Summary: I could not put this book down . . .
Review: "A Problem From Hell" is what Secretary of State Warren Christopher called the Bosnia war. After the author, Samantha Power, reported on that war, she studied the beginnings and ends of some other major genocides of the 20th century. This book is her report, and it is stunning, not as an indictment of anyone, but as a revelation to us all.
First, the beginning: Genocide begins with the policy choice of a man in command of a sovereign state to achieve state aims by killing pre-identified citizens. The book details the policies of the Young Turk Mehmed Talaat Pasha, Hitler, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Colonel Bagosora, and Slobodan Milosevic.
Second, the end: Genocide cannot be prevented or ended from the outside if respect of national sovereignty trumps other values, which it usually does. Even if international effort or an invasion from the outside runs over national sovereignty, genocide is unlikely to be stopped unless the suffering is personally witnessed. Genocide stops when individuals who MUST fight evil act to end it. The book tells the uplifting story of a number of heroic individuals who became political Good Samaritans to help the victims of genocide. The first of these was Raphael Lemkin, who coined the work "genocide." Read the book to find out who the others are -- you will be pleased and surprised to learn of the actions of some very selfless Americans.
This book was the parable of the Good Samaritan writ large. Most of us choose to walk by on the other side of the road when the thief attacks the victim, the better not to see the victim's terror and suffering. This book should jolt us out of that habit, and if you opposed our invasion of Iraq, you might find solace in knowing that we deposed a perpetrator of genocide.
Summary: A remarkable achievement
Review: The Turkish slaughter of the Armenians. The Holocaust. The butchery by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Iraq's gassing of the Kurds. Ethnic cleansing in Serbia. Tribal massacre in Rawanda. Official U.S. indifference or paralysis.
It's impossible to overstate how impressive a job Powers does of revealing the horrors of 20th century genoicide, the courageous attempts of often just one person to act, and the official lethargy of our governemnt when U.S. interests were not threatened.
One of Powers' greatest feats is to present so much bureaucratic manuevering and discussionn in a readable fashion. "A Problem Form Hell" could be a daunting read for the casual reader, but for Powers ability to tell a compelling story. One effective tool is the various heroes she introduces, such as Rafael Lempkin, a Polish Jew who coined the term Genocide and dedicated his life to make it officially illegal under international law. Other heroes include U.S. Senator William Proxmire, who spoke daily for years on the senate floor on behalf of U.S. ratification of the genocide convention.
Amid the depressing accounts of the horrors humans visit upon one another, Powers presents the inspirational stories of those who have fought to save lives. Yet one is left saddened at how ineffectual the U.S. has been in responding to genocide in a timely fashion.
"A Problem From Hell", is an important book, serving as a warning to this and future generations.
Summary: Morality Vs. Sovereignty
Review: Samantha Power takes history to a new level. She has boldly gone where so few were too afraid to go. I've never read a more compelling account of post World War 2 atrocities. It saddens me that through all the work and time put into making genocide a crime that the United States was the last to ratify the genocide convention.
Needless to say I was aggravated to the point of almost putting the book down. However, Ms. Power wrote a piece of literature so informative and unknown to me that I kept reading. I learned more about the history of genocide than I have in four years of high school.
I gave A Problem from Hell four stars because it was such a griping historical analysis of genocide and how the world handled it, but it was a tad too long .
Review: While one might think that a book about genocide would be depressing, I found reading this book to have the opposite effect. It is inspiring to read the stories of people like Lemkin and Senator Proxmire who doggedly prodded the world to pay attention to this crime. It is also energizing to share the author's outrage at policymakers who trot out every excuse imaginable to avoid taking action in response to reports of genocide. I'm not sure any other book has demonstrated the pattern of response to genocide that is documented in this book. While we pay lip service (particularly since the Holocaust) to the idea that "never again" should such crimes be permitted to occur, every time we see evidence of such crimes actually occurring -- in Cambodia, in Iraq in the late 80's, in Rwanda, in Bosnia -- our leaders are afraid even to use the word genocide to describe them (such as Warren Christopher famously allowing officials to admit only that "acts" of genocide may have taken place in Rwanda). The author is not suggesting that the U.S. intervene in every civil war, but instead that we at least speak out against evil, rather than encouraging it by our silence. Not a dry, dull book at all, but exciting to read.
Summary: Brutally Honest
Review: A Problem from Hell, written by Samantha Power, delves deep into the flesh of American History. Touching on the many problems in Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo, Power takes these issues and discusses what America did, or the lack of action, and what the American public has not been aware of. What I found fascinating about this book was not only the hard and stunning facts, yet also Samantha Power's explanation of genocide, and further, what she feels America should do in the future. Her ideas resonated with our current situation in Iraq, and after reading this book it made me think about our place in that situation. Our country has repeated the same mistakes over and over again, and through the many situations where we should have learned our lessons, we have just ignored other calls for help. The quote at the beginning of the book, by Abraham Lincoln, sums up her ideas, "We - even we here - hold the power, and bear the responsibility." Abraham Lincoln knew that with a powerfully growing nation, what comes hand in hand with this power is responsibility. The US has not taken this responsibility, yet when were hit with the devastating loss of citizens in the World Trade Center attack, many countries came to our aid and supported us in our loss, yet when other countries are hit even harder, we sit at the sidelines. This book is riveting and brutally honest, and will open anyone's eyes to the atrocities that our country has committed.
Summary: LOOKING AWAY IS NOT THE ISSUE!!
Review: This is pure establishment bum kissing American propaganda denialism.
Her thesis is that the problem with great acts of mass murder around the world is that USA is in the habit of looking away.
The problem with great acts of mass murder around the world is that in far too many cases including some she mentions it is the USA that is guilty of committing the genocide or arming and financing the ones who are. THIS appears NO where in this sad piece of apologism for the American record of genocide that she totally avoids.
A perfect example is East Timor and Indonesia. She claims the USA merely looked away. NO WAY! The USA was right in there from the start arming and supporting the Indonesian army in committing the genocide. Just as the USA had enabled Suharto to have murdered 1 million Indonesians. She mentions NONE of this.
Just as the USA and UK were responsible for Saddam's worst crimes and in fact rewarded Saddam for murdering Kurds with an increase in financial credit and arms supply after the slaughter.
Just as the US and UK were arming and assisting the Turks on the other side of the border to massacre their Kurds. She says nothing about this.
She says nothing about the 1 million Cambodians killed by the CIA/US military prior to Pol Pot than uses an already discredited figure of 2 million for the Pol Pot genocide the real figure being closer to 1 million.
She writes NOT one single line about the fact that the United States military murdered 4 million Indochinese men. women and children between 1961 and 1975.
Nor is the 1990's Sanctions On Iraq policy mentioned. In the 1990's more than 1 million Iraqis died as a direct result of the US/UK sanctions regime which were the most genocidal system of economic sanctions in history. At least 600,000 infants died thanks to the sadism of the Clinton administration.
Per usual to win prizes and official compliment in the USA an author seemingly has to erase all mention and notion of the crimes of genocide for which the USA a nation built on the genocide of American Indians and enslavement of Africans is
so obviously responsible for.
Howard S Marks
Manchester UK email@example.com
Summary: MUST read for those who think "its someone else's problem"
Review: After reading "Love Thy Neighbor" (another must read), I purchased "The Problem from Hell" and found it hit far more emotional chords. Anyone who thinks that national politicians should be chosen based on what they can do for their country needs to read this. We need more politicians - in particular in the U.S. and major powers - who see the responsible role every such country must play in the global community. It is appalling and embarassing to realize just how many times in the past decade alone the countries of the world have just stood back and watched while barbaric acts against innocent others went on unimpaired. Makes me want to dump the U.N. as a useless stage show unable and unwilling to take any real action. When such situations as described in this book happen, it is time for action, not fruitless negotiations. And it was the Democrats and the Republicans in the U.S. as well as every major world power including England and Canada who have failed to go beyond the politics of words while literally millions of innocent people have died. Armenia, Cambodia, Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq - not a lesson learned. I doubt that anyone can read this book without asking "how can we let things like this go on in the 21st century?".
Summary: Historical sketches a great bonus to a brilliant book
Review: I found Problem From Hell to be a gripping read and important commentary on an under-analyzed subject. That said, what I remember most and found most impactful were her sketches from history. Like so many other twenty-somethings, my American History education focused far more on the US through Nixon but not beyond and was skewed toward domestic policy at that. For example, I didn't appreciate the importance of Cambodia in US and global policy before reading this book. Her relatively short context segments on Cambodia, Bosnia, Armenia, Iraq (in Kurdish context) are well-written, insightful and informative. My knowledge of US and global history is dramatically enhanced having read this book.
Also in the vein of the under-appreciated history, her chapter and references to Lefkin were new to me. As a Jew and student of history, I'm embarrassed that this was my first introduction to such a great man. The ~30 pages on Lefkin were worth the price of the book and time spent reading, alone.
Readers interested in genocide would also be well-served by Peter Maass's Love Thy Neighbor - a similarly well-written book focused on the former Yugoslavia. Maass's book is shorter and more focused, but also adds a personal element (not overwhelming) of his experience as a modern, American, Jewish journalist visiting the "again" in "never again".
Summary: Mass Murder? Don't Call Us
Review: This is a readable, detailed history of the U.S. response (or non-response) to genocide in the twentieth century, particularly to the post-World War II holocausts in Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia. Author Power weaves her narrative out of personal interviews and the careful study of primary documents. However, her book isn't dry or "academic," since she also takes pains to tell the grim history through the lives of quixotic, driven individuals like Raphel Lemkin, William Proxmire, Peter Galbraith, or Romeo Dallaire, who tried to shake the world out of its complacency and confront the enormity of mass murder. Contrary to a few reviews below, Power's analysis is balanced: Republicans and Democrats take their lumps equally. Bill Clinton comes off badly. So does Bush Elder. So does almost everyone in a position to decide policy.
I gave the book four stars instead of five because it is 50-100 pages too long, because it glosses over or ignores the U.S. response to genocides committed by allies such as Indonesia (in 1965) or Pakistan (in 1971), and because it needs a fuller discussion of the Nuremberg trials, if only for the sake of completeness.
Summary: Great Chronicle, Needs More Commentary
Review: This is such a good book that one should be careful not to be distracted by its shortcomings.
Part of the challenge is making sure one is clear just what it intends to be. It is not a general history of brutality and mass murder in the 20th Century. Heaven knows there is too much of that for any one book: and Power leaves out any number of primary contenders - Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin, not to say Pinochet and the Central American Death Squads. She does discuss half a dozen or so major mass crimes, but even here, she makes no pretense of offering a comprehensive narrative. Rather, she chooses her episodes to show either (first) the development of the concept of genocide or (second) the response of the West, and in particular the United States, to the challenge some particular episodes presented. For no extra charge, she throws in an extraordinary brief biography of the strange, difficult, obsessive Raphael Lemkin-the man who can be characterized, without any real exaggeration, as having invented the concept of genocide, even to the point of fashioning its name.
The episodes that do get her attention are: Cambodia, Rwanda, Iraq, and Yugoslavia - that last, three times. The reviewer can scarcely summarize the array of misconduct that she puts on review: suffice it to say you won't be humming the tunes of this one on the way out of the theatre. The misconduct of the direct actors - murder, mayhem, rape and more - is quite enough in itself. The extra dose is the persistent inaction or half-hearted action of those who might have responded.
A good deal of this will be familiar to anyone who has carefully followed the news over the last generation-although heaven knows, one can be excused for trying to forget. A couple of particular items struck me as new. Example: power argues that "poison gas" may not have been the worst of Saddam's crimes against the Kurds (in 1988) - but that it was the one that provoked the most indignation because it harkened back to World War I and thus engaged the imagination of the West. In the same vein, concentration camps may not have been the worst of the evils in Bosnia - but it provoked the most indignation because it harkened back to World War II.
A perhaps more meaningful point: Power makes much of the fact that we sought to excuse away inaction in Bosnia on the proposition that it was a "tragedy" generated from "ancient hatreds." It was nothing of the sort, in Power's view: it was a campaign (and not that easy a campaign) conceived and executed by real people in real time. This is a point of great importance. I am not certain that she makes her case. But it certainly is a central issue, and she is quite right to direct our attention to it.
Given such plenitude, what more could one want? Here is a suggestion: given the almost distinctive range and depth of her experience, I would have loved to see her give more thought to what might have worked better and why. This would have required, I suspect, a good deal more analysis than she is disposed to provide. To take just one example-the various "genocides" that she discusses, while perhaps all equally "evil" (who cares about ranking here?), are also, one from another, rather different. Pol Pot in Cambodia ran a campaign of extermination based on ideology, perhaps on class. The Rwandans who murdered 800,000 Tutsis acted on (ancient?) ethnic hatred. The Serbs who sought to push around the Bosnians and the Kosovars acted on ethnic of class motives - and while there was no shortage of brutality, they seemed more interested in displacing people than in actual murder. So also Saddam with the Kurds: he apparently intended to punish them (for cooperating with Iran) and probably to drive them from their homes, but it is not clear that he intended to exterminate them.
As I say, I am not trying to set up a rank ordering of evil here: I am suggesting that different problems probably require different responses and I would have liked to have heard more from Power about what might have worked where.
Indeed, I will generalize this point. Power is quick to suggest that the West (particularly the United States) could have done this, could have done that. She is right enough in the abstract. She itemizes a baffling array of excuses posed in the path of action. Again she is right. Still, the fact remains that not all courses of action are equally viable: some are more likely to work than others, some cost more than others, for some the cost may be truly unacceptable.
Her defenders will answer that this is a job for generals and presidents, not for journalists. True only so far. Power probably has as much experience with the problem as anyone alive. We need her views not only on what went wrong, but also on what might go right.
Footnote: other reviewers have accused Power of telling lies about the Armenians. I'm really not the best judge of that. I tend to believe her, but I'm not really competent to argue the point. But here is a suggestion: if you think she is (or might be) wrong about the Armenians, skip that chapter. It is interesting as a matter of history, but has nothing to do with the core of her narrative.