In my last post comparing the death tolls under Joseph Stalin and Bill Clinton, I decided to include the deaths of the Rwandan Genocide and the Congo Wars.
I took the position here that Clinton and the administration in Washington acted (or failed to act) out of either gross negligence or perhaps out of interest in allowing both the genocide and the wars to occur (at least in the way that they did).
With regards to the Rwandan genocide, there are generally two competing narratives. The dominant narrative has been very public: the administration (and Clinton himself) expressed time and again that they made an egregious mistake by not intervening. So, if we accept this narrative, then I think it’s fair to include the deaths that they admit that they didn’t stop.
However, if we accept an alternative narrative, presented in books like The Politics of Genocide by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, then the U.S. intervened fairly heavily. For example, according to Herman and Peterson, the United States was very involved in helping the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) assassinate Habyarimana in 1994 and then militarily conquer the country and subsequently massacre Hutus, Pygmies, and even Tutsis in reprisal killings, which, they argue, probably outnumber the 800,000 killed in the genocide. By accepting this narrative, although much more controversial, we would be able to attribute far more deaths to Paul Kagame and, by extension, Bill Clinton.
This is why I decided to include the death toll of the events in Rwanda under Clinton’s name.
Following this, Kagame and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda decided to invade Zaire in order to remove Mobutu from power. This is what is referred to as the First Congo War. As is discussed very in depth in Africa’s World War by Gérard Prunier, the U.S. very heavily backed Kagame and Museveni during the First Congo War. Prunier argues that Clinton saw an opportunity to get rid of Mobutu, of whom the U.S. was embarrassed for supporting throughout the Cold War. In fairness, pretty much everyone was in favor of ousting Mobutu in 1996/1997 and Kagame and Museveni got support from pretty much everyone except France.
Rwanda and Uganda installed Laurent-Désiré Kabila as president, who renamed the country as the Democratic Republic of Congo and who proved to be an uncooperative puppet in Kinshasa.
The Second Congo War began when Kagame and Museveni agreed to get rid of puppet #1 and try to set up puppet #2. This war, however, was much more complicated and the sides were much more convoluted – with Angola, Zimbabwe, and Sudan maintaining their support of Kabila. The big players officially took a much more hands-off approach during the Second Congo War. Nevertheless, both the RPA and the Ugandan government were able to rely on their backing of the U.S.
This is obvious, because Clinton could have roped in Kagame and Museveni (both during the genocide and the subsequent wars). Or he could have continued to give aid to the DRC. But instead he traveled himself to Rwanda in 1998 and sent officials to Kigali and Kampala after the most brutal parts of the wars. Bill Clinton could have made sure that the United Nations thoroughly investigated Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Army. But instead, he actively blocked UN investigations to continue with regards to RPA’s massacres in the Kivus and their reprisal killings.
Those are the reasons I decided to include his involvement as sharing responsibility for the deaths in Rwanda and the DRC.
Ultimately, comparing the death tolls was an exercise in showing the absurdity of “death counts” in the way they are commonly used. When I was teaching, I often heard students repeat the completely ludicrous claim that “Stalin was responsible for more deaths than Hitler”. This, of course, is nonsense. Nazi Germany, as shown by even anti-communist historians, killed many millions more than the Soviet Union.
It seems to me that a huge fallacy is being made when we decide to attribute deaths to state leaders. When we analyze deaths, both as the direct and indirect result of state policy, they need to be placed in their greater context – especially during the 20th century, where “death counts” often lead to counter-intuitive assessments.
The highest example of this is shown by Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze in their book Hunger and Public Action, where they argue that there have been more deaths from low-level hunger in India than from the largest famines under Mao and that fewer people would have died if India had pursued similar (communist) policies as the People’s Republic of China. They even conclude “that every eight years or so more people die in India because of its higher regular death rate than died in China in the gigantic famine of 1958-61. India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame.”
Who is responsible for more deaths?:
Joseph Stalin or Bill Clinton
|Prison deaths (including during the war years):||86,582||Executions:||4141|
|Executions:||786,098||Sanctions on Iraq:||>500,0002 (plus adults)|
|Kulak resettlement:||389,521||Rwandan Genocide:||>800,0003 (plus those killed after the RPF came to power)|
|GULAG deaths (including during the war years):||1,053,829||Al-Shifa Pharmaceutical Plant (Sudan) Bombing:||>20,0004 (“several tens of thousands” – 20,000 is a low estimate)|
|First/Second Congo War5:||~2,700,0006|
|Turkey’s war against the Kurds7:||>40,0008|
|Bombing of Yugoslavia:||1,5009|
|First Battle of Mogadishu||~50010|
|Total:||~2.3 million11||Total||~4 million*|
By tallying things in this way, we are preceding from two assumptions:
- State leaders bare responsibility for deaths while they are in office
- Deaths caused directly or indirectly from state policy can be attributed to state leaders
Therefore, following this methodology, we can conclude that both Joseph Stalin and Bill Clinton hold responsibility for the excess deaths caused under their respective terms in office. However, this methodology leads us to conclude that, contrary to popular belief, the death toll under Bill Clinton’s leadership between January 20, 1993 and January 20, 2001 is higher than the death toll under Joseph Stalin’s leadership between ~1929 and March 5, 1953.
5 The Second Congo War continued on to 2003, so not all deaths happened during Clinton’s time in office. However, the vast majority of the fighting and the major campaigns occurred before Joseph Kabila became president of the DRC in 2001.
7 Similarly, not all of the deaths occurred while Bill Clinton was president.
11 All statistics regarding Stalin taken from: Getty, John Arch, Gabor T. Rittersporn, and Viktor N. Zemskov. “Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence,” n.d. https://web.archive.org/web/20080611064213/http:/www.etext.org/Politics/Staljin/Staljin/articles/AHR/AHR.html.
*Conflicts not included, due to difficulty of finding reliable numbers for the time period: Indonesia’s genocide of East Timor under General Suharto, the invasion of Bosnia in 1992, KLA terrorism in Yugoslavia throughout the 90s, bombing of Iraq in 1998, the situation in Somalia following the First Battle of Mogadishu, support for the military dictatorship in Haiti, support for Israeli Apartheid, consequences of NAFTA in Mexico, extension of sanctions on Cuba, bombing of Afghanistan at the same time as Al-Shifa in Sudan, bombing of Iraq in 1993, support for the Colombian government throughout the 90s.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from America,” I answered hesitantly.
“Oh, you mean the U.S.?”
“Because my father comes from Guatemala. That’s also America.”
“Yeah, of course.”
In the moment, I had hesitated merely because I have a difficult time pronouncing the German: die Vereinigte Staaten.
There is an unavoidable problem with the term “America”.
After this conversation, a couple of my German friends insisted that they always correct people.
If someone refers to the “United States of America” as simply “America”, they said, that person is using imperialistic language.
I disagree, mostly.
In fact, perhaps we could use it as a method of fighting imperialism through language.
We should start with a longer view towards history. Undoubtedly, the very term “America” is inherently imperialist.
“America” is derived from the name of an Italian explorer named Amerigo Vespucci, who at least made two visits to the Caribbean and South America. Initially thought to be parts of the West Indies, it was Amerigo Vespucci who probably was the first European to recognize the territory as part of a completely separate landmass.
On top of this, the term “America” is the feminine form of his Latin name: Americus. Here we see the classically gendered language of the “Age of Discovery”. The underlying sexual metaphor behind imperialism is clear: the continent is available for penetration by the male explorers.
Today, it is next to impossible to get away from this word. So, regrettably, we rely on it rather than on a perhaps more desirable indigenous term. There are literally thousands of available words we could use, but “America” has become the name of the two continents.
Regardless of this, in what way could I possibly justify using “America” in place of the “United States of America”?
I defend using this term out of simplicity and clarity.
First, people from countries use shorthand names for those countries. No one from Australia says, “I am from the Commonwealth of Australia.” No one from Guyana says, “I am from the Co-operative Republic of Guyana.”
You can say it if you’d like, but I’m willing to bet that’s not the case.
Second, when we talk about people from specific places, we utilize demonyms. Someone from Russia is a Russian, someone from Germany is a German. What about someone from the USA?
A United Stateserin! A United States of American!
It seems to me like the demonym here might be misleading, but nevertheless indicative of a clear shorthand. If we call someone an American, then which country should they be from?
So even if we say that a preferable term would be “The United States”, then we still run into a problem.
The official name for Mexico is Estados Unidos Mexicanos – The United Mexican States. So which “United States” are you talking about?
Then we have another problem if you respond, “The United States of America.”
Are you talking about Organización de los Estados Americanos? The Organization of the American States? Because that’s a political, regional organization between all the states of the hemisphere.
Therefore, unfortunately, none of the dominant terminology is totally unproblematic.
There is a way, it seems to me, of decolonizing this word and using it in an anti-imperialistic way.
Although I admit that I did mean the USA when I said “America”, I think there can be an alternative.
For example, if someone from Guatemala were to also simply say, “I am from America,” then this could serve to show a form of unity between the peoples of the Americas.
We can all begin to hollow out the meaning of term until it serves as a shorthand for peoples beyond national borders. “America” can become decolonized when we all use it together, to move past and against arbitrary divisions.
When we use “America”, we ought to use it to signify that we are from the continents (even if our ancestors are not). We can maintain the signifier and permanently broaden the signified. We can find “America” to be unifying. We can establish some level of solidarity against imperialism.
Who owns “America”? I’m tempted to say that we all do.
I may be mistaken, but for now, this seems like the clear path.