Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index



to e-mail us:

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada



the Complete Review
the complete review - history / law


"A Problem from Hell"

Samantha Power

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

A Problem from Hell

Title: "A Problem from Hell"
Author: Samantha Power
Genre: History / Law
Written: 2002
Length: 527 pages
Availability: "A Problem from Hell" - US
"A Problem from Hell" - UK
"A Problem from Hell" - Canada
"A Problem from Hell" - India
Voci dall'inferno - Italia
Problema infernal - España
  • America and the Age of Genocide
  • Earlier working titles apparently included The Guilty Bystander and Again and Again: Fifty Years of Genocide and American Bystanderhood, but it was presumably determined that these hit too close to home and so the benign, non-finger pointing title won out
  • 2003 National Book Critics Circle award winner
  • 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner (for general non-fiction)

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

A- : a work of impressive scope and detail -- and a very disturbing read

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The American Prospect . 17/6/2002 Siddharth Mohandas
Daily Telegraph . 12/8/2003 Stephen Robinson
The Economist . 21/3/2002 .
Foreign Affairs A 7-8/2002 Chaim Kaufmann
The Guardian A 5/7/2003 Martin Woollacott
London Rev. of Books . 14/11/2002 Stephen Holmes
The LA Times . 7/4/2002 Jacob Heilbrun
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 27/9/2002 Monika Jung-Mounib
New Statesman . 21/7/2003 Joanna Bourke
The NY Observer A 8/4/2002 Jack Miles
The NY Rev. of Books A 25/4/2002 Brian Urquhart
The NY Times Book Rev. A 14/4/2002 Laura Secor
The New Yorker A 18/3/2002 .
The Observer A+ 29/6/2003 Anthony Holden
Policy Review . 8-9/2002 Derek Chollet
Reason . 11/2002 Charles Peña
San Francisco Chronicle A 28/4/2002 Steve Kettmann
Sunday Telegraph A 27/7/2003 Noel Malcolm
Sunday Times . 6/7/2003 Niall Ferguson
Sydney Morning Herald . 2/8/2003 Owen Richardson
TLS A 26/4/2002 Warren I. Cohen
The Washington Post . 3/3/2002 Adam Hochschild

  Review Consensus:

  Impressed. An important work.

  From the Reviews:
  • "The challenge is to make genocide real for the American public. Power's own work is an important contribution to that effort, and deserves a wide reading for that reason alone. But ultimately it is hard to see how things can change when the political costs are in fact so low for ignoring genocide, and potentially so high for intervening." - Siddharth Mohandas, The American Prospect

  • "This is an accomplished piece of work which deserves the plaudits it has received in the United States, even if there is a certain confusion in its selective call to American arms." - Stephen Robinson, Daily Telegraph

  • "Power's book will likely become the standard text on genocide prevention because it thoroughly debunks the usual excuses for past failures, while offering a persuasive framework that can help predict future outcomes and suggest policy responses. It is also engaging and well written; together with the awful fascination of the subject, this should be enough to guarantee that it will be widely read by both students and policymakers." - Chaim Kaufmann, Foreign Affairs

  • "What her study shows is that victory in the field of ideas does not necessarily lead to victory in the real world." - Martin Woollacott, The Guardian

  • "All this is fascinating and disturbing. But the most eye-catching feature of A Problem from Hell is Power's palpable frustration with multilateralism and legalism." - Stephen Holmes, London Review of Books

  • "Power seeks to show that American policymakers have knowingly turned a blind eye to massacres. In her view, the United States' policy of nonintervention in the face of genocide has not been a failure but precisely what diplomats wanted." - Jacob Heilbrun, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Power is best when analysing the political and legal languages of genocide. She is less interested in the psychology of violence and more concerned with the concept of genocide" - Joanna Bourke, New Statesman

  • "Ms. Power shows herself a more than competent second-order journalist in retelling these stories. But by building them into a larger story shaped by a compelling argument, she takes her book beyond journalism to something approaching moral and political philosophy. (...) Ms. Power sets this expanded American story within a still larger, more than American story of the advance of international law. It is here that her book achieves both its greatest intellectual depth and its most powerful forward momentum." - Jack Miles, The New York Observer

  • "(A)gonizingly persuasive (.....) The main part of Samantha Power's extremely important and highly readable book is devoted to the century's subsequent history of almost unchecked genocide, and the lack of practical response to it, especially in the United States." - Brian Urquhart, The New York Review of Books

  • "This vivid and gripping work of American history doubles as a prosecutor's brief: time and again, Power recounts, although the United States had the knowledge and the means to stop genocide abroad, it has not acted. Worse, it has made a resolute commitment to not acting." - Laura Secor, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Though clearly imbued with a sense of outrage, Power is judicious in her portraits of those who opposed intervention, and keenly aware of the perils and costs of military action. Her indictment of U.S. policy is therefore all the more damning." - The New Yorker

  • "Lemkin's story is told in fascinating detail by Samantha Power, an Irish-born, American-based journalist-turned-academic, and lies at the heart of this important book, a superb piece of reporting which cumulatively grows into a major political work, part polemic, part moral philosophy." - Anthony Holden, The Observer

  • "Samantha Power has written one of those rare books that will not only endure as an authoritative history, but is a timely and important contribution to a critical policy debate." - Derek Chollet, Policy Review

  • "Regardless of what one believes about what the United States could have and should have done to stop the killings, Power’s book raises vital questions. It deserves the most serious possible response." - Charles Peña, Reason

  • "(A) study that does a masterful job of conveying important, clear and faultlessly non- hysterical information and interpretation on so many dark episodes in recent human history. Power follows two major narrative strategies here, both of which are much appreciated: she keeps it simple and straightforward, and she uses a string of memorable characters to tell the story." - Steve Kettmann, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Samantha Power paints a fascinating portrait of Lemkin (.....) Yet all this is just the curtain-raiser to the main body of this substantial and highly impressive work" - Noel Malcolm, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Samantha Power's densely researched and vividly written A Problem from Hell provides a history of genocide from Armenia to Kosovo. It is also a first-class piece of muck-raking journalism which reveals how US responses to these horrors have almost always been motivated by wilful blindness, self-interest and moral torpor." - Owen Richardson, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Power's critique of American policy is devastating and fully substantiated by the evidence she brings to bear." - Warren I. Cohen, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       Samantha Power's book, "A Problem from Hell", chronicles the American government's reactions to cases of genocide in the 20th century. The reactions stand out, above all, because they mainly involved inaction. Power's book is largely documentary rather than accusatory, but the facts alone are enough to condemn almost all American responses (and lack thereof) to some of the most heinous and outrageous acts perpetrated over the past hundred years.
       Power begins with the mass killings of Armenians by Turks during World War I -- what is commonly considered the first modern instance of genocide. Despite receiving considerable media attention, the United States took essentially no action that might have limited the killings, a type of nonresponse that, as Power writes, "established patterns that would be repeated". Power devotes chapters to some of the indisputable cases of genocide after World War II -- Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda, and various Serbian undertakings in what used to be known as Yugoslavia -- and the similarities in reactions are striking (and disappointing).
       Before going case by case and country by country, Power devotes a significant part of the book to the story of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer born at the turn of the century. Lemkin became obsessed with a single idea: to get the world ban such mass killings. Law seemed a means to accomplish this: if the international community could agree on a law banning the practice, that would be an important step to stopping the recurrence of such atrocities as the massacre of the Armenians. He had little success at first, but with the Holocaust and revelations of what the Germans had done during World War II to specific groups (Jews and gypsies, especially), the world became more receptive to outlawing such unconscionable behaviour.
       It was Lemkin that coined the word "genocide", and he was an important figure behind the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. With this UN Convention (passed 9 December 1948, entered into force 12 January 1951) an important step to preventing the practice -- and possibly holding perpetrators accountable -- was taken. Shockingly, the United States did not ratify this convention for some forty years -- and when they did only did so with reservations that made it little more than a symbolic act: as Power describes it, the US insisted on "an à la carte 'opt-out' clause" (which, as international law demands, is thus also available to any country the US accuses under the Convention).
       The bulk of "A Problem from Hell" then considers the various instances of genocide, and what the United States did. It is depressing, frustrating, and sometimes sickening reading. The abominations that were perpetrated defy easy understanding. In each of these cases, whether in Cambodia or Rwanda or elsewhere, the killings were of a brutality and ruthlessness that can only astound.
       In each case the United States largely stood back and did nothing. Power makes a convincing case for the idea that US intervention would have been effective in at least limiting some of these transgressions. Intervention need not always have been military: financial, political, and other pressure could have also helped in each of these situations. But the US largely simply stood aside.
       Power understands that it was not always easy to understand what was happening in these situations. She shows that information was often hard to come by -- especially, for example, in Cambodia, which under the Khmer Rouge truly became a black hole from which nothing seemed to emerge. This naturally affected decision-making -- though as Power also shows, in more recent instances (Yugoslavia and Rwanda) this is no longer any sort of excuse.
       Sheer ignorance also played a role: the belief that tribal tensions between Hutus and Tutsis are inevitable, or that the Balkans is always a hotbed of strife. Or simply not knowing where on a map Rwanda is, or what ethnic groups are involved in a certain situation.
       The tales of survivors who managed to flee the catastrophes were also often met with disbelief: the horrors -- and their magnitude -- seemed too senseless to be believable. (Power repeatedly notes that many accounts were simply not thought to be credible because the outrages were on such an incredible scale and of such obscene callousness and violence (and often served no remotely rational purpose). People apparently believe that people are fundamentally good and wouldn't do mean and bad things without a really good reason. One would have thought that Auschwitz and the like would have cured that ridiculous sentiment; one certainly hopes that this book will. There is no doubt: people are scum, the lowest of the low, and if given the opportunity they will do the unimaginable. The lesson is: don't give them the opportunity, and make any transgressions prohibitively costly.)
       Each situation Power describes was different. Some of the waffling and treading carefully was understandable -- but much wasn't.
       Indeed, much was absolutely inexcusable. The bizarre world of Realpolitik shockingly even led the American government to essentially side with and support the legitimacy of Pol Pot's government after Cambodia was invaded by Viet Nam -- despite the fact that there was then incontrovertible proof of the genocide there (talk about skewed priorities !). Rwanda -- in deepest, blackest Africa, with no American interests in any obvious way affected -- was most readily (and comprehensively) ignored. And when America finally did take action in Yugoslavia, it was largely because the situation threatened to become a public relations nightmare for the president, not because of the suffering of the locals.

       It is not always easy to act in these situations. One of the main stumbling blocks is that most countries strongly respect the idea of sovereignty: countries generally expect to (and are allowed to) do as they please within their borders. However, public opinion now seems firmly of the opinion that certain actions are beyond the pale -- genocide being one of them.
       America, with its strong isolationist tendencies (and an ultra-stickler for the sovereignty notion), claims not to like to meddle much in other affairs. Viet Nam, the propping up of many of the pathetic regimes in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America over the past few decades, and other misadventures abroad would suggest that America does little but meddle, but certainly in cases of genocide they have tended to allow regimes to do as they please. However, because of the US's dominant position as the world power -- now more than ever -- it can not completely stand aloof.
       Historically the government has said it only gets involved where "American interests" are at stake. Moral leadership is clearly not something America is interested in -- but strategic support of mass-massacrer Pol Pot or Kurd-killer Saddam Hussein is something they've been glad to entertain.
       The notion that moral leadership is worth something -- even at the cost of a few American lives -- has been slow to catch on. One would imagine that Saddam Hussein would be the State Department poster boy of how not to go about winning friends and influencing people, but in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the fall of 2001 the US has again buddied up with tyrannical and reprehensible regimes (though these are admittedly apparently not yet engaged in genocide). Pragmatic, perhaps. Henry Kissinger is no doubt thrilled. But, as Power's history shows, doing the right thing (the morally correct rather than the Realpolitik-ally ordained thing) might very well be the better long term policy. And one could certainly sleep a lot better at night.

       Almost all the stories Power tells are infuriating. Isolated voices try to do some good, but are thwarted at almost every turn. The nature of bureaucracy, and the unwillingness of so many to admit that people are capable of such senseless acts as genocide, seem almost insurmountable hurdles. Media attention helps bring some of these outrages to light -- but Power shows how easily and shamelessly criminal regimes can hide their crimes.
       Amazingly, there is also little public outrage about these awful acts; one hopes that Power's book will cause more widespread unease about America's sideline-role in these horrific events. Former president Clinton is vilified for engaging in sexual acts with an intern, but hardly anyone damns him for his callous disinterest and inaction during the Rwandan atrocities. A strange sort of moral relativism indeed. (It's a wonder Clinton can sleep at night: there are few blacker marks on any former president than Rwanda on him.)
       Rwanda is, surely, the most shocking episode described here, because so much could have so easily been done to lessen the scope of the outrages -- and yet almost no one in the American government (at least at a level where it mattered) paid much attention. America suffered a savage blow in the fall of 2001, with some 3000 criminally killed in one day. International sympathy and shows of support were great, and huge sums of money been raised for the survivors as well as spent on military actions in response to those events. In Rwanda the US was unwilling even to spend the mere 8500 dollars per flight-hour for a plane that could have jammed the local radio broadcasts that were instrumental in facilitating the massacres. As Power reminds her readers: for a hundred days more than twice as many people were being butchered in Rwanda every day as died on 11 September 2001-- a total of 800,000. Certainly a large number of these murders were preventable -- but here America was not in the least bit interested in exerting any leadership, moral or other. (Disappointingly also: no politicians in the US were held accountable by their constituencies for their failure to act.)

       Power's book and message is not all bleak. The past is one grand disappointment, but there does appear some hope for the future. The Convention on Genocide seems to have gotten some teeth, and both Yugoslavian and Rwandan leaders have been indicted and brought to trial. Human rights organizations and others are more willing to entertain the idea of military intervention in the most outrageous cases. The United States is, perhaps, beginning to understand that "American interests" occasionally do also involve merely doing the right thing.
       Still, overall it's a sad and sorry history Power presents here.

       Power's book is an American-bashing one. And America certainly deserves some bashing in this regard. Still, the complexity of international relations, and the actions (or rather the American-like inaction) of many other nations do not figure prominently in the book. Power acknowledges this, admitting her focus is almost entirely on the US. Still, it does skew the understanding of some of these situations. Certainly, for example, European inaction (or Russia's leanings) in the various Yugoslav-genocides are as contemptible as American inaction (and each played a role in affecting the other).
       Power manages -- astonishingly -- to keep her emotions largely in check in the book. She recounts with some passion, but she never loses her objectivity. For the reader it might be harder going: the events recounted here are as unpalatable and disturbing as it gets. The book is, literally, a terrible one, telling truths that few people probably want to hear.
       Power presents her material very well: the focus on Lemkin and some of the others who tried to affect change (Senator Proxmire, peacekeeper Romeo Dallaire, and others), the cases of genocide, the possible ways of addressing (and redressing, to the extent possible) cases of genocide past and future. Still, it makes for a very broad survey, with a few loose ends. But there is no doubt: the book is an impressive accomplishment. This is one of those truly "important books". One hopes that it will lead readers to try and influence their elected representatives and help get America to assert some moral leadership in the world. It clearly shows: idly standing by is simply not acceptable.

       Recommended -- but be warned: it is a very disturbing read.

- Return to top of the page -


"A Problem from Hell": Reviews: Raphael Lemkin: Genocide: Carr Center for Human Rights Policy:

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       Samantha Power has worked as a journalist and is currently a member of American president Obama's administration.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2002-2013 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links