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Campus News
Your faculty and staff news since 1965
December 13, 2004
Volume 40, Number 5

On the Bookshelf
Political scientist examines horrors of war

By Laurie Mellas Ramirez

Agents of Atrocity
Palgrave Macmillan, 2004
By Neil J. Mitchell

Understanding motives of men who declare war is the starting point for analysis and action, argues UNM Political Science Professor Neil J. Mitchell.

In his new book “Agents of Atrocity: Leaders, Followers, and the Violation of Human Rights, Mitchell places the onus directly on the “bastards” perpetrating violence.

“I add the refinement that there are different types of bastards,” he writes. “There is the bastard motivated by getting and holding power and the one motivated by the logic of his dogmatic belief system. Both use others to carry out the violence.”

Soldiers, Mitchell references as “agents,” may be motivated by loyalty to the leader or “principal,” but could be lured into service by the “private temptations of revenge, rape, and loot,” he writes.

In asserting his thesis, Mitchell examines three war stories in-depth – the Arab-Israeli 20,000 Day War, the Russian Civil War and the English Civil War.

Mitchell skillfully uses archetypes Niccolo Machiavelli and the Grand Inquisitor along with Count Johann von Tilly, a German commander in the 1600s, to make his most moving points. Dubbed the three inexhaustible horsemen of political violence, each proves valuable in promoting analogous discussion.

“While the prince who wants to hold onto power must be prepared to be ruthless and cruel, Machiavelli stresses that there are limits to the useful use of cruelty. Violence beyond a certain point harms the Prince’s hold on power by increasing the popular antagonisms generated by killing, torturing and imprisoning,” Mitchell writes. “There is a time for reconciliation, accommodation and finding a scapegoat for the violence that has been done. Machiavelli’s Prince is an archetype for a very influential view of what power requires.”

Mitchell’s argument is based on strong historical evidence. For those unfamiliar with world conflicts, it is an advanced read. But its messages are compellingly simple. The author is hardnosed, but fair. He writes, “Not all soldiers succumb to Tilly’s reward: some may adhere to a notion of combat morality, and this has implications for reducing the likelihood of human rights violations.”

Careful recruitment of warriors combined with a training emphasis is key to the addressing the violations, he said.

“The beauty of starting with principle and agent is the prospect of revealing the lines of accountability,” he notes.

For those who place the responsibility of war in the hands of political leadership, and the throngs who cry, ‘do not repeat history,’ Mitchell’s book offers new hope.