America’s presidents choose war
Then watch it from afar
Blood starts flowing
Body count starts growing
You may rightly ask after reading this article what earthly good will come of having written it? To be truthful, I don’t rightly know; maybe nothing, maybe something. We live in a culture that accepts and even expects war. That must change or war will eventually annihilate humanity. To do nothing, to write nothing therefore is unacceptable to me. I like to think that seeking a better understanding of the chief warrior’s deadly habit may be necessary before stopping the habit.
My favorite American historian, the late Howard Zinn wrote the book, A People’s History of the United States.1 An alternate title for this article could be “A Pacifist’s History of U.S. Warriors-in-Chief.” I’m one of those “peaceniks” that dangerous patriots (“my country right or wrong”) love to disparage. I hated compulsory RTC in college eons ago. I’ve never owned or shot a gun. And, to borrow a warrior’s phrase, “I take no prisoners in arguments with “warnicks.” All this is to say that try as I might to be objective this article may be biased. You decide.
I’m going to examine very briefly five issues concerning our warrior presidents and war itself. First, how many military interventions have our presidents initiated and what has been the grave count from those interventions? Second, why have our presidents been so willing to send knowingly, countless people to their graves? Third, if war is murder and since US presidents do not go into battle themselves are they surrogate murders? Fourth, is any war “just?” Fifth, can America’s endless wars be ended for good?
How many “grave” choices have U.S. presidents made?
Counting declared wars and other military interventions is difficult even in the Internet age where nothing seems to go untracked and unreported, but it is impossible to get any reliable estimate of total “grave” count from those interventions. Only cemetery keepers keep reliable tabs of their own plots. So my overall impression will have to do and it’s really all I need to do since one death by force is one too many.
Military interventions were launched throughout a sizeable part of the world over 300 times by 43 of our 44 presidents. President Benjamin Harrison didn’t have time or strength to flex his muscles, dying from an illness after being in office only 32 days. The death toll of Americans alone from all those interventions amounts to over two million. Between six and seven million civilians died from U.S military intervention in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. A former CIA agent has estimated that six million people have died from covert CIA operations alone.2
Why do U.S. presidents make those choices?
To understand why anyone, presidents included, do what they do requires acknowledging their gender and knowing their character and their circumstances. As an organizational psychologist turned political psychologist in retirement I am going to tell you what I have concluded from decades of studying leadership. It’s been leadership outside the Oval Office, but I think what I have learned can be generalized to it. What influences CEOs and presidents alike is more similar than different.
Need more be said? In the corporate world males sit atop the glass ceiling. Atop the political world is always a male warrior-in-chief. Wars throughout history have been started and fought by males with very few exceptions (Cleopatra and Margaret Thatcher, for example). America has always been a male dominated and aggressive society. While testosterone may play a tiny role in a president’s aggression, it is to other personal characteristics and their circumstances we must look for primary explanations.
Several character flaws predispose leaders to abuse their power in harmful ways whenever they are in tempting or pressuring circumstances of their own or others’ making. Four flaws in particular would seem to apply perfectly to our presidential warriors; greed/ambition, moral frailty, narcissism, and close-mindedness.
1. Greed/Ambition. Greed is when enough is never enough, wanting more becomes a craving, getting more later isn’t soon enough, and thus motivates the abuse of power. In the corner offices of the corporate sphere, the profit motive and greed go hand in hand. In the political sphere greed becomes excessive ambition and in the Oval Office motivates an imperialistic drive. It has been a hallmark of all U.S. presidents.
2. Moral frailty. This characteristic is the sine qua non of people for whom the ends justify the means. The late psychologist Lawrence Kolhberg’s theory about levels of moral development and how by adulthood the person’s moral development would come to rest at one or the other of the levels is instructive here.3 I’ve condensed his six levels into three; unconditional (“wrongdoing is wrong”), conditional (“it depends”), and unprincipled (“do whatever is necessary”) morality. People at these last two levels always rationalize their bad actions as good ones. Most of our presidents rested at the third level. Historian John Dower refers to them as “moral imbeciles’ for “grossly misunderstanding or simply ignoring their enemies, their own impulses, and history itself.”4
3. Narcissism. One of the abnormal profiles recognized by the American Psychiatric Association is the “narcissistic personality disorder,” which exhibits such characteristics as “a grandiose sense of self-importance, is interpersonally exploitative and lacks empathy.” I think the hubris that pushes decisions to use military force is a corollary of narcissism. The “poster child” of hubris ought to be President Bush in his military attire standing on the aircraft carrier proclaiming “mission accomplished.” When narcissism goes over the edge it becomes sociopathic, which exhibits such characteristics as “disregard of social norms, deceitfulness, and lack of remorse.” Historian William Manson, author of The Psychodynamics of Culture, claims that President Clinton exemplifies narcissism and that President Bush has sociopathic tendencies (Bush allegedly firecracker bombed frogs as a youngster. 5 Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon ought to be case studies of this character flaw in its entirety.
4. Close-mindedness. One of the so-called “big five” personality traits is that of “openness.” It’s the least well understood of the five, but it seems to reflect a person’s mental ability for comprehensive and objective thinking and a keenness for a variety of experiences. Close-mindedness, narrow-mindedness, and myopia would seem to reflect the opposites. Consider President Lyndon Johnson, for instance. I think he was either an ignoramus about – or downplayed – the past history of Vietnam and didn’t have the vaguest idea of how long the war against that country would last or what its consequences would be. And then there are the more recent presidents with their myopia over the long-term consequences of their military aggressions in the Greater Middle East.
All people deal in one way or another with circumstances, some of their own making. Circumstances usually involve temptations and pressures. I call those circumstances “badvantages” because they give advantages to bad behavior. U.S. presidents, like CEOs, are bombarded by them, most especially by occupying a seductive position, by presiding over the best or worst of times, by a warfare culture, by upside down incentives, by global enticements, and overall by the powerful corpocracy, the collusion between corporate interests and corruptible officials in all three branches of the government.
1. Seductive position. History is replete with characters seduced by the powerful positions they held. Power is readily available to be exploited and abused. The U.S. presidency is perhaps the most powerful militarily speaking and thus the most seductive position in the world militarily speaking.
2. Best or worse of times. The best of times, which stokes greed, tends to bring out the worst in human nature just as the worst of times, which stokes need, tends to do the same. Fortune 500 companies, for instance, tend to get into legal trouble more often when times are good. In the case of U.S. presidents, however, the worst of times is when they get more militaristic. With the arguable exception of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor (FDR is said to have deliberately provoked the attack), warriors-in-chief create the worst of times by creating enemies for the self-serving purposes of the industrial/military/political triumvirate. Nothing boosts its profits and power like having an enemy or two or three.
3. Warfare culture. The triumvirate is adept at creating and sustaining a culture in which continuous military interventions is accepted and expected. Besides relying on spreading lies (e.g., WMDs), half truths and propaganda through corporate-controlled mainstream media, on infiltration into the educational system at all levels, and on entertainment (e.g., war movies) the triumvirate has mastered the art of what we psychologists call “operant conditioning”, continuously pairing a negative or less favorable item with a more favorable one until the former becomes more like the latter. That explains, for example, why basketball fans will without reservation watch a game played on an aircraft carrier.
4. Upside Down Incentives. CEOs and U.S. presidents are addicted to them. An upside down incentive, as you can probably guess, is one that rewards bad behavior and/or punishes good behavior. Never having to worry about being prosecuted as a war criminal by the International Criminal Court because it is an absolutely feckless entity and because the U.S. refuses to be a signatory member of it is the most egregious upside down incentive for a U.S. warrior-in-chief.
5. Global enticements. Globalization is the contemporary euphemism for imperialism. The globe is one giant opportunity for market expansion, resource exploitation and political manipulation. The prospect of installing or protecting dictatorships in the pretext of spreading and defending freedom is just too much of a temptation for CEOs and U.S. presidents alike to resist. The duplicitous and hypocritical Ike with his farewell address warning of the very military industrial complex over which he had presided was a supreme master of secret military operations carried out by the CIA to replace democratically elected presidents with dictators who protected corporate investments and operations and opened up for them rich resources like oil and minerals.
6. The powerful corpocracy. The first five circumstantial factors are all part and parcel of this sixth one, the powerful corpocracy. It took me about 10 years to study and then write a book about what the corpocracy is, what it does, and how it can be ended and democracy reclaimed.6 A U.S. president is a member of the corpocracy and is influenced by it, especially when it comes to making decisions about military interventions.
Are grave-sending U.S. presidents surrogate murderers?
A murder happens when someone is killed intentionally. A surrogate is someone acting on the behalf of someone else. If you accept these definitions, does it not follow that the making and selling of murderous weapons and the authorization by agents at the highest levels of government of the use of those weapons is a form of surrogate murder? And if men, women and children not targeted for killing but killed as part of the “collateral damage,” is that not a form of involuntary homicide or manslaughter?
Is any war just?
President Obama’s chief antiterrorism advisor confidently claimed in a speech April 30, 2012 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center that the president’s drone strikes were ethical, wise, and efficacious. 7 I think anyone with any conscience could easily refute him point by point, so I did in an article I wrote as soon as I read the transcript of his speech. 8
But to refute the claim made by many authorities that war can be just (their wars in particular) requires not only my bone-deep conviction that no war can be just but also in my summarizing what I think are irrefutable arguments for it. I will not summarize the arguments for a just war. They are rooted in philosophical and theological thinking and all amount to moral rationalizations. Throughout history religion has been an instigator, accessory, or silent accomplice of one war or other cruelty after another. If I had to align my thinking with any religious figure it would be with Erasmus, an early sixteenth century monk. War, he said, was “repugnant to nature,” and noted that no one had “ever heard of a hundred thousand animals rushing together to butcher each other, as men do everywhere.” 9
Howard Zinn wrote that the supreme test for whether any war can be just is the U.S. military involvement in WWII. He then went on to raise several questions about it. Was the U.S. involvement for the rights of nations to independence and self-determination? To save the Jews? Against racism? For democracy? No, not at all according to his review of the evidence; the U.S. involvement in WWII had no such high-minded purposes, and he concluded that “Looking at World War II in perspective, looking at the world it created and the terror that grips our century, should we not bury for all time the idea of just war?”10
Two more touchstone wars need to be tested. One is America’s first, the American Revolution. It was fought for the partial right of independence and self-determination. It was a clash between two privileged classes 3,500 miles apart. It did not save the Indians. It led to their decimation and subjugation. It certainly was not against racism. And it certainly was not for a democracy of, for, and by all the people. Had the war not been fought British control would have eventually dissipated, just as it eventually lost all of its other colonies, and an America of a less militant nature might have eventually emerged.
The second touchstone is the Civil War, the most deadly for Americans of any military interventions launched by a U.S. president. Zinn makes it clear in his book that President Lincoln provoked the attack on Fort Sumter that launched the Civil War not with the primary purpose of freeing the slaves but “to retain the enormous national territory and markets and resources.” 11 Lincoln, in other words, was an early practitioner of imperialism by deadly military means.
After reading Zinn I did not remove the image of the Washington statute of our 16th President that is displayed on my website. I like the looks of it. Before reading Zinn I had written an iconoclastic piece about President Lincoln in my book on which the site is partly based. It was in reference to the rash of states around 2002 rushing to pass laws declaring states’ rights in defiance of federal regulations. Here are some extracts of what I wrote:
What if they left the Union and formed their own—There might be two Americas and two smaller corpocracies instead of one monstrous one. —President Lincoln may have made a colossal mistake in entering the Civil War. Slavery probably would have ended peacefully without [it] —because plantation owners were beginning to realize that share croppers were economically a better option than slave holding and thus emancipation would not have been forced by the Union on slave holders. Concomitantly, racial hatred and prejudice might not persist to this day—With two Americas so divided each would not have been strong enough to do much warring around the globe. And with two Americas so divided, the corpocracy as it exists today might not exist today.12
President Lincoln, in my opinion, should have adopted the sentiment of President Thomas Jefferson who exclaimed “If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation … to a continuance in the union …. I have no hesitation in saying, Let us separate.” Most political leaders up to the Civil War agreed with that view. They thought states had the right to secede. But so much for reverse history; we can all make of it what we will.
Can America’s endless wars be ended for good?
War is not inevitable. There have been peaceful periods throughout history here and there in the world. And war can be ended, possibly forever. Doing so will require changing the personal characteristics and circumstances of our future U.S. presidents.
As for the four character flaws, they won’t change in a sitting president. They have been crystallized and hardened during his formative years. We must elect an entirely different kind of presidency, one whose characteristics are the mirror image of the four. We know when the four positive sides exist by looking at the candidate’s personal history. We give ourselves a better chance of electing a candidate having no character flaws by changing how we elect the candidates and, in the long run, by grooming them early. The way we elect presidents needs to be changed from winner-take all to an approval voting or an alternative, scored voting. Either approach leaves the Constitutional requirement of an Electoral College intact.
Besides possessing the four positive character traits, the person ought to be a female. Not just any female though. Rule out Hillary Clinton, she of the “we came, we saw, we killed” morality and wife of a man who some argue is an international war criminal. And rule out Elizabeth Warren, the brand new U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. She apparently believes Iran is a significant threat to the U.S. and is too closely allied with AIPAC, the American/Israeli lobby group reportedly just itching to get the U.S. into a war with Iran. Future candidates need to be groomed through training, mentoring, and being down-ballot candidates and office holders for progressive, non-imperialistic causes.
As for getting rid of the “badvantagious” circumstances I devoted much of my book about the corpocracy on that very goal. 13 In the book are numerous proposals for legislative, political, judicial and economic reforms. In one of the chapters I propose “waging war on war” with more than 20 major reform initiatives such as nationalizing and reorienting the defense industry, joining the International Criminal Court, and creating a dual community versus military service draft.
We cannot afford to leave President Barack Obama out of the equation notwithstanding what I said about intractable personal characteristics. He needs to be pressured daily by antiwar and peace groups to stop his drone strikes, and these same groups need to stop acting as if their existence depends more on war than on peace and to start uniting and orchestrating corporate and government reform strike forces against all members of the industrial/military/political complex.
I started this article with some doggerel. I will end it with some more: “America was born in the womb of war. Will she die in her arms?” Einstein once said that “War cannot be humanized. It can only be abolished.”I agree. Whether you do or not, my guess is that at least some wars and military interventions have been over the top for you and that you do not want anymore than I do the risk of the transgressions of our history continuing unabated and descending on our descendants in a climatic and irreversible finale.
- Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States, NY: HarperPerennial, 2005 [↩]
- Brian Wilson, History of US military Overt and Covert Global Interventions. July 15, 2012 [↩]
- Kohlberg, L. The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984 [↩]
- From Michael Sherry in his review (“The American Scholar Autumn”, 2010) of the book Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima/9-11/Iraq, by John Dower. NY: Norton, 2010. [↩]
- William Manson, “Sociopathic Narcissism: A Political Syndrome“, Dissident Voice, October 26, 2012 [↩]
- Brumback, G.B. The Devil’s Marriage: Break Up the Corpocracy or Leave Democracy in the Lurch, Bloomington, IN: Author House, 2011 [↩]
- “The Efficacy and Ethics of U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy“, April 30, 2012. Transcript of remarks by John O. Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism [↩]
- “The Government’s Orwellian Justification of its Deadly Drone Strikes“, by Gary Brumback, Dissident Voice, May 22, 2012. [↩]
- The Erasmus quote is from ”Just and Unjust War” by Howard Zinn [↩]
- Ibid [↩]
- Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States, Page 198 [↩]
- Brumback, The Devil’s Marriage: Break Up the Corpocracy or Leave Democracy in the Lurch, Page 38 [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]