Obedience First, Character Last

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"We want to live pure, we want to live clean — we want to do our best; Sweetly submitting to authority, leaving to God the rest…."

~ "The Obedience Song," as sung every week in American Sunday School classes

"It is with pride that we see that one man is kept above all criticism — the Fuhrer. The reason is that everyone feels and knows he was always right and will always be right. The National Socialism of us all is anchored in the uncritical loyalty, in the devotion to the Fuhrer that does not ask for the wherefore in the individual case. We believe that the Fuhrer is fulfilling a divine mission to the German destiny! This belief is beyond all challenge."

~ Rudolf Hess, June 25, 1934, as cited in an appendix to the official transcripts of the Nuremberg Tribunal

In preparation for the Iraq war, the Pentagon’s war planners devised acomputer modeling program called "Bugsplat" to estimate the percentage of civilian casualties that would result in a given bombing raid. Just before the "Shock and Awe" assault on Baghdad began, Gen. Tommy Franks was informed of twenty-two proposed bombing attacks that would result in what was described as "heavy bugsplat." He approved all twenty-two raids.

The term "bugsplat" has become commonplace now that missile-equipped remote-controlled drones have become the Regime’s weapon of choice for prosecuting wars in at least a half-dozen countries. That’s assuming that the term "war" applies to a campaign of state terrorism in which thousands of helpless and entirely innocent people have been slaughtered in unexpected aerial bombardments waged by "warriors" who manipulate drones from the safety of climate-controlled offices in Nevada. The only combat-related risks those valiant cushion-crushers confront is the possibility of chronic diseases attendant to a sedentary lifestyle.

The same lexicon of long-distance mass murder that gave us the term "bugsplat" offers another newly minted term to describe the terrified civilians who can be seen frantically running for cover: "Squirters." The vaguely pornographic overtones of that expression are appropriate, given the ubiqtuity of what Dr. P.W. Singer of the Brookings Institution calls "predator porn" — footage of drone attacks proudly circulated by the purported heroes responsible for the carnage.

In a 2009 U.S. Naval Academy lecture, Singer described how "the ability to download a video clip of combat is turning war into a form of entertainment." This repellent new genre includes a modern variety of snuff film: "A Hellfire missile drops, goes in, and hits the target, followed by an explosion and bodies tossed into the air." Singer described one clip of that kind, sent to him by a joystick-wielding assassin, that "was set to music, the pop song ‘I Just Want to Fly’ by the band Sugar Ray."

Singer recalls asking a drone pilot "what it was like to fight insurgents in Iraq while based in Nevada. He said, ‘You are going to war for 12 hours, shooting weapons at targets, directing kills on enemy combatants, and then you get in the car and you drive home. And within 20 minutes, you’re sitting at the dinner table talking to your kids about their homework." Meanwhile, somewhere in Iraq (or Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, or another country yet to be identified), families are picking through the rubble of their homes in the rapidly evaporating hope that their own children have somehow survived this most recent act of imperial generosity.

Do such keyboard bombardiers ever experience misgivings about what they do? Perhaps — but the perverse fun is simply irresistible.

"It’s like a videogame," one cyber-samurai told Singer. "It can get a little bloodthirsty. But it’s f****g cool."

Oh. Well, alrighty then.

But what happens when the novelty wears off, and conscience starts to press its claims? When "coolness" loses its allure, conformity — displayed by obedience to "authority" — will fill the void. "If his cause be wrong," insisted one of Henry V’s soldiers in Shakespeare’s rendering, "our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us" — even if this means waging aggressive war, murdering disarmed prisoners, and using the threat of mass rape and the slaughter of children to compel cities to surrender.

For those on the delivering end, drone-facilitated atrocities seem utterly antiseptic. One scientist employed by the Pentagon to refine and expand the technology of remote-controlled mass murder "said that no ethical or legal issues arise from robots in war," Singer recalls. "That is, unless the machine kills the wrong people repeatedly," interjected the Strangelovian bureaucrat. "Then it’s just a product recall issue."

Of course, the specific tool doesn’t kill anyone; it is an instrument employed by a morally accountable human being to accomplish that end. We’re not discussing Colossus, or Skynet, the Cylons, or any of the other variations on the Golem legend that are common in science fiction. The Regime’s apparatus of state slaughter is proudly described by retired Lt. Col. John Nagle as "an almost industrial-scale … killing machine." Its most important components are individual Americans who have been taught that "submitting to authority" validates any action, no matter how abhorrent, and sanctifies the indulgence of any appetite, nor matter how depraved.

In the imperial hierarchy of values, obedience ranks much higher than moral integrity, particularly for those employed as agents of state-licensed violence. The Regime, both the federal level and through its state and local franchises at the state and municipal levels, has spent a great deal of money on subsidized "character" instruction, paying special attention to the military and law enforcement. The most influential contractor in this field is "Character First," an Oklahoma City-based "leadership development" company. Predictably, its teachings emphasize obedience and “teamwork” at the expense of individual moral initiative.

Created in 1992, "Character First" is a spin-off from the Institute for Basic Life Principles, a Christian ministry whose founder, Bill Gothard, is regarded by many (including some very conservative, theologically orthodox Christians) as the leader of something akin to an authoritarian cult.

Never married himself, Gothard presents himself as something of a Rev. Sun Myung Moon-like “ideal parent,” using his Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) to teach a detailed program of marriage, family, and character development based on “Seven Principles” and “49 Traits.” Gothard’s admirers and political allies include presidential aspirants Rick Perry and Sarah Palin. Texas Congressman Sam Johnson (R-Texas) is chairman of the IBLP’s board of directors. More than a few prominent politicians (including Palin, when she was Mayor of Wasilla) have attended Gothard’s International Association of Character Cities conferences.

The worldview promoted by Gothard is severely hierarchical, with all human relationships built on a “chain of command." From his perspective, “rights” are a fiction, that refusal to submit to “authority” is akin to “witchcraft." And, yes, Gothard does have a "Little Red Book" outlining his teachings, but it is available only to his committed disciples. During the 1970s, hundreds of thousands of people attended mass seminars organized by Gothard, who positioned himself as a bulwark against a self-centered and subversive counterculture. Thus there’s more than a little irony in the fact that the Soviets took a shine to Gothard’s approach: In 1991 — while the Hammer & Sickle were still flying over Moscow, and the CPSU was still in charge — Gothard was invited to set up a five-acre campus in Moscow for a Russian offshoot of his Advanced Training Institute.

When one of Gothard’s followers created "Character First" in 1992, he appropriated Gothard’s "49 Character Qualities," repackaging them in terms that would be acceptable to secular institutions. This produced a platitude-heavy catechism that differs little from what can be found in the texts on management theory and personnel motivation that clutter the business section of any chain bookstore. "Character First" propagates its message through the standard array of media products — among them a monthly newsletter, illustrated with cartoons depicting various animals as embodiments of certain desirable traits. The organization also “works with government leaders and community organizations around the world who want to promote character on a local basis,” boasting that its initiatives have been embraced by civic officials in six states and scores of cities in the U.S. and in more than a half-dozen countries abroad.

Significantly, the type of principled individualism necessary to confront and expose institutional corruption isn’t found anywhere on the "Character First" list of traits deemed essential to good character ("the inward values that determine outward actions," as defined by "Character First"). However, the list prominently mentions "obedience" — "quickly and cheerfully carrying out the direction of those who are responsible for me"; “deference” — “limiting my freedom so I do not offend the tastes of those around me”; and “discretion” – “recognizing and avoiding words, actions, and attitudes that could bring undesirable consequences” — among the traits identifying an individual of “character.”

A government employee whose daily routine involves annihilating people on the other side of the globe via remote-controlled drones would have no problem displaying the attitudes and attributes listed in the "Character First" inventory — assuming that he efficiently and conscientiously carried out "the direction of those who are responsible for me." By way of contrast, "Character First" offers no support or solace for the whistle-blower or conscientious objector.

Yes, the checklist does mention "Justice" — "Taking personal responsibility to uphold what is pure, right, and true" — but the practical application of that principle assumes that it is the prerogative of those in "authority" to define what is "pure, right, and true." Thus "accountability," as defined by the "Character First" program, always operates from the top down — never from the bottom up.

Under the "Character First" formula, imprisoned whistleblower Bradley Manning — who, as it happens, is also native to Oklahoma — would have been considered an exemplary soldier if he had been content to obey his superiors and abet the cover-up of war crimes in Iraq.

As an intelligence analyst stationed in Iraq, Manning was immersed in a steady stream of "bugsplat" videos. "At times it felt like watching nonstop snuff films," observes a recent New York magazine profile of the prisoner of conscience. "An intel analyst sat at his work station and targeted the enemy, reducing a human being to a few salient points. Then he made a quick decision based on imperfect information: kill, capture, exploit, source." Overwrought with misgivings about the war before being shipped to Iraq, Manning had consoled himself with the thought that he might actually be able to discriminate between "bad guys" and innocent bystanders, but that illusion perished abruptly in combat. "At one point, he went to a superior with what he believed to be a mistake," points out New York magazine. "The Iraqi Federal Police had rounded up innocent people, he said. Get back to work, he was told."

Manning’s first breach of "confidentiality" came in late 2009, when he told a psychological counselor "about a targeting mission gone bad in Basra" in which an innocent bystander was killed, leaving Manning crippled with remorse. Shortly thereafter, he allegedly began leaking the Iraq war logs, which some day will be seen as an indispensable chronicle of a world-historic atrocity.

The first and most potent revelation came in the form of the notorious — "bugsplat" video entitled "Collateral Murder." That video documented the slaughter — by two U.S. Apache helicopter gunships — of twelve innocent civilians, including two employees of the Reuters news agency. Two children were among the wounded.

Former U.S. Army Specialist Ethan McCord, who can be seen in the video attempting to carry the wounded children to safety — has testified that this war crime was the product of a "standard operating procedure" dictating "360 degree rotational fire" in residential neighborhoods in retaliation for IED attacks on occupation troops.

"If PFC Bradley Manning did what he is accused of, he is a hero of mine," writes McCord, "not because he’s perfect or because he never struggled with personal or family relationships — most of us do — but because in the midst of it all he had the courage to act on his conscience."

But conscience has no place in the Empire’s hierarchy of values. It is sand in the gears of imperial violence, for which conformity is the optimal lubricant.

I’m tempted to say that if the "Character First" program had been in existence in the 1930s, it could have been translated into German and marketed to the Nazi hierarchy without modification. But this isn’t strictly accurate: Nazi Germany did have its equivalent of "Character First" — a State-centered doctrine called "Positive Christianity," in which obedience to "authority" was defined as the highest practical good and a categorical imperative.

After the National Socialists came to power, writes Eric Metaxas in his splendid biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, "Some church leaders felt the church should make peace with the Nazis, who were strongly opposed to communism and ‘godlessness.’ They believed the church should conform to the Nazi racial laws and the Fuhrer Principle. They thought that by wedding the church to the state, they would restore the church and Germany to her former glory…. Hadn’t Hitler spoken of restoring moral order to the nation? They didn’t agree with him on everything, but they believed that if the church’s prestige were restored, they might be able to influence him in the right direction."

The eternal refrain of temporizers, opportunists, and collaborators is that they can "do more good" by "working from within" the system, on the assumption that their sheer decency and inexhaustible virtue will have a purgative effect on even the most degenerate public institutions — and that obedience to authority will cover a multitude of sins.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose heroic resistance to the Nazi regime was a product of his unconditional commitment to God, would almost certainly admire the character and courage displayed by the atheist Bradley Manning in exposing war crimes. He would likewise see something familiar in the contemporary efforts to cultivate a population of polite, punctual, dutiful, thrifty, orderly collaborators in institutionalized evil.

In 1933, many of Bonhoeffer’s pious friends chided him for his insistence on opposing the Nazi regime. The Third Reich was an irresistible tide, Bonhoeffer was told; it was better to "ride the wave" than to stand against it and be overwhelmed.

Choosing a different metaphor, one that would acquire grim connotations within a few years, Bonhoeffer gently but firmly dismissed the idea of collaboration: "If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction."

William Norman Grigg [send him mail] publishes the Pro Libertate blog and hosts the Pro Libertate radio program.

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