Forget the figurehead
Few men in history could be considered the perfect exemplifier of ‘evil’ as Adolf Hitler. Every aspect about his regime and persona has been poisoned inside the minds of most, that is his legacy. Those who followed him were Nazi’s, a forever slur, condemned to their fates in defeat. Not many other men in history can bring their foot soldiers to the pits of historical damnation with them, not Stalin, not Mao, not Charles Taylor or even LBJ. Those beneath them the civil servants, soldiers and scientists were all obedient to the point that once the head fell away then for most of them so too did any accountability for any actions that they committed. The change swept in with the next leaders, most of them were not consumed by history’s pariah place, none of them were simply ‘Nazis’. They were just following orders and despite the Nuremberg defence this has secured many, just not the enemies of victory.
History and its followers are obsessed with the Great Men, the figureheads that become icons for time. Those people whose legacies define entire regions and periods whose words haunt generations despite any substance. It is a human fixation to elevate mere men to the status of immortal gods. All that they did could be either a positive or an all out negative, few exceptions are made. Most of the American founders are remembered as perfect beings whose ability at prose and promises for ‘freedom’ resonate deep into this day. Yet what freedom they demanded was not universal and the slavery and taxation of others never came close to being stopped so long as they lived. Yet, to mention this is sacrilege and to expect a believer to value this flaw is nearly impossible.
For all their praise and all their deadly consequences, the great men of history are nothing without those who implemented their ideals and policy. Genghis Khan is nothing without his hordes, but those deeds performed are almost singularly reserved for the heroic or villainous leader of the ages. However, LBJ is not considered responsible for the My Lai massacre and the scores of other murder-rape binges that were inflicted on the people of Vietnam, whereas a Charles Taylor is for the deeds of his killers. The vanquished are but mere brutes, no longer dignified statesmen. Though it is uncertain how many limbs were hacked by Taylor personally, yet he is responsible for everyone that was taken, along with every murder and rape that was performed beneath his leadership. This responsibility is reserved for a few leaders. Those doing the murder-rape seldom are punished for each act, they are lost in the ocean of uniformed obedience and opportunity.
Those few apologists for Hitler, men such as David Irving will scour the pages of history, primary sources and others more inventive to paint a prettier picture of the Fuhrer. Suggesting that the holocaust did not exterminate as many claimed, did not happen or in some instances The Fuhrer was ignorant to the actual implementation of it all. Millions of human beings did die regardless of such meanderings. All can agree that Adolf Hitler himself did not personally flick any switch to release poisonous gas or pull any trigger to execute an innocent. As evil as he was, as perverse as the outcomes to his every policy, he was a statesman. A man who relied upon law, institutions and the loyalty of those who obeyed the law, nation and ideology. Whether that obedient loyalty was willing, reluctant or simply bought it did not matter. Hitler was nothing but a failed painter, war veteran and limp lover if not for such men and women.
Like Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte is synonymous with war and conquest, his name is enshrined in history for notoriety and imperial greatness. Before him sat the last King of France, decadent and his court filled with corrupt aristocracy. Many benefited but more suffered. Soon a bloody revolution over threw the old rulers and replaced them with new elites, not aristocrats but gruesome central planners. Inevitably Emperor Napoleon would emerge from the revolution and oversee a police state at war with the world. But from King to Jacobin to Emperor; the soldiers, police and jailers served. Executioners and torturers plied their terrible business, the ruling figure changed with the decades but the bloody tasks at hand for them did not. The victims in their pained final moments remember only their tormentors, while history and arm chair visitors to the past remember only the figures of history.
The rape of Nanking and the terrible atrocities committed by the Japanese military in its wars of expansion were used to justify the fire bombings of its cities and ultimately the atomic bombs being dropped. The Emperor was no doubt unaware of the particular details of what his warriors had done in his name. He was ignorant of the defiled, raped, mutilated and murdered thousands as his imperial army destroyed China. But he was who they served and was the living God to all of them. They would die for him, many did. He escaped justice, some of his ministers and generals did not however. Many of the Japanese soldiers who personally committed the crimes were lost to the fury of war, some perhaps survived the war their crimes buried with their victims. Some may have even served the allies in Indo China and Korea perpetuating a final injustice. The religious zealotry exhibited by many of the Japanese killers was frightening but no more than the atheist killers of the French Revolution or the NKVD butchers who obeyed Stalin around the same time. They served an ideal and murdered and more for it.
Unlike the great heads of state, the seductive sway of cult leaders, those who are truly terrifying men such as Jim Jones and Aum Shinrikyo whose followers killed or were killed because of their divinity are ever present in many aspects of the human character. Others are easily trumped up as being more than what they were, David Koresh being an example of an easy to despise leader of a small group. Anything done against the cabal of strange, eccentric believers is then justified. They are infected by a perverse religion that can ultimately be used to destroy. Like all religion, whether sanctioned or not, whether theological or worldly their lurks irrational danger. For the cults it is seen that if not for these leaders then the ills of the faith would not be so pervasive and all consuming. And yet regardless bad is done in the name of some god just as good can be also accomplished. The choice it seems continues to be the doer of deeds.
The figurehead’s romantic depiction greets us from King Arthur to Simba, the idea that a philosopher King will some how ensure balance. Rule with Solomon’s wisdom and curb excess. The other side of this myth is the reality. The Idi Amin and Papa Doc Duvalier who ensure excess and with the myths of great men and outside dangers, their rule endures well past reason and into a bitter outcome. Again, these men are nothing if not for their foot soldiers, drivers, cooks and servants all frightened or willing into servitude. He is but one man, they are an entire nation of people. Their duplicity watered down despite any rape that satiated an orgasm or murder that fed their hunger committed by themselves alone, thanks to opportunity in the service of the King.
With the recent appointment of Gina Haspel heading the CIA many critics, most notably anti Trump reactionaries, like to point to the fact that she has directly overseen torture and the administration of black sites. Somehow a woman who was an obedient actor inside the CIA, as a dark arm of government is not fit to head that very same Agency is confusing at best. And yet because of her exploits performing with brutality and on extra legal terms she is considered unfit to head the Agency known for such sinister intrigue. Never in its history has the CIA performed with clean hands and without nefarious conduct, it is as though the detractors want the figurehead of such a government agency to be a vegan butcher. It really does not matter in the end because bones are broken, and flesh gets chopped all the same.
The declared exodus of celebrity Matt Damon in response to Donald Trumps presidency points to a hypocrisy of choice. Leader Trump has done no worse than previous executives of the American throne. He has perhaps overseen the death of less civilians, certainly less than a Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton or any Bush. Anything radical that comes from his tweets is honest blathering’s which were once gaffs or honest reprieves in an otherwise bland press release. He is crude, unrefined and clings to military strongmen. The United States has elected military strongmen in its past, it has elected presidents who served in wars of imperial expansion and ones considered crusades, elected slave owners and Indian killers. Trump was born from privilege and his tenure as brief as it may be, will not relieve those suffering inside American prisons because of its prohibitions, will not save any lives on the cusp of empire, it will curtail its own confused legacy. The next president is unlikely to stop the murder abroad or curb the prison nation, too many jobs and satisfied voters benefit from these brutalities.
Despite these truths, the voter will blame all the ills on this man and others before and after him. They shall even regard his legacy fondly when it stands up in some positive compared to another figurehead. The reverse is also true. Those who served him had served others and will most often serve another president. Such servants of consequence are amoral and often nonpartisan. They believe in government, many in empire and often in more laws and rule. The figureheads are simply tourists to their world. They visit with much fanfare and take the blame, they are disgraced like Nixon or revered like Eisenhower. What violence occurred because of their pen stroke matters little in the end. Because to the media and the public Watergate matters more than bombing millions of human beings inside Cambodia around the same time. The scandal of missing audio tape harms a figurehead more than the revelation that they unleashed the fury of thousands of aircraft dropping millions of bombs onto people in distant lands. It is why Trump is adored for lobbing cruise missiles recklessly into distant lands and despised for whose hand he may shake.
Regardless of the scandal, Nixon’s plumbers were willing actors. The bomber crews, their ground support and everyone else in the service all were willing and loyal operators contributing to the death and misery of millions. They may have not forced human beings into cattle cars, pushed them into chambers, switched on the gas and then shovelled them into ovens. In a nihilistic practicality this fate was perhaps kinder than dropping cluster bombs, high explosives, napalm, phosphorous and so on across entire regions, ripping to pieces, mangling and burning to gore their bones and sinew whether peasant, soldier or child. Random and scattered, concentrated and focused the bombing was relentless. Wounded and dead. For these mass murderers no need for justice to pursue, the noble fliers and those fitting the bombs were heroic uniformed warriors. Not ideological brutes of the SS. Nixon is no Hitler. Nor is any president for that matter. But does it really matter to those burning in ovens, or those mangled inside the jungles of Asia? Nixon was disgraced over a tame scandal, not because of mass murder. That is the culture of a nation.
The elected executive rarely has as much power as the totalitarian despot but often in some cases they have a far wider reach. While men such as Suharto, Pinochet or Ceaușescu ruled absolutely inside their own borders. The elected officials and those serving them often extend their influence and impact well beyond the legal borders of their own nation. It is how the French, British and American foreign policy can break down national borders and by pass the laws that tyrants would otherwise have to obey for fear of international response. War on one’s own people is sometimes less of a focus than a war on other peoples, as tends to be the case of the most powerful democracies. Whether the violence is pressed inwards or pushed outwards, both the tyrannical ruler and the elected president or minister need thousands of willing implementers, it is the constant theme of all history.
In the end for those doomed and starving inside North Korea it does not matter if it is the father or the son who rules. The elites and those who benefit from a prison nation help to ensure that it remains that way. For those inside jails because of the prohibition laws or those on the fringe of empire dying in endless war it matters little if Hillary or Trump won, the outcome is still the same. The very dirty deeds are often done by those just doing a job, family men who live their children. They just love their own more than the ones that they feed to the inferno. Those who benefit do so despite elections or even coups, they are the machinery, the sinew and life blood of empire and republic alike. They are the rulers and oppressors because without them no figurehead could reign and not tyranny is possible.