Tag Archives: ethics

Character: “The Decisive Factor in the Life of an Individual and of Nations Alike.”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I teach ethics, and as I observe the words and actions of President Trump and his closest advisors I see a massive attack on facts, truth, reason, intellectualism, and with them, more importantly, on integrity and character. It is actually very disconcerting to see those in power attempting to re-write facts, history, and even their own statements and promises before our eyes, denying truth, subverting facts, and pretending that with the exception of what they say today, there is no truth.

When Sean Spicer praised the February jobs report, a report that he and the President used refer to as “phony” he was asked if President Trump thought that this report was accurate. He grinned and said “They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.”

But then what can be expected from an administration that when contradicted calls the contractions lies, and those who insist on facts to be liars? It has insisted that alone of Federal Government employees that White House staffers don’t need to follow government ethics rules, and removes them from required ethics training. This goes to the heart of the problem with this administration, it does not care for truth and has long given up, if it ever had it. President Trump’s long history of not being an honest businessman, his numerous adulterous affairs during his marriages, and a list of people that he has cheated that runs into the hundreds with thousands of lawsuits against his business practices should have warned us that he would be the same man that he has always has been, and now he is in a position not only to continue to destroy any hint of his own integrity, but that nations as well, and many of his followers do not seem to give a damn.

Ethics do matter and facts do matter. Steven Covey wrote that “Moral authority comes from following universal and timeless principles like honesty, integrity, treating people with respect.” This is sadly lacking in the current administration, and it will be the death of the Republic. When the American President cannot be trusted to tell the truth and when his administration works to shield themselves from the law there will be reverberations. The moral authority of the American nation is at stake, and that matters more than the power of our economy or the military might of the nation. Once that trust, once that moral authority is eroded, the very foundations of the country are undermined, and quite possibly fatally undermined. As Thomas Paine noted: “Character is much easier kept than recovered.”

A nation founded as ours on the proposition that “all men are created equal” which depends on its leaders and citizens caring about their fidelity to the Constitution must understand that its character is linked to how we live up to those great secular scriptures. Character as Theodore Roosevelt noted is “in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.” 

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary

Ideologues and Ideologically Empty Pragmatists: The Key to an Authoritarian State

werner-best

Dr. Werner Best

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been looking at some of the nominees to various cabinet posts in the incoming Trump administration. Trump is a known quality, since his lack of character, integrity, narcissism, and thin skin are well known I was thinking about his picks. Trump has no ideology other than his own power and ego which makes him both dangerous and unpredictable, and this is not just to those who are his current lot of “enemies,” but even people who campaigned at his side like obedient lap dogs, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie comes to mind, but I digress because believe me there will be a lot more of his supposed friends and allies who make that list.

Some of them are hopeless right wing ideologues. They too are known qualities and actually fairly easy to predict and to defend against and many so so incompetent, divisive, and intolerable, that even people who agree with them will throw them under the bus.

But there are others, like Trump himself devoid of ideology, but even more dangerous because they are much more careful. In fact they can move from administration to administration, campaign to campaign. One can see a number of them in Trump’s entourage, including people who advised his GOP primary opponents and then abandoned them when they saw a winner. They are in it for their own personal achievement and whatever power they can gain.

Such people can be found in any government, any business, any military, and any church. One of the interesting things about history is that you can see them weave their way in and out of the picture, outmaneuvering and undercutting rivals, even selling out their bosses.

My regular readers know that I have spent a large amount of my life and academic study dealing wth the transition from Imperial Germany, to the Weimar Republic, and to the National Socialist or Nazi state of Adolf Hitler. The interesting thing is to see how many professional men, business leaders, bureaucrats, police officials, and military officers, many men; a good number of whom had opposed Hitler and never were Nazis until it became convenient served the Nazi State, especially in the ranks of Heinrich Himmler’s SS. One of the books that has been part of my study since college is Heinz Hohne’s The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS. The book which came out in 1966 was one of the first to confront the myths about the SS which allowed many Germans after the war to use the SS as their alibi, all that was wrong with Germany could be blamed on the SS. While the SS was certainly culpable of many crimes it was just one part of the Nazi state, a state as contradictory as it was totalitarian.

In his book Hohne discusses the types of men who found their way into the SS, which included the true believers as well as the pragmatists who had no ideology. One of these men was Dr. Werner Best who had been an official in the Gestapo. A gifted intriguer he maneuvered himself between various party factions and leaders and was promoted to SS Obergruppenfuhrer. Then, later as the head of the Nazi government in Denmark went against the final solution in that county by helping the Jews of that country escape to Sweden.

Best adapted the philosophy of Ernst Junger, the writer of the classic novel of the First World War Storm of Steel who wrote: “The important part is not what we fight for but how we fight.” Best transformed Junger’s philosophy into one of the pillars of the SS leadership, the ideal of “heroic realism.” Best wrote: “The fight itself is essential and permanent; the aims of the fight are temporary and interchangeable. There can therefore be no question of success in our fight… the yardstick of the new code of morality, therefore, is not its content – not ‘what’ but ‘how’.” 

Hohne noted that the ethic “with no specific aim, opened the door door to concentration on achievement for achievement’s sake.” Himmler put it succinctly, “The word ‘impossible’ must never be heard in the SS.”  The result was that even non-Nazis were attracted to the SS and because of their abilities or connections were brought in to the organization.

This is where it really gets interesting when one thinks of today’s opportunistic yet ethically deprived pragmatists of so many professions who have jumped aboard the Trump train.

Hohne wrote: “The call to energy and efficiency, the ceaseless challenge to action and trial, launched SS men into a primitive competitive struggle in which all normally accepted rules of conduct were forgotten.” Some believed that they were still were still only responsible to themselves but because they were subject to orders became prisoners “of an ethic linked to no purpose, an ethic which, ostensibly for purposes of political necessity, could suddenly order the commission of crimes and present them as goals of human technological efficiency.”  

Hohne quoted historian Hans Buchheim who wrote in his book The Anatomy of the SS State:

“If a man is concerned not with what he is fighting for but only with how he fights, he is conditioned to heroic action in a criminal cause. Although such a heroic fighter imagines that he must rely on himself alone… he can be swept into the service of an organization claiming complete totalitarian authority – and he will perceive that this has happened not at all or too late.”

Werner Best learned late and he tried to make up for his early activities in the Nazi State, even so he was convicted as a war criminal though he escaped the death sentence. Sadly there were a lot more men like him, non-Nazis who became part of the SS and conducted some of the worst crimes in human history.

So when you hear the man who will be President in just over a week’s time threaten reporters, denigrate intelligence officials, and conduct Twitter tirades against anyone who criticizes him, and then shamelessly lies about all of it you need to be concerned regardless of your political affiliation. Many of the men and women who are selling their souls to serve in the incoming administration are completely without any moral center, ethic, or guiding ideology; and it is them that all of us should be really concerned about. This is because they are the ones who will get things done, morality or convention be damned. Authoritarians or totalitarians cannot succeed without them.

Have a good day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Note: I do recommend Hohne’s book from which I drew much of this article. Sadly, it is still in print but not available in a digital format. You have to purchase and read it the old fashioned way. It’s actually kind of cool to read a book that smells like a book.

 

 

 

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Filed under ethics, History, nazi germany, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary

The Problem with Having Scruples when Rulers Don’t: A Warning from General Johannes Steinhoff 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have written a lot about the dehumanization of people and genocide, and some of the things that create a climate where such events take place, and how political and religious leaders stir the primal passions of otherwise good, decent and law abiding citizens. I wrote yesterday how I am afraid of what is going on in our country, especially in regard to the violence being sanctioned and even promoted by President Elect Donald Trump.

Last spring I read a book by World War II German Luftwaffe ace Johannes Steinhoff. Steinhoff was unlike many of the German officers who wrote memoirs following the war, memoirs that historian Williamson Murray wrote “fell generally into two categories; generals writing in the genre of “if the fuhrer had only listened to me!” and fighter pilots or tank busters writing about their heroics against the productive flood from America or the primitively masses of the Soviet Union.” His book, The Final Hours: The Luftwaffe Plot Against Goering should be essential reading for any currently serving officer.

steinhoff6

General Johannes Steinhof (above) as a Bundeswehr and NATO officer, showing his burns and before his crash (below)

steinhoff WW II

In his books, Steinhoff does something that you do not see authors do in most military or political memoirs, he actually does serious self reflection on his role in supporting an evil regime. In his introduction to his book The Final Hours the legendary fighter ace who was horribly disfigured when his Me-262 jet fighter crashed and burned two weeks prior to the end of the war wrote:

“In recalling these events, which had been long buried in my memory, it has not been my intention to make excuses. Our unconditional self-sacrifice in the service of the Third Reich is too well documented for that….

So it is because of what is happening today—with freedom threatened in virtually every respect by its own abuse—that I offer this contribution, in the form of an episode in which I was myself involved, to the history of the soldier in the twentieth century. Soldiers have always, in every century of their existence, been victims of the ruthless misuse of power; indeed, given the opportunity, they have joined in the power game themselves. But it fell to our own century to accomplish, with the aid of a whole technology of mass extermination, the most atrocious massacres in the history of mankind. This fact alone makes pacifism a philosophy worthy of respect, and I have a great deal of sympathy with those who profess it. 

The figure of the soldier in all his manifestations is thus symptomatic of the century now nearing its close, and it is to the history of that figure that I wish to contribute by describing what happened to me. I have tried to show what it is possible to do to men, how insidiously they can be manipulated by education, how they can be hoisted onto a pedestal as “heroes,” how they can be so corrupted as even to enjoy the experience—and how they can be dropped and denounced as mutineers when they discover that they have scruples. The complete lack of scruples that such treatment implies is peculiar to rulers who believe that the problems of their own and other peoples can be solved by imposing, through the use of military force, peace on their, the rulers’, terms—in our case a pax germanica, but the second Latin word is readily interchangeable.” from “The Final Hours: The Luftwaffe Plot Against Goring (Aviation Classics)” by Johannes Steinhoff

Since I am a historian and and a career military officer with service in the Iraq War, a war that was illegal and unjust by all measure I can understand Steinhof’s words. Because much of my undergraduate and graduate work focused on German history, particularly that of Imperial Germany after the unification, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi Reich, I draw a lot of lessons from the period. I also understand how people in this country can fall for the same kind of vitriolic propaganda that the Germans of that era did. I can understand because for years I fell for the lies and propaganda being put out by the politicians, pundits and preachers of the American political right.

10665323_10154041610267059_5277331492232210946_n

A picture of me (on left) in Iraq 2007 with my assistant and bodyguard RP1 Nelson Lebron

One of those lessons is that in times of crisis, that people, no matter what their race, culture, religious belief system, educational, or economic background are still human. Humanity is the one constant in all of history, our prejudices are often ingrained in us during childhood and reinforced by the words of politicians, pundits, and preachers. In times of stress, crisis, and societal change or upheaval even good people, moral people, people of great intellectual, scientific abilities can fall prey to demagogues who preach hate and blame others, usually racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, as well as civil libertarians who champion the rights of those minorities for the problems of the nation.

Shrewd politicians, preachers, and pundits do this well. They demonize the target group or population and then let the hatred of their disaffected followers flow. The leaders need that disaffected and angry base in order to rise to power; such was how Hitler, Stalin, and so many other despots gained power. They took advantage of a climate of fear, and found others to blame. For Hitler it was the Jews, Slavs, Socialists and Communists; while for Stalin it was various groups like the Ukrainians, or the Poles who were the devil to be feared and destroyed. Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin wrote:

“Dead human beings provided retrospective arguments for the rectitude of policy. Hitler and Stalin thus shared a certain politics of tyranny: they brought about catastrophes, blamed the enemy of their choice, and then used the death of millions to make the case that their policies were necessary or desirable. Each of them had a transformative utopia, a group to be blamed when its realization proved impossible, and then a policy of mass murder that could be proclaimed as a kind of ersatz victory.”

But that being said, there are a lot of people who from childhood believe the lies about others without question. In good times such people continue on with life as normal, but in crisis those hatreds and prejudices come to the fore. Rudolf Höss, the notorious sociopath who commanded Auschwitz told American Army psychologist Gustave Gilbert about his reaction when ordered to turn the camp into an extermination center. He said that the order “fitted in with all that had been preached to me for years,” and “at the same time I didn’t think of it as propaganda, but as something one just had to believe.” 

Eugene Davidson in his book on the Nuremberg Trials wrote:

“Every society has in it at all times negative, criminal, sadistic, asocial forces. What holds them in check more than law and police is the consensus of the society – a general belief that despite everything wrong and stupid and muddleheaded in politics, the state is a going concern that will somehow make its way into the future.” (Davidson, The Trial of the Germans p.581)

But when things do not go well, when people do not feel that things will be okay, that the future will be better, and that they have a purpose they look for answers. However, they tend to find their answers in the rantings of demagogues, race baiters, conspiracy theorists, and others who they would tend to dismiss out of hand in good times. In Germany it was the loss of the First World War, the humiliation of Versailles and the economic chaos and social change of the Weimar period which allowed Hitler to gain an audience, then a following, then political power. The demagogues played to what was already in the hearts and minds of the disaffected masses, without that fertile soil, the rantings of Hitler and his propagandists would have never succeeded. Albert Speer wrote:

“As I see it today, Hitler and Goebbels were in fact molded by the mob itself, guided by its yearnings and its daydreams. Of course, Goebbels and Hitler knew how to penetrate through to the instincts of their audiences; but in the deeper sense they derived their whole existence from these audiences. Certainly the masses roared to the beat set by Hitler’s and Goebbels’ baton; yet they were not the true conductors. The mob determined the theme. To compensate for misery, insecurity, unemployment, and hopelessness, this anonymous assemblage wallowed for hours at a time in obsessions, savagery and license. The personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims. By lashing out at their opponents and vilifying the Jews, they gave expression and direction to fierce primal passions.”

In a sense a similar thing has happened in the United States which has experienced a series of wars beginning with Vietnam, the shock of the 9-11-2001 attacks, the economic crash of 2007 and 2008 which devastated the savings, home ownership, and investments of many Americans while at the same time benefiting the banking and brokerage houses whose government assisted policies brought about the crash. Of course there are other issues, many religious conservatives hate the progress made by the Women’s and Gay Rights movements, and their leaders play to their fears in apocalyptic terms. I could go on, but I am sure that my readers can identify other issues which demagogues and others use to spread fear and hate to further their goals. The fact is that without the the fertile soil that lays in the hearts of their most fervent followers they would never have a following.

In Weimar Germany hate mongers like Julius Streicher and propagandist Josef Goebbels stuck a chord with disenchanted people who felt that they had lost their country. They were fearful, angry, and desired a leader who would “make Germany great again.” Hitler and his Nazi media sycophants played to that fear, and took advantage of their anger at the existing order. Davidson wrote such people “exist everywhere and in a sick society they can flourish.” 

For decades the way has been prepared for true extremists to take advantage of the fears and doubts of people as modern American versions of Streicher and Goebbels have been at work for years. Rush Limbaugh was a modern pioneer of this in the United States, and he has been joined by so many who are even more extreme in their rantings that it is hard to name them all. Likewise, whole media corporations, websites, and political networks spread such fear every minute of the day, claiming that they, and they alone are real Americans. They actively support politicians who condemn, and sometimes even threaten people who oppose them, and all the while claim that “make America great again.”

When I was younger I devoured that propaganda, despite all of my learning I followed the rantings of men who I realize today are propagandists who promote the basest of lies, and hatred, often in the name of God. I was changed when I was at war, and when I returned home from Iraq in 2008 I realized through hard experience that I had been lied to, and that as a result that thousands of my brothers and sisters were dead, and tens of thousands shattered in body, mind, and spirit. Likewise I saw the massive destruction levied on Iraq and realized how terrible war really is. That was my epiphany, that is what it took to see how much I had been lied to, and it called me to question everything else that I had so willingly believed, things which had been fed to me by years of indoctrination in church, through the media, and by politicians who I believed were truly Christian. I can understand now how Martin Niemoller felt after the Nazi seizure of power when he said, “I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.”

There was a time that I hated people who espouse the views that I hold today, the views that I write about so often here on this site. I can remember how angry I would get as I listened to the propaganda being put out by Limbaugh, Hannity, the Fox News Channel and all of the others that I listened to every time that I had the chance. But when I changed after Iraq, I felt the sting of that hatred in very real ways. I remember the day I was called by my bishop in my former church, who told me that I had to leave because my views on women, gays, and Moslems were to use his words were now “too liberal.” After that, many men who I considered to be the best of friends turned their backs on me, some in the most bitter and vindictive of ways.

But I realize now that what they did was because I had in a sense left the cult, and had to be ostracized. I can understand that now, because when I was under the spell I too turned my back on people who had fallen out of favor, or people who had rejected the tenants of the church or the political movement, and those are things that I can never undo. But at the time it made sense, it fitted in with all I had been taught for decades, as Albert Speer wrote of Hitler, “One seldom recognizes the devil when he is putting his hand on your shoulder.”

What happened to Steinhoff’s generation is threatening to happen again, in our country, an authoritarian movement is threatening to destroy our democracy and republic. In it soldiers are esteemed, until they realize what is going on and speak out, but by then it is usually too late. I am understanding that fact more and more every day, and having had people troll this blog and call me a traitor and worse, I understand just a bit of what happened to Steinhoff and his fellow officers when they protested to the highest levels what was happening to Germany in early 1945.

We will soon know how military professionals react to being labeled as traitors. President Elect Trump and his followers have been demonizing the personnel of the nation’s intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic communities since before the election. The President Elect lambasts critics of any station on his Twitter feed which results in them receiving death threats from his followers. I expect that when presumptive Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks his mind and tells the truth that we will find out. Personally I expect that when he does that Trump and his most strident supporters will label him as a traitor for doing so. Like a religious cult they have no capacity to tolerate dissent, loyalty to the man will supersede loyalty to the country or the Constitution. When that happens it will be interesting to see the throngs of people in the military and outside of it who make the choice to throw one of the most courageous, selfless, and intellectual soldiers ever produced by our nation under the bus.

Their’s will be a conscious decision. My opinion is that the Constitution and the country will always come first. I want to give the President Elect the benefit of the doubt and do honestly pray that he will do the right thing for the country, but I am concerned because of his past and current behavior that his only loyalty is to himself. General Ludwig Beck, who resigned rather than obey Hitler’s order to invade Czechoslovakia in 1938 and died in the anti-Hitler coup attempt in 1944 said:

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.” 

I have no doubt that General Mattis understands that and will courageously speak his mind, even if he is condemned for doing so. Sadly I have many doubts about other leaders: be they military, political, business, or religious. There are many people who will sell their souls for their personal advancement, the advancement of their agenda, or an increase in their bottom line. It is after all human nature. 

But the question is: will we see true men and women of courage who will stand when it appears there is no chance of success? As Atticus Finch said in To Kill a Mockingbird: “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” 

That will be what is demanded in the coming months and years. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, holocaust, leadership, Military, News and current events, Political Commentary

The Courageous vs. the Ideologues 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Being an ideologue of any kind is easy, you adopt an ideology and then use it to interpret the world. That is why there are so many of them of so many different varieties: right wing, left wing, religious and so many more. In fact if you take a look at the most strident supporters of any ideology, politician, or religious leader you can see that they are little different from one another. 

The fact is that there is a difference between people who lean a certain way politically or religiously, and the people Eric Hoffer called, the “true believers,” the people who chose a side and never wrestle with the hard choices of life. They simply declare all who oppose their ideology or theology to be unworthy of life. 

It’s funny, I am a liberal and a progressive, but I often find left-wing ideologues to be as off putting as militant right wingers. I guess that is because despite everything I am a realist. I wake up every day to try to do the hard thing of deciding what is right and what to believe. 

My favorite television character, Raymond Reddington, played by James Spader in The Blacklist once said “I know so many zealots, men and women, who chose a side, an ideology by which to interpret the world. But, to get up every single day and to do the hard work of deciding what to believe. What’s right, today? When to stand up or stand down. That’s courage.” The fact is, no matter how stridently they espouse their beliefs, ideologues are by definition not courageous, because courage takes critical thinking, something that ideologues of any persuasion are incapable of doing. I see examples of this every day, especially in my Twitter feed. While I’m sure that many, if not most of these people are good and well meaning people, they seldom display any originality of thought or true character. I had one left wing Twitter follower attack repeatedly me because to her I was supposedly a sellout. I have had right wing religious friends and followers on social media do the same, but the intellectual commonality they share is the fact that they are ideologues and zealots, and while they espouse different beliefs they are almost indistinguishable in their inability to think critically. 

I guess that is one of the things that bothers me the most about so much of what I see going on in the United States today. Too many ideologues, not enough critical thinkers. Too many people who value absolute consistently of thought without asking if what they preach is still true today, or if it might be tomorrow. 

One thing that I have learned over the past eight years or so is that I have to ask what is right today, and make a choice of when to stand up, or to stand down. Sometimes, I don’t like those choices, but I make them. 

I guess that is why I like reading about the lives of complicated and often conflicted people; men like T.E. Lawrence, William Tecumseh Sherman, and the fictional Raymond Reddington. I find much to admire and to criticize in all of them even as I empathize and understand each one of them. Interestingly, each of my heroes all have feet of clay. As Reddington said, “We become who we are. We can’t judge a book by its cover… But you can by its first few chapters, and most certainly by its last.” 

Have a great day and weekend.

Peace,

Padre Steve+ 

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Filed under philosophy, televsion

Reflections on Indoctrination & Personal Responsibility

IMG_1931

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have written a lot about the dehumanization of people and genocide, and some of the things that create a climate where such events take place, and how political and religious leaders stir the primal passions of otherwise good, decent and law abiding citizens. I wrote yesterday how I am afraid of what is going on in our country, especially in regard to the violence being sanctioned and even promoted by Republican Presidential candidate and real estate mogul Donald Trump.

Sunday night I finished reading a book by World War II German Luftwaffe ace Johanes Steinhoff. Steinhoff was unlike many of the German officers who wrote memoirs following the war, memoirs that historian Williamson Murray wrote “fell generally into two categories; generals writing in the genre of “if the fuhrer had only listened to me!” and fighter pilots or tank busters writing about their heroics against the productive flood from America or the primitively masses of the Soviet Union.”

steinhoff6

General Johannes Steinhof (above) as a Bundeswehr and NATO officer, showing his burns and before his crash (below)

steinhoff WW II

In his books, Steinhoff does something that you do not see authors do in most military or political memoirs, he actually does serious self reflection on his role in supporting an evil regime. In his introduction to his book The Final Hours the legendary fighter ace who was horribly disfigured when his Me-262 jet fighter crashed and burned two weeks prior to the end of the war wrote:

“In recalling these events, which had been long buried in my memory, it has not been my intention to make excuses. Our unconditional self-sacrifice in the service of the Third Reich is too well documented for that….

So it is because of what is happening today—with freedom threatened in virtually every respect by its own abuse—that I offer this contribution, in the form of an episode in which I was myself involved, to the history of the soldier in the twentieth century. Soldiers have always, in every century of their existence, been victims of the ruthless misuse of power; indeed, given the opportunity, they have joined in the power game themselves. But it fell to our own century to accomplish, with the aid of a whole technology of mass extermination, the most atrocious massacres in the history of mankind. This fact alone makes pacifism a philosophy worthy of respect, and I have a great deal of sympathy with those who profess it. 

The figure of the soldier in all his manifestations is thus symptomatic of the century now nearing its close, and it is to the history of that figure that I wish to contribute by describing what happened to me. I have tried to show what it is possible to do to men, how insidiously they can be manipulated by education, how they can be hoisted onto a pedestal as “heroes,” how they can be so corrupted as even to enjoy the experience—and how they can be dropped and denounced as mutineers when they discover that they have scruples. The complete lack of scruples that such treatment implies is peculiar to rulers who believe that the problems of their own and other peoples can be solved by imposing, through the use of military force, peace on their, the rulers’, terms—in our case a pax germanica, but the second Latin word is readily interchangeable.” from “The Final Hours: The Luftwaffe Plot Against Goring (Aviation Classics)” by Johannes Steinhoff

Since I am a historian and and a career military officer with service in the Iraq War, a war that was illegal and unjust by all measure I can understand Steinhof’s words. Because much of my undergraduate and graduate work focused on German history, particularly that of Imperial Germany after the unification, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi Reich, I draw a lot of lessons from the period. I also understand how people in this country can fall for the same kind of vitriolic propaganda that the Germans of that era did. I can understand because for years I fell for the lies and propaganda being put out by the politicians, pundits and preachers of the American political right.

10665323_10154041610267059_5277331492232210946_n

A picture of me (on left) in Iraq 2007 with my assistant and bodyguard RP1 Nelson Lebron

One of those lessons is that in times of crisis, that people, no matter what their race, culture, religious belief system, educational, or economic background are still human. Humanity is the one constant in all of history, our prejudices are often ingrained in us during childhood and reinforced by the words of politicians, pundits, and preachers. In times of stress, crisis, and societal change or upheaval even good people, moral people, people of great intellectual, scientific abilities can fall prey to demagogues who preach hate and blame others, usually racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, as well as civil libertarians who champion the rights of those minorities for the problems of the nation.

Shrewd politicians, preachers, and pundits do this well. They demonize the target group or population and then let the hatred of their disaffected followers flow. The leaders need that disaffected and angry base in order to rise to power; such was how Hitler, Stalin, and so many other despots gained power. They took advantage of a climate of fear, and found others to blame. For Hitler it was the Jews, Slavs, Socialists and Communists; while for Stalin it was various groups like the Ukrainians, or the Poles who were the devil to be feared and destroyed. Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin wrote:

“Dead human beings provided retrospective arguments for the rectitude of policy. Hitler and Stalin thus shared a certain politics of tyranny: they brought about catastrophes, blamed the enemy of their choice, and then used the death of millions to make the case that their policies were necessary or desirable. Each of them had a transformative utopia, a group to be blamed when its realization proved impossible, and then a policy of mass murder that could be proclaimed as a kind of ersatz victory.”

But that being said, there are a lot of people who from childhood believe the lies about others without question. In good times such people continue on with life as normal, but in crisis those hatreds and prejudices come to the fore. Rudolf Höss, the notorious sociopath who commanded Auschwitz told American Army psychologist Gustave Gilbert about his reaction when ordered to turn the camp into an extermination center. He said that the order “fitted in with all that had been preached to me for years,” and “at the same time I didn’t think of it as propaganda, but as something one just had to believe.” 

Eugene Davidson in his book on the Nuremberg Trials wrote:

“Every society has in it at all times negative, criminal, sadistic, asocial forces. What holds them in check more than law and police is the consensus of the society – a general belief that despite everything wrong and stupid and muddleheaded in politics, the state is a going concern that will somehow make its way into the future.” (Davidson, The Trial of the Germans p.581)

But when things do not go well, when people do not feel that things will be okay, that the future will be better, and that they have a purpose they look for answers. However, they tend to find their answers in the rantings of demagogues, race baiters, conspiracy theorists, and others who they would tend to dismiss out of hand in good times. In Germany it was the loss of the First World War, the humiliation of Versailles and the economic chaos and social change of the Weimar period which allowed Hitler to gain an audience, then a following, then political power. The demagogues played to what was already in the hearts and minds of the disaffected masses, without that fertile soil, the rantings of Hitler and his propagandists would have never succeeded. Albert Speer wrote:

“As I see it today, Hitler and Goebbels were in fact molded by the mob itself, guided by its yearnings and its daydreams. Of course, Goebbels and Hitler knew how to penetrate through to the instincts of their audiences; but in the deeper sense they derived their whole existence from these audiences. Certainly the masses roared to the beat set by Hitler’s and Goebbels’ baton; yet they were not the true conductors. The mob determined the theme. To compensate for misery, insecurity, unemployment, and hopelessness, this anonymous assemblage wallowed for hours at a time in obsessions, savagery and license. The personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims. By lashing out at their opponents and vilifying the Jews, they gave expression and direction to fierce primal passions.”

In a sense a similar thing has happened in the United States which has experienced a series of wars beginning with Vietnam, the shock of the 9-11-2001 attacks, the economic crash of 2007 and 2008 which devastated the savings, home ownership, and investments of many Americans while at the same time benefiting the banking and brokerage houses whose government assisted policies brought about the crash. Of course there are other issues, many religious conservatives hate the progress made by the Women’s and Gay Rights movements, and their leaders play to their fears in apocalyptic terms. I could go on, but I am sure that my readers can identify other issues which demagogues and others use to spread fear and hate to further their goals. The fact is that without the the fertile soil that lays in the hearts of their most fervent followers they would never have a following.

In Weimar Germany hate mongers like Julius Streicher and propagandist Josef Goebbels stuck a chord with disenchanted people who felt that they had lost their country. They were fearful, angry, and desired a leader who would “make Germany great again.” Hitler and his Nazi media sycophants played to that fear, and took advantage of their anger at the existing order. Davidson wrote such people “exist everywhere and in a sick society they can flourish.” 

For decades the way has been prepared for true extremists to take advantage of the fears and doubts of people as modern American versions of Streicher and Goebbels have been at work for years. Rush Limbaugh was a modern pioneer of this in the United States, and he has been joined by so many who are even more extreme in their rantings that it is hard to name them all. Likewise, whole media corporations, websites, and political networks spread such fear every minute of the day, claiming that they, and they alone are real Americans. They actively support politicians who condemn, and sometimes even threaten people who oppose them, and all the while claim that “make America great again.”

When I was younger I devoured that propaganda, despite all of my learning I followed the rantings of men who I realize today are propagandists who promote the basest of lies, and hatred, often in the name of God. I was changed when I was at war, and when I returned home from Iraq in 2008 I realized through hard experience that I had been lied to, and that as a result that thousands of my brothers and sisters were dead, and tens of thousands shattered in body, mind, and spirit. Likewise I saw the massive destruction levied on Iraq and realized how terrible war really is. That was my epiphany, that is what it took to see how much I had been lied to, and it called me to question everything else that I had so willingly believed, things which had been fed to me by years of indoctrination in church, through the media, and by politicians who I believed were truly Christian. I can understand now how Martin Niemoller felt after the Nazi seizure of power when he said, “I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.”

There was a time that I hated people who espouse the views that I hold today, the views that I write about so often here on this site. I can remember how angry I would get as I listened to the propaganda being put out by Limbaugh, Hannity, the Fox News Channel and all of the others that I listened to every time that I had the chance. But when I changed after Iraq, I felt the sting of that hatred in very real ways. I remember the day I was called by my bishop in my former church, who told me that I had to leave because my views on women, gays, and Moslems were to use his words were now “too liberal.” After that, many men who I considered to be the best of friends turned their backs on me, some in the most bitter and vindictive of ways.

But I realize now that what they did was because I had in a sense left the cult, and had to be ostracized. I can understand that now, because when I was under the spell I too turned my back on people who had fallen out of favor, or people who had rejected the tenants of the church or the political movement, and those are things that I can never undo. But at the time it made sense, it fitted in with all I had been taught for decades, as Albert Speer wrote of Hitler, “One seldom recognizes the devil when he is putting his hand on your shoulder.”

What happened to Steinhoff’s generation is threatening to happen again, in our country, an authoritarian movement is threatening to destroy our democracy and republic. In it soldiers are esteemed, until they realize what is going on and speak out, but by then it is usually too late. I am understanding that fact more and more every day, and having had people troll this blog and call me a traitor and worse, I understand just a bit of what happened to Steinhoff and his fellow officers when they protested to the highest levels what was happening to Germany in early 1945.

Tomorrow we will know more about our nation’s slide into the abyss if authoritarianism as Donald Trump continues his unrelenting march to the GOP nomination. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, holocaust, Military, News and current events, Political Commentary

Brilliant Soldiers & Evil Causes: Hans-Ulrich Rudel

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have been writing about the need to be as transparent and honest about history as possible. I have resorted to calling that un-sanitized history. I will be coming back to that in relation to the American Civil War in the not too distant future but tonight I am going to delve into a different era, an era where the acts of valiant and courageous military men are separated from the cases that they fought for and sometimes believed in.

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Colonel Hans-Ulrich Rudel was undoubtedly the greatest ground attack pilot that ever lived. His record is unsurpassed by any combat pilot flying ground attack missions. According to official Luftwaffe records he flew 2350 combat missions beginning in June 1941 and  May 8th 1945.

Rudel was born in Rosenheim Bavaria in 1916. As a young man he joined the Luftwaffe as an officer cadet not long after Hitler took power in Germany. Like many young men and women of his era Rudel was an ardent Nazi. Despite that and his unrepentant admiration for Adolf Hitler and Hitler’s ideology, his combat achievements are unmatched by any ground attack pilot before or since. That ids one of the things that makes him, and others like him so difficult to evaluate for any honest historian.

Rudel’s early career as an aviator was inauspicious. He was not regarded well as a pilot and spent the Polish campaign as an observer.  He did not take part in a combat role during the campaign in the west, the Battle of Britain or Crete between May of 1940 and May of 1941. He was assigned to Sturzkampfgeschwader 2 (StG 2) “Immelmann” at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union.  He finally saw combat in June 1941 in the Soviet Union and thereafter was almost always in combat.

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Flying various models of the Ju-87 Stuka Rudel was one of two pilots credited with sinking the Soviet Battleship Marat at Kronstadt harbor near Leningrad (Petersburg) on September 23rd 1941. During the war he was never shot down by an opposing aircraft but was shot down by anti-aircraft artillery or forced to land 32 times. He destroyed over 2000 targets including 519 tanks, hundreds of other vehicles and artillery pieces, he previously mentioned Battleship Marat, several other ships, 70 anding craft, bridges, armored trains and 9 aircraft in air to air combat. His accomplishments during the latter part of the war are remarkable because of the Soviet dominance of the airspace on the Eastern Front. Losses among ground attack pilots flying the obsolete Stukas were high and the fact that he flew multiple missions on a daily basis for several years is a record unsurpassed in modern warfare.

Hans Ulrich Rudel was the most highly decorated officer in the Luftwaffe, holding the highest decoration awarded to anyone other than Herman Goering. Among the holders of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds,Rudel was the only one awarded the Gold Oak Leaves.

Rudel was critically wounded by the explosion of a 40mm anti-aircraft shell during a mission on February 8th 1945 and his life was saved by the quick action of his observer. His right leg was amputated below the knee and despite the severity and painfulness of his wound he returned to combat against the advancing Soviets on March 25th 1945. His war ended on May 8th 1945 when he led the remnants of his squadron to surrender to the Americans at an occupied airfield in Kitzingen Germany.

He spent 10 months in American captivity after his surrender and after his release moved to Argentina where he became a friend of the Argentinean dictator Juan Peron. He returned to Germany in the 1950s and became active in right wing nationalist politics. While he was a successful businessman his still openly National Socialist political views kept him marginalized in the newly established West German Bundeswehr.

However, with the threat of a Soviet armored assault across the German plain during the Cold War Rudel was tapped to assist the U.S. Air Force in the development of the A-10 Thunderbolt ground attack aircraft. Despite its ungainly appearance the A-10, known by its nickname “Warthog” has proven to be one of the most successful combat aircraft produced by the United States. His writings on tactics were required reading for pilots involved with the aircraft’s development by the A-10’s lead designer Pierre Sprey.

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Rudel was a remarkable pilot and combat flyer. His valor and combat accomplishments are unquestioned but his undying attachment to Nazi ideology following the war caused a scandal that claimed the careers of two Bundeswehr Luftwaffe Generals including World War Two fighter ace Walter Krupinski (197 kills). He died in 1982 still admired by British and American combat pilots including the legendary British ace Douglas Bader. However, many of those men did not know Rudel’s political activities or associations during or after the war. As a Luftwaffe pilot Rudel did not engage in the atrocities committed by the SS or Wehrmacht, nor was he ever tried as a war criminal.

In retrospect it is important to understand that Rudel’s political views were shaped by the times in which he lived and the radicalism that swept Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. Likewise it is also important to note that unlike many other officers who grew up during the same period, including fellow Luftwaffe aces Johannes Steinhoff and Adolf Galland, Rudel never recanted his Nazi views.  In the early 1950s he published a tract that condemned German officers who did not wholeheartedly support Adolf Hitler during the war. He also recommended attacking the Soviet Union in the 1950s in order to reacquire Lebensraum, the very doctrine which drove the Nazi invasion of Poland, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during the war.

I think it is important to be able to recognize military accomplishments but also to recognize that even valiant soldiers can serve evil governments. Even worse, some of them give their unrequited support to the evil ideology of those regimes. Thus Rudel is not alone. He stands with other Nazi, Communist, Fascist and others soldiers of totalitarianism whose valor and deeds are tainted by evil and the crimes of the regimes that they supported.

Rudel’s mixed legacy, like many from the Nazi era as well as from other nations should serve as a reminder to any soldier, sailor or airman, including Americans. That warning; to always be careful to ensure that honest patriotism does not become corrupted by the ideology of those that appeal to fear, hate and revenge as the source of their power is just as relevant now as it was when the young Hans Ulrich Rudel joined the Luftwaffe and enlisted in the cause of Adolf Hitler.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under aircraft, History, leadership, Military, nazi germany, world war two in europe

Living in the National Security State

Patriot-Act-HR-3162

Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges, in time of war the law stands silent…

James Madison wrote that “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.”

After September 11th 2001 the National Security State went into overdrive with the passage of the so called Patriot Act. That act opened the floodgates for an ever expanding national security state.

I have a lot of apprehension when I read the reports about the activities of the National Security Agency, other intelligence and police agencies at all levels of government and the pervasive erosion of civil rights.  The national security state and the seeming all pervasive security and surveillance apparatus which demolishes any sense of privacy, especially the protections enunciated in the Fourth Amendment and to some extent the First Amendment. Of course the use of similar methods by the private sector, often in conduction with government agencies is another concern, but that needs to wait for another day.

I also understand from history and empirical evidence that many others, many from unfriendly countries do not share those apprehensions. Many of these competitors are willing to use whatever openness that we have as a society against us, using similar technology and methods used by our intelligence, police, governmental and private sector. It makes for an ethical, legal and even constitutional conundrum. I know that I am not comfortable with this, and perhaps maybe none of us should be.

It is very easy on one hand in light of history, our Constitution and democratic process to condemn the NSA, the FISA courts and other lawfully constituted agencies and those that drafted the laws over the decades that allow the activities which they now conduct. The same can be said of foreign intelligence agencies which all engage in similar activities including the British GCHQ, the German Bundesnachrichtendienst and so many others including the Chinese and Russians.

Likewise it is equally easy in light of history, current events and national security concerns for people to jump to the other side of the fence and not only defend the activities of the NSA and agencies like it, and to demonize those that protest or expose such activities.

When I see the talking heads on cable news shows defending or condemning such activities and not agonizing over the complexity and issues involved I get worried. Because there are legitimate concerns voiced by critics as well as defenders. But since we live in an era of soundbites, gotcha and half-truths being portrayed as all truth I find it helpful to use either historical examples, literature or fiction, and even science fiction to wrestle with the fundamental truths. So I find looking at such issues through the prism of Star Trek sometimes more interesting and provocative than simply doing the whole moralizing pundit thing.

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There was an episode of  Star Trek Deep Space Nine that aired well before the events of 9-11-2001, and the subsequent Global War on Terror, that I find fascinating. The episode deals with a secretive agency in Starfleet operating in the gray areas between the laws and ideals of the Federation and the threats that the Federation faces. Even when the Federation is a peace, Section 31, as it is called is engaged in activities against historic or potential enemies. In a way it is somewhat like the NSA or the Defense Intelligence Agency.

At the beginning of the Deep Space Nine Episode Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges the head of Section 31, a man only known as Sloan comes back Doctor Julia Bashir to involve him in an clandestine operation. An operation to on the Romulans who at this point are a Federation ally against the Dominion.

Sloan makes his approach and Bashir, who expresses his reservations:

BASHIR: You want me to spy on an ally.

SLOAN: To evaluate an ally. And a temporary ally at that. I say that because when the war is over, the following will happen in short order. The Dominion will be forced back to the Gamma Quadrant, the Cardassian Empire will be occupied, the Klingon Empire will spend the next ten years recovering from the war and won’t pose a serious threat to anyone. That leaves two powers to vie for control of the quadrant, the Federation and the Romulans.

BASHIR: This war isn’t over and you’re already planning for the next.

SLOAN: Well put. I hope your report is equally succinct.

BASHIR: How many times do I have to tell you, Sloan? I don’t work for you.

SLOAN: You will. It’s in your nature. You are a man who loves secrets. Medical, personal, fictional. I am a man of secrets. You want to know what I know, and the only way to do that is to accept the assignment.

I find the exchange both illuminating and riveting. The fact is that in the situation we face today the arguments of both sides should make us very uncomfortable.

Whether we like it or not or not, the incredibly rapid technical and communication advances of the past couple of decades have primed us for our present conundrum of liberty and privacy or security. That technology, as wonderful as it is  has enabled a generation to grow up in a virtual world in many ways detached from the moral and ethical balances between individual rights and liberties as well responsibility to community.

All the wonderful gadgets that we employ in everyday life, make it easy for enemies and “friends” to do things that were unimaginable to people other than science fiction writers even twenty to thirty years ago. Likewise they were certainly beyond the wildest imaginations of any of the founders who drafted Constitution.

The reality is, the things that make are lives so easy are also the things that have the potential to remove the very liberties that we treasure, either by our enemies using them, or those that defend us.

The truth is, that throughout history, even our own there have been operatives within the government in charge of secrets, as well as spies. In the Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges episode we see an operation that is full of duplicity and moral ambiguity all committed in the name of security. I won’t go into the details because it is too full of twists, and turns, you can read the plot of the episode at Memory Alpha.org http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Inter_Arma_Enim_Silent_Leges_%28episode%29

There is an exchange between Dr. Bashir and Admiral Ross of Starfleet command which is very enlightening because it practically mirrors how many on both the civil liberties and the national security side of the current controversy feel about the War on Terror.

BASHIR: You don’t see anything wrong with what happened, do you.

ROSS: I don’t like it. But I’ve spent the last year and a half of my life ordering young men and young women to die. I like that even less.

BASHIR: That’s a glib answer and a cheap way to avoid the fact that you’ve trampled on the very thing that those men and women are out there dying to protect! Does that not mean anything to you?

ROSS: Inter arma enim silent leges.

BASHIR: In time of war, the law falls silent. Cicero. So is that what we have become? A twenty fourth century Rome driven by nothing more than the certainty that Caesar can do no wrong!

ROSS: This conversation never happened.

In light of the controversy of today regarding the NSA, FISA Courts, government secrecy and intelligence gathering information on its own citizens, as well as allies, friends and and enemies we face a growing tide of reporters and others seeking to reveal those secrets. Back in 1989 ethicist Sissela Bok wrote something very important in her book Secrets: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life:

“…as government secrecy expands, more public officials become privy to classified information and are faced with the choice of whether or not to leak … growing secrecy likewise causes reporters to press harder from the outside to uncover what is hidden. And then in a vicious circle, the increased revelations give government leaders further reasons to press for still more secrecy.”

As we wade through the continuing controversy surrounding these issues we will see people do exactly what Bok said. These are the exact arguments are being made by the people and officials directly involved in such activities, as well as former elected and appointed officials, and members of the press.

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The interesting thing to me is that very few of the people or agencies, past and present, Republican and Democrat involved have clean hands. It is amazing to see former champions of civil liberties defend the NSA actions and those that empowered the NSA in the Patriot Act now condemn it. I find it both fascinating and frightening.

At the end of the Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges episode the mysterious Sloan pops back in on Doctor Bashir who is in his quarters, asleep and depressed by what he experienced during the operation on Romulus and with Admiral Ross.

SLOAN: Good evening.

BASHIR: Are you expecting applause? Have you come to take a bow?

SLOAN: I just wanted to say thank you.

BASHIR: For what? Allowing you to manipulate me so completely?

SLOAN: For being a decent human being. That’s why we selected you in the first place, Doctor. We needed somebody who wanted to play the game, but who would only go so far. When the time came, you stood your ground. You did the right thing. You reached out to an enemy, you told her the truth, you tried to stop a murder. The Federation needs men like you, Doctor. Men of conscience, men of principle, men who can sleep at night. You’re also the reason Section Thirty one exists. Someone has to protect men like you from a universe that doesn’t share your sense of right and wrong.

BASHIR: Should I feel sorry for you? Should I be weeping over the burden you’re forced to carry in order to protect the rest of us?

SLOAN: It is an honor to know you, Doctor. Goodnight.

We live in this kind of world and maybe it is good to sometimes step back and look at issues using a different prism. I really don’t have the answers. I am a civil libertarian who places a high value on the openness of a government to its people. I also know that there are those that have no regard for such openness or, to quote Sloan don’t “share your sense of right and wrong.”

Maybe that is not a good answer. I really don’t know. All I know is that as uncomfortable as this all is that those on both sides of the issue have valid points and concerns. It is a debate that needs to happen if we are able to balance that a society needs to balance individual rights and responsibility to the community; openness and secrecy; civil liberties and national security.

But that being said. it is a debate that needs to happen, even if it makes us uncomfortable. I for one think that it is better that we be uncomfortable when looking at such an important debate than to be prisoners of our certitude.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, laws and legislation, national security, Political Commentary, star trek