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One century of killing


It was a simple, unadorned list the priest read during the evening Good Friday service.

In 1904, the Russians and Japanese went to war and 100,000 were killed. The Armenian Genocide occurred from 1906 to 1923 and 1 million were killed. In the Mexican Civil War from 1910 to 1920, 100,000 died. World War I began in 1914 and ended in 1918 and 9,442,000 people were killed. In the Russian Revolution, from 1917 to 1920, 8 million died. In the Holocaust, which began in 1933 and lasted until 1945, 6 million Jews were killed. In the other Nazi murders during that same period 13 million Poles, Slavs, homosexuals, Gypsies, disabled and other “undesirables” were killed.

Jesuit Fr. Dirk Dunfee recited the chilling statistics in a soft and even voice as he paced the center aisle of St. Francis Xavier Church in Kansas City, Mo. He had been thinking a lot, he said, about the coming millennium and doing a lot of research about the century coming to an end. And this is what he had found out.

In World War II, 1939-1945, the number of people killed, civilians and soldiers on all sides, totaled 54,800,000. In Vietnam’s 10-year war of independence from France from 1945 to 1954, 600,000 were killed, half of them civilians. In Algeria’s war for independence that began in 1945 and lasted until 1962, 164,000 died. In India, during the civil strife pitting Hindus against Muslims from 1946-48, 800,000 died. One million died in China when the communists fought the Kuomintang from 1946-50. In China, another million died in the 1950-51 execution of landlords.

The words and the figures kept penetrating the silence of that austere service. The church was mostly in shadows, the news of the death on the cross fresh in the mind. They were familiar words he was speaking. After all, this was history. Yet they stunned, building an image of a rising flood of blood sweeping across the century.

Three million were killed in the Korean War from 1950-53, half of them civilians. In the Sudan, 500,000 died in 10 years of conflict beginning in 1963. In 1965-66, 500,000 were killed in civil strife in Indonesia. In Guatemala, 200,000 died, mostly peasants massacred by the military, from 1966 to the 1990s. The Vietnam War lasted from 1965 to 1975 and 2,058,000 were killed. In Biafra, 2 million were killed from 1967-70. Five hundred thousand died in China’s Cultural Revolution, 1967-68. In Bangladesh, 1 million, half of them civilians, died in fighting in 1971. In Cambodia, 1975-78, 1 million were killed, three quarters of them civilians, in the massacres by the Pol Pot regime.

On Easter morning, people were still talking about this sermon, this simple recitation of facts. It was as if we all had been invited to a dispassionate truth session for modern humankind. Increasing our efficiency and technique in the pursuit of killing was certainly one area in which the race had excelled during the past 100 years.

In Afghanistan, 1.3 million died in a civil war that lasted from 1978 to 1989. In the Iran-Iraq War, 1,180,000 were killed. In the Persian Gulf War, 1990-91, 113,000 were killed, almost all Iraqis. In the Hutu massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda, 500,000 were killed in 1994. It is estimated that more than 550,000 children have died in Iraq of starvation and diseases since 1991 as a result of the U.N. sanctions.

Dunfee did not read every instance of war, genocide and civil unrest on his list, which totaled more than 127 million killed. It was not exhaustive by any means. “I’ve had to leave some things out,” he said, “and I’ve had to exclude events where there were fewer than 100,000 people killed. Otherwise we’d be here all night.”

One might suspect, Dunfee said, surveying this century’s grim litany, that we humans enjoy killing each other. “But of course we don’t. No human being enjoys killing another. It’s just that sometimes we have to. You see, every one of these people was killed for a reason. Human beings are, after all, creatures of reason, and we have reasons for the things we do.

“These people were killed,” he went on, “because they were in the way, and because they were our enemies, because they were Tutsis, because they were capitalists, because they were Jews, because they were Poles, because they were Armenians, because they were North Vietnamese, because they were North Koreans, because they were South Vietnamese, because they were South Koreans, because they were communists, because they were black Africans, because they were Moslems, because they were Ukrainian peasants, because they were Nazis, because they were homosexuals, because they were Eritreans, because they were Hindus, because they were Iranians, because they were women, because they were Algerians, because they were French, because they were Germans, because they were loyalists, because they were British, because they were pacifists, because they were rebels, because they were Mayans, because they were Russians, because they were Japanese, because they were Iraqis, because they were Cambodians, because, because, because, because. Because they were in the way and because they were our enemies.

“On this Good Friday, when we remember that day so long ago when we killed God, we might ask ourselves how God got in the way. How did God come to be our enemy?”

Tom Roberts is NCR managing editor.

National Catholic Reporter, April 30, 1999