"His stack is bigger than mine" crow the body-stackers who claim virtue for their nation-team based on how many people get killed.
People like Robert Conquest and Bill Buckley thrill in pointing to how humane the United States is relative to Stalin's USSR or Mao's China because in the 20th century
we only killed a few million civilians in places like Vietnam, Hiroshima, and the Philippines. Our nineteenth century was a lot uglier.
But the truth is more complicated. The truth is that great powers universally, or nearly universally, indulge in mass murder. Monbiot
explores that complexity in a review of books on British genocides:
In his book Late Victorian Holocausts, published in 2001, Mike Davis tells the story of famines that killed between 12 and 29 million Indians. These people were, he demonstrates, murdered by British state policy. When an El Niño drought destituted the farmers of the Deccan plateau in 1876 there was a net surplus of rice and wheat in India. But the viceroy, Lord Lytton, insisted that nothing should prevent its export to England. In 1877 and 1878, at the height of the famine, grain merchants exported a record 6.4m hundredweight of wheat. As the peasants began to starve, officials were ordered "to discourage relief works in every possible way".
And in Africa,
Three recent books - Britain's Gulag by Caroline Elkins, Histories of the Hanged by David Anderson, and Web of Deceit by Mark Curtis - show how white settlers and British troops suppressed the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya in the 1950s. Thrown off their best land and deprived of political rights, the Kikuyu started to organise - some of them violently - against colonial rule. The British responded by driving up to 320,000 of them into concentration camps. Most of the remainder - more than a million - were held in "enclosed villages". Prisoners were questioned with the help of "slicing off ears, boring holes in eardrums, flogging until death, pouring paraffin over suspects who were then set alight, and burning eardrums with lit cigarettes". British soldiers used a "metal castrating instrument" to cut off testicles and fingers.
Americans are understandably discouraged and troubled by misdeeds in Iraq. It's important to keep the perspective that our generation is part of a struggle for human dignity that has gone on for thousands of years. America is neither better nor worse than any other country because the stack of dead from slavery and the wars against the Native Americans is shorter than Stalin's stack. In every national moment in which we reject torture and murder, we become angels to the world. In every national moment in which we give in to our darker impulses, we become its devils.
As for Stalin, the best democidal estimate I have seen shows him still with a slightly bigger body count than Lord Lytton. But the numbers are very poorly founded. I corresponded with a Russian who had gone through the national archives and says they are so disordered and fragmentary that the actual number of people killed by Stalin could be far smaller. When it comes to homicidal maniacs, one should never look at the numbers. It's the thought that counts.