From Ohlendorf to Obama

As we see in headlines from around the world every day, the process by which a country chooses its political leaders determines the kind of government it gets and, to a great extent, the kind of society it becomes. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has described the current electoral process in the United States as a system of “legalized bribery,” based on campaign contributions by wealthy Americans and slick marketing of candidates chosen to serve their interests.

In “Investing in Weapons, War…and Obama” (Z Magazine, May 2013), I looked at the rise to power of Barack Obama as a case study in this “actually existing” system of American politics. I contrasted the way his long-time patrons, the Crown family of Chicago, spent 20 years getting to know the young Obama, thoroughly exploring his views on anything that concerned them, with the branding and image-making by which Obama was eventually introduced to the public at large.

The 27-year-old Obama was introduced to Lester Crown in 1989, soon after Crown succeeded his father Henry as CEO of General Dynamics (GD). Henry had bought a controlling share of GD in 1959 and built it into the largest weapons manufacturer in the world. Through a 20-year relationship, the Crowns played a critical role in Obama’s rise to power, quietly and thoroughly vetting him to establish his credentials as a true believer in the ideology of American economic and military power. Their backing then became an important signal to other military-industrial power brokers that Obama had passed scrutiny and could be relied on to serve their interests as a U.S. Senator and then as President.

In 2008, Lester Crown’s son James Crown, a GD board member, was Obama’s Illinois fundraising chair and his fourth largest “bundler” nationwide, raising a lot of the funds to market this thoroughly vetted candidate to the public. The invitations to an Obama fundraiser at Lester and Renee Crown’s home touted Obama’s unconditional support for Israel and his willingness to attack Iran. But, of course, the most critical factor in the Crown family’s long-term support for Obama was his value to General Dynamics and their other business interests.

After riding the gravy train of a military budget that had doubled in a decade, General Dynamics’ continued profit growth was on the line in the 2008 election, but the Crown’s support for Obama served General Dynamics very well. Thanks to Obama’s expansion of extrajudicial executions using high-tech surveillance and targeting systems, GD’s Information Systems and Technology Division (IS&T) remains its most lucrative division ($11 billion in 2010 revenues). He increased production of Virginia class submarines to 2 per year in 2012 ($2.5 billion apiece); secured $9.8 billion for 3 highly vulnerable Zumwalt class destroyers that a Navy spokesperson called “a ship you don’t need”; and restarted production of Arleigh Burke destroyers ($1.8 billion each) to surround Russia and China with Aegis missiles to weaken their deterrent to a U.S. nuclear first strike. The result of Obama’s record military spending was that GD’s revenues continued to grow through 2010 and then held firm at close to that level, despite small cuts to the U.S. war budget.

The Obama campaign won the Advertising Age “Marketer of the Year” award for 2008. It highlighted his part-time job teaching three constitutional law classes a year from 1996 to 2004 to raise hopes that he would restore the rule of law to U.S. policy. Five years later, his crimes speak for themselves:

·       22,000 air strikes, mostly in parts of Afghanistan, unreported in the Western media

·       thousands of assassinations by drones and JSOC death squads in Afghanistan, Pakistan,  Yemen,  Somalia, and elsewhere

·       murderous NATO/GCC/CIA campaigns against Libya and Syria

·       illegal threats of war against Iran

·       unconstitutional spying on everybody everywhere

But how do apparently intelligent, well-educated people like Barack Obama become war criminals? Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz (who wrote the preface to my book about the American destruction of Iraq), describes the lead defendant in the Einsatzgruppen trial that he prosecuted as “a gentleman, SS General Otto Ohlendorf, Dr. Otto Ohlendorf, the father of five children.” The court convicted this “polite gentleman” of ordering the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians, after what the Associated Press called “the biggest murder trial in history.”

Obama, like Ohlendorf, is a highly educated product of a political system dominated by military-industrial interests and extreme nationalism that makes war crimes seem justifiable, rational, or even necessary. Under Ferencz’s cross-examination, Ohlendorf told the court at Nuremberg that Germany invaded the USSR to prevent a Soviet attack on Germany; that he ordered the killing of Jews because “everybody knew” the Jews supported the Bolsheviks; and that his orders explicitly included Jewish children because, if they grew up and found out what the Germans had done to their parents, they too would become enemies of Germany.

As Ferencz tells anyone who will listen, this is the same rationale our government uses today to justify its “preemptive” wars, drone strikes, and JSOC assassinations. If we don’t kill these people, they may eventually attack us. As in the Trayvon Martin case, the right to self-defense only applies to one of the parties, and never to the one actually being stalked and attacked. Obama’s rationale for the extrajudicial execution of an innocent 16-year-old American, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen, soon after the strike that killed his father, appears to have been the same as Ohlendorf’s rationale for killing Jewish children.

To be clear, my intention is not to draw some general equation between present-day America and Nazi Germany, but to examine how corrupt totalitarian political systems, like the current U.S. system of legalized bribery, produce highly qualified, apparently intelligent senior officials who have the uncommon ability to commit mass murder. Ohlendorf rationally defended his actions in court. The impunity that shields Bush and Obama from their accusers has not been breached as Ohlendorf’s was at Nuremberg, and Obama’s actions remain obscured by an elaborate smokescreen of secrecy and propaganda. His Nobel speech, and other such performances, reveal that he shares Ohlendorf’s ability to rationalize his crimes.

And make no mistake, this is an uncommon ability. Despite much of what we have been taught, killing does not come easily to human beings. An extensive study of American soldiers in World War II found that at least 75 percent of them could not aim a weapon at an enemy soldier and pull the trigger, even when their own lives depended on it. Modern militaries conduct extensive training to overcome this, but what about those who issue the orders and are ultimately responsible?

War Crimes Euphemisms

The nature of modern war crimes places layers of bureaucracy and technology between political leaders and the blood and gore of their victims. An entire glossary of political language has been developed so that American politicians can talk about war and war crimes in euphemisms. President Obama’s speeches at military bases and war colleges are masterpieces of this kind of obfuscation.

Upton Sinclair provided a partial answer to “why they do it” when he wrote: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” But the corrupt American political system of “legalized bribery” ties our political leaders to the interests that fund and manage their campaigns by far more than just their salaries. Their entire careers depend on their ability to convince wealthy Americans that they have their interests at heart, but also that they can perform the delicate task of winning the trust of the general public without betraying those interests. This requires a unique ability to justify the glaring contradictions of their compromised and corrupt position to themselves and to the public, a rare and defining character trait that savvy political power brokers like the Crowns must probe for in potential candidates.

In effect, there are three basic qualifications for a candidate for high office under the U.S. system of legalized bribery:

  1. Decades of scrutiny and grooming by military-industrial power brokers to ensure that the candidate understands and will serve their interests
  2. The charisma and ability, in spite of (1), to inspire and win the trust of the public
  3. The ability to live with and willfully ignore the contradiction between (1) and (2)—the mark of the “true believer” in American ideology

People like Obama, Bush, and Clinton are not just consummate liars. They are more thoroughly indoctrinated than that. The long- term relationships with powerful people on which the legalized bribery system is built constitute a more thorough ideological vetting process than any polygraph test or truth serum, and the system rarely makes mistakes. The last time someone who was not a fully vetted product of this system reached the White House was in 1976, and that was the last time that a political party occupied the White House for only one term.

It is easy to see how this system has led to ever-growing plutocracy, since it is a direct means for the wealthy and powerful to monopolize political power and exercise total control over government policy. In his book Democracy Incorporated, political scientist Sheldon Wolin described the resulting concentration of wealth and power as “inverted totalitarianism,” contrasting it with the cruder “classical totalitarianism” of countries like Nazi Germany. But how legalized bribery leads to militarism and war crimes is less obvious.

Pre-emptive Self-Defense

In the courtroom at Nuremberg, Ferencz, the U.S. Army’s chief war crimes investigator at Buchenwald and other German death camps, asked SS-Gruppenfuhrer Ohlendorf if he had any qualms about killing so many people, including little children. Ohlendorf replied that his superiors, including Chancellor Adolf Hitler, had access to more information than he did and that they told the public the Soviets were planning to attack Germany, so it was necessary to attack the USSR in “preemptive” self-defense. As Ferencz told an audience in Florida in 2012: “That Ohlendorf argument was considered by three American judges at Nuremberg, and they sentenced him and twelve others to death by hanging. So it’s very disappointing to find that my government today is prepared to do something for which we hanged Germans as war criminals…a democracy can only work if its people are being told the truth. You cannot run a country as Hitler did, feeding the public a pack of lies to frighten them that they are being threatened so it’s justified to kill people you don’t even know.”

But that is exactly what our leaders are doing. In Germany, the secrecy and propaganda that supported the political system led directly to terrible war crimes and to a presumption of impunity that shielded all involved from fear of criminal accountability. In our society today, the system of legalized bribery and the deception and manipulation of the public that it entails, have likewise spawned elaborate systems of secrecy and propaganda to support a similar guarantee of impunity for war crimes. As Ferencz says: “…if you want to deter a crime, you must persuade potential criminals that, if they commit crimes, they will be hauled into court and be held accountable. It is the policy of the United States to do just the opposite as far as the crime of aggression is concerned. Our government has gone to great pains to be sure that no American will be tried by any international court for the supreme international crime of illegal war-making.”

Inverted Totalitarianism

In Democracy Incorporated, Wolin explores how the “inverted” form of totalitarianism works better than the “classical” model as a means of concentrating wealth and power. By retaining the superficial structure of constitutional government instead of abolishing elections and the Constitution, it avoids rubbing the public’s nose in its loss of power. Quite the opposite. By maintaining a propaganda narrative based on “democracy,” “freedom” and “the rule of law,” it convinces much of the public that it is upholding exactly the things it is destroying.

Secrecy and propaganda are essential components of both forms of totalitarianism, but they are even more essential to an “inverted totalitarian” system that maintains a sophisticated illusion of being the opposite of what it is. And in almost every respect, the tools of “inverted totalitarianism” and plutocracy are also the tools of war and militarism. Less than 1 percent of American voters chose third party candidates for president in 2012, even though the result was predetermined in most states, invalidating “lesser evil” arguments. Once the rulers of a country have developed a propaganda system that efficiently marches people into the voting booth to rubber stamp their choice of leaders, what is to stop them from using the same methods to march them off to war?

But marching people off to war is not as easy as marching them into voting booths. Although its collective consequences can be very serious, the act of voting usually entails no personal risk. But joining the military during a time of war is a life and death decision, no matter how well the government conceals, disguises, or justifies the risks.

As Gabriel Kolko explored in Century of War (1994), working people have generally only risen up against their rulers under extraordinary wartime conditions. Only when obeying their leaders became a suicidal choice did Russian, Chinese, or American soldiers in Vietnam identify the true source of the danger they faced and turn to confront it. Absent such mortal threats, working people have accepted or even embraced their assigned role as employees, consumers, voters, and taxpayers in capitalist societies.

So political and military leaders have been forced to adapt to the natural desire of their subjects to escape death in war and to the risk that war may undermine their subjects’ habitual passivity. American wars on developing countries now involve hugely disproportionate (and often illegal) uses of force to minimize U.S. casualties. The U.S. war on Iraq probably killed at least a million Iraqis, or 4 percent of the civilian population, while 99.7 percent of the 2.2 million Americans who invaded and occupied Iraq and Afghanistan escaped with their lives. In effect, American soldiers in occupied Iraq were much safer than Iraqi civilians. This was the remarkable climax of a pattern in which war has killed more and more civilians while military forces are better protected from the violence of war and farther removed from it. Unmanned drones accentuate this trend even further.

Paying for War

So wars continue, despite our will to live. But they can’t continue without the taxes we pay for the forces and weapons to attack, invade, and occupy other countries. So, while the U.S. government has abolished conscription and developed weapons and tactics that require fewer Americans to join the military and even fewer to give up their lives, the rest of us are still involved in the critical function of paying for weapons and wars. Most Americans play their assigned role in the war machine without even being aware of it.

And this guaranteed source of generous funding supports one of the most powerful institutions in the world: the U.S. Military-Industrial Complex (MIC). Most analysts of the U.S. political economy consider the Wall Street financial sector to be the seat of supreme power because it controls the allocation of capital that is the life-blood of the capitalist economic system. But, since World War II, the MIC has grown to become a complementary power center whose interests are just as powerful and sacrosanct.

President Eisenhower named and defined the MIC in his farewell speech in 1961: “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together…. Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.”

Eisenhower was acutely aware of the dangers of militarism, but he justified the growth of the MIC as necessary to confront the USSR. We can only wonder what he would make of a record military budget in the absence of a military threat to the United States. He might echo what he privately told a meeting of his advisers a few months before his farewell speech, “God help this country when someone sits in this chair who doesn’t know the military as well as I do.”

In 1949, before he ever ran for public office, General Eisenhower spoke out publicly to condemn calls for a U.S. nuclear first strike on the USSR. Like Ferencz today, Eisenhower compared U.S. policy to German aggression in World War II.

In 2006, Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA) wrote The Foreign Policy Disconnect: What Americans want from Our Leaders but Don’t Get. Based on their analysis of decades of CCGA polling data, they concluded that American leaders are consistently and significantly more hawkish than the public and that this “disconnect” has led to a history of disastrous decisions and crises that could have been avoided if U.S. policy had actually reflected the majority views of the public.

But why should leaders who are not accountable to the public pay attention to us? The system of legalized bribery, by identifying, vetting, and promoting leaders who can win the votes of the public while serving only the interests of the wealthy, has created an environment in which public opinion is something to be molded by propaganda, not something to be taken seriously in the formation of policy. So public alarm at the aggressive and illegal policies of the Bush administration did not produce a real change in policy, but only a more sophisticated campaign of secrecy and propaganda. The system was forced to step up its game, and it did so in the form of Barack Obama.

Implications of Subversion

The implications of this subversion of the public will are far reaching for the military industrial complex. Weapons manufacturers’ fortunes have always fluctuated with the tides of war and peace. U.S. military spending rose dramatically during the Korean and Vietnam Wars and during the Reagan military build-up that peaked in 1985. But each of these booms in spending was followed by a “peace dividend,” albeit a slower and weaker one after each boom, as the legalized bribery system and the MIC consolidated their power.

At the end of the Korean War, U.S. military spending decreased by 43 percent from 1952 to 1955. From the peak of the Vietnam War in 1968, it dropped by 32 percent in 7 years. The Reagan boom was followed by slow but steady savings that continued through the end of the Cold War and the 1990s for a 35 percent reduction that took 13 years. After each boom for half a century, U.S. military spending eventually fell to a consistent baseline of about $350 billion, in 1955, 1975, and again in 1998.

But the Global War on Terror has been different. Despite the absence of any direct military threat to the United States, the 98 percent increase in military spending from 1998 to 2011 was far greater than the 43 percent increase that paid for the Vietnam War or the 57 percent rise in the 1980s. And despite withdrawal from Iraq and the reduction of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to 2008 troop levels, 2014 military spending is only 17 percent below the 2011 budget, which was a post-World War II record. We are still spending 64 percent more than in 1998 and more than at any time during the Vietnam War or the Cold War. As General Dynamics crowed in its 2010 Annual Report, “Through 2015, the base defense budget is expected to remain essentially flat in real terms. Pentagon efficiency initiatives have sought to enable modest investment account growth within that flat top line.”

But most Americans remain as blissfully oblivious to the theft of their hard-earned tax dollars by the military industrial complex as to the theft of their government by legalized bribery. The same system of secrecy and propaganda shields legalized bribery, plutocracy, militarism and war crimes from public scrutiny, permitting them all to thrive like bacteria in the dark.

The Flip-Side of Propaganda

The profitable role of the corporate media in the selling of political candidates, the presentation of debates, and the parroting of talking points in breathless and glitzy election coverage transfers almost as a complete package to the promotion of new threats and new wars that are guaranteed to keep viewers glued to their TV sets and to sell billions in advertising. The flip-side of slick propaganda is what we are not told. Covert and proxy wars and the expansion of drone strikes and JSOC death squads are all secret by definition. As Eisenhower discovered in the 1950s as he overthrew popular democratic governments in Iran and Guatemala, secrecy laws make valuable co-conspirators of reporters and editors who are only allowed to publish the official story. As American newspapers denounced Mossadegh and Arbenz as communists, the U.S. role in the coups against them was a secret, just like the CIA and JSOC’s role in Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and 100 other countries today.

The paradox of “inverted totalitarianism” is that we still have all the tools of democracy at our disposal if we choose to use them, from street action to elections. As we organize at the grass-roots against legalized bribery, the military-industrial complex and war crimes, we do have a few allies in Congress. Nine progressive Democrats in the House have 100 percent Peace Action voting records and 46 House Members vote for peace and disarmament at least 90 percent of the time. They don’t do this because they are completely free of legalized bribery or military-industrial interests, but because enough of their constituents pay attention and hold them accountable. In July, under pressure from activists and constituents, a majority of House Democrats voted against the $598 billion FY 2014 Military Appropriation bill. The Senate is even more tightly in the grip of legalized bribery and military-industrial interests, so as progressive Democrats like Ed Markey, Tammy Baldwin, and maybe Rush Holt move up to the Senate, only public pressure will hold them to their 90 percent-plus peace voting records.


Nicolas J. S. Davies is author of Blood On Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. He writes on war, militarism, and international law for Z Magazine and at