July 09, 2010

The Demand for Obedience, and Reverence for Authority: The Lifelong Flight from Responsibility and Judgment (I)

Introduction: A Valuable Opportunity

In one of those happy accidents occasionally encountered during the examination of complex issues over a period of years, a new article provides me a remarkable opportunity. The article offers a distilled example of certain analytic failures I've discussed a number of times. But that is only on the first and most superficial level of consideration.

Below the surface, the article reveals the operation of mechanisms of denial that I've also examined in the past. These mechanisms can be detected in the commentary offered by almost every contemporary writer, among well-known and prominent writers and also in the remarks of relatively obscure bloggers.

An extended analysis of these issues will allow me to trace the ways in which the mechanisms of denial work, and how they result in the more obvious analytic failures. In addition to reviewing some observations I've already made and showing, in connection with a new and unusually revealing example, how they operate, I will provide further (occasionally extensive) information I've long planned to write about.

The article to which I refer may represent a surprising choice to many people, even to some regular readers here. It's by Andrew Bacevich: "Non-Believer." Bacevich is commonly regarded as a strong critic of America's aggressively interventionist foreign policy. Not surprisingly, his new piece has already been widely linked by many of those who are "antiwar," usually with enthusiastic approval for his views. I myself have linked Bacevich's writing on several past occasions. While preparing these new posts of mine, and in reviewing some of Bacevich's earlier essays (including a few I hadn't read before), I realized that I was in error in praising Bacevich to the extent I did. But then, my own understanding of these issues has increased considerably in the last several years.

You can review for yourself the earlier posts in which I cited Bacevich. I was interested, and gratified, to see that even in the past I strongly criticized Bacevich for one particular error. In describing U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Bacevich wrote: "We deluded ourselves into thinking that we were defending freedom against totalitarianism. In fact, we had blundered into a civil war." I dealt with this egregious and immensely destructive error in some detail in the P.S. to an earlier entry. In part, I wrote:
I greatly respect Bacevich's work in general, but I must offer a corrective to his statement that, "we had blundered into a civil war." The United States "blundered" into precisely nothing, not in Vietnam and not anywhere else.

Although Bacevich comes at these issues from a very different perspective, and despite the fact that the totality of Bacevich's writing commands admiration and praise, while Irving Kristol deserves only severe condemnation, Bacevich's error comes far too close for comfort to that committed by Kristol for the worst of motives. Almost exactly four years ago, in August 2003, I discussed Kristol's "neoconservative manifesto," in an essay titled, "In Service of the New Fascism." In analyzing what is probably Kristol's very worst lie among many hideous lies, I wrote...
And here is the conclusion of that postscript of mine:
When we come upon a murderer covered with the blood of victims who never threatened him, we do not defend him by appealing to his "good intentions" or by claiming that "he meant well" -- at least, we do not if we seek to remain civilized.

In terms of its foreign policy of aggressive, ceaseless, violent interventionism, the United States has been a murderer of this kind on the world stage for over a century. And our ruling class continues to state repeatedly, in a manner demanding that we credit the assertions, that their infernal and bloody work is far from done.
The nature of this error -- what gives rise to it, and what it implies -- should have made me much warier of Bacevich in general. As we will see, this error, together with several related ones, has now been further revealed with a vengeance. And the issue of "good intentions" is especially prominent in Bacevich's new article.

In fact, the lie of "good intentions" is the first error in a list I made for myself of some of the major underlying errors contained in Bacevich's article. I will be returning to this list and discussing each element in detail. But it might be helpful if I set out this very short summary in advance.

In the analytic framework I'm employing, these are separate from other errors that can be detected on a more superficial level of analysis (see directly below for a discussion of those). These are the deeper mistakes, the ones that arise from patterns of thought that are driven into all of us very early in life. After each one, I've included a few passages from Bacevich's article that indicate the underlying error:

1. The lie of "good intentions" (that Bush was "a well-intentioned fool," that Obama "wants nothing more than to rid himself of his war [in Afghanistan]" -- indeed, the entire framework within which Bacevich evaluates both Bush and Obama, notably including the judgments he will not make)

2. Imagining psychological explanations and/or justifications in the absence of or contrary to available evidence (see the specifics for item 1 above, and all the other comments about Bush and Obama, e.g.: "Bush himself remained certain that his intentions were pure and the nation’s cause righteous"; Obama "would govern differently not only because he was smarter than his predecessor but because he responded to a different—and truer—inner compass"; that Afghanistan is a "cause in which [Obama] manifestly does not believe and yet refuses to forsake"; and so on)

3. Erroneously believing, and despite massive evidence that compels a very different conclusion, that one's own values are universally recognized and accepted, and therefore judging "fools," "incompetence," "failure" and the like by the wrong standard (again, that Bush is "a well-intentioned fool," and that the "hallmark" of the Bush administration was "[r]ecklessness compounded by profound incompetence"; the remarks about Obama noted above)

4. Being unable or refusing to grasp and identify profoundly destructive and even evil behavior for what it is. That is: being unable or refusing to name evil as evil.

I'll be adding to this list as we proceed through this discussion. There are more related errors, as well as a number of significant effects of these errors, some of which are especially awful. But I'll defer a more detailed list to later in this series.

The fourth item is the bedrock upon which Bacevich's article rests; this is the foundation for everything else, one which is constantly reinforced by the related errors (all of which will hopefully become clearer as I move through these essays). These issues announce themselves repeatedly throughout Bacevich's article. As I indicated, Bacevich's article is an almost perfect representation of how these mechanisms work and how each of them informs and strengthens the others. The ultimate source of all of them is identified in my title for this series: the demand for obedience and the reverence for authority that is instilled in us from the time we are very young children. For most people, these twin commandments result in a lifelong flight from truth, responsibility and judgment, both in their view of themselves and in their view of others.

Before I examine the underlying mechanisms in detail, I first want to discuss the comparatively superficial errors (and sometimes worse) in Bacevich's piece. Although these errors can be appreciated on their own, consistent correction of them requires that we understand their origins. This is a task very few people choose to undertake. Thus, the errors persist and appear to be unalterable.

The Numerous Errors on the First Level of Analysis

Given my own values, always starting with the sacred value of a single human life, I am compelled to begin with what I find to be the most profoundly offensive, even nauseating, error in Bacevich's remarks. You'll find it in this passage:
Bush’s Freedom Agenda ended in abject failure—no liberalizing tide has swept the Islamic world. The promised Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the evidence linking Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda never materialized. Implementing the heinous Bush Doctrine of preventive war in Iraq yielded an insurgency that sent millions fleeing to squalid refugee camps. As a direct result, thousands of American soldiers were killed and many thousands more maimed or otherwise deeply scarred.
In the last sentence, "many thousands more" refers only to more "American soldiers," the earlier referent. What about the devastation to Iraq itself and to Iraqis? Bacevich mentions "an insurgency that sent millions fleeing to squalid refugee camps." That is more than many people will acknowledge even today -- but it falls far short of what conscience and decency demand.

Given the overt, blatant criminality of the U.S.'s war of aggression, it is incumbent upon any commentator to first acknowledge the vast number of people murdered as the result of the U.S. invasion and occupation. The innocent and now dead victims of the U.S.'s criminal actions may credibly number in excess of one million people. In an article I wrote almost three years ago, I cited one study which concluded:
Given that from the 2005 census there are a total of 4,050,597 households this data suggests a total of 1,220,580 deaths since the invasion in 2003. Calculating the effect from the margin of error we believe that the range is a minimum of 733,158 to a maximum of 1,446,063.
In the same essay, "Let's Make It About You: Can We Stop the Slaughter Now?," I went on to observe:
In a country that remained civilized to any significant degree, this would be the primary subject of discussion, particularly when that country itself had caused such devastation for no legitimate reason whatsoever.


Since Americans' narcissism is so all-encompassing, and because the superior value of American lives and goals as compared to those of all other peoples is regarded as an axiom never to be questioned, let's put these horrors in terms that Americans might understand. Let's make it about you.

For ease of computation, we'll use approximate figures. Assume the U.S.'s war crimes have resulted in one million deaths. That is roughly 1/26 of the total Iraqi population. An equivalent number of American deaths would be 11.5 million people. 3,000 Americans were murdered on 9/11. In terms of casualties, 11.5 million deaths represent 3,800 9/11s -- or a 9/11 every day for ten and a half years.

Let me repeat that: a 9/11 every day for ten and a half years.

Perhaps you think these casualty figures are highly inflated. Fine. Cut them in half. That's a 9/11 every day for a little over five years.

Every day.

Do you begin to understand now? Add to this the refugee crisis, which has displaced about four million Iraqis -- which would be 45 million Americans. Add to that the fact that all forms of civil society have been completely destroyed: you have electricity for a few hours a day at most; employment and food are close to impossible to find for many people; there is nothing approaching a normally functioning school system, or legal system, or any of the other aspects of life that Americans take for granted, assuming they could never be destroyed. How well do you think American society would be functioning if a 9/11 occurred every day for five years -- or ten years?

And neither you nor anyone you know can shop for food, go to work, or do anything else at all without fearing you will be murdered -- or that you will be kidnapped and tortured in ways that may cause you to wish for death.
I offer this extended excerpt from the earlier article to emphasize the extent of the denial involved. Bacevich mentions the refugee crisis, but nowhere does he mention the vast number of people murdered as the result of the U.S.'s actions. That the U.S. "sent millions fleeing to squalid refugee camps" is certainly an unforgivable horror -- but it is only the beginning of a lengthy list of horrors, and not the worst of them. Yet Bacevich is regarded as a serious, committed critic of U.S. foreign policy.

Consider that, throughout Bacevich's article, he will criticize particular leaders and certain policies, but all his criticisms are narrowly circumscribed (Bush is "a well-intentioned fool," Obama doesn't actually want to direct the American Empire on its trajectory of death and destruction, etc.). The leaders don't mean for death, chaos and destruction to result from their actions. They intend for only good to result, but they fail because of stupidity or "incompetence," or because they feel constrained by factors beyond their control. Bacevich will not entertain the possibility that the fault lies within the leaders themselves or in the nature of the system itself. And note how eagerly and with what determination over a lengthy period of years these leaders sought to exercise ultimate power and control within that system. To borrow from myself and part of what I wrote about Irving Kristol's reprehensible efforts to destroy the very concepts of responsibility and judgment in the realm of U.S. foreign policy: it's not as if power was mysteriously foisted upon either Bush or Obama while they were happily minding their own business elsewhere. Both men were notably focused and intent upon achieving ultimate power over a long period of time; given the policies of both, we can say, with full justification, they were viciously intent upon attaining and wielding ultimate power.

To mention almost none of this, however briefly, is denial and resistance on a vast scale. Later in this series, I'll return to the factors that lead to these mechanisms, as well as a consideration of why they are usually impossible to dislodge.

We should also appreciate that Bacevich's typically American narcissism with regard to Iraq -- I underscore again the horrifying varieties of destruction in Iraq that Bacevich does not mention -- is repeated in his criticism of the Afghanistan war. Bacevich's focus is solely upon "young soldiers and their families left to bear the consequences" -- that is, young American soldiers and their families, which Bacevich repeats in his final line: "the commander-in-chief who sends young Americans to die for a cause in which he manifestly does not believe..."

I well understand that this makes me crazy and extreme, but may I be so bold as to mention the ongoing destruction of Afghanistan caused by the United States -- destruction which is as sure and systematic as the destruction of Iraq -- and the mounting toll of dead and grievously injured Afghans? This brings me to another of Bacevich's errors, still restricting ourselves to the superficial level of analysis.

Bacevich follows his description of what he and many others expected of Obama -- "He would govern differently not only because he was smarter than his predecessor but because he responded to a different—and truer—inner compass" (I'll address this stupefying earlier error shortly) -- with this:
Events have demolished such expectations. Today, when they look at Washington, Americans see a cool, dispassionate, calculating president whose administration lacks a moral core. For prosecution exhibit number one, we need look no further than the meandering course of Obama’s war, its casualties and costs mounting without discernible purpose.
If you wish to identify "prosecution exhibit number one," the Afghanistan war, as horrifying as it is, is a curious choice. A singularly awful fact about Obama and his administration has emerged and been reinforced numerous times in the last several months. If any fact is of primary and fundamental importance, it is this one, for it subsumes all the others. This is how I recently described it:
Item: Obama and his administration claim the "right" to murder anyone in the world, wherever he or she may be, for whatever reason they choose -- or for no reason at all. Obama and his administration recognize no upper limit to the number of people they can murder in this manner: they can murder as many people as they wish. And they claim there is nothing at all that may impede their exercise of this "right."

This is the game entire. Understand this: once Obama and his administration have claimed this, there is nothing left to argue about. They can murder you -- and they can murder anyone else at all. What in the name of anything you hold holy remains to be "debated" once a vile, damnable "right" of this kind has been claimed?

This is a war crime [under the Nuremberg Principles]: "murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave-labor or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory..."

It is also a crime against humanity: "Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhuman acts done against any civilian population..."

Under Principle VII, all those who are complicit in these crimes are also guilty.
Since the Obama administration claims the "right" to murder anyone in the world and that there is nothing at all that may constrain that "right," murdering every Afghan, or every Iranian, or every American who disagrees is, in logic and in fact, in the nature of a postscript. "We can murder anyone at all, and as many people as we decide is advisable or necessary. And we never need to explain our reasons to anyone." The evil has been committed. It is complete. The rest is multiplication.

And even this is not the end of the comparatively superficial errors. Next, we will turn to an examination of Obama and his policies, and of Afghanistan in particular. Many people continue to profess astonishment at the U.S. presence in that country ("Why, oh why, are we in Afghanistan?"), thereby confessing a suffocating ignorance and lack of understanding of U.S. foreign policy over many decades, and this despite an unending stream of public pronouncements as to U.S. aims, as well as a stunning inability to appreciate what is starkly obvious.

Or, rather, what would be starkly obvious -- if it were not for the denial and resistance. Bacevich, like most others, insists that the "casualties and costs" of the Afghanistan war are "mounting without discernible purpose." "Without discernible purpose"? This is absolutely, unequivocally, comprehensively wrong.

I'll explain why next time. And the explanation I have in mind is probably not what some of you may be thinking.