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A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide

As you can tell from the title, this book isn’t exactly heartwarming – it’s one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read, honestly.

But it’s important and gripping. It chronicles some of the most shameful events in recent world history, covering every recorded genocide from Armenia (1915) to Kosovo (1998). Samantha Powers examines them through the lens of the United States' foreign policy and its level of intervention or lack thereof. It also includes the history of the word “genocide” itself and the man who coined it after the end of World War II, Raphael Lemkin.

If you recognize Samantha Power’s name, it might be because she was appointed as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations during President Obama’s term and is currently serving as the head of USAID. But she started her career as a journalist and wrote this book prior to her more recent high-profile roles.

As a journalist near Srebrenica who reported on the killing of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys by the Bosnian Serb army in the late ‘90s, Samantha Powers experienced firsthand how easy it is to underestimate humanity’s capacity for evil. In the lead up to the atrocities, she kept thinking that it couldn’t possibly escalate to worst-case-scenario levels, partially because of the promised protection from the international community. But she was wrong. She reported the events with a sense of disbelief and horror. Her personal connection to this topic results in a type of storytelling that captures the pain and tragedy of genocide, not just an accurate recording of the facts.

Maybe as a result of her personal experience, the book is quite pro-interventionist. Her general conclusion is that the US should get more involved because of its power. I’m not as convinced that a blanket pro-interventionist policy is ideal. My conclusion, which is completely unhelpful when it comes to actually making a decision (and is the reason I’ll never be in a position of power that actually requires one), is that intervention in other countries is complicated. I’m not saying it should never be done and I think preventing genocide should be the highest priority. But it’s never that simple – and I think we’ve learned from recent (and not-so-recent) history that the US sticking its nose into other countries doesn’t always turn out well. But I understand how she gets there. And there are a few cases in particular (Rwanda comes to mind) that the international community shamefully failed by keeping quiet and staying out of it.

This book is riveting and sobering. It shows the absolute worst of humanity. It’s not the book to read before you fall asleep at night and if you’re already feeling down about the state of the world, it might not be your go-to read right now.

But if you’re a believer in learning from history so that it’s less likely to be repeated... it should be considered essential reading.

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