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New York Sun

Getting to the Very Roots of Genocide

The New York Sun

Review of Blood and Soil, by Ben Kiernan.

How much murder is too much? Ethnic cleansing is a crime, but what qualifies? Does slaughtering a village count, or do you have to lay waste to a larger polity, perhaps with some torture thrown in? How many people do you have to kill before graduating from mere mass murder to full-on genocide?

The legal answer, strangely enough, is zero. In Ben Kiernan’s “Blood and Soil” (Yale University Press, 606 pages, $40), a meticulous new study of this most slippery of criminal categories, he points out that the standard definitions of genocide — those offered by the U.N.’s Genocide Convention and International Criminal Court Statute — require not even a single death, or indeed any physical harm at all. In fact, the génocidaire need not even target a whole ethnic group. To win a place in the defendant’s chair — or a mention in Mr. Kiernan’s book — requires only the attempt to cause that group “serious mental damage.” The extermination of European Jewry counts, but so does a single British colonial officer’s efforts to take away an Australian aboriginal child from her parents, involving, as it did, the intent to “breed out the color.”

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Weekly Standard

The Nazino File

The Weekly Standard

Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag
by Nicolas Werth
Translated by Steven Rendall
Princeton, 248 pp., $24.95

As a general rule, a name like “Cannibal Island” spells doom for property values. But Nazino, in western Siberia, is so naturally awful that even the grimmest name can’t make it sound much worse than it really is. An account from the early 1930s described the region as “an immense marshy plain . . . covered with an impenetrable tangle of brush. As for the rare meadows, they are under water until mid-July.” The summers, though a brief deliverance from the subzero winters, brought dense clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies. Malaria was endemic, and among forced settlers in 1932, infants died at a rate of 10 percent per month, compared with 10 percent per year in Somalia today.

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02138

Still Standing in Iraq

02138, May/June 2007

On the day I crossed the Iran-Iraq border in February 2004, you could get through immigration twice as fast if you were a Shiite zealot. Thousands of Iranian pilgrims were surging into Iraq to observe the anniversary of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom in Karbala. Saddam had barred them from Ashura for more than 25 years, but now the dictator was on the lam, and Iranian triumphalists flooded in to inaugurate a new  period of Shiite dominance. On the Iranian side, I glommed onto a pilgrimage group and told the immigration officer I was Karbala-bound. He let me through without a hitch.

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Weekly Standard

Alexander’s Nemesis

The Weekly Standard, 21 November 2005

Review of:

Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan
by Frank L. Holt
California, 241 pp., $24.95

Now that Afghan civil aviation is up and running, anyone with fifty bucks for a plane ticket can view Afghanistan from 10,000 feet up. At ground level, bustling conurbations like Kabul and Herat easily fool a visitor into thinking he is (despite the stranglingly bad air, laden with car exhaust and airborne donkey feces) within a hundred years of the present day. But to see from the window of a decrepit Kam Air Antonov is to be disabused: blue lakes and bleak crags roll across the window, punctuated infrequently by hamlets of astonishing archaism. The villages’ crooked pastures and mangers of mangy beasts could have existed in identical form in the ages of Brezhnev, Kipling, Babur, or Alexander the Great. Many villages appear to have no roads connecting them to each other, or to the relative outposts of progress at Kabul, Herat, or Mazar-e-Sharif.

With such a view, it is not a matter of imagining Afghanistan as it was during the age of Alexander, but of realizing that most of the country has never left that age, and that time is an illusion to which only the small population of Afghan city-dwellers has succumbed.

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New York Sun

The Pointillist Presentation of History

The New York Sun

Review of 1945: The War That Never Ended by Gregor Dallas.

“I personally do not know a single Frenchman who can remember the day the war officially ended in Europe,” writes Gregor Dallas. Coming from a resident of the country, this claim sounds odd. What excuse could exist for forgetting May 8, 1945? Paris, after all, marked it in style, with crowded streets, a triumphant address by Charles de Gaulle, and an aerial trick in which an American B-25 Mitchell bomber buzzed the Eiffel Tower and then – in an especially memorable touch – flew under it. Even the French are not so difficult to impress that they could forget a stunt like that.

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New York Sun

No Light, No Tunnel

The New York Sun

Review of Nothing in Sight by Jens Rehn.

The closest we have to an iron law of war stories is that no story involving a U-boat ends happily. The combination of Nazis, bleak seas, and torpedoes leaves little room for hope and optimism, and the last of characters’ dignity usually gets washed away in the end, when they choke to death on salt water. It is no mean testament to the relentless gloom of Jens Rehn’s “Nothing in Sight” (University of Chicago Press, 144 pages, $20) to say that it distinguishes itself among U-boat stories as a particularly grim read.