Walter G. Moss
A Violent Century--The Public Response
essay below comprises a summary of pp. 1-29 of Chapter 1 ("A Century
of Violence") of Professor Moss's recent book, An Age of
Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (New
York/London: Anthem Press, 2008), and the chapter's final section,
"The Public Response" (29-35), reproduced here with minor changes by
kind permission of the publisher.
A Violent Century
atrocities--these words appeared often in the history of the
twentieth century. No earlier century had witnessed as much killing.
Population increases provided more people to kill; technological
developments provided more efficient means to kill them; and
expanding media coverage informed more people about such killings
and horrors as the century proceeded.
The century began with
widespread warfare and violence--U.S. soldiers battling Filipino
guerrilla forces resisting the American takeover of their country;
British troops at war with the Boers in South Africa; civil war (the
War of a Thousand Days) raging in Colombia; an international force
of eight countries putting down the anti-imperialist rampage of
China's Boxer Rebellion; the anarchist Gaetano Bresci assassinating
King Humbert of Italy in 1900. A year later, another anarchist, Leon
Czolgosz, inspired by Bresci's deed, shot and killed U.S. President
McKinley. The anarchists were the leading terrorists of their day,
and warfare and terrorism would continue throughout the century.
Altogether, besides the
century's two world wars, more than a dozen additional
twentieth-century conflicts probably caused more than a million
In 1999, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research
Institute, there were still ongoing "27 major armed conflicts in 25
Besides the major wars of the century, numerous other conflicts
produced significant atrocities. For example, in Bosnia and
Herzegovina in the early 1990s, "ethnic cleansing" occurred, mainly
against Bosnian Muslims. Terrorism--defined here as the
non-governmental use of violence, or threat of its use, for
political purposes, but on a lesser scale than a revolution or
warfare, whether guerrilla or conventional, civil war or war between
nations--took many fewer lives, but by century's end was becoming a
more serious threat as the possibility of terrorists obtaining
nuclear materials increased. By one reliable estimate, 7,152 people
of all nationalities, including 666 Americans, were killed as a
result of international terrorist actions (those involving two or
more nationalities) in the 1980s and 1990s. When cases of domestic
terrorism, like the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, are added from
the various nations of the world, the total is much higher.
Some sources contend that
murderous government policies such as those of Adolf Hitler, Joseph
Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Cambodia's Pol Pot took even more lives than
all the century's wars and terrorist acts. The scholar Rudolph
Rummel refers to such policies as "democide," and writes that, "Just
to give perspective on this incredible murder by government, if all
these bodies were laid head to toe, with the average height being
5', then they would circle the earth ten times. Also, this democide
[which he estimates at 262 million] murdered 6 times more people
than died in combat in all the foreign and internal wars of the
It should be noted that Rummel includes deaths that occurred during
wartime, but were not part of any effort to kill enemy soldiers or
civilians who died because of military actions directed at military
targets. Hitler's killing of 5 to 6 million Jews in World War II is
an example of such wartime democide. More controversially, Rummel
considers the bombing of such cities as Hamburg, Dresden, and
Hiroshima during that same war as examples of democide. The chief
perpetrators of such killing, in addition to Hitler, were the
communist leaders Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot.
Still another type of violence
sometimes mentioned, besides everyday criminal brutality, is what
has been called structural violence. It differs in being less
direct, a "physical and psychological harm that results from
exploitive and unjust social, political and economic systems."
In the twentieth century and beyond, this type of violence continued
to deny many of the world's poor sufficient access to food, proper
sanitation, and health care, thus "killing" many people prematurely.
The reasons for the wars,
terrorism, and democide of the century are many. Some contend that
war has always been a part of human history and that the twentieth
century has merely provided more people to kill and more advanced
technology to accomplish the killing. Historian Niall Ferguson
states that the "extreme violence" of the century resulted primarily
from three causes: "ethnic conflict, economic volatility and empires
There is also the question of the responsibility of leaders and
The Public Response
Although the responsibility of
leaders like Hitler and Stalin for twentieth-century violence was
considerable, the massive deaths of the century also occurred
because millions of people supported or acquiesced in their policies
or those of other leaders who gave the orders for large-scale
killings. This was especially true in wartime. In the first six
months of World War I, for example, there were almost 2 million
British volunteers for military service. During World War II, a
combined total of more than 1 million Koreans and Taiwanese offered
to fight for Japan. As minorities such as Turkish Armenians and
European Jews discovered in two world wars, war also often permitted
or encouraged atrocities beyond those allowed in peacetime. After
attacking eastern Europe, the Nazis often encouraged ethnic hatred
not only against Jews, but also, for example, inciting Ukrainians
The Nobel-Prize winning
economist Amartya Sen has insisted that a good deal of
twentieth-century violence flowed from "the illusion of a unique and
choiceless identity," for example, that of nationality, race, or
class. He added that "the art of constructing hatred takes the form
of invoking the magical power of some allegedly predominant identity
that drowns other affiliations and in a conveniently bellicose form
can also overpower any human sympathy or natural kindness that we
may normally have."
Except for absolute pacifists,
most people justified some killing but condemned the taking of other
lives. Such judgments were seldom based on any logically consistent
principles such as those enunciated in the Christian theory of a
For example, most U.S. citizens condemned any form of communist or
terrorist activity that led to deaths, especially that of "innocent
civilians," but were inclined to ignore or justify the massive
taking of civilian lives that resulted from Allied bombing, both
conventional and nuclear, during World War II. Even before the U.S.
nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which immediately or in
the aftermath killed a few hundred thousand individuals, massive
Allied fire bombing and other non-nuclear bombing had killed a
higher total number of people in other cities like Dresden, Hamburg,
Darmstadt, and Tokyo.
Contemporary or later arguments
by those who maintained that such large-scale killing was
unnecessary, that the war could still have been won without such
massive deaths, remained largely unexplored by the average American.
Part of the reason for this was that deaths of foreigners mattered
much less to most people than the deaths of their own citizens. In
the United States, the Gulf War of 1991 against Iraq and Saddam
Hussein was considered a great success partly because less than 200
American lives were lost. It is difficult to believe that most
Americans would have thought the war worth the cost if the price had
been thousands or tens of thousands of American lives. Charges that
the U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq in the decade after the war led
to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths, whether true or
not, seemed to matter little to most Americans, partly because many
of them never heard about such charges.
There are many reasons why the
deaths of foreigners or those considered fundamentally different
seemed to matter much less to people than the deaths of those more
similar. And there are additional reasons that help to explain how
individuals from almost all nations at various times in the century
were able to justify killing enemies, whether from other nations,
classes, religions, or some other criteria of "otherness." It is
natural for people to feel more compassion for those closer to
them--for family members, neighbors, or members of a group or nation
with whom they identify. In addition, in the case of a nation or
state, patriotism and nationalism were often reinforced by
education, by media, and by social and cultural rituals such as the
singing of national anthems, and, especially in wartime, by
In Nazi Germany and the
communist societies of Lenin, Stalin, and the Asian Marxists,
control over education and media resources enabled the government to
convince many in their societies that "enemies of the people" were
deserving of death. In democratic countries that espoused respect
for human life and dignity, military training had to overcome
resistance to killing; for as Gwynne Dyer has written, "The most
important single factor that makes it possible for civilized men to
fight the wars of civilization is that all armies everywhere have
exploited and manipulated the ingrained warrior ethic that is the
heritage of every young human male."
And in a chapter on military training, especially U.S. Marine
training, Dyer indicates how an emphasis on toughness, compliance
with orders, peer pressure, and concern for one's fellow soldiers,
can turn a young man (or at least a boy being made into a "man")
into someone who will kill when told to do so. As one U.S. Marine
drill instructor stated it about a typical recruit, "I can train
that guy; I can get him to do anything I want him to."
Observers as astute as the
psychologist William James recognized that military training and
wars appealed to positive, as well as negative, human traits. Well
before World War I, he called for the creation of a "moral
equivalent of war," for opportunities for people to perform more of
the heroic type of actions of war without all the accompanying
tragedies of it. To many young men, however, life on the eve of the
Great War was still too humdrum, too unheroic; and because we know
of the horror that followed we read with sadness lines such as those
written by the poet Rupert Brooke upon the outbreak of the war:
Now, God be thanked Who has matched us
with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping ….
The carnage of World War I, however, punctured
such romanticism. English poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred
Owen and the German novelist Erich Maria Remarque, all of whom
served in the war, captured some of the disillusionment brought by
the war in their writings. One of Owen's finest poems, "Dulce et
Decorum Est" (1917), ends this way:
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! -- An ecstasy of
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The Latin words (trans. "it is
sweet and honorable to die for one's country") he ended his poem
with were from the poet Horace and were taught to many British
schoolboys. Captain Owen was machine-gunned to death a week before
the war ended on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the
eleventh month of 1918. One hour later, with bells still ringing in
celebration, his parents received the telegram informing them of
their son's death.
Like some pre-war poetry,
however, many later films again romanticized war. In 1977 Philip
Caputo recalled how as a young college student in 1960 he enrolled
in a Marine Officer Training Program partly as a result of the
romantic heroism of such war movies as Sands of Iwo Jima
(1949), Guadalcanal Diary (1943), and Retreat, Hell!
(1952). He explained his motivation as such: "The heroic
experience I sought was war; war, the ultimate adventure; war, the
ordinary man's most convenient means of escaping from the ordinary….
Already I saw myself charging up some distant beachhead like John
Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, and then coming home a suntanned
warrior with medals on my chest …. I needed to prove something--my
courage, my toughness, my manhood." After being sent to Vietnam and soon realizing that "both we and the
Viet Cong began to make a habit of atrocities," he no longer saw
combat in such romantic terms.
Other Vietnam veterans also
recalled the impact of films about World War II, especially the very
popular To Hell and Back (1955), starring Audie Murphy and
based on the autobiography of this war hero turned actor. Both Ron
Kovic, in his Born on the Fourth of July (1976), and
Lieutenant William Calley, court-martialed for the Vietnam atrocity
My Lai, mentioned Murphy's influence on their desire to fight in
Vietnam. During the 1991 Gulf War, decorated combat veteran Colonel
David Hackworth observed of Western troops, "Hollywood completely
colors their way of seeing war."
In almost all cases of wars and
atrocities, the enemy was depicted as less human by the use of
derogatory terms. The Nazis equated the Jews with all sorts of
subhuman creatures from rats to lice, and some Japanese publications
depicted the British and Americans as beasts. One Japanese officer
during the "Rape of Nanking," was quoted as saying: "I regard them
[the Chinese] as swine. We can do anything to such creatures."
But racist images also were common among the Allied powers during
World War II. In the United States and Great Britain, some people
referred to the Japanese as little or yellow monkeys. The U.S. war
correspondent Ernie Pyle, who covered the war in the Pacific wrote,
"Out here I soon gathered that the Japanese were looked upon as
something subhuman and repulsive; the way some people feel about
cockroaches or mice."
During the Vietnam War, Americans commonly referred to the Viet Cong
as "gooks." As one sergeant testified: "[Our] colonels called them
gooks, the staff all called them gooks. They were dinks, you know,
Even when the enemy was not of
a different race but of a different class or religion, the same type
of dehumanization made it easier to kill. In early 1918 a communist
was mistakenly killed in the Soviet city of Saratov because he was
wearing a fashionable suit and mistaken for a burzhui (a term
of abuse for the bourgeoisie). Glasses also made a person suspect.
And clean fingernails and uncalloused hands got some people shot by
the Reds during the civil war. Sergei Kirov, a future communist
leader whom Stalin perceived as a challenger to his own power,
called the leaders of the civil war's White Forces "lice"; and in
the 1930s Soviet prosecutor Andrei Vyshinsky spewed forth the
following during Moscow trials of some of the most important accused
enemies of Stalin: "Shoot these rabid dogs …. Down with that vulture
Trotsky …. Down with these abject animals! Let us put an end once
and for all to these miserable hybrids of foxes and pigs, these
stinking corpses! Let their horrible squeals finally come to an end!
Let's exterminate the mad dogs of capitalism."
Among those dehumanized by
Lenin and his successors were any labeled bourgeoisie, capitalists,
counterrevolutionaries, kulaks, or enemies of the people. Such
labeling made easier Stalin's demand in 1929 that the kulaks be
"liquidated as a class." Writer Vasily Grossman described how
Communist Party activists in Ukraine "looked on the so-called
"kulaks" as cattle, swine, loathsome, repulsive: they had no souls;
they stank; they all had venereal diseases; they were enemies of the
people…. What torture was meted out to them! In order to massacre
them, it was necessary to proclaim that kulaks are not human
beings." But Grossman also indicated other factors that helped cause
the killings, for example Party people's anxiety to please their
superiors or gain personally from confiscating kulak property.
Overwhelmingly killings and
terrorist acts were committed by people who thought their beliefs
justified what they were doing. The ideas of nineteenth-century
thinkers like Marx (1818-83), Darwin (1809-82), and Friedrich
Nietzsche (1844-1900), as well as racist, nationalist, and
imperialist ideas were often used, properly or improperly, to
justify such killings. So too, but to a lesser extent, were
religious ideas. In the Western press in the final decades of the
century, there was much talk of "militant Islam" or "Islamic
terrorists," but most Muslims did not advocate terrorism, and
individuals from other religions also advocated or practiced
terrorism. They included (among many others) Catholics who worked
within the IRA, Protestants who bombed abortion clinics in the
United States; Hindus in India who attacked Muslims; and the Jewish
student of religious law who thought he was acting "on God's orders"
when he assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995
because of Rabin's peace plans. Yet the communist leaders, who were
responsible for the greatest number of mass killings in the century,
were all committed atheists who persecuted religion. Although the
Nazis did not preach atheism, Hitler "was passionately hostile to
Christianity" and, like Nietzsche, thought it was begun by Jews in
an attempt to aid slaves to overthrow their Roman rulers.
Jonathan Glover, who identified himself as one who does "not believe
in a religious moral law," (i.e., any moral law dictated by
traditional religion), nevertheless recognized that many of the
century's protests against atrocities came from religious people.
Glover began his book
which is essentially an analysis of twentieth-century wars and
atrocities from an ethical perspective, with a section on Nietzsche.
The latter predicted that morality based on traditional religious
beliefs would gradually disappear. Glover stated that the century
has generally moved in that direction and that the challenge for
people at the end of the century was to create a humanized ethics.
He added that when "there is no external moral law, morality needs
to be humanized: to be rooted in human needs and human values."
Besides beliefs and ideas
mattering, technology also played a role in making killing easier.
The dropping of bombs, for example, not only made it possible to
kill more people, but also depersonalized the killing. Those
dropping the bombs did not have to view the blood their bombs
spilled or the limbs they tore asunder. Furthermore the bureaucracy
and complexity of modern states and warfare helped dilute feelings
of personal responsibility for the deaths of those considered
"enemies of the people" or government.
A similar lack of
responsibility was felt by many people in regard to the structural
violence inflicted on the world's impoverished people. One
humanitarian who observed first-hand the consequences of such
violence believed there were at least three reasons for this
relative indifference: 1) the suffering of its victims was too
psychologically and culturally remote from the experiences of many
people in wealthier parts of the world; 2) the vastness of the
problem, often conveyed in facts and statistics, made it difficult
to appreciate the individual suffering it entailed; and 3) "the
dynamics and distribution of suffering [caused by structural
violence] are still poorly understood." This same observer believed
that much of this suffering resulted from denying poor people the
fruits of scientific and technological progress.
 All rights reserved: no part of this excerpt
may be reproduced or reprinted without the publisher's
permission. For more information, see the Anthem Press website <link>.
Another brief excerpt is available at the Barnes & Noble site <link>.
 Niall Ferguson, The War of the World:
Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (NY: Penguin, 2006), xxxiv.
 Taylor B. Seybolt, "Major Armed Conflicts,"
SIPRI Yearbook 2000 (9 Feb 2001) <link>.
 See Paul R. Pillar, "The Dimensions of
Terrorism and Counterterrorism," in Terrorism and
Counterterrorism: Understanding the New Security Environment,
Readings and Interpretations, 2d ed., ed. Russell D. Howard &
Reid L. Sawyer (Dubuque, IA: McGraw Hill, 2006), 28.
 "20th Century Democide" <link>.
Overall, Rummel estimates that over 300 million people were
killed during the century as a result of warfare and democide.
See also the excellent work of Milton Leitenberg, "Deaths in
Wars and Conflicts in the 20th Century," Cornell Univ. Peace
Studies Program, Occasional Paper # 29, 3rd ed. (2006) <link>,
which estimates a total of about 231 million deaths. Niall
Ferguson (note 2 supra) 649 suggests a number in the 167-88
million range and discusses the difficulty of accurately
estimating the toll of twentieth-century violence (647-54).
 Various estimates in Stéphane Courtois et al.,
edd., The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression,
trans. M. Kramer & J. Murphy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Pr, 1999)
suggest that communism's death toll during the century was
 Robert Gilman, "Structural Violence: Can We
Find Genuine Peace in a World with Inequitable Distribution of
Wealth among Nations?" In Context (Aut 1983) 8 <link>.
The author also estimates the number of deaths from structural
violence as compared with other types of violent deaths.
 Niall Ferguson (note 2 supra) xli.
 After examining closely the causes of seven
twentieth-century wars, John G. Stoessinger, in Why Nations Go
to War, 5th ed. (New York: St. Martin's, 1990) 209, states that
"with regard to the problem of the outbreak of war, the case
studies indicate the crucial importance of the personalities of
leaders … [which] have often been decisive."
 Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence: The
Illusion of Destiny (NY: Norton, 2006) xv. Daniel Chirot &
Clark McCauley, Why Not Kill Them All?: The Logic and Prevention
of Mass Political Murder (Princeton: Princeton U Pr, , 2006)
81-7, show how labeling or "essentializing" others according to
various ethnic, national, and religious categories makes
genocidal killing easier.
 For a brief summary of Just War theory, see
Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth
Century (New Haven, CT: Yale U Pr, 2000) 84; also Michael Walzer,
Just and Unjust Wars, 3rd ed. (NY: Basic Books, 2000).
 For a good, recent overview of the decisions
to undertake such bombings and a consideration of whether they
were morally justified, see Glover (note 11 supra) 69-112.
 Gwynne Dyer, War (NY: Crown, 1985) 14.
 Ibid., 110. See also Glover (note 11 supra)
51, on a Soviet soldier serving in Afghanistan during the 1980s
who was told that he should become "a bloody-minded brute with
an iron fist and no conscience!" John Mueller, Retreat from
Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War (NY: Basic Books, 1989)
41-2, comments on the perception before World War I that war was
 Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War: With a
Twentieth Anniversary Postscript by the Author (NY: Holt, 1996)
 Quoted in Michael Evans, "The Serpent's Eye:
The Cinema of 20th-Century Combat," Military Review (Nov/Dec
2002) 87 <link>.
 Ferguson (note 2 supra) 477.
 Cited in Glover (note 11 supra) 176.
 Ibid., 50, quoting Robert J. Lifton, Home from
the War: Vietnam Veterans, neither Victims nor Executioners (NY:
Basic Books, 1985) 202.
 Quoted in Courtois (note 6 supra) 750.
 Forever Flowing, trans. T.P. Whitney (NY:
Harper, 1972) 142-4.
 Glover (note 11 supra) 355.
 Ibid., 405. Some religious thinkers like
Michael Novak believe that religion contributes to respect for
human rights and that if you "take away the immortality of the
soul ... it is difficult to establish the dignity of man any
higher than that of any other animal." See his The Universal
Hunger for Liberty (New York, 2004), 145.
 Paul Farmer, from Chap. 1 of Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War
on the Poor (Berkeley: U California Pr, 2003) <link>.