On the Perpetration of Mass-Death Events

By Roger Stoll on November 20, 2023

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, 1937

The holocaust now visited on Palestine by US/Israel is unique in many ways. Rates of killing and maiming exceed those of previous Israeli assaults on Gaza, the perpetrators announce their genocidal intent with unusual frankness, and Western media and official apologists are especially shameless.

But in a world under centuries of West European domination, this particular intentional genocide/mass-death event ought to seem familiar. These mass killings have always been necessary for the global system to function, providing land for settlement, cultivation and resource extraction, labor for hyper-exploitation, and geopolitical power.

In the “long 16th century” (~1450 to ~1650) the capitalist world system emerged, marked by the guiding imperative of endless accumulation of wealth. [1] This system rests on colonialism, neo-colonialism, settler-colonialism (subjugation, expulsion, and extermination of indigenous populations), chattel slavery, hyper-exploitation of labor, and now neoliberal globalization. It insures that wealth flows steadily from Global South to Global North.

This system of plunder established chiefly by the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, British and Americans, would come to serve what is now loosely called the Global North, or “the triad,” of North America, Western Europe, and (last-added) Japan. Complex financial and production systems (“commodity chains”) now link labor and resources of the Global South to the triad and its smaller appendages (Australia, New Zealand, Israel). The system requires constant nurturing and prolific violence to suppress the costs of labor, resources, and non-monopoly-protected manufactures from the Global South. It is also imperative that the triad keep the vast majority of the world’s population from becoming affluent enough to compete for essential commodities. [2]

Today the US is the prime enforcer of this system, with at least 800 military bases encircling the globe, under miltary commands covering every inch of the Earth. [3]  This global occupation is a gun, figuratively and literally, held to the head of every government and person on the planet. The overweening power of this occupation expresses itself through most of the world’s governments, including in the long-standing practice of exterminating and expelling Palestinians pursuant to Israel’s settler-colonial effort.

David Michael Smith’s Endless Holocausts: Mass Death in the History of the United States Empire is an elegantly concise account of US responsibility, sole and shared, for mass deaths. [4]  He counts roughly 300 million deaths. This includes North American slavery and the Indigenous genocide, naturally. But it also includes US complicity in the two world wars, through its profiteering and support for fascist regimes, East and West, in the period before World War II, and its calculated delay in entering that war, after much of the killing and destruction wrought by the Axis powers had been accomplished, aided by the US. [5]  As many others have noted, both 20th century world wars and the ravages of fascism could have been avoided.

After World War II, the US helped bring mass death to countries too numerous to list here. For example, Greece (about 165,000), Korea (about 5 million), Cambodia/Laos/Vietnam (about 8 million), Indonesia (over 1 million), El Salvador/Guatemala/Honduras/Nicaragua (100s of thousands), Iraq (1 to 2 million), Iran (over half a million) Afghanistan (100s of thousands), Libya (100s of thousands), Syria (100s of thousands), Palestine (10s of thousands), Rwanda (1 to 2 million), Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo-Kinshasa) (over 6 million), Somalia (100s of thousands), Yemen (100s of thousands), Ukraine (about 14,000 before February 24, 2022 and 100s of thousands since).

In the periods of 1945-1980, and 1980-2020, Smith counts 29 and 25 million deaths respectively [6], noting, “By 1980, the holocausts of Pax Americana resembled the global horrors that a reasonable observer might have expected from a fascist victory in the Second World War.” [7]

But the US is also successor to the half-millenium project of the rich nations to own the world.  Indeed, the US empire is the culmination of that ambition. [8]  Accordingly, the US bears responsibility not just for its own mass-death events and those of proxies and collaborators, but also of previous empires to which the US is now the beneficiary. Thus to the deaths Smith attributes to the US, we should add pre-World War II mass death perpetrated on other continents by the British, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, Belgian, German, and Italian empires, whose plunder of the Global South is legendary. An accounting would surely more than double Smith’s tally of 300 million killed in US-authored mass-death events.

Still, the very worst thing about these mass deaths is what they are for. They not only maintain Western imperial military and political prerogatives, but they enforce and entrench a global system in which the vast majority of humanity is confined to poorer countries with governments powerless to resist hyper-exploitation of their labor by the multinational corporations of the triad. The greater part of the value produced by their labor is then captured (not “earned”) by these corporations based in the triad. [9]  As Intan Suwandi notes in her Value Chains: The New Economic Imperialism, “So extreme is this over accumulation that the twenty-six wealthiest individuals in the world, most of whom are Americans, now own as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population, 3.8 billion people.” [10]  This is not merely unjust, it condemns a great part of the world’s eight billion people to lives of poverty, insecurity, hunger, disease, and violence.

It is hard to imagine an end to this macabre world regime, unless in nuclear omnicide. World-wide demonstrations, UN resolutions, labor action against weapons shipments, and wars have not stopped the century-long laceration of Palestine, let alone brought down the capitalist world system that produced it. But perhaps the movements, governments, and armed forces now rising in the South and East can, finally, transform the system which has tormented humanity for centuries.


[1] Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Modern World-System, vol. I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (New York/London: Academic Press, 1974); The Essential Wallerstein (New York: The New Press, 2000); World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2004).

[2] Patnaik, Prabhat. “Imperialism in the Era of Globalization.” Monthly Review, July-August 2015, Volume 67, Number 3.

[3] “The World With Commanders’ Areas of Responsibility,” Library of Congress. Vine, David “U.S. Military Bases Abroad, 2020.”

[4] Smith, David Michael. Endless Holocausts: Mass Death in the History of the United States Empire. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2023, p. 15.

[5] Smith, Endless Holocausts, pp. 153-167.

[6] Smith, Endless Holocausts, pp. 209, 256.

[7] Smith, Endless Holocausts, pp. 170.

[8] Perhaps it began formally with the Treaties of Tordesillas (1494) and Saragossa (1529), in which Spain and Portugal divided the world between them, like an apple.

[9] Suwandi, Intan. Value Chains: The New Economic Imperialism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2019.

[10] Suwandi, Value Chains, p. 65.

Source: Resumen Latinoamericano – US