The Problems of Genocide

I am interested in the various problems of genocide: not only the terrible fact of mass death, but also how the relatively new idea and law of genocide organises and distorts our thinking about civilian destruction. Taking the normative perspective of civilian immunity from military attack that international law and norms ostensibly prioritize, my book argues that their implicit hierarchy, atop which sits genocide as the “crime of crimes,” blinds us to other types of humanly caused civilian death, like bombing cities and the “collateral damage” of missile and drone strikes, blockades, and sanctions. In other words, talk of genocide functions ideologically to detract from systematic violence against civilians perpetrated by governments, including Western ones. The Problems of Genocide also contends that this violence is the consequence of “permanent security” imperatives: the striving of states, and armed groups seeking to found states, to make themselves invulnerable to threats. Permanent security is an excessive, often paranoid policy response that necessarily results in civilian casualties by striving for the unobtainable goal of absolute safety.

Bombing of any type is no trivial matter if protecting non-combatants is a “civilized” norm, as long claimed by Western states. The United States (US) dropped eight times more bomb tonnage in Indochina—over two million tons on Laos alone—during the Vietnam War than in World War II, killing two to three million people, mainly civilians. When Western publics recoiled in horror from these often-televised destructive images in this war, air forces moved to more accurate technologies, namely guided missiles. Even then, military strategists and lawyers acknowledge that the “collateral damage” of “surgical strikes”—which drone operators cynically call “bugsplat”—is unavoidable, if regrettable. It is not surprise, then, that US forces were responsible for almost half the civilian casualties in Afghanistan in 2019, dropping more ordnance on the country that year than in all previous ones, hoping to bomb the enemy to the negotiation table as they did in Vietnam in the early 1970s. The weapons may have differed, but the tactics, strategy, and civilian destruction continues as before.

In the spirit of making careful distinctions, commentators insist that such civilian destruction cannot be compared to genocide because the purpose of the latter is to destroy peoples, whereas military action aims only to defeat enemies, even if killing some civilians in the process is inevitable. To this objection, I respond thus: why privilege the intention of states and their armed forces? What does it matter to civilians if they are killed by violence inflicted with genocidal or military intent? And what if global policing is intrinsic to national security policy, thereby entailing constant military action—the “infinity,” “forever,” “endless,” or “permanent” wars in which some states are engaged? Such wars are enabled by the use of drones and missiles, which shifts risk from armed personnel to enemy non-combatants, resulting in “repeated ‘small massacres’ of civilians.”

Drone and missile use have increased since late 2001 with the US’s “Global War of Terror” in the Middle East and Asia, in which 801,000 people have died, of whom some 335,000 were civilians. In its interventions there, the US also applies collateral damage considerations to non-armed (non-war) contexts, like Pakistan and Sudan, where the ban on extra-judicial killing should obtain. Then, in cases of doubt, its military presumes people are combatants rather than non-combatants, making them drone-strike targets. In these circumstances, the continuous killing of civilians becomes the norm rather than confined to occasional wars: they are casualties of “mowing the grass,” as Israeli security analysts call the “long-term strategy of attrition designed primarily to debilitate the enemy capabilities” in their “protracted intractable conflict” with Hamas. In practice, civilian casualties are routinely and cumulatively caused by this strategy. Some scholars say that “mowing the grass” has effectively become not only the “new Western way of war,” but of modern warfare itself, as the Russian and Syrian bombing of targets in Syria also indicates. This book argues that such practices are intrinsic to the global settler colonial expansion of Europe and its state model since the late fifteenth century.

The principle of civilian immunity is the presumption of civilian innocence. Military thinkers and international lawyers have wrestled with the conundrum of observing that twentieth-century warfare was total, whether in enlisting entire populations in the two world wars or internal armed conflict like civil wars. Total warfare, they suggest, means that, say, factory workers and their families, contribute to the war effort as much as soldiers on the front: they are not so innocent and legitimate targets. To insist on the tidy distinction between combatants and civilians is outmoded, they conclude. But if civilians are not immune, they are presumed guilty by association with enemy combatants—including neutral humanitarian personnel providing medical assistance to designated terrorists, not to mention so-called “human shields.” Then we verge on the mental world of genocide: entire peoples as enemies whose members are collectively guilty, or at least expendable. Is it to conceal this murderous assumption in military strategy and international law that civilian destruction needs to be genocidal to “shock the conscience of mankind,” to invoke the antiquated language of humanitarian declarations? And, furthermore, is that why such mass violence needs to resemble the Holocaust to be recognizable as genocide?

Given these and other problems, I suggest in this book that the genocide concept should be replaced with the more general crime of “permanent security.” To that end, we need to understand how our categories and imagination of mass criminality produced this moral hierarchy, the lamentable hair-splitting in discussions about civilian destruction, and the occlusion of permanent security: these problems of genocide.


Dirk Moses’ book The Problems of Genocide: Permanent Security and the Language of Transgression (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) is currently in press and will appear later in 2020.

Written by

Dirk Moses is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sydney.
Website at the University of Sydney

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *