Review of Theatres of Violence: Massacre, Mass Killing and Atrocity throughout History edited by Philip G. Dwyer and Lyndall Ryan Berghahn Books

Theatres of Violence: Massacre, Mass Killing and Atrocity throughout History. Edited by Philip G. Dwyer and Lyndall Ryan. New York: Berghahn Books, 2012. ISBN 9780857452993

“There is a need for a coherent method of approach to the study of massacre in all its ramifications,” write editors Philip G. Dwyer and Lyndall Ryan in the introduction to Theatres of Violence (xxii), a volume compiled in part to advocate for the recognition of “massacre studies” as an avenue of academic inquiry separate from genocide studies, with a focus upon mass killings not genocidal in intent. While the book proves not entirely successful in its advocacy, it does provide a valuable multidimensional perspective on acts of mass violence throughout human history, from ancient Greece to the current American occupation of Afghanistan.

Part of Berghahn Books’ Studies on War and Genocide series, Theatres of Violence is divided into four sections covering 1) the ancient and pre-modern eras, 2) the colonial frontier, 3) contested narratives of atrocity, and 4) the dynamics of modern mass killing. The first section ranges from the Peloponnesian War to the seventeenth-century Wars of the Three Kingdoms, though of particular interest is Laurence W. Marvin’s study of medieval atrocity in light of a philosophical tradition which spent much ink debating “just war” but surprisingly little on how war should be conducted, especially with regard to civilians or prisoners. Contributions on the colonial frontier focus exclusively upon exterminatory wars against the indigenous peoples of Australia, Tasmania, and the United States. Far more varied is the section covering contested narratives, a section which stretches from Napoleonic wars to the Cassinga Massacre, given the potential of massacres to become components of what conflict theorist Marc Howard Ross calls “psychocultural narratives,” the very stories through which community identity is constructed; for example, the Hue Massacre, carried out by Vietnamese insurgents against American and RVN sympathizers, has, according to Scott Laderman, allowed the United States “to redirect guilt over its own wartime criminality… [by] reminding Americans that as horribly as ‘we’ acted during the war, ‘they’ most certainly were worse” (222). Closing the book come three contributions on the Italian fascist campaign in Ethiopia, the 1961 massacre of Algerians in Paris, and American massacres of wedding parties in Afghanistan.

Of course, there exists some overlap between these four sections. The War of the Three Kingdoms entailed, in part, Irish antagonism against English colonists; likewise could Italian massacres in Ethiopia fall under the rubric of colonial violence, while Hélène Jaccomard’s chapter on the Paris Massacre examines how that event has been remembered in popular and academic forums. Though most of the contributors are historians, several chapters take a welcome interdisciplinary approach to the subject of massacre, as per Katrina Schlunke’s study of the representation of Australian aboriginal massacres in fiction.

Unfortunately, though each contribution alone proves an engaging read, the volume as a whole undermines its argument for a separate field of massacre studies by including several case studies generally considered as falling under the rubric of genocide. Ben Kiernan, in Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (2007), labels settler violence in nineteenth-century Australia, Tasmania, California, and the American Plains as genocidal, and he even argues (though not entirely convincingly) for so considering the massacres and deportations carried out by Stalin’s regime (some of which are covered in this volume). Several chapters of Theatres of Violence therefore risk bleeding over into the field of genocide studies. For example, co-editor Lyndall Ryan observes, regarding the Aboriginal people of Victoria, that “the British settlers did everything possible to eradicate them” (95), while Benjamin Madley, in his chapter on colonial massacres in Tasmania and California, argues that massacres were employed “to quell uprisings, to expedite forced removal and dispossession, to oblige indigenous people to comply with systems of servitude, or simply to annihilate them” (112). These examples certainly seem to meet the criteria of genocidal intent.

Part of the problem may simply be that the field of genocide studies has, during its evolution, appropriated numerous historical events not classically considered genocide (the legal definition of which was formulated in the light of the Holocaust); Adam Jones, in New Directions in Genocide Research (2011), even makes a case for labeling global poverty and the sanctions imposed upon Iraq in the 1990s as genocidal in nature, while other scholars have advanced wide-ranging definitions of genocide which might cover any number of violent events or structural inequities. However, cases of massacre that would not fit the criteria for genocide do abound. In the United States alone, one might consider the Reconstruction-era Colfax Massacre (1873) in Louisiana; the Elaine Massacre (1919) in Arkansas, which ranks as possibly the worst instance of racial (and labor) violence in the nation; or the Tulsa Race Riot (1921) in Oklahoma—all three have been the subject of book-length treatments. Non-genocidal colonial massacres might cover any of the numerous uprisings in British-occupied India or the Philippines under American control. In short, there exists sufficient historical material to allow for a volume considering massacres far outside the context of genocide, had only the editors actually pursued it.

That said, Theatres of Violence could be valuably employed in a classroom setting precisely because its contributions do focus upon either individual massacres or groups of massacres within a limited time and place. Because genocide has, in both the legal code and popular imagination, become inflated to the “crime of crimes,” and because any broader study of mass violence implicates so many aspects of the culture which produces it (racism, religious supremacy, economic models, etc.), understanding the nature of violence itself can well be daunting—it either defies the imagination of students (as exemplified in the oft-asked question, “How could people do that to each other?”) or apparently requires so many scholarly prerequisites as to lie outside their immediate grasp. However, each contributor to this volume does yeoman work in illustrating how massacres have been carried out to secure goals both immediate and long-term by people invested in simple greed as much as they were racist ideology. Just as important is the section of the book devoted to the contested narratives surrounding acts of atrocity; as Gary Baines writes, “[I]t is incumbent upon the historian to try to understand how history and memory are used or manipulated by stakeholders, opposing groups, and even enemies when they seek to construct their versions of the past and to discredit the stories of others” (227). Indeed, contested memory, especially as it relates to mass killings, lies at the nexus of many ongoing conflicts between China and Japan, Israel and Palestine, Turkey and Armenia, France and Algeria—just to name a few.

Students of world history need to understand that history does not exist in a concrete and established form but rather continues to be shaped by—and to shape, in turn—present prejudices and policies. Theatres of Violence, by tackling a selection of emotionally charged and highly contested events, illustrates that dynamic at work throughout history, and so it proves an important contribution to both the study of violence specifically and to world history in general.

Reviewed by Guy Lancaster, Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and culture
Edited by Karen Rosenflanz

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]