Review of Chirot and McCauley, Why Not Kill Them All? in Contemporary Sociology, 2007

Posted: December 12, 2009 in genocide reviews

Why Not Kill Them All? The Logic and Prevention of Mass Murder, by Daniel Chirot and Clark McCauley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 288 pp. $24.95 cloth. ISBN: 0-691-09296-6.

Martin Shaw
University of Sussex
m.shaw@sussex.ac.uk

There has been such a rush of general and comparative books on genocide and political violence in recent years that I approached this volume with scepticism as to whether it would add much to the field. I am pleased to report that my doubts were confounded. While most authors approach the question through a predictable series of case studies – Armenia, the Holocaust and Rwanda are the required cases, while others such as Cambodia and Yugoslavia are often added – Daniel Chirot and Clark McCauley have, more ambitiously, opted for a general interpretative framework which is used to explore an impressively wide range of material. A major bonus is that the field of enquiry is not limited to the standard cases, or even to situations that stand out as genocidal, but embraces conflict and war situations generally in an open-ended way. Chirot and McCauley contend that conflicts become genocidal, and that we must examine the patterns of conflict to see why some “degenerate” into genocide and others do not. This approach is a refreshing antidote to the standard assumption of genocide studies that we must start with the genocidal grand intention. Others have challenged this assumption – notably Michael Mann in his The Dark Side of Democracy (2005), which must have appeared too late for Chirot and McCauley to take account of – but it is good to see a study which departs so radically from the conventional starting-points of the field. Moreover the book is engagingly written, combining a directness and fluency that will make it attractive to teachers with a richness that will mean that the best-read researchers will find new cases to think about. (This Yorkshire-born reviewer had not hitherto thought of William the Conqueror’s policies in his native county as genocidal, but will now be turning to the source cited by the present authors for enlightenment.)

Chirot and McCauley’s arguments are at one level rather simple – they fill out the typology of motives for genocide advanced in the now classic work of Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonasson and they apply psychological categories to the mobilization of genocidal killing. The strength of the exposition is less theoretical originality than the very broad illustration and development of the arguments from an unusually wide range of situations. However an important chapter asks “Why is limited warfare more common than genocide?” and thus tries to set off the distinctiveness of the genocidal outcomes from the many situations that do not degenerate to this extent. And the final chapter, outlining “strategies to decrease the chances of mass political murder” advances many well thought out and timely arguments. The book is well organised and both these chapters enhance its advantages as a teaching tool.

The book’s weaknesses are the other sides of these strengths. Although they make a breakthrough in discussing war and genocide in the same framework, and not treating ‘ethnic cleansing’ as an alternative to genocide in explaining situations like Bosnia, Chirot and McCauley dispense too easily with the conceptual issues in the field. While wars sometimes degenerate into genocide, it is not only the existence of codes of honour, rules of war or social interaction between different groups that inhibit this development. Classic war is basically conceived as a conflict of states or armed organizations, so that the idea of making ‘enemies’ of civilian populations does not necessarily arise. In other wars the civilians are not enemies in themselves, and are attacked only as a means of attacking the armed enemy. While seeing war and genocide in the same frame, as this book rightly proposes, we need clearer distinctions between different types of armed violence, and clearer distinctions between different types of ‘degeneration’ of classic warfare towards civilian harm. The other major conceptual weakness of this book is related to this. Chirot and McCauley treat conflicts as occuring between ‘groups’, and do not distinguish systematically between states and social groups. But while it is important not to treat genocide as a purely state phenomenon, it will not do to write out state-society relationships as easily as they do. This is particularly important if we want to understand the differences, as well as the links, between war and genocide.

Chirot and McCauley have therefore written a valuable book, but its analytical value is limited by their reluctance to engage systematically with the still unresolved conceptual issues in the field.

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