This blog was stimulated by my wondering about the almost universal characteristic of leaders to casually send innocent people to their deaths. One need only think of beheadings by ISIS leaders in the news right now; or Israeli leader Netanyahu ordering the massacre of thousands of helpless civilians in Gaza; or even President Obama taking pride in his orders to assassinate alleged terrorists by drone—sorry about that collateral damage. Of course, it is during all-out wars that this capability (or flaw) assumes its most savage form. In fact, it was in reading about the sinking of the Lusitania during World War I (see Dead Wake, by Erik Larson, Crown: 2015) that my specific thoughts about all this were set in motion. It is important to note that prior to Germany’s U-boat campaign against merchant ships, the accepted protocol, embodied in the so-called “prize laws” of the 19th Century, entirely forbade attacks against passenger vessels. Even with regard to merchant vessels shipping war materiel, the rules said that war ships could stop a merchant vessel to search it, but had to keep its crew safe and bring the ship to a nearby port. All this changed with Germany’s U-boat attacks, which violated all such protocols, although they mostly still refrained from attacking passenger ships. When the Cunard passenger liner Lusitania (the biggest and fastest liner then operating) left America for Liverpool in early May of 1915, though, the German Navy considered it too ripe a target to pass up. It sent its most ruthless commander and U-boat ace, Walther Schwieger, to the area, and set him loose. Thus, on May 7, when Capt. Schwieger, who was heading his U-20 back to home port after several ‘kills’, saw the mammoth ship entering his field of vision near Kinsale off the Irish coast, this “wonderful man” who “couldn’t kill a fly” never hesitated about trying to sink it. Despite the fact that the ship had no defenses, despite the fact that it was filled with almost 2,000 passengers including 33 infants and 123 Americans, despite the fact that it carried no war materiel or anything else that could be of value to Britain’s war effort, Schwieger took aim and fired his last torpedo, and the ‘great ship went down.’ Nearly 1200 civilians perished.
Strangely enough—especially to the British Admiralty who knew Schwieger’s submarine was in the area targeting neutral vessels but did nothing to warn the Lusitania or provide it with a destroyer escort—the sinking of the Lusitania did not bring the United States into the war, as Britain’s leaders had hoped. That would take two more years. But after a brief period of refraining from attacking neutral ships (due to bad publicity from the Lusitania sinking), Germany embarked, in early 1917, on an even more savage series of U-boat attacks. The plan, approved by Kaiser Wilhelm on January 9, 1917, authorized its U-boats, now numbering more than 100, to “sink every vessel that entered the ‘war zone,’” in the deluded hope that this would so cripple Britain’s war effort and morale that it would surrender before America was able to enter the war. The plan didn’t work, and America finally did enter the war— thanks to another deluded effort by the Kaiser to induce Mexico to join Germany’s war against the allies, in return for which Germany pledged its help in taking back Mexico’s “lost territories” in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. When the plan was exposed (see the Zimmerman Telegram, by Barbara Tuchman), President Woodrow Wilson was finally shaken from his rigid stance of neutrality, and declared war against Germany on April 2, 1917.
What’s relevant here is that even aside from the German willingness to attack innocent civilians, the British high command, including First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, were quite willing to sacrifice their own civilians on the Lusitania in order to bring America into the war. The British Admiralty knew the whereabouts of virtually every German U-boat because their intelligence service, known as Room 40, had broken the Germans’ wireless code. They had access to every one of Capt. Schwieger’s messages—which demonstrated conclusively that he was prowling in the very area the Lusitania was entering. But they did not want to reveal their knowledge for fear the Germans would change their code. So, to protect its valuable intelligence asset, the Admiralty allowed the Lusitania to enter the U-boat zone unaware of the specific danger. Afterwards, the Admiralty sought to put the entire blame for the tragedy on the Lusitania’s captain, William Turner—again, to divert attention from itself and its secret knowledge. Nor was this callousness toward innocent life limited to the admirals. Winston Churchill, generally celebrated as one of England’s all-time greatest leaders, was quite deliberate in seeking to induce the United States into the war by any means necessary. As Erik Larson points out, Churchill early on wrote to Walter Runciman, head of England’s Board of Trade, that it was “most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hopes especially of embroiling the United States with Germany” (190). And when fear of Germany’s subs had reduced the traffic from America, Churchill told Runciman “For our part, we want the traffic—the more the better; and if some of it gets in trouble, better still.” ‘Embroiling the U.S.’ and getting its ships ‘in trouble’ are not-so-subtle ways of saying: let’s hope there are American deaths. Indeed, one of the prominent scholars investigating the Lusitania episode, Patrick Beesly, stated unequivocally that the British high command literally engaged in a conspiracy to have the Lusitania sunk:
“…on the basis of the considerable volume of information which is now available, I am reluctantly compelled to state that on balance, the most likely explanation is that there was indeed a plot, however imperfect, to endanger the Lusitania in order to involve the United States in the war.” (324).
In short, both Winston Churchill and the British Admiralty considered it quite rational and acceptable to sacrifice thousands of innocent passengers from their own nation in order to further their war aims.
If this were an unusual circumstance, one might attribute it to something in the genetic code or diet of German or British leaders, especially when they possess weapons or information that gives them an advantage. Unfortunately, such calculations are by no means limited to any one people or any one situation. Men (they are usually, but not exclusively men) in positions of leadership routinely make such calculations and find them acceptable. When planning for an invasion, commanding generals usually calculate their estimated losses—10% or 20% or 50%: this many thousands of men will die. In fact, in the run-up to America’s entry into World War I noted above, Secretary of State Lansing said this:
The American people are at last ready to make war on Germany, thank God. It may take two or three years. It may even take five years. It may cost a million Americans; it may cost five million. However long it may take, however many men it costs, we must go through with it…” (340).
And if the calculation involves enemy deaths, leaders tend to be even more cavalier. When the President of the United States, Harry Truman, had to decide whether to drop the atomic bomb on Japanese cities, he knew the loss of life would be massive. He decided to do it anyway, despite the fact that he knew Japan was already defeated. Winston Churchill and the allies made the same calculation—knowing Germany was already done for—when initiating the firebombing of German cities like Dresden. Bomb them back to the stone age: that was the remark made by U.S. General Curtis LeMay (the model for Dr. Strangelove) when he was urging the massive bombing of Hanoi during the Vietnam war (and also when he directed the devastating firebombing of Japanese cities in WWII). And how about the grisly term applied to the bombing of Iraq just a few years ago: shock and awe. There is something almost joyous, gleeful about these expressions made by those administering the shock and the awe. And it makes one wonder: what is it with these guys? What happens to them when they get into positions of power? Do they lose the human capacity for empathy entirely? (or are they selected precisely because they lack it to begin with?) What detaches them so entirely from the bodies they are decimating? What makes them so free from remorse? What allows someone like Paul Tibbets, the Enola Gay pilot who dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, instantly evaporating 100,000 human beings, to say: “I sleep clearly every night.”
Perhaps they are all similarly cold and calculating, thinking not in terms of flesh and blood, but numbers. Perhaps they all have a similar ability to stay above the ground, like Tibbets in his B-29: high above it all, far away from the realities on the ground below, deficient in the imagination it takes to contemplate the roasting of flesh, the screams of children, the splashing of blood and brain. Perhaps they are somehow selected from the common herd based on their ability to “see the larger picture” without getting diverted by messy details; to encourage “sacrifice” and “nobility” without involving themselves in what those words really entail. Because even when some of them, usually officers, actually do get themselves engulfed in the dirty business on the ground, they are protected by the protocols that they have carved out for themselves: that officers are treated differently, deferentially as prisoners; that heads of state, like Pinochet of Chile, or the Emperor of Japan, are normally excluded from blame and punishment when they lead their nations into war. To be sure, this doesn’t save them from the disgrace that normally falls upon war’s losers. Think of General Lee at Appomattox. Which may be—this threat of public humiliation—the most severe threat of all to such types. To avoid which they will do almost anything.
And this opens the final consideration.
What is it that leads many leaders—often at the very moment of their greatest successes— to initiate plans that court disaster? It is almost as if they share a tendency with the street types we hear so much about these days, to “commit suicide by cop.” That is, some guy stopped for a traffic violation suddenly decides to pull a gun and fight it out, knowing full well that it’s virtually a one-way ticket to the morgue. And the pop theory is that they have intended all along to commit suicide. Now I don’t think this is the same phenomenon as so-called suicide bombers—because presumably suicide bombers are driven either by threats or ideology or some fundamentalist hope that their certain death will be rewarded with a better existence in a virgin-filled afterlife. No, what I’m referring to is the tendency of many actual leaders—like Hitler, like Napoleon, like Kennedy or Castro—to make decisions that prove absolutely fatal. It is almost as if they want to fail, fall, be stopped. Such decisions stand out by representing such a vivid contrast with their rise to the top, where most seem to lead charmed lives, charting success after improbable success. But then, at the very apogee of their lives, they make a decision so stupid it is hard to imagine how they could not have seen the consequences. Hitler, for example, had essentially conquered all of Europe and seemed on the verge of defeating the English into the bargain. And yet, in June of 1941, he turned on his then-ally, the Soviet Union under Stalin, and diverted hundreds of thousands of troops and machinery into his attack on the eastern front. When the Soviets did not fall despite immense losses, but counterattacked instead, Hitler’s war was all but lost. But why did he do it? Hadn’t the Fuhrer read about Napoleon’s similar error in trying to occupy Moscow? Did he not know that the Grand Army of France, also at that point in control of all of Europe, was literally destroyed as a result of this blunder? Apparently not; or perhaps the Nazi leader thought he could avoid Napoleon’s mistakes. Itself a mistake. And closer to home, think of JFK and his 1962 decision to go to Texas for a campaign trip. This was shortly after his great triumph over Krushchev and Castro in defusing the Cuban missile crisis. The President was riding high. Why ignore all the counsel of his closest advisers warning of the dangerous mood in Dallas, and take such a trip? Or what about Ronald Reagan launching the Iran-Contra fiasco. Why engage in such idiocy? Or, returning to the Cuban crisis, why would Fidel agree to the Soviet proposal to place missiles ninety miles from the United States in the first place? Did he think it would go unnoticed? Unchallenged?
One has to wonder: what is behind such massive blunders? Shakespeare seems to argue, in the person of Macbeth, that it has to do with momentum:
“I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o‘er.” (III.iv.136-38)
In other words, I’ve gone so far out onto a limb that retreating would be more dangerous than going forward. Surely that must be part of it, but is that all? What about something more related to the psychology at play here? The burden at the top? Surely there must be a weariness, a constantly-maintained tension that afflicts those leaders who must make life-and-death decisions daily, hourly. And these are not simply decisions affecting one or two lives, but decisions affecting whole armies, whole nations, the whole planet, where each move is fraught with often-unforeseeable consequences. And the leader is usually at the apex of criticism for each decision. Must it not be the case that at certain points, the tension simply exceeds the capacity of any human, even a cold-hearted politician, to sustain it? One thinks of Nixon talking drunkenly to the portraits in the White House at the most excruciating point of the Watergate scandal. One thinks of Lyndon Johnson finally giving in to the clamor penetrating the White House from the constant chants of “Hey, Hey, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?” and declaring on national television that he would not run again. And one thinks of Hitler, cowering in his bunker, with his Third Reich collapsing around him, and finally succumbing to a poison pill for himself and his mistress, Eva Braun.
I don’t know. One almost gets the sense that those who hurl themselves, claw their way into national leadership positions have an unsuspected underside that eventually explodes at the surface. These are people who thrive on adulation, on the constant assurance that every move they make is great, that they are great and the work they are doing is great and will be seen by all posterity as heroic. And the other side of this need for adulation may well be the fear that at its core it is really nothing. Nothing at all. A sham. A conjuring trick. When that suspicion arises and takes over, it could move either towards a drive into recklessness—as with Clinton’s sexcapades in the Oval Office; as with Hitler’s attack on Russia—or a complete collapse of confidence, as with Nixon and Johnson. In both cases, in all cases, it reveals what may be a void at the heart of every leader. Indeed, perhaps it is the same void that allows them to order the deaths of millions without batting an eye. The same void that drives them, even unknowingly, to the negation of all they’ve worked for. The two being opposite sides of the same coin. Complementary.
And finally, the two tendencies may operate more collectively, more globally as well. We, the entire human race, are now experiencing one of these eruptions from below. For what is the current carbon-driven crisis on this planet but the logical if self-blind result of the very industrial-technological successes humans have registered in the last 300 years? Which are beginning to seem like nothing. Like shams. In consequence of which, like lemmings, we are collectively driving ourselves towards climate catastrophe. The only question being whether we, or some pressure from somewhere below, can stop us before the final, irrevocable steps are taken. If they haven’t already have been taken, that is.
Follow those leaders. But watch your parking meters.