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Twentieth-century book of the dead

by Gil Elliot

  Book

A core book for understanding the scale of human made violence   (2012-09-20)

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by Tjebbe

A nation of the dead, in the order of 110 million, say the whole population - at that time in the early seventies of last century - of the United States of America, has been produced by human violence in the first seven decades of the twentieth century. It's author is surprisingly neither a demographer, historian, nor polemologist, but a business and market researcher who did get gripped by the eery subject of 'mass death'. It is a unique and pioneering book on a subject that is obviously of great importance, but few have dared to touch. At first it seems beyond comprehension to speak about all violent death of a century, one runs the risk to drown in the foggy swamps of uncertain numbers and never well established facts. It will be easier to find out the number of air raids, the tonnage of bombs thrown, the number of tanks employed in such and such a battle, the millage of barbed wire produces, than to get to know the number of victims wrought by all this killing hardware. But most things can be measured, even on the basis of foggy facts, the margins that need to be employed may be wide, but after study of many sources and conflicting interpretations there must come a moment where one can establish the dimensions of what happened: at least so and so, certainly not more than... in the end "an order of magnitude" can be established. 

Why all the specialist in the world have not been able to write such a global overview of human violence and have left the task to a non specialist and outsider? It may be that they kept swimming in seas of conflicting facts and lacked the courage to make statements, come to conclusions on the basis of uncertainties, because there is no other way (one has to get out of the water to see the sea). At many instances in the book the author can only use sarcasm when he contrasts his attempts to make a "simple view of the whole" with the rules and etiquette of the learned world. He dares to speak, in this context, about "significance of life", "love and sex" and his own "feelings about death" ("these are not nuts for the learned squirrel" p.14). 

Elliot does not limit himself to the big number game of macro violence, he contrasts it with sampled stories of individuals. constructed from a variety of sources. So we get to know in a series of almost literary sketches, personalities like 'the European soldier in the First World War', 'a Russian civilian in the Second World War', the story of a Chinese man in the total war machine, and what happens to a Polish Jew in the machine of death. 

It was almost thirty years ago that I did read Elliot's book for the first time and it learned me to widen my perspective on war and other forms of human violence to shift my focus from the apparent death instruments of guns and bombs to the much greater killer effects of disruption of social structures, famine, people dying while being transported... I made me read local Dutch history in a different way, putting in focus the 22 thousand deaths in the Netherlands during the Second World war in what has been misnamed as 'de hongerwinter' (the hunger-winter) but lasted much longer, even till after 'liberation' in 1945 (as a comparison: the German bombardment of the city of Rotterdam in 1940 costs 886 lives; and the real big number of a 100 thousand Jews from the Netherlands killed, 72% of an estimated 140.000!). 

Elliot uses the model of a pyramid to visualize the number of victims produced by human violence: at the small top acts of war like bombing and shelling; next executions, massacres and reprisals; next industrial extermination methods, mainly used against Jews; and at the wide base the greatest numbers, dying of immediate privation during attack and siege and at the very bottom the even greater dealdy effects of long term deprivation (p.58). 

In my mind I often have associated the visual statistic system as developed by Otto Neurath, the 'isotype', with this study of Elliot, as his diagram are bare bone and some of his information may be better communicated by a system of visual mapping, allowing for multiple comparisons, something now missing with only a few graphs and digrams dispersed over the pages of a book. 

Till this day Elliot's book has remained a classic example, a core book for those who want or need to come to some understanding of our violent times. He is quoted by R.J. Rummel in his studies on 'democide' (murder of population by government) aknowledging his pioneer work, but also commenting about Elliot's supposed blank spot ' "killing by Marxists governments" 

(1). For quiet different reasons a retired United Sates Air Force colonel in a recent study on "Precision Air Power", uses Elliot's estimate of total deaths by aerial bombardments (1 million) to argue that precision air power "will win wars faster and with less cost in human lives". 

(2) Last Elliot was quoted in octobre 2003 in a lecture by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former YugoslaviaCarla Del Ponte: "the number of man-made deaths ... is about one hundred million." Still, it has often been noted that, until recently, one stood a much better chance of being tried for the murder of one person than for the massacre of thousands. 

07-11-2003 - 08-01-2004 tj.
 




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