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Book reviews of 'Worse Than War' by Daniel Goldhagen and 'Stripping Bare the Body' by Mark Danner

By Susie Linfield
Sunday, January 3, 2010; B08

WORSE

THAN WAR

Genocide, Eliminationism, And the Ongoing Assault on Humanity

By Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

PublicAffairs. 658 pp. $29.95

STRIPPING BARE THE BODY

Politics Violence War

By Mark Danner

Nation. 626 pp. $28.95

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Daniel Goldhagen is on the side of the victims of war, massacre and genocide. He hears their cries and sees their maimed bodies; most of all, he is outraged that the international community refuses to protect them. His ambitious new book, "Worse Than War," springs from an immersion in their sufferings and the heartfelt desire to end it.

But even victims -- or, perhaps, especially victims -- deserve books that are clearly argued and clearly written. "Worse Than War" is not that book.

The first problem is conceptual. Drawing on his controversial 1996 book, "Hitler's Willing Executioners," which argued that longstanding "eliminationist" anti-Semitism was a main cause of the Holocaust, Goldhagen now puts forth the idea that eliminationist violence is the main threat in the world today. In his view, eliminationism includes pretty much everything from actual genocides, such as the one in Rwanda, to the United States dropping the atom bomb on Japan, the dirty wars against the left in Chile and Argentina, South African apartheid and, currently, China's occupation of Tibet and Islamist terrorist attacks. Goldhagen's impatience with diplomats who dither over definitions of genocide is understandable. But by conflating so many incidents, movements and events -- all of which are (or were) very bad, yet all of which are very different -- he makes the eliminationist concept virtually meaningless. He's like a doctor who thinks it doesn't much matter whether you have cancer or AIDS.

One of Goldhagen's major points is that "mass murder is a political act" -- a conscious, transformative project rather than the unplanned result of peer pressure, fear or frenzy -- and that this understanding must be incorporated into any analysis of it. This is an important if unoriginal argument. But Goldhagen repeats it and other insights so many times that the reader begins to feel bludgeoned rather than enlightened. His writing is often vague and graceless: "But while each individual account is apt and explanatory, still, in sum they coalesce into the sometimes looser and sometimes firmer patterns seen here about which we can say and explain a great deal but which often still defy general, causal explanations." He seeks to bring us close to the dark heart of sadistic, gratuitous cruelty -- to "the matrix of suffering, degradation, and death" -- a morally exigent goal to which writers such as Jean Améry, Primo Levi and Philip Gourevitch have come much closer, precisely by cultivating the kind of sober linguistic restraint and precise thinking that Goldhagen eschews.

Goldhagen displays an unflagging churlishness towards others in his field. He rails against structuralists, determinists and "theorists of modernity and the so-called human condition" who, in his view, excuse genocide; previous treatments of this subject, he informs us, have been "blinkered," "simpleminded" or "preposterous." Who, exactly, are these woefully deficient antagonists? Goldhagen never says -- except in one case, that of Hannah Arendt. Yet his description of her work is so startlingly inaccurate as to cast doubt on much else that he writes. Goldhagen charges that, in "Eichmann in Jerusalem," Arendt put forth an idea of robotic, cog-like perpetrators who could not be blamed for their actions. Exactly the opposite is true. Arendt insisted that Eichmann was, first and last, an individual man who was utterly responsible for everything he did. That is why she supported the death penalty that the Israeli court handed down.

None of this would matter much if Goldhagen provided powerful and useful prescriptions for preventing and ending mass murder. He convincingly argues that it's crucial to hasten the transformation of "tyrannies into democracies" -- a difficult, wonderful aim that I wish he had fleshed out -- and to end the "politics of impunity." Here, he offers many specific proposals, including the abolition of the United Nations; the adoption of the death penalty by the International Criminal Court; the distribution of a handbook to every world leader that would lay out the costs of failing to meet acceptable human-rights standards; and the creation of a union of democracies whose "rapid-deployment force" would attempt to prevent or stop incipient mass murders and, if that fails, depose eliminationist regimes by force and either arrest or kill their leaders. Admittedly, this last provides a measure of emotional satisfaction: I, too, would dearly love to see the overthrow of a butcher like Sudan's Omar al-Bashir. The problem, of course, is what would come the day after this intervention -- a subject that interests Goldhagen very little, though it would probably interest the Sudanese a lot.

Like Goldhagen, journalist Mark Danner is outraged by the large-scale destruction of human beings. Danner's new book, "Stripping Bare the Body," contains long dispatches that delineate the agonies of Haiti and the former Yugoslavia. But most readers will be primarily interested, I think, in his writings from, and analysis of, the war in Iraq. Danner's prose is usually cool and lucid, though it occasionally lapses into melodrama ("The first time I was killed, or nearly so . . . "). And though Danner is morally rooted in a hatred of war and injustice, he repeatedly skewers the idea that American power can remake the world. Against the "ambition and grandiosity" of the Bush Doctrine in Iraq, for instance, he puts forth the virtues of "the modesty of containment."

Yet Danner, too, runs into problems. All of the pieces in "Stripping Bare the Body" were previously published as contemporaneous reports, which means that the book resembles a jigsaw puzzle that the reader must assemble. This is not always easy. In the Bosnian war, Danner was a fervent interventionist, railing against the cautious Powell Doctrine of national self-interest and "fear of entanglement," which he regarded as forms of appeasement. (He compares Warren Christopher to Neville Chamberlain.) In the case of Iraq, however, those principles look much better to him. This is justifiable; many, though not all, of the journalists who passionately urged the United States to fight Milosevic later passionately urged the United States to not fight Saddam. But a coherent explanation as to why Danner took such different positions is needed; "Stripping Bare the Body" contains no such overarching chapter.

The hero of Danner's book is the late diplomat George F. Kennan, father of the containment doctrine. (One piece begins, somewhat implausibly: "In the ruined city of Fallujah, . . . I sat in my body armor and Kevlar helmet and thought of George F. Kennan.") Yet it is not at all clear how a containment strategy could work against al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups -- groups that, Danner admits, have "mutated into a worldwide political movement" that transcends national boundaries and, in the process, have carried terrorism "to a level of apocalyptic brutality that the world had not before seen." It is a flaw of his new book that Danner fails to adequately explain these contradictions. It is a strength of his new book that, after reading it, one wants to hear more.

Susie Linfield directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University. Her book on photography and political violence will be published this year.

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