Friday, May 2, 2014

Completed: A Problem From Hell


I actually read this book a few months ago (time flies when you're incredibly busy), but haven't had a chance to write about it yet.

As you know, this was another of my depressing genocide reads. The best part about it was that I read it with my friend Marjorie on a reading schedule, and then we discussed in on Facebook. Because I'm lazy, I'm going to excerpt my major points here: 

1) The first time I tried this, I didn't make it any further than the first chapter, but I put it down after the prologue. There's something about the framing of it----despite the title, so I should have known better!---that I just found myself sort of annoyed by. I mean, I get it, we're Americans, the worlds policemen, yada yada...but clearly we actually don't do that great of a job of policing the world. So when she ends that prologue by talking about how genocide elsewhere is a product of American foreign policy failures, it just sat with me the wrong way. I would like to talk more about this. I don't necessarily think that I am a knee-jerk isolationist, but maybe I am!?! Why are we always the ones responsible for intervening? 

However, this time around, I pushed through and read more. The initial chapters were about a man named Lemkin who made it his life's work to pass international laws about genocide. I found his story quite interesting and ended up admiring, for the most part, his fortitude and insistence that something had to be done. It was hard to read. He was fighting all alone, and it was such an impossible task to be the lone voice in the wilderness. What an inspiring and ultimately tragic figure. 

In general, the whole first part, about the role of international law, and what it can and can't do was super interesting, which I didn't expect. After those chapters about the history of the UN treaty, the book shifts to a one-chapter-per-genocide model, covering Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda, and Bosnia. Those chapters were interesting and depressing. I learned more about each conflict, but the whole thesis, that American foreign policy was slow to respond, was sort of difficult. Yes, we knew what was happening and did very little to solve it, until Kosovo, when we flew air strikes that helped stop the killings. just was a weird take. Maybe because I didn't know enough, but it felt like sort of strange. The closest I can get to describing it would be this: a few years ago, a book came out that was about the American Civil War, but it was about how the British Empire responded and reacted to the war. I mean, that's pretty abstruse, right? You'd need to already know A LOT about the Civil War and ALSO about the British Empire in order to have a book like that make sense. And this book had the same feeling. I had the feeling while reading it that America was to blame for genocide in these countries, but that's patently ridiculous and honestly also full of hubris. How can it be that American foreign policy is to blame for bad shit happening *all over the world*? 

This book was a struggle. 
If you're remember, I also read Philip Gourevitch book about Rwanda, which I reviewed here. There was something in that book that really stuck with me, which I'll quote here, too: "Just as the state's police swear to prevent and punish murder, so the signers of the Genocide Convention swore to police a brave new world order...The authors and signers of the Genocide Convention knew perfectly well that they had not fought WWII to stop the Holocaust but contain fascist aggression. What made those victorious powers, which dominated the UN then even more than they do now, imagine they would act differently in the future?" (149).

As I read A Problem From Hell, I have found myself thinking of this idea time and time again. It's easy to say "never again" but the political will to actually stop genocide is missing. It was frustrating because in some chapters, she'd mention things the US could have done, but later, when they are tried, they almost never work! My take away was perhaps not what it should have been. I think it's supposed to be a call to action: we can make it better! But what I actually took away from it was something more like: complicated shit stays complicated no matter what we do. 


PS. I'm having a moment of panic. It's MAY and I've only read 2 of my books (and abandoned a third). I need to get to it! I'm going to start reading one of these other ones right now. Maybe How Fiction Works, which I started a few weeks months ago and put down. 


  1. Dude. What has happened to us in 2014?! I've only read ONE book, plus halves of two others. And I haven't written up the one I've read! I blamed ToB through March, but then April raced by and now we're in MAY! Whoa! (Although, I felt like I needed April to recover from what we've been calling The Tournament of Rape in our house...why so many rape-y [and child rape-y at THAT!] books this year, ToB? I've been hitting the Mind Candy books *hard* this past month to clear that shit out!)

    As for commenting on your book here, well... your appetite for these topics far exceeds mine. The problem *is* a hellish one and I was really hoping, by the end of this post, you would tell me "And here are all of the answers!" The conclusion that "complicated shit stays complicated no matter what we do" is the reason I gotta stick to mind candy. Heh.

  2. I don't know what my problem is...oh. Wait. Yes, I do: GRAD SCHOOL. I'm doing too much.

    Summer will be upon me soon. You'll see a hammered out another, so that makes me feel a little more accomplished. I think I'll have to pick up another one and see if I can get to 4 by the end of May. Sheesh.

  3. At least you have the grad school excuse. What's mine? Nothin. I'm just a lazy MF'er!

  4. I'm you've probably made a million crafty crafts. So, you know, it's all good.

    I have a dilemma: I restarted by Audible account to download the Veronica Mars book. And then I forgot to cancel it. Now, I have to download another book. Which one should I get? PROBABLY ONE ON MY LIST, HUH?