Can a book be important, horrific and horrible? You wouldn’t think so, but Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s “Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity” fits that description.
The title tells all, starting with the obvious passion that the author brings to the subject. At a full 600 pages, plus 30 pages of notes (most of which are cites to referenced works and authorities) and a closing “Thoughts and Thanks” that runs another five pages, the book is ponderous from the outset.
But the topic of the book is most definitely important, if perhaps not quite as important as Mr. Goldhagen, in his obsession with the subject, would have it be. The propensity for genocide and its cousin, eliminationism (a word Mr. Goldhagen uses to distinguish non-lethal forms of human violence against other humans), is certainly a major character flaw in the human condition. To be specific, and Mr. Goldhagen is nothing if not specific, he conservatively accounts for 175 million deaths by genocidal acts in the span of the twentieth century (and the first few years of the twenty-first; the book was published in 2009).
In chronicling those episodes, the author spares no details. And that aspect of the book is what earns it the second adjective: horrific. It’s one thing to relate generally how mass murders were effectuated in the numerous genocides of the last century. It’s quite another to provide the grisly specifics, to include the blood and guts (literally) spilled by the perpetrators in each of those genocides.
Thus, for example, we learn of the Hutus genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda, which Mr. Goldhagen seemingly delights in describing over and over again, with each description including the fact that the victims were attacked with machetes and made to suffer as body parts and limbs were cut off before they were actually killed, as if the perpetrators were engaged in a form of perverse artistry in their killing.
Those and countless other forms of mass murder are described ad nauseam throughout the book. In this regard, the author is presumably intent on making the reader feel the horror of the events he describes. In that task he succeeds beyond all measure.
The third adjective – horrible – is intended to describe the actual writing a reader will encounter. For openers, the book is far too long. Although it is divided into four discrete parts and eleven distinct chapters, the same ideas permeate most of it. Those ideas (the horrific quality of these events, how they are perpetrated, why they are perpetrated, how frequently the same patterns lead to their perpetration) are repeated incessantly for the first 515 pages.
But the book’s length isn’t the only problem. Mr. Goldhagen also writes excessively long paragraphs; indeed, he seems to revel in them. Long paragraphs, while occasionally necessary, are a turn off for readers. They make the reading burdensome. But in this book, long paragraphs are de rigueur. Many run over a page, and those that don’t extend to that preposterous length take up the better part of a page. In almost every instance, they could easily be broken up into three or four separate paragraphs, each with its own obligatory topic sentence.
But the length problem extends even beyond the long paragraphs. Mr. Goldhagen, also an apparent lover of long sentences, the kind that often ramble on for in excess of 100 words to offer a description of an event or a study that then morphs into a second thought or secondary idea and that then includes a parenthetical addition, will, only at the very end of the entire monstrosity (assuming the reader has had the patience to stick with the sentence to get that far) provide the necessary verb to tell the reader what the subject of the sentence was doing in the first place.
And if you’ve just read the entire previous sentence you have an idea of what I am describing. Consider how little enjoyment can be gained in reading an entire book that is replete with such sentences (in the aforementioned interminable paragraphs) dealing with the gruesome descriptions that are the heart of the book.
In addition to these problems, the book also suffers from a lack of clear definitions. Calling Harry Truman a mass murderer is one thing (he did unleash the horror of atomic weapons in the assault on Japan at the end of World War II, thereby killing a quarter of a million civilians), but equating that decision with the regimes of Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Pol Pot suggests a lack of clarity.
Similarly, the Al Qaeda 9/11 attacks, outrageous though they were, probably fall outside of the kind of systematic butchery that characterizes the many full scale genocidal campaigns that the book focuses on. Yet, not only does the author put Osama bin Ladin (and Harry Truman) in the same general category as history’s genocidal leaders, but he also makes a case for equating the current “political Islam” (another term he creates, preferring it to radical Islam) with Hitler’s Third Reich.
Those attempts to equate actions and actors run afoul of his more clearly articulated condemnation of the true perpetrators of genocide and of his offer of an explanation for why those acts repeatedly occur throughout history.
In the last section of his book Mr. Goldhagen provides his solutions to the problem, albeit he still weaves more grotesque historical accounts into even this part of his tome. His solutions are both simplistic and unrealistic.
The simplistic solution is for the civilized nations of the world to condemn eliminationist actions by any who perpetrate them. He would enlist the media in those countries and thereby call upon the masses to demand action by their governments whenever eliminationist policies are threatened.
The unrealistic solution calls for dissolving the United Nations (which he regards as completely incompetent and even corrupt) in favor of a body he calls the United Democratic Nations (dictatorships, monarchies and other totalitarian countries would be excluded). That body would enforce the anti-eliminationist laws of civilized nations.
Not much of a payoff for such a heavy read, but it is an important topic.