This evening I heard the phrase “concentration camp” on NPR and starting thinking about what that phrase means. In common use, “concentrate” is both a noun and a verb. Juice comes in a concentrate, it's pushed together in a small space. Or students are told to concentrate, to focus on what they should be doing. Either of these are an incredible euphemism for Nazi death camps, but which euphemism have we adopted? Do concentration camps concentrate people? Do they force people to concentrate? Do they concentrate death? And why is there an English-language euphemism for an atrocity carried out by Germans anyway?
The answer to the latter question, from Wikipedia: the term “concentration camp” was first used to describe British internment camps in the Second Boer War. After gold was discovered Transvaal, British citizens flocked to the country, where they found the native population less than hospitable. To secure the rights of their own resource-exploiting citizens, the British entered a war against a Boer insurgency.
The conditions in the camps were very unhealthy and the food rations were meager. The wives and children of men who were still fighting were given smaller rations than others. The poor diet and inadequate hygiene led to endemic contagious diseases such as measles, typhoid and dysentery. Coupled with a shortage of medical facilities, this led to large numbers of deaths — a report after the war concluded that 27,927 Boers (of whom 22,074 were children under 16) and 14,154 black Africans had died of starvation, disease and exposure in the concentration camps
So when the Germans later rounded up a group of people they didn’t like and started killing them, the phrase “concentration camp” was used because it had already been used as a euphemism for similar British atrocities. On top of the story of a superpower invading another country to control its natural resources, the word “insurgency” particular caught my attention here, with thoughts of the insurgency in Iraq. Were concentration camps a standard means of fighting insurgencies?
Indeed they were. The list of concentration camps throughout history is full of attempts to contain insurgent populations during armed invasions. Most recently, in 2001 the Russian military gathered up twenty thousand men and boys in Chechnia. Over 80% died. More immediately, the US military continues to entertain the idea of registering and rationing food to Iraqi residents, in the interest of controlling the insurgent population.
Lieutenant Colonel James S. Corum of the US Army recently wrote about various strategies for dealing with insurgencies, in the context of possible application to America’s military activities in Iraq, in FIGHTING INSURGENTS--NO SHORTCUTS TO SUCCESS [PDF, 3kb]:
International law and the traditional rules of war allow for some very firm tactics employed to coerce and control populations. For example, to cut off support for rebels in pro-insurgent districts, Kitson advocated that government forces commandeer and carefully control all food stocks. Food was rationed by the police and army only to registered village residents, and whole villages would be cordoned off to prevent extra food from being brought in. If the villagers wanted to give food to the rebels, they could do so only if they starved themselves. The British also figured that, if the insurgents came in the night and took the peoples’ carefully rationed food, people would eventually inform on the insurgents rather than face hunger. Such tactics were not only effective, but also legal.
The good thing about Kitson’s approach to waging a counterinsurgency campaign strictly within the rule of law is that it generally works. The downside is that such an approach to counterinsurgency and intelligence takes a long time, and success is measured not in any dramatic terms but in small, local, and incremental victories. It should be no surprise that some of our intelligence personnel and leaders might instinctively opt for the Trinquier approach with its promise of quick and decisive results, when our military doctrine is filled with adjectives such as “rapid” and “decisive” to describe the American mode of warfare. Yet the traditionally successful counterinsurgency doctrines are peppered with adjectives such as “methodical,” “systematic,” and “long-term.”
Emphasis added. The downside of internment under threat of starvation, according to the US Army’s assessment, is not that it’s morally reprehensible; it just takes a long time to starve people to death. Our national unwillingness to concentrate on the “victory” some would imagine in Iraq has prevented us from establishing concentration camps. May our impatience save our souls.