June 29, 2006

The Culture of the Lie, III: Creating Hell on Earth

[This is the third and last of this series of essays. The first part is here: If Only There Hadn't Been Any "Mess"; and the second part is here: The Loathsome Lies in the Service of the Horrors of War. The essay republished below was originally posted on May 28, 2005. Rereading this for the first time 13 months after I wrote it leaves me with an immense feeling of desolation. Even though I think I understand many of the mechanisms that make it possible and despite the fact that I have written about them in detail, I still find it very difficult to grasp that widespread cultural denial -- and the "laziness" and "narcissism" that Peck describes in connection with Vietnam -- should remain so central to our national character. It is these traits that make the horrors of Iraq possible, and even inevitable -- just as they made the horrors of Vietnam possible and inevitable.

A year ago, the Downing Street Memo was still recent news. In reposting this piece, I was especially struck by my comments about it then -- and how rapidly that story, like every other one revealing the lies and manipulation behind our immoral and criminal invasion and occupation of Iraq, vanished into the deliberately unfocused mists of our collective amnesiac consciousness. I draw your attention to the note I added below on this point:
Added 6/29/06: Two of those three links [about the Downing Street Memo] are now outdated. But I left these remarks as they were -- to show that just a year ago, there was a brief moment when it appeared that enough members of Congress and the American public might finally be motivated to take significant action to stop our criminal behavior in Iraq. But the moment quickly passed and, as before, with the exception of less than a handful of members of Congress, our Representatives and Senators do not give a damn about their constitutional responsibilities. And as documented below, the "laziness and narcissism" of the American public continue on their oblivious, destructive course. We prefer to think of ourselves as "morally superior," as ignorant commentators like Peter Beinart contend -- when in fact, just as M. Scott Peck said about the Vietnam era, we have almost completely and irredeemably lost our moral bearings.
The truth about the American public is much worse than a general lack of concern with the truth: the fact is that we affirmatively do not want to know the truth. It poses too much of a danger to our preferred vision of ourselves -- so we bury it under the details of our lives, and avoid reading or hearing anything that might challenge our ignorance.

I will leave it to you to decide whether that is evil in itself -- or if it only makes evil possible. But one thing is certain: whatever else may be open to debate, such widespread ignorance, and our national willingness to succumb to lies and manipulation, is profoundly dangerous. That was true during Vietnam, and it is no less true today. And with an administration that still may unleash a widespread war by attacking Iran, the danger cannot be overstated. Yet we refuse to acknowledge any of this, just as we refuse to acknowledge the horrors taking place in Iraq every day. We do not know when or in what form a day of reckoning will finally arrive, but it cannot be postponed forever. The price all of us may have to pay is terrible to contemplate.

I will have further thoughts about these issues and how they apply to our current situation very soon, probably beginning on Friday.]


I had intended to present what follows in a somewhat different form, but as Iraq continues to turn even more rapidly into a hell on earth, I think it would be better to begin now, with one central part of what needs to be said.

As I have emphasized before, we must never lose sight of the single crucial, overwhelming fact: the invasion and occupation of Iraq were completely and absolutely unjustified in terms of any legitimate meaning of the phrase "national defense." Even though our government would prefer not to tell us anything at all about the decisions that affect all of us (or as little as possible, and only what it is forced to reveal), what was available in the public record conclusively established this point a long time ago. [See this recent essay for more on this issue, and specifically about its moral significance.]

In this context, the emergence of the Downing Street Memo did not tell us anything we did not know before, at least not anything that those of us who have been paying attention had not known. But the Memo did provide still another piece of evidence -- and a remarkably explicit and unambiguous one. For that reason alone, it merited significant attention and discussion, which the American media has still failed to provide to the extent demanded. It appears that lies which lead to widespread death and destruction, and which gravely imperil our national security, are not matters which concern our press any longer, if they ever did. So much for the integrity of our media, to say nothing of its decency and humanity. (On the subject of the Memo: sign Conyers' letter, and also visit this site. In particular, read this about the investigation that must now be conducted into Bush's possibly (and almost certainly) impeachable offenses, if anyone in our government remains serious about their constitutional responsibilities, and if they give a damn about anything at all. [Added 6/29/06: Two of those three links are now outdated. But I left these remarks as they were -- to show that just a year ago, there was a brief moment when it appeared that enough members of Congress and the American public might finally be motivated to take significant action to stop our criminal behavior in Iraq. But the moment quickly passed and, as before, with the exception of less than a handful of members of Congress, our Representatives and Senators do not give a damn about their constitutional responsibilities. And as documented below, the "laziness and narcissism" of the American public continue on their oblivious, destructive course. We prefer to think of ourselves as "morally superior," as ignorant commentators like Peter Beinart contend -- when in fact, as M. Scott Peck said about the Vietnam era, we have almost completely and irredeemably lost our moral bearings.]

What makes all of this infinitely, unbearably worse is that we have been in this same precise place before, when the Vietnam catastrophe tore our own nation apart while also destroying Vietnam, yet another country which never threatened us. The title of this series of essays comes from M. Scott Peck's book, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. Several necessary caveats before proceeding: I do not share Peck's overall philosophic perspective, including his particular religious beliefs. There are a number of points in his book (and in his writings more generally) with which I disagree, and there are certain of his views that I utterly reject.

Despite my sometimes serious disagreements with his particular opinions, I consider Peck to be unusually perceptive about many of the psychological dynamics involved in deception and manipulation, and with regard to our capacity for immense cruelty to other human beings. He also has many valuable points to make about how these dynamics can suffuse an entire culture. Peck had tragic and serious reason to think about these issues in great detail (from Chapter 6, "MyLai: An Examination of Group Evil"):
The fact that the American public learned about MyLai at all was due solely to a letter that Ron Ridenhour wrote at the end of March 1969 to several congressmen about the atrocities--more than a year after they had occurred. Ridenhour had not himself been a part of Task Force Barker but had later heard of the atrocities in idle conversation from friends who had been at MyLai, and he wrote the letter three months after his return to civilian life.

In the spring of 1972 I was chairman of a committee of three psychiatrists appointed by the Army Surgeon General, at the request of the Chief of Staff of the Army, to make recommendations for research that might shed light on the psychological causes of MyLai, so as to help prevent such atrocities in the future. The research we proposed was rejected by the General Staff of the Army, reportedly on the grounds that it could not be kept secret and might prove embarrassing to the administration and that "further embarrassment was not desirable at that time."

The rejection of the recommendations of the committee for research is symbolic of several issues. One is that any research into the nature of evil is likely to prove embarrassing, not only to those who are the designated subjects of the research but also to the researchers themselves. If we are to study the nature of human evil, it is doubtful how clearly we will be able to separate them from us; it will most likely be our own natures we are examining. Undoubtedly, this potential for embarrassment is one of the reasons we have thus far failed to develop a psychology of evil.

The rejection by the General Staff of our recommendations for research also highlights the fact that in considering the evil at MyLai--as in all our other considerations of evil--we suffer from a simple lack of scientific knowledge. In tune with what has preceded, much of what follows is only speculative. We will inevitably be limited to speculation until such time as we have been able to develop, through scientific research, a body of knowledge that constitutes a genuine psychology of evil.
People of the Lie was first published in 1983. Although research of the particular kind envisioned by Peck has probably still not been conducted, evidence supporting his contentions continues to accumulate in other forms. A significant part of the reason that I will excerpt Peck here and in future entries is that certain of his identifications very closely track many of those made by Alice Miller. In terms of what follows, see in particular parts of my "To Destroy the World" series: Part I (about Saddam Hussein), and Part II (about the psychology of a certain kind of warhawk, as revealed by Fallujah). Those articles have links to other posts providing more detail, and all the Alice Miller entries are listed here. In addition, Peck's analysis of certain aspects of the Vietnam debacle is also strikingly similar to that offered by historian Barbara Tuchman (see here, for example -- and also this essay about a related aspect of recently revived Vietnam propaganda).

First, consider the following -- and think about these dynamics as applied to militant, aggressive nationalism, that is, the "group cohesiveness" of an entire country:
It is almost common knowledge that the best way to cement group cohesiveness is to ferment the group's hatred of an external enemy. Deficiencies within the group can be easily and painlessly overlooked by focusing attention on the deficiencies or "sins" of the out-group. Thus the Germans under Hitler could ignore their domestic problems by scapegoating the Jews. And when American troops were failing to fight effectively in New Guinea in World War II, the command improved their esprit de corps by showing them movies of Japanese committing atrocious acts. But this use of narcissism--whether unconscious or deliberate--is potentially evil. We have extensively examined the ways in which evil individuals will flee self-examination and guilt by blaming and attempting to destroy whatever or whoever highlights their deficiencies. Now we see that the same malignant narcissistic behavior comes naturally to groups.

From this it should be obvious that the failing group is the one likely to behave most evilly. Failure wounds our pride, and it is the wounded animal who is vicious. In the healthy organism failure will be a stimulus to self-examination and criticism. But since the evil individual cannot tolerate self-criticism, it is in time of failure that he or she will inevitably lash out one way or another. And so it is with groups. Group failure and the stimulation of group self-criticism act to damage group pride and cohesiveness. Group leaders in all places and ages have therefore routinely bolstered group cohesiveness in times of failure by whipping the group's hatred for foreigners or the "enemy."

Returning to the specific subject of our examination, we will remember that at the time of MyLai the operation of Task Force Barker had been a failure. After more than a month in the field the enemy had still not been engaged. Yet the Americans had slowly and regularly sustained casualties. The enemy body count, however, was zero. Failing in its mission--which was to kill in the first place--the group leadership was all the more hungry for blood. Given the circumstances, the hunger had become indiscriminate, and the troops would mindlessly satisfy it.
Now read the following, replacing in your mind communism with terrorism, and Vietnam with Iraq:
While the military may have been crashing around in Vietnam like a crazed bull, it did not get there of its own accord. The mindless beast was sent there and let loose by the United States government acting on behalf of the American people. Why? Why did we wage that war?

Basically, we fought the war because of a combination of three attitudes: (1) communism was a monolithic evil force hostile to human freedom in general and American freedom in particular; (2) it was America's duty as the world's most economically powerful nation to lead the opposition against communism; and (3) communism should be opposed wherever it arose by whatever means necessary.


Our military involvement in Vietnam began in the period between 1954 and 1956, when the idea of a monolithic Communist menace seemed realistic. A dozen years later it was no longer realistic. Yet at precisely the time when it had ceased to be realistic, when we should have been readjusting our strategy and withdrawing from Vietnam, we began to seriously escalate our military involvement there in defense of obsolescent attitudes. Why? Why, beginning around 1964, did America's behavior in Vietnam become increasingly unrealistic and inappropriate? There are two reasons: laziness and--once again--narcissism.

Attitudes have a kind of inertia. Once set in motion, they will keep going, even in the face of the evidence. To change an attitude requires a considerable amount of work and suffering. The process must begin either in an effortfully maintained posture of constant self-doubt and criticism or else in a painful acknowledgment that what we thought was right all along may not be right after all. Then it proceeds into a state of confusion. This state is quite uncomfortable; we no longer seem to know what is right or wrong or which way to go. But it is a state of openness and therefore of learning and growing. It is only from the quicksand of confusion that we are able to leap to the new and better vision.


Let us also examine the narcissism. We are our attitudes. If someone criticizes an attitude of mine, I feel he or she is criticizing me. If one of my opinions is proved wrong, then I have been wrong. My self-image of perfection has been shattered. Individuals and nations cling to obsolete and outworn ideas not simply because it requires work to change them but also because, in their narcissism, they cannot imagine that their ideas and views could be wrong. They believe themselves to be right. Oh, we are quick to superficially disclaim our infallibility, but deep inside most of us, particularly when we have apparently been successful and powerful, we consider ourselves invariably in the right. It was this kind of narcissism, manifested in our behavior in Vietnam, that Senator William Fulbright referred to as "the arrogance of power."

Ordinarily, if our noses are rubbed in the evidence, we can tolerate the painful narcissistic injury involved, admit our need for change, and correct our outlook. But as is the case with certain individuals, the narcissism of whole nations may at times exceed the normal bounds. When this happens, the nation--instead of readjusting in light of the evidence--sets about attempting to destroy the evidence. This was what America was up to in the 1960s. The situation in Vietnam presented us with evidence of the fallibility of our world view and the limits of our potency. So, rather than rethinking it, we set about to destroy the situation in Vietnam, and all of Vietnam with it if necessary.


Rather than alter these policies, however, we launched a full-scale war to preserve them intact. Rather than admit what would have been a minor failure in 1964, we set about rapidly escalating the war to prove ourselves right at the expense of the Vietnamese people and their self-aspirations. The issue ceased to be what was right for Vietnam and became an issue of our infallibility and preserving our national "honor."

Strangely enough, on a certain level, President Johnson and the men of his administration knew that what they were doing was evil. Otherwise, why all the lying? It was so bizarre and seemingly out of character that it is difficult for us merely to recall the extraordinary national dishonesty of those days, a scant fifteen years ago. Even the excuse President Johnson gave in order to begin bombing North Vietnam and escalate the war in 1964--the "Gulf of Tonkin incident"--was apparently a deliberate fraud.


But it would be a mistake and a potentially evil rationalization itself for us to blame the evil of those days entirely on the Johnson administration. We must ask why Johnson was successful in defrauding us. Why did we allow ourselves to be defrauded for so long? Not everyone was. A very small minority was quick to recognize that the wool was being pulled over our eyes, that "something rather dark and bloody" was being perpetrated by the nation. But why were most of us not aroused to ire or suspicion or even significant concern about the nature of the war?

Once again we are confronted with our all-too-human laziness and narcissism. Basically, it was just too much trouble. We all had our lives to lead--doing our day-to-day jobs, buying new cars, painting our houses, sending our kids to college. As the majority of members of any group are content to let the leadership be exercised by the few, so as a citizenry we were content to let the government "do its thing." It was Johnson's job to lead, ours to follow. The citizenry was simply too lethargic to become aroused. Besides, we shared with Johnson his enormous large-as-Texas narcissism. Surely our national attitudes and policies couldn't be wrong. Surely our government had to know what it was doing; after all, we'd elected them, hadn't we? And surely they had to be good and honest men, for they were products of our wonderful democratic system, which certainly couldn't go seriously awry. And surely whatever type of regime our rulers and experts and government specialists thought was right for Vietnam must be right, for weren't we the greatest of nations and the leader of the free world?

By allowing ourselves to be easily and blatantly defrauded, we as a whole people participated in the evil of the Johnson administration. The evil--the years of lying and manipulation--of the Johnson administration was directly conducive to the whole atmosphere of lying and manipulation and evil that pervaded our presence in Vietnam during those years. It was in this atmosphere that MyLai occurred in March 1968. Task Force Barker was hardly even aware that it had run amok that day, but, then, America was not significantly aware either in early 1968 that it too had almost unredeemably lost its bearings.
Yes, great evil was committed against us on 9/11. But our response as a nation has been so tragically misguided -- with the war on Iraq and the subsequent occupation as the greatest and most calamitous errors -- that we repeat all of this again, only 40 years later. Even the "large-as-Texas narcissism" and the absolute inability even to conceive of the possibility that we might be gravely, terribly wrong are identical.

The horrors that are thereby unleashed on the world are also the same. And as long as we continue on our present course, still more and even worse horrors lie in wait for all of us.


Related Essays: Battling the Ghosts of Vietnam

The Amnesty Question: We Are Not the Good Guys in Iraq

American Narcissism: Deadly, Dangerous, Wrong and Futile

[[My sole income is from the writing I do here and at The Sacred Moment, where you will find my essays based on the work of Alice Miller, my series On Torture, and many other pieces. (As I noted recently, all the essays at The Sacred Moment will be moved here as I have time, so that all my writing is in one place. I think that will be much easier.) So if you find my writing of some value, I would be very grateful if you considered making a donation in any amount. I'm still trying to get together the money for upcoming July bills for basic living expenses, and unfortunately I'm not quite there yet. Links will be found at the top right and on the main page.

If you use the PayPal button here, it appears that you're donating to The Sacred Moment. But donations to either site come to me, so it doesn't actually matter. I mention it only if it seems confusing, which it is. I'll straighten it out once I figure out what the problem is. Many thanks for your consideration.]