, ,

This is a sad book, and difficult to find much commentary on it. It should be read widely by the public because it clarifies the astonishing extent of the organized  homicide perpetrated upon humans by other humans. Of course Mother Nature is the ultimate death dealer, and everyone will ultimately submit to her terminations, but that is different than homicide in that it is unavoidable.  The subject of this book is avoidable deaths, and the one hundred and ten million people who had died early in the 20th century, before 1972, because of organized human intent. Published forty years ago, this book might be seen as ancient history, but the rate of homicide hasn’t diminished greatly, just the names of the conflicts have changed.

What Twentieth Century Book of the Dead by Gil Elliot attempts to do is give an overview of the how and the why of the massive numbers of individual deaths. He separates the military deaths from the civilian ones. He identifies the various kinds of combat deaths by categories – big guns, aerial bombs, small arms, demographics. There is a breakdown by countries involved in the military combats. It is astonishing the number of people who, while under Stalin’s jurisdiction, died in all sorts of ways. Elliot makes clear who does the suffering and dying — it is the poor people — we knew it all along, but he put numbers to who those categories of people actually are. Mostly it was peasants, farmers, workers. Mostly it was young men in combat zones, but people away from the combat died in equal numbers. They were the young, old males, the females of every age, and people of every conceivable ethnic description and religious persuasion. Also killed straightaway were the helpless and the insane.

It becomes apparent that war in the first seven decades of the 20th century wasn’t just soldiers in the battlefields dying; that was less than half of the deaths. Vast numbers of people died from privations of many descriptions, in labor camps, or simply expiring while displaced from their previous homes, or from intentional famines. The scorched-earth policies of retreating armies was intended to impede the advancing victors, but it also meant killing the inhabitants of that earth. Perhaps not directly shooting them, which cost bullets, but by burning their houses and crops, which left them destitute in a wilderness of starving people.

This book clarifies the horror of war. It isn’t gory or maudlin, but it does leave one with a disgust with human beings for being so wantonly destructive of one another. And for what? The national boundaries are practically the same as a hundred years ago, and people still have their choices among an abundance of religious, economic and hero myths. So, why the suffering?

You won’t read this book and weep, or be filled with pride, or come away feeling justice prevailed. Probably there will be a feeling of sadness and a wondering why you didn’t realize just how enormous and awful the suffering was – and still probably is.

How can an intelligent species behave so badly?