood, mass deaths are supposed to be not an end in themselves; they are a step designed to achieve a particular goal. Human history abounds in this.

The medieval conquerors, for instance, Chingis Khan or Timur-i-Leng, who slaughtered the entire populations of cities that resisted them, weren’t indulging only in bloodlust (though bloodlust was certainly one of the minor benefits) – what they did was to ease the path of conquest by terrifying other cities into capitulating without a fight. Over and over, history records “great rulers” who achieved their greatness by the wholesale destruction of peoples, or “failures” who failed precisely because they refused to subdue a rebellious province by a massive use of force. In fact, there’s more than enough evidence to assume that whether a particular act of mass killing is thought of as a great or at least acceptable deed or as a horrible crime depends entirely on one thing – who came out the victor at the end of it. The Turks lost the First World War, so their massacre of the Armenians is genocide. The British won, so their massacre of the Iraqis in the 1920s isn’t.

And this includes not just active killing but passive – by induced famine for instance.

In recent times, to give one example, the Holodomor in Ukraine in the 1930s was a mass famine that accelerated (as it may have beenmeant to) the collectivisation of agriculture, and which the Ukrainian state now says was a war crime. During the Soviet era, however, it was not so regarded.

And there is the example of the Bengal famine of 1943-44, when up to 4 million people (compare that with the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis in the much-celebrated "Holocaust") in the province of Bengal (today's Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal) in the British colony of India were killed by a famine the British both engineered and allowed to happen. The reason for this was the fact that the Japanese were in the act of invading Eastern India and a mass anti-British Indian rebellion could by no means be ruled out. If that had happened, there would have been no way the British could have held on to the Northern half of their Indian colony, at the very least. But people starving to death do not rebel – they’re too busy trying to scrape a meal together. Hence, the famine, which the British are yet to apologise for.

You’ll note that all these examples are directed mass killings, meant to achieve a particular goal, not killing for the sake of killing (although that goes on too, as I’ll mention in a moment). Often, the argument in their favour goes that a few hundred or thousand or million deaths are justified when the alternative would be many times the deaths and destruction. And it is by no means restricted to such "vile" regimes as the Red Under The Bed or brutal "Third World" dictatorships.

The liberal American who shudders in horror reading (perhaps somewhat overheated) accounts of the Gulag will be hypocritical if he doesn’t admit that his own nation, for instance, is founded on the extermination of virtually the entire native population and the confinement of the remainder in what amounted to open air concentration camps. He will be doubly hypocritical if he refuses to acknowledge the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, made in the name of saving lives; or the starvation deaths of half a million Iraqi children between 1991 and 2003 on the pretext of containing Saddam Hussein. He will also be forced to admit that his own country cannot, without being hypocritical, simultaneously condemn the Sudanese for the alleged complicity of the Sudanese government in attacks on refugee camps in Darfur and at the same time back the quite undoubted attacks by the Zionazi pseudostate on the refugee camps in Gaza. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

I mentioned killing for the sake of killing. The foremost examples of this I can think of are the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia which killed and displaced millions of people, the entire population of the country, in fact, for no reason except the “revolutionary mobilisation of the people”, whatever that may be when it’s at home; Hitler’s massacre of the Jews, utterly useless except as an expression of Nazi racial hatred; and the Hutu massacres of Tutsi civilians in Rwanda in 1994, which had no direct connection to that country’s civil war. But I suppose these could figure as the mass versions of the crimes of psychos who kill without any or sufficient motive, compared to killing for gain or revenge.

To get back to the point, then – killing (which doesn’t even have to be a mass killing to achieve certain goals, if they are  targeted carefully enough; a rotting corpse hanging in chains may deter more highwaymen, or corrupt bureaucrats, than any number of prison sentences) is not, and has never been, in every instance a historically negative process. One might even say that mass killings are one important way of moving history onwards, and certainly it hasn’t been the handiwork of any one side or ideology. Nobody’s hands are clean on this one.

Which still doesn’t mean that of those million statistical deaths, eachindividual one isn’t a tragedy.

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