Book Review: Worse than War by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Public Affairs, New York (2009), First edition, 658 pages.
Harry Truman, the thirty-third president of the United States was a mass murderer. He twice ordered nuclear bombs dropped on Japanese cities… In effect, Truman chose to snuff out the lives of approximately 300,000 men, women, and children. Upon learning of the first bomb’s annihilation of Hiroshima, Truman was jubilant, announcing that “this is the greatest thing in history.” He then followed up in Nagasaki with a second greatest thing. It is hard to understand how any right-thinking person could fail to call slaughtering unthreatened Japanese mass murder.
The above passage comes from Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s book – Worse than War. With such a real honest-to-goodness statement found in the first few pages, I was drawn into reading the book soon after it went into circulation. Unfortunately, like many readers, I was dismayed to find that his was yet another disingenuous attempt to tackle a subject like the eliminationist policy. For a highly sensitive subject like this it is often difficult to keep distinct the three tasks of definition, explanation, and moral evaluation that muddle considerations of mass murder. One must keep distinct the tasks of definition, which requires specifying what is examined; of explanation, which requires accounts for why events occur and people act; and of moral evaluation, which requires one to judge the character of events and the culpability of the actors. As much as the passions of assigning guilt, blame, or moral responsibility hijack the objectivity so does the reverse case of hiding or ignoring obvious cases of eliminationist policy. As we shall see later it is in this latter matter that the author miserably fails to be objective and credible.
It is always easy to finger point others about their alleged eliminationist tendencies and crimes – past or present, but confession requires serious courage. For Americans, Japanese, Russians, Chinese, French, British, Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Australians, Burmese, Guatemalans, Croats, Serbs, Hutu, and countless others, the ugliness that they easily see in others, they fail to acknowledge in themselves, their own countries, or their countrymen. Thus, how often do we see any serious historian outside Howard Zinn writing about European elminationist crimes against the Native Americans? Hardly anyone!
Goldhagen suggests that any serious investigation of mass murder must reject two widespread notions. The first consists of several related notions: that people’s actions are determined by external forces; that they have little or no say over how they act; that free will is an illusion. The second faulty notion is the first’s curious analogue - it holds that internal drives impel people to commit mass murder. (p. 9) Have not we seen enough of those excuses from every mass exterminator even in our time?
George W. Bush and his murderous advisors had no problem justifying the use of the Daisy Cutters and other sophisticated arsenals known to mankind (shy of dropping the nuclear bombs) to wipe out nearly a million innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq who had nothing to do with either 9/11 or the WMDs. Was G.W. Bush any better than Harry Truman? So ruthless was the campaign in Afghanistan in 2001 that his Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had to actually ‘complain’ about running out of ‘targets’ to drop the bombs! Even the children’s schools with clearly visible signs painted on their roofs were not spared. And yet, Goldhagen ignores Bush and his cabal that were responsible for starting this century’s first major wars – the decade long war campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The preemptive strikes to eliminate the enemy became the much sought-out, if not the only, tactics practiced by eliminationist leaders throughout the world – from Israeli leaders to George W. Bush of America. Once the enemy was portrayed as the ugly beast, it became so easy to justify its slaughter before it could even imagine to strike! There was not the feeling of guilt or association with mass murder! It was, therefore, all too natural to hear these mass murderers boast today – years after their crimes – that, knowing what they do know now, they won’t hesitate to repeat such crimes. If you are looking for an apology from Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld for misleading America and the rest of the world with their false claims about the WMDs and the ensuing mass murder that they committed, forget it. They remain remorseless and arrogant!
Goldhagen discusses why do some people kill (though not just anyone) and other people who find themselves in the same situation do not. Why do some people torture and others similarly positioned do not? On a larger scale, why do some groups of people perpetrate mass murder, including slaughtering children, and others who find themselves in very much the same circumstances, say to deprivation or of being at war, do not? To answer these and the many other questions about mass murder, Goldhagen suggests that we must begin with several fundamental truths about human beings: people make choices about how to act, even if they do not choose the contexts in which they make them. People make these choices according to their understanding of the social world and their views of what how the world is to be shaped and governed, even if different contexts makes some choices more or less plausible, or easier or more difficult to choose. He says that “people ultimately are the authors of their own actions because humans are fundamentally beings with a moral dimension (which does not mean we endorse their moral views), and they are so because the human condition is one of agency, namely the capacity and burden of being able to choose to say yes, which means also being able to say no. We must keep these facts about human beings in mind for another reason. Ignoring them depersonalizes and dehumanizes the perpetrators. It turns them into puny abstractions, fleshy automatons with internal robotics programmed by whatever theories are supplying the motor.” (pp. 10-11)
With those words, Daniel Goldhagen, the son of a Holocaust survivor Erich Goldhagen, has no problem calling the ordinary Germans ‘Hitler’s willing executioners’ that not only knew about but also supported the Holocaust, which is the main theme of an earlier work with that very title.
Goldhagen writes about five principal forms of elimination: transformation, repression, expulsion, prevention of reproduction, or extermination. Surely, the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories, let alone the Rohingya people of Burma, are the worst victims that have been facing these five forms of elimination, and yet, in his thick book of 658 pages, outside the lukewarm mention of deportation, he fails to analyze the on-going criminal activities of the Zionist state of Israel. Such an omission is simply inexcusable. Did he have the hindsight to avoid sounding like Goldstone?
It is worth noting here that the South African judge Richard Goldstone chaired a fact-finding mission appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate what happened in the Gaza war of 2008-09. Recently he had a retraction in which he said, “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.” Two of the three other members of the mission disagree with their former chairman's change of heart.
The retracted allegation refers to the attack which killed 22 members of the Samouni family, who, following instructions from Israeli soldiers, were sheltering in a house in Zeitoun. But there are 35 other incidents that Goldstone's team investigated. It found seven cases where civilians were shot leaving their homes waving white flags; a direct and intentional attack on a hospital which may amount to a war crime; numerous incidents where ambulances were prevented from attending to the severely injured; nine attacks on civilian infrastructure with no military significance, such as flour mills, chicken farms, sewage works and water wells – all part of a campaign to deprive civilians of basic necessities. The key paragraph of the report states: "The Mission finds that the conduct of the Israeli armed forces constitute grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention in respect of willful killings and willfully causing great suffering to protected persons and as such give rise to individual criminal responsibility." On the Samouni killings it states that even if it amounted to an operational error and the mission concludes that a mistake was made, "state responsibility of Israel for an internationally wrongful act" would remain. All of these still stands and Goldstone’s recent cowardly retraction won’t be able to bury Israeli brutality in Gaza between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009 -- events which led to the deaths of 1,396 Palestinians, 763 of whom, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, were not taking part in hostilities when they were killed.
Dr. Alon Liel, a friend of Goldstone’s from his days as a Foreign Ministry representative in South Africa, provides some explanation to understand his retraction. He said that Goldstone has “been through hell.” Liel said, “He was being constantly harassed, received threatening letters, and was forced to change his phone number and email addresses. When Israel decided to boycott him, it was an overwhelming insult. ‘I'm a Jewish judge, a respected Zionist - and Israel doesn’t trust me?’ He was a broken man.”
As noted in the Goldstone report Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” was "deliberately disproportionate" and intended to "punish, humiliate and terrorize". That charge stands unanswered. Indiscriminate warfare was undoubtedly state policy. Shooting the messenger is always easier than dealing with the message itself. And that is what Israel and her friends did to Goldstone that forced the man to retract. It does neither change what happened in Gaza nor what will happen the next time war will break out there.
Goldhagen is not unaware of the social pressure that comes for criticizing the ‘worse than war’ strategy of the criminal Zionist state. As a Jew, you can be brutally honest about everything -- calling a spade a spade -- but when it comes to reprimanding and chastising the Zionist state, hide your feelings; otherwise, you would have to settle for unkind epithets like the ‘self-hating Jew.’ And thus while one can imagine his plausible reasoning to overlook the more visible signs of eliminationist policy of the Government of Israel, the reader is left puzzled with half truths and feels betrayed for author’s disingenuous treatment of the entire subject.
Goldhagen is often inconsistent in following his own logic and makes many unsubstantiated claims in his book. As if America didn’t bomb Japan and, Israel, the so-called ‘only democracy’ in the Middle East, hasn’t been at war since its illegitimate birth with all its neighbors, including Lebanon, the author is delusional with his claim that democracies don’t fight or go to war. He is critical about the roles of veto-wielding powers Russia and China, which he claims as ‘rogue and lawless’, but ducks the responsibility of the USA and her allies in misusing the same veto power to hide the crimes of Israel and themselves (p. 536). Some of his prescriptions for stopping eliminationist politics are silly, if not hypocritical.
The book claims to be searing investigation into genocide by a political scientist and public intellectual. Unfortunately, in spite of its large size, the book fails to do a thorough and honest job in identifying genocides of our time, and provides only partial measures to combat the crime. His silence about genocides of our time, especially the decade-long wars of the USA and her allies, the slow but definite eliminationist project in Israel against the indigenous Palestinians, silence about the Rohingya and Uyghur humanitarian crisis where the latter two peoples are subjected to some of the worst forms of eliminationist projects make the book an incomplete one, let alone a hypocritical rendering.
In summary, Goldhagen is a cowardly political scientist who has tried to hide the crimes of his co-religionist Zionists who are some of the hideous practitioners of eliminationist projects of our time. When an aspirant intellectual fails to scrutinize issues neutrally in an unbiased manner and offers solutions that are meaningful, any claim to providing hope to eradicate the most catastrophic scourge of humankind is simply ridiculous and faulty.