Thinking about assassinations

Yesterday’s assassination of Jovenal Moise, the President of Haiti, on July 7, 2021, made me think about assassinations in general.

To begin, what is an assassination? Of course, it is a type of killing. But whereas unjustified intentional killings are called “murders,” an assassination in some sense transcends that label. It is a targeted killing for some political, economic, or ideological reason; normally, of some prominent individual.

By contrast, in warfare, a sniper’s killing of a general or a king is not likely to be called an assassination.

Let me distinguish bottom-up and top-down assassinations. The assassination of a President or some government official is a bottom-up assassination, and these are the assassinations which we are familiar with. Here is a list: List of assassinations

However, when a ruler targets someone to assassinate, this goes by the euphemistic phrase of “targeted killing.” Lists of such attempted and successful assassinations (“targeted killings”) can be found here:List of assassinations by the United States; List of Soviet and Russian assassinations; List of Israeli assassinations.

See: Nils Melzer, Targeted Killing in International Law, 2008; Claire Finkelstein, Jens David Ohlin, and Andrew Altman (ed.), Targeted Killings: Law and Morality in an Asymmetrical World, 2012; Ronen Bergman, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations, 2018.

Most such “targeted killings” have been covert. The first nearly overt one which caught my attention was the U.S. invasion of Panama by President George H. W. Bush on Dec. 20, 1989 in order to capture Manuel Noriega. To me this was worse than any “targeted killing,” because it involved the killing of needless American soldiers and some 500 Panamanian civilians.

After 9/11, with the so-called “war on terror” and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, “targeted killings” became something like a common practice. Under President Barack Obama, Osama bin Laden, Answar al-Awlaki and his son were assassinated, and killing by the use of drones became a standard procedure.

The other assassination which looms large in my mind was that of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, approved by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman.

This practice of “targeted killings” as a strategy, rather than being a “war on terror,” has tended to create something approaching a totalitarian state of terror!

Bottom-Up Assassinations

Given that most governments are in the hands of single rulers (be they monarchs, presidents, or prime-ministers), they tend to be ambitious, greedy, inept, or ruthless. And the intent of most assassinations of prominent officials is simply to get rid of a perceived evil vermin.

There is one prominent exception that I can think of. It is the assassination of Emperor Alexander II of Russia in 1881 by Narodnaya Volya. Their hope was not to kill a man, but to kill a system — to start a revolution, which did not materialize.

A Commentary on Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”

Many years ago when I came across the first edition of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980), I was so amazed by its perspective and scholarship that I wrote to Zinn, and asked permission to put it on the Internet. He replied by simply referring me to his publisher. Well, not getting an outright refusal, I digitized the book and placed it on the Internet, and there it stayed until Zinn died in 2010. [I looked for the book on my site in the WaybackMachine, and I found it for Feb. 17, 2006]. Soon after Zinn’s death, I received an email from his publisher pointing out that the book was copyrighted and was requested to remove it from the Internet. I did. But by that time someone in China had placed my pages on their own web site. Well, whatever is going on with the copyright issue, an updated copy is available here: Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States.

At this point in time, my only criticism of Zinn’s book is that it did not focus sufficiently on land rights in the United States, as presented in such a book as: Charles Beard and Mary Beard, History of the United States, 1921; or such a book as: Roy M. Robbins, Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776-1936, 1942. [A full copy is available for borrowing at Internet Archive.]

My point is that access to subsistence land is necessary for sheer animal existence, and such access in the British colonies was never free. Land was granted to individuals and corporations by the Kings of England, and these individuals and corporations had to create a profit for themselves and the King.

Below is an illustration of this from the Beards’ History:

Feudal Elements in the Colonies – Quit Rents, Manors, and Plantations. – At the other end of the scale were the feudal elements of land tenure found in the proprietary colonies, in the seaboard regions of the South, and to some extent in New York. The proprietor was in fact a powerful feudal lord, owning land granted to him by royal charter. He could retain any part of it for his personal use or dispose of it all in large or small lots. While he generally kept for himself an estate of baronial proportions, it was impossible for him to manage directly any considerable part of the land in his dominion. Consequently he either sold it in parcels for lump sums or granted it to individuals on condition that they make to him an annual payment in money, known as “quit rent.” In Maryland, the proprietor sometimes collected as high as £9000 (equal to about $500,000 to-day) in a single year from this source. In Pennsylvania, the quit rents brought a handsome annual tribute into the exchequer of the Penn family. In the royal provinces, the king of England claimed all revenues collected in this form from the land, a sum amounting to £19,000 at the time of the Revolution. The quit rent, – “really a feudal payment from freeholders,” – was thus a material source of income for the crown as well as for the proprietors. Wherever it was laid, however, it proved to be a burden, a source of constant irritation; and it became a formidable item in the long list of grievances which led to the American Revolution.

Something still more like the feudal system of the Old World appeared in the numerous manors or the huge landed estates granted by the crown, the companies, or the proprietors. In the colony of Maryland alone there were sixty manors of three thousand acres each, owned by wealthy men and tilled by tenants holding small plots under certain restrictions of tenure. In New York also there were many manors of wide extent, most of which originated in the days of the Dutch West India Company, when extensive concessions were made to patroons to induce them to bring over settlers. The Van Rensselaer, the Van Cortlandt, and the Livingston manors were so large and populous that each was entitled to send a representative to the provincial legislature. The tenants on the New York manors were in somewhat the same position as serfs on old European estates. They were bound to pay the owner a rent in money and kind; they ground their grain at his mill; and they were subject to his judicial power because he held court and meted out justice, in some instances extending to capital punishment.

The manors of New York or Maryland were, however, of slight consequence as compared with the vast plantations of the Southern seaboard – huge estates, far wider in expanse than many a European barony and tilled by slaves more servile than any feudal tenants. It must not be forgotten that this system of land tenure became the dominant feature of a large section and gave a decided bent to the economic and political life of America. (Chapter 2)

After the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, a question arose as to the status of lands westward of the colonies. These eventually became known as the public domain, and by the Ordinance of May 20, 1785, the following measures went into effect:

In line with the earlier abolition of feudal incidents, the ordinance adopted allodial tenure, that is, land was to pass in fee simple from the government to the first purchaser. After clearing the Indian title and surveying the land the government was to sell it at auction to the highest bidder. Townships were to be surveyed six miles square and alternate ones subdivided into lots one mile square, each lot consisting of 640 acres to be known as a section. No land was to be sold until the first seven ranges of townships were marked off. A minimum price was fixed at $1 per acre to be paid in specie, loan-office certificates, or certificates of the liquidated debt, including interest. The purchaser was to pay surveying expenses of $36 per township. Congress reserved sections 8, 11, 26, and 29 in each township, and one-third of all precious metals later discovered therein. In addition the sixteenth section of each township was set aside for the purpose of providing common schools.

[I add the following table:

Township = 36 sections
[Robbins, Chapter I]

Land was, thus, not available for free, and those who illegally settled on any land were squatters, who, when the surveys reached their land holdings had to pay or be booted out. The other major problem was that land was sold only in huge chunks; so that only wealthy speculators could afford to buy it, which they then resold to settlers for a profit.

As to the Homestead Act of 1862 which granted 160 acres for free; although Zinn points out that only inferior land was made available, he does not mention the exorbitant cost to the pioneer to undertake such a possession. See: Clarence H. Danhof, “FARM-MAKING COSTS AND THE “SAFETY VALVE”: 1850-60,” The Journal of Political Economy, Volume XLIX, Number 3, June 1941: 317-359.

In conclusion, I think that Zinn was right on target in the following excerpt in realizing that freedom from slavery without a free access to subsistence land is just another form of slavery — wage slavery.

Many Negroes understood that their status after the war, whatever their situation legally, would depend on whether they owned the land they worked on or would be forced to be semi-slaves for others. In 1863, a North Carolina Negro wrote that “if the strict law of right and justice is to be observed, the country around me is the entailed inheritance of the Americans of African descent, purchased by the invaluable labor of our ancestors, through a life of tears and groans, under the lash and yoke of tyranny.”

Abandoned plantations, however, were leased to former planters, and to white men of the North. As one colored newspaper said: “The slaves were made serfs and chained to the soil. . . . Such was the boasted freedom acquired by the colored man at the hands of the Yankee.”

Under congressional policy approved by Lincoln, the property confiscated during the war under the Confiscation Act of July 1862 would revert to the heirs of the Confederate owners. Dr. John Rock, a black physician in Boston, spoke at a meeting: “Why talk about compensating masters? Compensate them for what? What do you owe them? What does the slave owe them? What does society owe them? Compensate the master? . . . It is the slave who ought to be compensated. The property of the South is by right the property of the slave. . . .”

Some land was expropriated on grounds the taxes were delinquent, and sold at auction. But only a few blacks could afford to buy this. In the South Carolina Sea Islands, out of 16,000 acres up for sale in March of 1863, freedmen who pooled their money were able to buy 2,000 acres, the rest being bought by northern investors and speculators. A freedman on the Islands dictated a letter to a former teacher now in Philadelphia:

My Dear Young Missus: Do, my missus, tell Linkum dat we wants land – dis bery land dat is rich wid de sweat ob de face and de blood ob we back. . . . We could a bin buy all we want, but dey make de lots too big, and cut we out.

De word cum from Mass Linkum’s self, dat we take out claims and hold on ter um, an’ plant um, and he will see dat we get um, every man ten or twenty acre. We too glad. We stake out an’ list, but fore de time for plant, dese commissionaries sells to white folks all de best land. Where Linkum?

In early 1865, General William T. Sherman held a conference in Savannah, Georgia, with twenty Negro ministers and church officials, mostly former slaves, at which one of them expressed their need: “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and till it by our labor. . . .” Four days later Sherman issued “Special Field Order No. 15,” designating the entire southern coastline 30 miles inland for exclusive Negro settlement. Freedmen could settle there, taking no more than 40 acres per family. By June 1865, forty thousand freedmen had moved onto new farms in this area. But President Andrew Johnson, in August of 1865, restored this land to the Confederate owners, and the freedmen were forced off, some at bayonet point.

Ex-slave Thomas Hall told the Federal Writers’ Project:

Lincoln got the praise for freeing us, but did he do it? He gave us freedom without giving us any chance to live to ourselves and we still had to depend on the southern white man for work, food, and clothing, and he held us out of necessity and want in a state of servitude but little better than slavery.

Divide and Rule (Divide et Impera)

Let’s imagine that there is a land of foragers living in scattered tribes. Well, actually you don’t have to imagine this, because that was the situation in America and Africa before the arrival of Europeans. These Europeans came and simply declared that such and such territory belongs to the king of X. If there were any objection from the natives, the Europeans rattled their sabers, and that settled the matter. The territory was conquered!

Franz Oppenheimer, in his book The State,(1919) saw no other way of turning tribal territories into States except through conquest. The conquerors became the rulers and the conquered, the ruled. Since humans need food to live, the rulers required of the ruled to provide them with food and whatever else they wished.

But here comes the most clever of all stratagems: the division of the ruled into two groups. One group of workers is given the job of enforcement, and the other workers remain enforced workers. The enforcers are called “police,” “soldier,” “sheriff,” “deputy,” “marshal,” “bodyguard,” “security guard,” “national guard,” etc. The non-enforcers are forced into wage-labor by forbidding them free access to subsistence land. This is true from the time of recorded history. Allowing occupation of land was conditional on some kind of payment and service. At first this is called feudalism, but in a sense, feudalism still exists in the form of payment of property and other taxes to the State, and military service when required.

The ease of dividing people into enforcers and non-enforcers was dramatically demonstrated by the Stanford prison experiment by Philip Zimbardo, in which students were randomly divided into prison guards and prisoners.

What this — as well as my general independent knowledge — shows me is that people will do almost anything for a job and money. Perhaps the book by Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, 2007, captures this phenomenon as does Hannah Arendt’s description of Adolph Eichmann by the phrase the “banality of evil” — that people will sell themselves easily as slaves of others.

I have always wondered — and still do — how soldiers were recruited to fight in massive face-to-face battles, where death and the known probability of death was so extensive. I can understand the willingness of people to fight in a defensive action; but I am utterly disturbed by how easily the police and national guards comply to quell people with justifiable grievances; or even how an organized war of Americans against Americans (1861-1865) was possible.

Below is a documentary about what took place in Chicago during the August 1968 Democratic National Convention. Thousands of young people congregated in Lincoln and Grant Parks in protest against the Vietnam War. Mayor Daley ordered the police to clear the parks and stop any illegal marching, and the police brutally complied, with the national guard standing in the background.

“Totalitarianism” as understood by Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951, 1958, 1968.

All abstract political terms — especially those ending in “ism” — as used by particular individuals have to be defined. Otherwise the tendency is to psittacism — talking like a parrot without understanding.

Hannah Arendt, in her book, recognized only two recent governments as being totalitarian dictatorships — that of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. And because other writers include other dictators, such as Benito Mussolini and Mao Tse-tung as being totalitarian, it helps to clarify her use of the term “totalitarian” by understanding why she explicitly refused to use this label with them.

To begin with, we are talking about dictators. And it is the policy of typical dictators to eliminate criticism and opposition through censorship, incarceration, and execution. A higher level of control is achieved through spies and a secret police, as was the case in the 19th century especially with the Russian tsar’s Okhrana.

In these respects, Mussolini was a typical dictator. She writes: “… Mussolini, who was so fond of the term “totalitarian state,” did not attempt to establish a full-fledged totalitarian regime11 and contented himself with dictatorship and one-party rule.

11 Proof of the nontotalitarian nature of the Fascist dictatorshp is the suprisingly small number and the comparatively mild sentences meted out to political offenders. During the particularly active years from 1926 to 1932, the special tribunals for political offenders pronounced 7 death sentences, 257 sentences of 10 or more years imprisonment, 1,360 under 10 years, and sentenced many more to exile;12,000, moreover, were arrested and found innocent, a procedure quite inconceivable under conditions of Nazi and Bolshevik terror. See E. Kohn-Bramstedt, Dictatorship and Political Police. The Technique of Control by Fear, London, 1945, pp. 51 ff. [pp. 308-9]

More surprising is Arendt’s refusal to label Mao Tse-tung’s killing of 15 million Chinese (3% of the population) in 1949 as totalitarian. She writes: ” … after the disappearance of organized opposition, there was no increase in terror, no massacre of innocent people, no category of “objective enemies,” no show trials, though a great deal of public confessions and “self-criticism,” and no outright crimes.” [p. xxvi]

So, it would seem, that the term “totalitarian” is being used not specifically for killing opponents but for killing and controlling people for some other reason.

Here I want to interject my own succinct explanation of why Hitler and Stalin killed people which would warrant for distinct labels — though “totalitarian” does not seem quite appropriate.

Hitler killed people because of his fanatical perverted eugenic program, which included exterminating races, the deformed, and the disabled. Hitler viewed his mission similarly to that of the robot, Nomad, depicted in the TV series Star Trek, whose mission was to destroy “biological infestation.”

Here is a clip:

Stalin, on the other hand, was a fanatic of a different stripe. He had an obsessive paranoia which required a rationalization by having his victims confess their “crimes.” And his mind-set was like that of the United States when it waged a preemptive war against Iraq, or the rationalization of an Israeli soldier when he shoots a Palestinian child because the child may grow up to be a terrorist. Typical dictators kill only their enemies; Stalin killed and terrorized possible enemies as well.

P.S. Hannah Arendt believed that the best studies about Hitler were by Alan Bullock, Hitler, A Study in Tyranny, 1952; and Konrad Heiden, Der Fuehrer: Hitler’s Rise to Power, 1944. About Stalin, Boris Souvarine, Stalin, A Critical Survey of Bolshevism, 1939; and, Isaac Deutscher, Stalin: A Political Biography, 1949.

What is the same and what is different between the Republican and Democratic Parties in the United States?

Three things come to mind about their similarities:
1. Both support the Constitution of the United States.
2. Both support the Capitalist system.
3. Both are funded by large corporations.

Before I say anything about the differences, let me say something about these three similarities. 1. About the Constitution. Let me just say that the Swiss Constitution is better for the following reasons. First, I think it is a grave error to give such great powers to a single individual, as is given to a President or to a Prime Minister. Such persons almost invariable will work for their own benefit, their families, and their friends. As an example, just think of the activities of President Donald Trump. A single individual is also subject to bribes and threats.

A better Constitution — such as that of Switzerland — places the executive function in the hands of a council of seven individuals.

Second, the U.S. Constitution promotes Macro Democracy at all levels of government. Million vote for the President, millions vote for Senators and Representatives, millions vote for Governors, and thousands or millions vote for Mayors.

By contrast, I advocate Micro Democracy which is favored by anarchists.

2. About Capitalism. By Capitalism, I understand a political system which bars people from a free access to subsistence land. And by contrast, I view Socialism as a political system which grants people a free access to subsistence land. [I know that others view the matter differently. But when you think about it axiomatically (i.e., in terms of fundamental principles), this is the difference.]

3. As to funding. Macro Democracy requires a great amount of money for advertisement. And those with the greatest wealth (i.e., corporation) are able to contribute the most. And statistically, the candidates with the largest campaign funds tend to prevail. So both parties seek and accept corporate donations.

My stance here is to favor Micro Democracy in which funds would be useless.

Now to the differences. In reality, they are superficial and contrived. For example, there is a great fuss about voting rights. But what does it matter whether you elect a Republican Tweedle-Dee or a Democratic Tweedle-Dum.

The making of a nationalizing (i.e., centralizing) and democracy-constraining (i.e., anti-populist) U. S. Constitution

“Well, the lack of influence goes back in the United States roughly two hundred fifty years. So, we can start with the Constitution, which was established explicitly on the principle of preventing democracy. There wasn’t any secret about it. In fact, the major scholarly study on the Constitutional Convention, by Michael Klarman, a Harvard Law professor, is called The Framers’ Coup, and it’s about the coup against democracy by the Framers.

The theme of the of the founders was expressed quite well by John Jay, who was the first Supreme Court chief justice: “those who own the country ought to govern it.” That’s what we see today: those who own the country have succeeded in governing it.”

Noam Chomsky, Noam Chomsky: The Elites Are Fighting a Vicious Class War All the Time, Jacobin, June 10, 2021.

“We have everything but we have no money.”

All over the world there are people who live in small villages, grow their own food and raise animals for food as well. I am especially interested in how this is possible in eastern Europe. It is possible, of course, if one has access to free subsistence land. And, without the infrastructure of water pipes, gas pipes, or an electric grid, or a sewer system, this is comparable to living on a homestead in the 19th century American frontier. Water is obtained from wells or a spring, heating is by burning wood, and a toilet is an out-house.

I have previously posted: “A documentary of how an American lived for 6 weeks in a Ukrainian village”. This gives you a good feel of how such a life is lived in a Ukrainian village.

But I keep looking for other videos. Recently I watched the following video:

Village Life in Romania

What struck me and stuck in my brain in this video was the comment of an old woman living in a remote village. She said, “”We have everything but we have no money.” She did not mean this literally because she was receiving a small pension from the government. The way I interpret what she said is this: We have all the necessities for life, but we have no money for luxuries. By “luxuries” I mean to include all those things which lessen the burdens of living.

What has puzzled me about village life in eastern Europe is: What about property taxes?

I found the following facts about property taxes in Ukraine. Unlike the property taxes in the United States, and most of Europe, which are based on an assessment of the worth of your property on the real estate market, in Ukraine property taxes are based on the square meter of your dwelling. An apartment dwelling of 60 square meters (645.8 square feet) and a house of 120 square meters (1291.6 square feet) are not taxed at all. And each additional square meter is taxed at the rate of 1.5% of the minimum national living wage. [This is about $216 dollars a month; so, each additional square meter of space would cost about $3.24.] My house in Chicago is 121 square meters and the assessed property value in 2017 was $303,220. My property tax in 2017 was $5,772.80 (this is with an exemption for our ages). In Ukraine, my property tax would have been $3.24

In addition, according to Article 121 of the Ukrainian Land Code each citizen has a right to get land for free. [See: “How to get land in Ukraine for free?”]

So, at least in Ukraine, it is still possible to live without money.

You may be wondering why this an issue?

I view city-life as being precarious. What happens when the infra-structure collapses as it did in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005:

In general, a city is a Technology Trap.

Why I have no strategy for bringing about significant changes

In my last blog I said that I have no strategy for realizing my ideals. Here I want to explain why I said this. A government can be changed either peacefully or violently. First to do either, there must exist some group of people who want a change. Next that group of people must get organized. Well, historically this happened in the United States in 1861 in the South which formed the Confederate States which seceded from the Union. The “decider” — President Abraham Lincoln — did not allow this to happen. And as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, he decided to “quell this rebellion.” Formally, this was not a civil war, but a domestic insurrection. Perhaps some other person as President would have allowed the secession to take place. As example, the Soviet Union dissolved peacefully under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev.

So, one way to get out of a bad government is by secession. But it depends on who is the “decider” whether this will be allowed. Most countries (especially under monarchs or dictators) are imperialistic; trying to gain and to control more and more territory, as is documented by the endless wars in recorded history. And colonies are let go only after much fighting. We have the example of the British colonies in America rebelling and seceding from England; or India getting independence from England.

Any domestic rebellion in the United States would be immediately crushed by the overwhelming force of the police and the military. Good examples of this are the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and the Pullman Strike of 1894. In both cases federal troops were used to pacify the situation. The former by orders of President Hayes; the latter by orders of President Cleveland.

My point is that it is impossible to do anything in the United States against the will of the President. Why? Because he is in charge of soldiers who will carry out his orders. Remember, people will do almost anything for money, that is, do their “job.” And neither policemen nor soldiers are exceptions.

Ok, so what is the peaceful strategy for changing the government or its policies? All the “deciders” in government are elected officials. The rest of the civil servants do the will of these elected “deciders”, except for the Supreme Court whose members are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and who can be removed only by impeachment.

Changing the government under the US Constitution would require an Amendment to the Constitution, something which is extremely difficult to do. So, the only practical strategy is to elect trustworthy and benevolent politicians. Good luck!

Given that the United States has Mass or Macro Democracy, by which I mean that thousands or millions of people vote to elect a candidate. And in order to persuade the voters to vote for a candidate, it requires lots of advertisement. And advertisement costs lots of money. And the higher the office, the more money required. [e.g., in the 2020 presidential race, Donald Trump and Joe Biden together spent $1.3 billion.] So only either the wealthy, or the friends of the wealthy get elected. Therefore, the government of the United States is controlled by the wealthy. There are exceptions, but so what? It only gives the illusion of the possibility of change for the better.

I think it was the Presidency of Barack Obama which created the greatest disillusionment in American people for their government. Here was a black pied piper promising change, but who led us lemmings over the cliff.

Chris Hedges “The Legacy Of Barack Obama Has Been The Near Collapse Of The Left!”

Given the above considerations, leaves me with no acceptable strategies for any political changes.

Jimmy Dore criticizes Noam Chomsky over “voting for the lesser of two evils”

What does one do if both candidates for President are equally terribly evil, and voting is an exercise in futility?


My reaction:

I have ideals, but no strategy for achieving them.

After listening to Jimmy Dore criticizing Noam Chomsky for urging people to vote for the lesser of two evils, showing a video of David Graeber pointing out that both liberals and conservatives are serving the same corporate interests (– a position I agree with), and listening to Jimmy Dore urging direct action and the need to establish a third political party, I reflected on “what is to be done?”

I have social and political ideals, but I have no strategy for realizing any of them. Why? Because even if I or anyone did have strategies, these would have to be communicated to others. And this is where I am at present — trying to communicate my ideals to others via the Internet.

The result? I presently have a large audience of subscribers. But I have no idea to what extent I am getting an agreement or even a hearing. My pessimism is reinforced by the fact that such outstanding figures and proliferate writers as Bertrand Russell or Noam Chomsky are barely known by the literate masses or even scholars. In other words, public intellectuals — just like mass protests — have little if any impact on the deeds of government.

Revolutions — when they occur — are the result of intolerable conditions. So, people like Karl Marx and presently Richard Wolff (a Marxist economist), see the misery caused by capitalism and predict mass protests. But what will be the results of such protests or insurrections nobody can predict.

Countries go to war because some individual decides to go to war

As I read political history, I am distracted from understanding what happened by such typical formulations as “Country X went to war with Country Y.” On some level of understanding this is true, but unenlightening. This is just as unenlightening as the recent report that Cornel West was denied tenure by Harvard. The more enlightening description of what happened is that Cornell West was denied the right to apply for tenure by the President of Harvard, Lawrence S. Bacow. And a still more enlightening account would probe into Bacow’s reasons. [ For an analogous case, see my analysis: Andrew Chrucky, “Norman Finkelstein, DePaul, and U.S. Academia: Reductio Ad Absurdum of Centralized Universities,” July 23, 2007]

My point is that when dealing with governed institutions — whatever their nature — it is a prevalent norm to describe these institution as if they were agents. But institutions are like tools or machines which require a particular human agent to use them. And what I am calling as “enlightened” description requires identifying the human agent who makes the machine operate, and it requires a further probing into that agent’s reasons for acting as he did.

Suppose you read in a newspaper that Jones was struck and killed by a car. OK, on one level this is a correct description. But if you want to get into a more enlightened description, you would want to know where and when this happened, what were the circumstances, and who was the driver. Was this an accident? What was the condition of the driver? Was this an intentional act? Deliberate?

I am proposing a similar sort of description for the actions of governments and countries. There is always some “decider” in the government (as President W. George Bush, Jr. described himself — accurately).

Let’s consider the infamous case of the U.S. dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Such an act requires the decision of the Commander and Chief of the Armed Forces: the President of the United States. The responsible agent in this case was Harry S. Truman. And to get some enlightenment, we would need to understand his reasons.

Let’s consider another example. The fall of Constantinople in 1453. On one level, we can describe this event as a successful siege of Constantinople by the Turks. But on a more enlightening level, the siege was the decision of Sultan Mohammed II for whatever reasons.

What am I driving at? It is clear to me that great battles and wars are the decisions of powerful individuals. By “powerful,” I simply mean that they can get others to do what they want. They can use others as chess pawns for their ambitions. Who are these “pawns”? Soldiers and civilians!

Take any battle or war. On both sides, after the battle or war there are countless dead, disabled, sick and suffering. Consider the so-called American Civil War (1861-65). Wikipedia lists 616,222-1,000,000+ dead. Who was the decider who wanted to “preserve the union”? Abraham Lincoln!

Political history with its battles and wars, including the maintenance of internal “order,” is the history of megalomaniacs and other ambitious individuals who sacrifice the lives of countless others for their own profits and glory.

The lesson I draw from this reflection is that the principle of the separation of powers in government should include the separation of powers in the executive branch, as is done, for example, in Switzerland. Switzerland has a seven-member Federal Council; whereas everywhere else there is either a sole President, a Prime-Minister, or sometimes both.