Saturday, January 16, 2016

Book Club: War: A Crime Against Humanity

War: A Crime Against Humanity
Roberto Vivo
Editorial Hojas Sel Sur S.A.
Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2014

I was sent this book by an agent of the publisher after a brief email exchange in late summer last year. Because I was without a real fixed address until November, I arranged for it to arrive at my friends' home in Kitchener before I arrived in mid-October. Shamefully, I have since neglected to review this book until now.

I was sent this book because I had previously reviewed God's Hotel, a book I was sent by an agent of that publisher because of previous book clubs; somehow, somebody has actually been reading this blog. Weird. In subsequent emails, I assured the person who had sent me War: A Crime Against Humanity that my review would be posted here "within a few weeks"; this was back in November. I am sorry about my tardiness.

The main reason my review is so late is the disappointment I felt reading this book; this is not going to be a positive review.

When I first received the initial email, describing the book and asking if I would like to read it (for free!), I was already of the opinion that war itself could be described as a crime against humanity, in addition to the various war crimes committed during wars and other conflicts that already count as crimes against our entire species. I was expecting - and hopeful regarding - a book that constituted a full-length argument supporting this thesis. The various bits of you-should-read-this-book - the back jacket, on-line brief reviews, etc. - contributed to this feeling that this book would provide a foundation for future arguments condemning wars, warfaring, and the callous disregard for peace exhibited by some people.

The disappointment stems entirely from the singular failure of this book to provide that coherent, well-supported argument.

The structure of this book is four major chapters, each divided into a number of sections. The front matter lays out this structure clearly, and describes the history of various ideas and sections. The book was born from the author's sincere desire to explore and explain the origins and consequences of war, both as a recurring (and frequent) historical event and as a catastrophe each and every time it happens. Again, this laudable goal raised my expectations and hopes for this book!

The first chapter, "Violence and Man" is introduced as a kind of essay to discover whether war is something inherent in humanity and thus will always be part of our societies, or something that we might conceivably rid ourselves of, with the analogy - continued throughout the book - that we have successfully rid ourselves of several other historical horrors including slavery* and torture.

Unfortunately - and establishing a pattern for the rest of this book - the opening paragraph of Chapter 1 does not actually introduce the real topic of the chapter. First, we get a series of statements regarding the unjustifiable nature of war, the ways in which wars corrupt those who engage in warfare, and the immense damage inflicted on all societies and people by wars. The conclusion one draws from this - aptly stated by the author - is that no quantification of warfare, no meaningful comparison between wars or battles or strategies can take place because a single death a result of war is itself a crime against everyone. This absolute stand by the author is excellent! But then he goes and ruins the whole thing by proceeding to list wars by their deathcount, to distinguish between civilian and soldier deaths, and to explicitly rank history's greatest monsters! This is shortly after he states (pg. 44) that "the events related here are not comparable to one another" - then he rants about Hitler, Stalin, and Mao! and compares across millenia between the Mongols and the 20th century! If even 1 death is a crime, then how is one million deaths any more or less a crime than 10 million?

Then we get a paragraph at the end of Chapter 1 that tells us that we've just seen that war is not inherent in humanity. Wait, what? It feels like an entirely different essay was written and all I got to see was the first and last chapters, with the middle completely replaced by something else.

Chapter 2 is titled and introduced as a counterpoint to Chapter 1, as a chapter about the history of the world from the point of view of Peace where Chapter 1 was a history of war. Unfortunately, other than a brief, pointless list at the beginning of the chapter, it is no such thing. There are big chunks of Chapter 2 that constitute an apology for religion, including such ridiculous notions that when a religious authority or text declares itself to be devoted to peace, we can assume that's actually the case. Major world religions are described by their self-description as peace-bringers, and states (pg. 99) that "Buddhism has been transmitted to the present day without there existing at any time in history evidence of holy wars or violent colonisation of any kind whatsoever in the name of this tradition." If this were true, South-East Asia, where Buddhism runs into Hinduism and Islam (among others) would be expected to be the most peaceful region on earth. Do I really need to point out the violence in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia... ? Go tell the Rohingyas that Buddhism has never been violent. Go tell the Tamil Tigers about non-violence.

And then there's some filler that includes the requisite insult to atheism (by quoting a theologian) and lots of mindless blah blah blah about God and Mystery and Spiritualism. Mr. Vivo even mentions Peace, Justice and Hammurabi in the same sentence as the Old Testament (pg. 114) - the OT is just a story of blood, blood, and more blood!

Chapter 3 places various (mostly contemporary) societies along an axis of openness and closed-ness, with mature modern democracies such as Canada considered "open" and such nasty places as Belarus considered "closed". So far, so much in line with so many other writers I've encountered. These concepts clearly link to other concepts such as Liberalism and Radicalism, and these relationships seem to have led Mr. Vivo to contradict himself. Whereas he stated in Chapter 1 (and to some extent in Chapter 2) that no war could be justified, that war itself was unjustifiable, he describes in Chapter 3 how Liberalism helped to defeat "absolutism, fascism, and totalitarianism" in the World Wars of the 20th century - which to my reading counts as justifying the most destructive conflicts in history because they ended with greater devastation among the fascist and totalitarian regimes than among the democracies.

When a democratic country declares war on a dictatorship, that's a justifiable war, Mr. Vivo? So why do you spend so much of Chapter 4 on the American (Democracy) invasion of Iraq (Dictatorship) in 2003?

Sorry, I'm getting a bit out of order here (much as Mr. Vivo does in several paragraphs, discussing later events before earlier events without clear distinctions other than post-hoc-stated dates). The first part of Chapter 4 is a discussion of the other widely-recognised crimes against humanity, Slavery, Torture, and (institutional, national-level) Racism. This part is not really problematic, though at one point Mr. Vivo downplays the (pivotal, central) role of slavery in the American Civil War (it was about slavery. Full stop. Don't believe me? Read the articles of secession by each Southern state that formed the Confederacy. It's all right there, in their own words.).

I feel like the point that war fits the definition of a crime against humanity, right up there with Genocide, or the recruitment of children as soldiers (there are others, I'm not going to defend including or excluding a particular bit of awfulness on a list) is fairly easy to make. Every war is devastating to both the aggressor and the defender, every war kills huge numbers of people, both civilians and soldiers. Wars are built on the worst human emotions, with factors such as xenophobia and the dehumanisation of one's ideological opponents allowing otherwise non-violent individuals to kill and destroy on a large scale. Most of the crimes against humanity that have been identified are intimately tied to war, with wars providing both the opportunity and the motivation - and often the means - for the darkest side of humanity to rise up. Thus, it makes sense to include war itself as a war crime.

Mr. Vivo barely makes this point, and certainly doesn't make this case. He spends too much of the book fawning over irrelevant or counter-productive notions such as the announcements of peaceful intent by religious authorities (while they simultaneously call their followers to arms), and not enough time on the actually good parts of this book. Right at the end he does provide some reasons to be hopeful, in two areas: international justice and global trade.

There's a pretty good description of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the latter parts of Chapter 4, along with some interesting suggestions for improving its reach and effectiveness. He seems confused about the definition of sovereignty - having a country's national courts carry out an action after requests from the ICC is not really different from those courts carrying out those actions on the orders of the ICC - but I am convinced by his arguments that this organisation represents a strong push in the right direction on world peace.

The second argument, regarding world trade, is weaker. Wars destroy trade, both internationally - obviously between warring states, but third-party countries, too - and within nations. Trade matters. International and within-national trade is a pretty good working definition of the world economy, and major disruptions to trade cause hardship and suffering - and deaths! - even in the absence of wars or warfare. And reminding potentially war-mongering politicians about the financial costs of war may help to avert violent conflicts. But Mr. Vivo barely makes that point, and instead discusses the usual mindless "teach the children!" answer to pretty much every issue ever. Does nobody ever consider what teachers are doing already, and what they would have to stop doing to fit in a love-thy-neighbour curriculum, as worthwhile as that might be?

The other good point made is that "pacifist" is not to be confused with "passivist" (pg. 290). Peace is not simply the absence of war, but an active PROCESS of history in which conflicts and disagreements are resolved by dialogue and other non-violent means, and people are enriched and enlightened by interaction with other people from different cultures.

Overall, this book is a disappointment, written only moderately well (blame the translator here if you've read the Spanish-language original) and missing too many opportunities to really make a great point.

My opinion is apparently in sharp contrast to other bloggers, and is the minority opinion.

The Gal in the Blue Mask more-or-less repeats the glowing words printed on the outside of the book.
Smashwords calls it "exceedingly well-researched and documented", which makes me wonder if I we were sent the same book.
The reviews on are 6/6 for 5 stars
Forewordreviews gives it a more believable 4 stars (and apparently got paid for that review!)
Blueinkreview calls Mr. Vivo a "cooly elegant writer". Maybe they read his original words, rather than a translation?

And here's the webpage for the book, go see for yourself:

* OK, just to avoid a derailment regarding slavery - what I mean by our successful abolition of slavery, and what Mr. Vivo means, is that in no country on Earth is the ownership of other human beings officially legal within that country. Yes, there are still slaves today, in many places, but legally, at least, such practices unequivocally constitute crimes in much the same way that murder, rape, robbery, etc. still occur everywhere but are universally condemned as crimes. Similarly, torture and racism are nowhere officially sanctioned by laws and governments, but are still with us as crimes.

I hope this Book Club entry does not prevent other agents of this or other publishers from contacting me in future. I really enjoy reading and I feel like I should do it more - and having somebody expecting my reaction to a particular book is great motivation to get my ass back onto the couch. So far, I have received books FOR FREE twice, which is mind-blowing and awesome. Thank you!

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