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Lands of The Lost

Tome Mines The Links Between Systemic Population Exterminations and Conquest

Jennifer Daniel

By Zak M. Salih | Posted 11/14/2007

Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur

By Ben Kiernan

Yale University Press, harcover

On Oct. 10, the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs voted on legislation that would officially recognize as "genocide" the systematic slaughter of between 600,000 and 1.2 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1917. The motion--approved 27 to 21--drew protests from both U.S. and Turkish officials; indeed, countries have long shunned tainting their national histories with such a loaded word. The term conjures up images of human suffering unbearable to confront--why publicly acknowledge such intentionally perpetrated horrors when it would be more palatable to forget or suppress them?

The overall impact of this political call for accountability remains to be seen. What it represents, however, is a concerted effort to learn from the tragedies and mistakes of the past by officially recognizing them, an idea central to Ben Kiernan's massive Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur. In a little over 600 pages, Kiernan details not only the Armenian genocide but also the numerous mass murders that took place before and since in eras and regions synonymous with the terrible events that line our history books: Rwanda, Colonial America, Stalinist Russia, Nanking, East Timor, Nazi-occupied Europe. The end result is exactly what you would expect from a work of this nature: a lengthy, tiring, and frightening litany of burnings, beheadings, stabbings, shootings, beatings, hangings, gassings, rapes, starvations, sacrifices, imprisonments, and enslavements.

Working under the definition of genocide set by the 1948 U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide--"acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, racial, ethnical, or religious group, as such"--Kiernan explores four recurring themes in historical exterminations. The first two, racism and territorial expansionism, are relatively obvious culprits; we've known since grade school that human beings don't react too kindly to fundamental differences in skin color and that someone always loses in games of land-grabbing. More interesting are his ideas on what he calls "cults of antiquity" and agricultural supremacy as equally responsible factors for the murders of innocent men, women, and children in the wake of overwhelming and impersonal sociopolitical movements.

Cato the Censor's closing injunction during his Roman Senate speeches, "Delenda est Carthago" ("Carthage must be destroyed"), started it all, according to Kiernan. The subsequent destruction of Carthage set the precedent for future genocides and served as the central focus of future civilizations' obsession with cultural purification. Spanish conquistadors who ravaged South and Central America, slaughtering hundreds of New World civilizations, were weaned on the glories of ancient Rome and the historical accounts of Livy and Plutarch. From 1565 to 1603, when England began its conquest of Irish lands, Kiernan notes that "English expansionists linked classical accounts of the triumphs of Rome and the disappearance of Carthage to reemerging agrarian preconceptions of rural morality and fruitful land use." Nazi Germany, bent on reclaiming a "primeval past" in which agricultural and racial purity reigned supreme, developed the death camps and ushered in a wave of modern genocides made all the more shocking by their industrialized ease.

Along with these cults are the numerous agricultural explanations behind much of history's extermination policies. Often, the populations undergoing liquidation were viewed by their oppressors as unsuitable for cultivating the land they occupied. Thomas Jefferson's agrarian ideology, which championed the yeoman farmer, played a crucial role in U.S. policies toward Native Americans. The political nature of agriculture and its relationship with communism ignited the purges of Stalin's Russia and the famine that wracked China under Mao.

Kiernan's explorations of genocide in the 19th-century Australian Outback and the formative years of East and Southeast Asia illuminate periods of genocidal history often overshadowed by the more mechanized and publicized mass killings of the 20th century. He concludes his history with the 21st-century genocide in Darfur and suggests, not very convincingly, that Islamic terrorism is instigating a new wave of genocidal ambitions. While al-Qaida combines "ethnoreligious violence with territorial expansionist ambitions that resemble those of other genocidal movements," the connection seems premature considering that so much of this work suggests it takes the passage of time for genocide to become fully defined as such.

Though stressing a need to cry genocide as it occurs instead of waiting decades too late to take action, too much of Kiernan's book reads like a roll call of horror: a not so brief history of violence. When the book runs the danger of becoming a monotonous recitation of events and death tolls, however, the personalized accounts of witnesses remind us--as all worthwhile studies of human disaster should--of the individual human lives underneath all these millennia of collective death and destruction.

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