Category: atrocities

    Why Study Atrocities?

    I study European history, so why did I post about Sand Creek earlier today? And why excerpt seemingly gratuitous violence? I have no expertise in U.S. history, but I am interested in the history of violence per se, which can reveal a lot about peoples and cultures at a given point in history. Further, the U.S. Civil War has some important structural similarities to the Franco-Prussian War, and perhaps to other European wars in the mid nineteenth century.1 Given the causal relationship between the U.S. Civil War and the expansion of violence against Native Americans out west, there might be a case, for example, to include France’s nineteenth-century colonial conflicts in such a comparison. However, my main interest relates to cultural taboos---or lack thereof---about specific kinds of violence against specific categories of people, assuming those people have not been perceived to violate any important taboos themselves.

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    Sand Creek

    In the New York Times, Ned Blackhawk reminds us, “It’s the 150th anniversary of one of the most appalling massacres of Indians ever.”

    In terms of sheer horror, few events matched Sand Creek. Pregnant women were murdered and scalped, genitalia were paraded as trophies, and scores of wanton acts of violence characterize the accounts of the few Army officers who dared to report them. . . .

    Sand Creek, Bear River and the Long Walk remain important parts of the Civil War and of American history. But in our popular narrative, the Civil War obscures such campaigns against American Indians. In fact, the war made such violence possible . . .

    See the full article here. There are more details in the Smithsonian Magazine, and a few sources from the time here.

    Hat tip: @myHNN and @wcronen on Twitter.

    Atrocities in the Franco-Prussian War, 1870–71

    Three civilian French men in a village. They are holding rifles pointed at a group of soldiers on foot in the background. A woman with them is loading or reloading a muzzleloader.

    Illustration of peasants in the Vosges shooting at German soldiers, titled “Paysans des Vosges faisant le coup de feu.” Source: L’Illustration Européenne 1870, p. xvii, via Wikimedia Commons.


    An essay on the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) that I wrote last year appeared in print this fall in a book about war atrocities from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century.1 The essay focuses on German soldiers and French civilians using the example of the Bavarians. It examines why soldiers sometimes departed from generally accepted standards in Europe about sparing civilians the effects of war as much as possible.

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    Authors of Interrogation Handbook Abuse Their Sources

    In a piece called "Mind Games: Remembering Brainwashing" from today's New York Times, Tim Wiener points to one of the more irresponsible uses of historical documents that I have seen this summer. Apparently "American military and intelligence officers" (he is not more specific) decided in 2002 to examine Cold War CIA studies of Chinese interrogation methods during the Korean War. After all, these Communists were the supposed masters who fed the kinds of fears that later gave rise to a movie like "The Manchurian Candidate." In one major study the officers found examples of what are now often called "harsh interrogation techniques" when the more negatively valued term "torture" is being deliberately avoided. "They reprinted a 1957 chart describing death threats, degradation, sleep deprivation—and worse—inflicted by Chinese captors. And they made it part of a new handbook for interrogators at Guantánamo."

    The provenance of these techniques might give pause, but here's the real bombshell:

    The irony is that the original author of that chart, Albert D. Biderman, a social scientist who had distilled interviews with 235 Air Force P.O.W.’s, wrote that the Communists’ techniques mainly served to “extort false confessions.” And they were the same methods that “inquisitors had employed for centuries.” They had done nothing that “was not common practice to police and intelligence interrogators of other times and nations.”

    This story reminds me of the student who hurriedly pulls a bunch of quotes from a book without actually reading or studying the book as a whole, let alone thinking about its historical context. The student then slaps the material together in a paper that might confirm his own beliefs, but whose conclusions bear no tangible relationship to the source that he supposedly read and analyzed. Is that what happened here? Or was the document perhaps too complex for them? Perhaps they needed to invest in some historians who were not afraid to dig through this kind of thing in an honest manner, no matter what conclusions the documents might suggest.