An American Legacy: Her Deadly
By Gary Brumback
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Brumback, PhD is a retired psychologist and Fellow of both the
American Psychological Association and the Association for
Psychological Science. He is the author of The Devil’s Marriage:
Break Up the Corpocracy or Leave Democracy in the Lurch.
Howard. A people's history of the United
States. NY: HarperPerennial, 2005.
History of US military Overt and Covert Global Interventions.
July 15, 2012 by Brian Wilson.
Kohlberg, L. The psychology of moral development: The nature and
validity of moral stages. San Francisco:
Harper & Row, 1984.
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.
Sociopathic narcissism: A political syndrome, by William Manson,
Dissident Voice, October 26, 2012.
Brumback, G.B. The Devil's Marriage: Break Up the Corpocracy or
Leave Democracy in the Lurch.
Author House, 2011.
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.
unsent letter to the President's chief counterterrorism adviser
by Gary Brumback, OpEdNews.com, May 17. 2012.
Erasmus quote is from Just and unjust war
www.co.quaker.org/Writings/JustAndUnjustWar by Howard Zinn
Zinn, A people's history---. Page 198.
Brumback, The devil's marriage---. Page 38.
Selling war as smart power by Coleen Rowley, OpEdNews.com,
August 31, 2012.
Brumback, The Devil's marriage---.
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