What Makes a Genocide? How should we best understand the confounding connections between self-defence, genocide, and collateral damage?


By Joseph Mazur 

A word best-describing intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group now swerves its definition to attack the victim. The Genocide Convention has an explicit legal definition for that word with means to issue arrest warrants for initiators of acts depicted by that definition. When the word genocide spins through partisanship, it erodes warrants of humanitarian law.

Genocide is a word that emerged from true horror far too shocking for even a sane mind to handle. Are we forgetting Kristallnacht and its aftermath of Nazi gassing, burning, and starving millions of Jews, Blacks, Gays, people with disabilities, and non-Aryans? We must have, for we use a word meant to tell a story that never should be voiced lightly, and yet now we do. What happened in Armenia in 1915, Europe for seven years after 1938, or Cambodia for four years after 1975? Those atrocities are too painful to imagine from mere words written or spoken in any language. World memories soften with time. Let us never forget.

All wars have costs; they are always ugly, complex, and unpredictably dangerous. Unlike wars in the eras of muskets and swords, we don’t walk away and sleep off the biased emotions behind internecine wars of modern artillery that cause massive destruction to life and infrastructure. These days, wars are not fought as in the past by infantry with bayonets or by duelling soldiers on what was long ago called battlefields, but rather by satellite information and AI assistance that can pinpoint enemy positions hundreds of miles away. Distance battles have been an “ambition of war tacticians ever since the second century BC when (myth or not) Archimedes used bronze reflecting mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays to set ablaze Roman warships in the battle of Syracuse.”1

In the past century, more than 50 percent of war-related deaths were of civilians. Indiscriminate casualties expanded in WWI due to new incendiary technologies on the battlefield. By WWII, battles were fought by air with bombs released high above their targets. The blanket bombings of Dresden, Darmstadt, and Hamburg left 77,000 civilians dead. Warfare changes dramatically when an assailant can attack a victim from such a distance that faces cannot be distinguished as belonging to humans.

When targets become dots either seen from afar or not seen at all, moral qualms enter the picture. Of course, the warning model remains the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nine years later, Roger Robb, Council for the Atomic Energy Commission, interviewed J. Robert Oppenheimer.2 This excerpt is about those dot targets:

Robb: You knew, did you not, that the dropping of that atomic bomb on the target you had selected will kill or injure thousands of civilians, is that correct?

Oppenheimer: Not as many as turned out.

Robb:  How many were killed or injured?

Oppenheimer: 70,000.

Robb:  Did you have moral scruples about that?

Oppenheimer: Terrible ones.

One problem is that we now accept murky sociopolitical influence over moral prudence that supports the factual record of history when rational people excuse brutality in warfare. These days, too many of us follow wars in real time with wholly accepted misinformation wrapped in outrageous rhetoric shared through social media or amplified ideological partisanships. Some reasonable people follow the boosted outrage from self-interest group propaganda when they have lost their grip on sifting facts from heaps of information and disinformation drivel. They follow their minions who, as Carol Christ, Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, put it, “feel that they have an ownership stake, and should be able to have a major voice.”3 The difference now is that anyone listening to the megaphone shrieks of those touting self-serving interests hopes to join an interest group without a strong understanding of why. A long time ago, I was one of them. As a graduate student, I would follow student bandwagons protesting the Vietnam War, being influenced more by the enthusiasms of better-informed placarding friends than by my reasoning. Along the long path of my life, I participated in many protests, some with a genuine conviction of taking a stand favouring humanitarian righteousness. But how much information did I truly have? And so, now we see intelligent people worldwide railing against retaliatory military strikes as if they are attempts at genocide when even the evidence, according to UN Genocide Convention definitions, evidently is misunderstood.

When we use terms such as genocide, holocaust, Nazi, or Fascist without the backup of definitions, we tend to inflate morally repulsive political policy endeavours and erode the warrants of humanitarian law.

News stories suggesting that Israel is committing genocide — even those coming from respected news organisations — are now muddling the Genocide Convention’s definition of the word. When we use terms such as genocide, holocaust, Nazi, or Fascist without the backup of definitions, we tend to inflate morally repulsive political policy endeavours and erode the warrants of humanitarian law. My December/January The World Financial Review article, “Why Are Wars Legal? shows a generic view of war and laws that are supposed to guide military morals. I emphasise war itself is not legal but also that the laws against genocide, unfortunately by convention, do not incontestably protect civilian casualties, even when losses run into astonishingly large numbers.4

Besides charters and treaties, many other codes, conventions, pacts, and acts contribute to international law prohibiting torture, inhuman treatment of prisoners, and the use of chemical and biological weapons, yet with all that, war crimes persist. They come in feverish skirmishes with every war. Acknowledging my self-recognised naïveté, I feel that there are ways for treaties to be expressed well enough to outlaw the use of force on one country by another so tightly — yet not totally — that it would be in the aggressor’s best domestic interest to settle its dispute peacefully. The Kellogg-Briand Treaty was an attempt. It was the first pact to ban all wars, signed by all the warring countries of WWI in 1928, and yet it did not stop WWII.

For centuries before the Second World War, there were no enforceable laws involving crimes against humanity. As brutal as wars were, there were no international agreements and no criminal courts that could prosecute crimes of mass carnage. It’s not as if there were no laws against brutal attacks. There were and still are moral codes. One is the code of distinction that prohibits targeting civilians and permitting attacks on combatants, one that goes back to the rules suggested at the founding of the International Red Cross and set by the initial Geneva Convention. In the middle year of the American Civil War and the year when the International Red Cross was founded, Abraham Lincoln, US President and Commander-in-chief of the Union Army issued an order on how Union soldiers should — not must — conduct themselves in times of war.5 The Lieber Code military manual, titled Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field6 was the first printed list of rules regulating the conduct of war and still is the principal humanitarian backbone of the Geneva Convention treaties between signatory states. It was the first modern broad set of the laws and customs of war since the meager attempts at war law morals of medieval and Renaissance Europe, a submission of reason in warfare. But even those official instructions were ignored by General William Sherman when he let Atlanta burn to demolish hospitals, schools, and civilian homes and buildings. That was an indirect violation of the Lieber Code.


A ghastly, repulsive, and horrid political policy without a name

Before World War II, we had the League of Nations, but it was just a 58-member treaty (with no US backing) that could hardly have intervened without a criminal prosecutorial court. Unlike today’s UN, with 97,000 military personnel coming from 120 countries, it had no armed peacekeeping force available to protect civilians and no criminal courts with laws of war crimes committed “with intent to destroy a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.”7 Without criminal accountability, wars could be not only legal but also openly publicising intent to destroy an ethnical, racial, or religious group.

So, on January 30, 1939, Adolph Hitler, Chancellor of Germany with a plan of territorial expansion in Europe, addressed the Reichstag by announcing: “If the international Jewish financiers within and without Europe Succeded [sic] in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevisation of the world and thereby the victory of Jewry but the obliteration of the Jewish race in Europe…”8 Now, what could he have meant by saying that? There is no other way to interpret his speech other than by admitting it was an intentional plan of what we now define as genocide.

Excerpt from a speech by Hitler predicting the extermination of the Jewish race in Europe. Courtesy: The Wiener Holocaust Library Reference Number: 1655/104 Doc. Number PS2360

Then came Germany’s surprise attack on Soviet Russia on June 22, 1941, when Winston Churchill delivered a live broadcast from London saying:

“As the armies advance, whole districts are being exterminated. Scores of thousands – literally scores of thousands – of executions in cold blood are being perpetrated by the German police troops upon the Russian patriots who defend their native soil,” he said. “We are in the presence of a crime without a name.”

And so, military extermination policy was in search of a name. The word genocide didn’t exist before 1944 when Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer, invented the term to include heinous policies in support of killing ethnic, racial, or religious groups. He used the term genocide in raising international outrage about atrocities committed by Nazis and wrote that Germany had schemed “to destroy or to cripple the subjugated peoples in their development so that, even in the case of Germany’s military defeat, it will be positioned to deal with other European nations from the vantage point of numerical, physical, and economic superiority.”9

The Allied forces did not go to war with Germany because of worries of genocide. Though genocide was part of Hitler’s plan, the word to define such horror had not yet been coined and had little connection to that war. The plan was carried out by massive public belief in propaganda against Jews, Blacks, Gays, and other non-Aryan citizens. But Germany, during Nazi control, was not the first genocidal government. The epic wars brought to life by the Homeric poets told of humanitarian carnage, and in the Middle Ages, crusading Teutonic Knights attempted to Christianise the Holy Land. More recently, Tsarist Russia and its pogroms against Jews were carried out by Cossacks along with anyone else drawn into government-condoned hatred of Jews. The Ottomans exterminated the Armenians. At the end of the 19th century, German Colonial rule waged ethnic extermination of the Herero and Nama tribes in Southwest Africa. All were certainly genocidal battles.10

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) defined the word to make atrocities that in any way resemble the Holocaust or Armenian and Rwanda mass murders a crime to be punishable by international law.11 CPPCG is a human rights treaty reflecting customary law that all states and private armies must abide by. Sometimes it works; the International Criminal Court (ICC) has indicted 53 people of war crimes against humanity, 9 of whom are currently serving time. Although the word “genocide” has been explicitly defined as a legal term, the public impression of the word has no universally agreed-upon definition. With more than 285 distinct battles inciting more than 50 mass murders of almost 12 million combatants and 22 million civilians since the Genocide treaty was signed, there has been a growing and welcoming public sentiment that something should be done about malicious cruelty in war. However, given the weight of the word “genocide” as a legal tool used to sentence offenders, its prominence in public and academic use is being distorted.12

Genocide and collateral damage are two words that must fit together in the language of conflict to make sense of the humanitarian laws of war. And since war almost always brings collateral damage to muddle the distinction between intent and accidents, evidence gets fogged and lost.

Private citizens and political leaders who think they have sovereign immunity are not exempt from the Genocide Convention’s declaration of genocide as a crime.13, 14  The difficulty with bringing genocide cases to court is that international law requires proof of intention.15 Proof, though, has a problem: war almost always brings collateral damage to blur the line between intent and accidents. Genocide and collateral damage are two words that must fit together in the language of conflict to make sense of the humanitarian laws of war. And since war almost always brings collateral damage to muddle the distinction between intent and accidents, evidence gets fogged and lost. But even with proof from evidence, the Convention had no means of criminal enforcement until half a century later when the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague became established under the Rome Statute, a treaty-based statute of humanitarian laws under which offenders of war crimes, including public and private individuals, could be tried, sentenced, and imprisoned.

War law language accepts informality with ambiguity


We learn the meaning of most words by usage; the ones we know have come from repeated use, but the more we hear or read a word in context with others, the more precisely we understand what that word is supposed to mean. Some words, however, become understood as what we wish them to mean, not as defined by common usage. Some are used with partial accuracy to convey generic meanings because we speak a natural language that informally employs words and phrases with generosity.

“Genocide” is a slippery word. We wish that it could cover more ground than it does. Influential activists with big storylines declare certain military operations to be genocidal. Some are.16 Surely, there is no argument that what Nazi Germany did to Jews and other perceived enemies of Germany during WW II was genocidal. The word itself rose from that world in horror. There is no argument that the Ottoman Turk attacks on the Armenians and the Burmese attacks on the Rohingya were genocidal.17 Include the Rwandan civil war that killed between 200,000 and 500,000 Tutsi (likely an undercount).18,19,20,21,22  Many other conflicts are on the list of genocidal military operations, including the US 19th-century treatment of Native Americans.

But let us leave that list to concentrate on more modern wars between states that should do and know better. One state that is easy to pick is Russia. By all accounts, Russia has put itself on the genocide list by abducting children, separating them from their parents, and bringing them to Eastern Russia. That crime undoubtedly breaks laws backed by the Genocide Convention. One could also argue that the purposeful direct bombing of apartment buildings in Kyiv should not be considered collateral damage rather than intentional terrorism and, therefore, a plan to, perhaps not eliminate, but rather instill fear in the civilian population. You see, using genocide under its colloquial ambiguity allows its use to play as a double standard.23

Tourists visiting the National Memorial to the victims of Genocide in Kigali, Rwanda. Editorial credit: Oscar Espinosa / Shutterstock.com
Tourists visiting the National Memorial to the victims of Genocide in Kigali, Rwanda.
Editorial credit: Oscar Espinosa / Shutterstock.com

Where is the line that divides genocide and collateral damage? 

An alternative, perhaps an easy allied question is: Do the genocide accusations we hear about fall within the scope of the genocide treaty?24 It is a question that divides the common notion of what genocide means according to the UN Genocide Convention’s understanding. Etymologically deconstructing genocide as genos (Greek for γένος: race, stock, kin) and cide (Latin: the act of killing) depreciates its original intended significance, but so does the Convention’s legal definition, which seems to be on a measured spectrum between a mission of savagery and actions of retaliatory defence. But to know genocide is to understand how it happens — why the Cossacks carried out their pogroms, why ordinary Germans welcomed Kristallnacht, why members of the SS-Totenkopfverbände gassed and burned Jews in concentration camps, and why Ottomans massacred a million Armenians. Like those of the past, barbarisms still happen because narcissistic leaders, troubled by their failures in governance, heavily propagandise their subjects into believing that some national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups are threatening. Elimination of such groups then becomes legitimised. That is how genocides start. How they end also has a painful answer —REVOLTINGLY! — although with fated early deaths or exiles of perpetrating leaders and fortunately with survivors more committed to reestablishing and strengthening their heritage.

When writing about war, I typically avoid individual war examples and concentrate on the nonspecific overview of all wars and why we must find ways to limit them or at least diminish the resulting humanitarian horrors. However, from my conversations with experts, I am advised to bring in examples of specific war cases that could question the notion of genocide and tighten the definition to clarify when brutality, collateral damage, and military murders can be classified as genocidal. Therefore, as a timely example among many, let us examine the 2023 Israeli-Hamas war, the fifth and largest one between Israel and Hamas in just the last fifteen years. The irrational justification from the Israeli side is revenge for Hama’s brutal attack, but there is also a rational justification. Revenge is uncontrollable when one side starts a war through terrorism policy.

No reasonable being and no forward-looking country can deny that Hamas had committed terrorism after intentionally raping young adults, murdering children, and taking hostages in anticipation of a counterattack.

There are no rational arguments justifying what Hamas did on October 7th; none, other than the attempted tripe of justified liberation or resistance to Israeli alleged “apartheid,” another word that never should be used lightly. The attack on Israel left more than 1200 Israelis dead and another 253 being kidnapped, including innocent women and children. As a per capita comparison with the US population, that’s 40,000 dead. No reasonable being and no forward-looking country can deny that Hamas had committed terrorism after intentionally raping young adults, murdering children, and taking hostages in anticipation of a counterattack. Hamas opposes Israel’s right to exist and has proudly documented its goal of “the complete destruction of Israel and creation in its place of an Islamist state in all of historic Palestine.”25 Agreeing with that and justifying Hamas’s attack puts one in the camp of rejecting the core principle of international humanitarian law. As for the Israeli invasion of Gaza that killed many civilians and combatants, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) never planned to exterminate Palestinians.

Destruction is another word in need of clarification. At pro-Palestinian demonstrations, marchers chant the historical battle cry “From the river to the sea,” lifted from a 25th anniversary Hamas address given by Khaled Mashal, former head of Hamas in 2012 who said, “Palestine from the river to the sea, from the north to the south, is our land and we will never give up one inch.” Does the clipped trope mean obliterating all of Israel, starting from the west bank of the Jordan River and ending in the Mediterranean Sea, where all Jews are to drown? If you ask those demonstrators what that rallying cry means, some will say yes, exterminate the Jews, and replace the land of Israel with an Islamic State. Many say, no, all we chant for is a Palestinian homeland. Others say it is a call for peace. A minority, in opposing protests, believe that all the land from the river to the sea was given to them by God, and some — with viewpoints as dangerous as any — will not be able to voice a sincere opinion. On that infamous October 7th, Jews were not driven to the sea. Hamas and Jihad militants obliterated the kibbutz Kfar Aza, raped and mutilated teenagers at a music festival, slaughtered babies, burned alive young people, and executed “parents in front of their children, children in front of their parents.”26 That was an act of terrorism to provoke an Israeli retaliatory war. Ron Hassner, Chancellor Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, who surveyed 250 sstudents from various backgrounds, learned that 47% of the students who embrace the slogan at rallies don’t even know what it means.[i]

In the aftermath, the Israeli government felt the need to retaliate. Some analysts say Israel fell for Hamas’s trap. Israel did what so many other countries have done in the past when populations were victimised and instinctively called for revenge. From anger comes revenge, a human emotional entanglement that enables approvals of waging wars that go unpunished. So, the expected happened; Israel attacked the perpetrators of those unspeakable inhumane acts. But what did they not do? They did not rape. They did not pull children from their mothers. Unfortunately, they felt the only way to answer Hamas was to bomb Gaza and accept a mountain of collateral damage. I am not condoning revenge wars. They start from age-old psychosocial behaviour under the creed: my side is the morally justified one. Pearl Harbor was one, and my father took that revenge to its limits. As Noah Feldman, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School put it in a recent luminous Atlantic article: “If you make the legality—or morality, for that matter—of whom you can target depend on whether you are right, that will be the end of humanitarian law: Everyone will say they are in the right and can kill whomever they choose.”27

Anyone has the right to use the word genocide as one wishes. But using that word heedlessly does not necessarily bear legal truth. With history now repeating itself as it always has each century, conspiracy propaganda from both left and right spins acceptance of truth and politically reflexive partisanship to harm policies favouring world stability. Using words as universal moral concepts is not necessarily condoning military attacks. War plans come through tactical considerations that generally involve collateral damage, civilian casualties, and strategies of self-defence that seem to cross the vernacular conceptions of the word genocide without crossing the legal line.

Many well-informed and confused activists are labelling Israel’s campaign as genocidal, a small, propagandised part of their ongoing strategy of demonising Israel, a country where Palestinian Israelis vote and the only vibrant democracy in the Middle East. So, one must ask, are the genocide accusations ones that fall within the scope of the genocide treaty? That treaty has no accord with the common calls of genocidal crime so often used with an inflated aspirant meaning. South Africa brought Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) claiming that Israel is committing genocide by failing to prevent genocide. South Africa’s Justice Minister Ronald Lamola “condemned the targeting of civilians by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups and the taking of hostages” without any recognition of Israel’s traumatic suffering. Deceivingly absent from his argument was the verity that Hamas’s policy of embedding combatants within Gaza’s human shield civilian population along with schools, hospitals, and public buildings. That was Lamola’s legal strategy, but when the media runs with that disingenuous summary, the world cognisance takes it from there, so the story spins to demonise the victim. The placards are drawn and brought to massive peace rallies of spontaneous followers who are determined and sincere, though with little or no factual understanding of why they are gathering.

On January 26, 2024, the ICJ’s 17-judge panel ruled that Israel must do all it can to prevent genocide, and to get basic aid to people in Gaza. The Israeli Judge voted in favour of an order for humanitarian aid and the prevention of inflammatory speech in the hope that the court’s order would “help to decrease tensions and discourage damaging rhetoric.”28 Of course, Israel denies South Africa’s genocide claims.

Dilemmas over the Gaza metro, from Hamas’s subterraneous launching of military attacks

Israel, a country of people who know too well the meaning of genocide, had no “Intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group…” nor did it forcibly “transfer children of the group to another group.” Its devastation of Gaza was retaliatorily against terrorist crimes, and the resulting wreckage caused hunger and death to innocent old and young civilians in high numbers. But the word retaliatory also gets thorny. Does retaliation mean a military action against combatants with a minimum of incidental damage to civilians, or does it mean action without care of collateral destruction and disproportionate suffering of noncombatants? That question brings with it a question of whether Israel cares about the noncombatants. Its war with Hamas may appear to be a war with Gaza, partly because civilian casualties seem excessive for the objective of defeating Hamas. But what may seem excessive might not be when combatants (many out of uniform) purposely mingle with noncombatants.

Many of the known Gaza tunnels were destroyed by Israel when Hamas started firing rockets at Israel, bombing buses, cafes, and bars. I have no tactical military wisdom, but Israel, given all its past impressive intelligence, should have been able to counterattack and accomplish its goal of freeing hostages with less haste, more control, understandable revenge, and careful, intelligent planning to minimise innocent civilian harm more measuredly. It is hard to imagine that IDF intelligence had not exhaustively surveilled the Gaza metro web with relatively available seismic sound wave imaging during the past two years.29, 30 A sweep of Hamas hideouts should have given Israel the advantage of being better able to take out Hamas from its roots below the surface than from the ground above to avoid civilian casualties. But such a sweep could also take out some of the remaining hostages who are likely being held in the subterraneous network. The Hamas attack gives Israel its right to attack enemy hideouts by permission of self-defence. Blame Hamas for cowardly embedding Hamas military in residential areas, hospitals, and schools, but Israel’s battle — far from what defines a genocide — must do more to protect innocent people caught in their missions.

What does self-defence mean?

Israel, for its entire existence from birth, has been a country in a battle of self-defence. One day after the announcement of its independence from the British Mandate of Palestine, it had to defend itself from overwhelming, unprovoked attacks from five Arab nations. There is no compact meaning of the word self-defence, not even a UN treaty definition. Russia used it as an excuse for the invasion of Ukraine. A recent UN report on the war in Ukraine claims “civilians account for nearly 90 percent of war-time casualties.”31 Where does Russia’s argument fit on the self-defence scale? When Russia invades an independent country, arguing that a few (or even a large number) of Russian separatists claim to be in danger, is that self-defence?

Many war crimes continue today, but a genocidal one is one that we tend to misperceive as a crime under humanitarian law.

Many war crimes continue today, but a genocidal one is one that we tend to misperceive as a crime under humanitarian law. We are confused because we think that the destruction of a nation comes under the bearing of genocidal war crimes. It does not. By the 1946 Resolution 96(1) of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) we have a legal definition of genocide that locks in the meaning of the word:32 

Intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group; killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.33

It is not a statement knotted in legal jargon. Follow the slightly cumbersome string of punctuations to unravel the intended meaning of genocide as defined in the Resolution. From that, genocide does not mean destruction, nor does it mean indiscriminate destruction; rather, it necessitates a coordinated plan for annihilating members of a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.

Major modern wars are not declared wars.

Another intractable problem is not so much the word “self-defence”; a more challenging problem is the loopholes of the UN Charter that I brought up in my article, Why Are Wars Legal? The answer that I take from that piece is that wars are not legal except when one state claims self-defence. Israel’s case is self-defence, no matter how we define the compound noun. All states have the right to defend their territory. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine used a ruse that claimed pro-Russian separatists feared “Ukraine Nazis and fascists.” It’s a game Russia played in its 2008 invasion of Georgia, an old cheat to avoid incrimination by the ICC that relies on ambiguities in the UN Charter, in particular Articles 4 and 51 that, on the one hand, constrain states from engaging in armed conflict and, on the other, permit a country to start a war if it can claim preemptive self-defence.

Force, therefore, is not entirely outlawed since states maintain the right to defend a territory in response to attacks portraying international conflicts as internal matters. Declare your invasion as an internal armed conflict, give it a name to avoid calling it a war, and you might avoid all the ICC incriminations for any horrors you might do — Desert Storm, Infinite Justice, Enduring Freedom, Special Military Operation, or Iron Swords will do. Think about it: America has not declared war for the last 78 years; it never formally declared the Korean, Vietnam, Iraq, and Gulf wars as wars. It’s always safer to claim self-defence and give it a name to avoid all UN Charter legal obligations.

Heads of state may agree to war plans drawn up by military intelligence officers who, rightly or wrongly, believe their plan justifies jus ad bellum, which translates as the right to wage war because, as my father, who received a bronze star and a purple heart in WWII, said, “Some wars just have to be fought.” When diplomacy fails, and leaders intelligently believe that the nation’s security could be endangered, the smart move is to follow the advice of the Powell Doctrine — to pursue a clearly defined objective and risk-cost analysis that considers a thorough understanding of the possible consequences. Colin Powell, then chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, posed six questions in his 1992 Foreign Affairs article “U.S. Forces: Challenges Ahead” that had to be answered affirmatively before engaging the US in war.34,35,36 Once a state is in a war, the overarching question is how it should be fought. The best answer is to obey a reasonable moral code. Regrettably, moral codes break when wars lose control and cross into what might seem like genocides but aren’t.

The biggest persistent, intractable world conflict problem often is that wars go wrong with flawed leadership decisions. Unfortunately, General David Petraeus rightly wrote in his book Conflict, “The witness of history demonstrates that exceptional strategic leadership is the one absolute prerequisite for success, but also that it is as rare as the black swan.”37 I wish that to be true. Alas, exceptional leadership is considerably scarcer than black swan. 

About the Author

Author (1)Joseph Mazur is an Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Emerson College’s Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts & Interdisciplinary Studies. He is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim, Bogliasco, and Rockefeller Foundations, and the author of eight acclaimed popular science books. His latest book is The Clock Mirage: Our Myth of Measured Time (Yale). More information about him is at http://www.josephmazur.com/.


1. https://worldfinancialreview.com/why-are-wars-legal-by-international-law-waging-war-itself-is-a-war-crime-why-do-we-think-it-is-not/

2. Transcript excerpt of hearing before Personnel Security Board, Washington D.C., April 12, 1954, through May 6, 1954. US Government Printing Office. https://www.osti.gov/includes/opennet/includes/Oppenheimer%20hearings/Vol%20V%20Oppenheimer.pdf

3. https://www.newyorker.com/news/the-new-yorker-interview/the-chancellor-of-berkeley-weighs-in

4. https://worldfinancialreview.com/why-are-wars-legal-by-international-law-waging-war-itself-is-a-war-crime-why-do-we-think-it-is-not/

5. John Fabian Witt, Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History (New York: Free Press, 2012).

6. https://archive.org/details/governarmies00unitrich/page/n5/mode/2up

7. https://www.un.org/ar/preventgenocide/adviser/pdf/osapg_analysis_framework.pdf

8. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/hitler-s-threats-against-the-jews-1941-1945

9. Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944), xi.

10. Raphael Lemkin, ‘War against Genocide’, Christian Science Monitor, 31 January 1948, 2. On the relationship between genocide and warfare, see Shaw, What is Genocide

11. Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell (New York: Basic Books, 2013) 7-12.

12. SamBarbara Harff, “No Lessons Learned from the Holocaust? Assessing Risks of Genocide and Political Mass Murder since 1955,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No. 1 (February 2003): 57.

13. https://ucdp.uu.se/

14. https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/genocide.shtml

15. ibid.

16. https://giwps.georgetown.edu/resource/beyond-killing-2/

17. https://www.globaljusticecenter.net/discrimination-to-destruction-a-legal-analysis-of-gender-crimes-against-the-rohingya/

18. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14623528.2019.1709611

19. Wood, S. K. (2004). A Woman Scorned for the Least Condemned War Crime: Precedent and Problems with Prosecuting Rape as a Serious War Crime in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, 13(2). https://doi.org/10.7916/cjgl.v13i2.2497

20. https://www.hrw.org/reports/pdfs/r/rwanda/rwanda993.pdf

21. https://www.hrw.org/reports/2004/sudan0404/sudan0404.pdf

22. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14623528.2019.1703329

23. https://books.google.gp/books?id=nHIABAAAQBAJ&printsec=copyright#v=onepage&q&f=false

24. William D. Rubinstein, Genocide (New York: Routledge, 2014) DOI:10.4324/9781315836133-1

25. https://ctc.westpoint.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/CTC-SENTINEL-102023.pdf

26. Anthony Blinken, “Secretary Antony J. Blinken and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after Their Meeting,” U.S. Department of State, October 12, 2023.

27. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/11/israel-gaza-war-humanitarian-law-concepts/675996/

28. https://apnews.com/article/israel-gaza-genocide-court-south-africa-27cf84e16082cde798395a95e9143c06

29. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/dab6/060aab89c3fcdb8975e7dc6643624f9ca9cf.pdf

30. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.petsci.2022.01.015

31. https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N22/321/73/PDF/N2232173.pdf?OpenElement

32. https://www.un.org/ar/preventgenocide/adviser/pdf/osapg_analysis_framework.pdf

33. https://web.archive.org/web/20160130033138/http://www.un.org/ar/preventgenocide/adviser/pdf/osapg_analysis_framework.pdf

34. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/1992-12-01/us-forces-challenges-ahead

35. The Powell Doctrine asks:

    1. Is the political objective we seek to achieve important, clearly defined and understood
    2. Have all other nonviolent policy means failed?
    3. Will military force achieve the objective?
    4. At what cost?
    5. Have the gains and risks been analysed?
    6. How might the situation that we seek to alter, once it is altered by force, develop further and what might be the consequences?

36. Preceding the Powell Doctrine is the Weinberger Doctrine, disclosed by US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. It also lists 6 points that come from learning about the quagmires of the Vietnam War:

    1. The United States should not commit forces to combat unless the vital national interests of the United States or its allies are involved.
    2. US troops should only be committed wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning. Otherwise, troops should not be committed.
    3. US combat troops should be committed only with clearly defined political and military objectives and with the capacity to accomplish those objectives.
    4. The relationship between the objectives and the size and composition of the forces committed should be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary.
    5. US troops should not be committed to battle without a “reasonable assurance” of the support of US public opinion and Congress.
    6. The commitment of US troops should be considered only as a last resort.

37. David Petraeus and Andrew Roberts, Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine (New York: HarperCollins, 2023) 4.

[1] https://www.wsj.com/articles/from-which-river-to-which-sea-anti-israel-protests-college-student-ignorance-a682463b

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