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Leithner Letter Nos. 81-83
26 September - 26 November 2006

We Americans have the dangerous tendency in our international thinking to take a holier-than-thou attitude towards other nations. We consider ourselves to be more noble and decent than other peoples, and consequently in a better position to decide what is right and wrong in the world. What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought, anyway? We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers. We topped off our saturation bombing and burning of enemy civilians by dropping atomic bombs on two nearly defenceless cities, thereby setting an all-time record for instantaneous mass slaughter.

As victors we are privileged to try our defeated opponents for their crimes against humanity; but we should be realistic enough to appreciate that if we were on trial for breaking international laws, we should be found guilty on a dozen counts. We fought a dishonourable war, because morality had a low priority in battle. The tougher the fighting, the less room for decency, and in Pacific contests we saw mankind reach the blackest depths of bestiality.

Not every American soldier, or even one per cent of our troops, deliberately committed unwarranted atrocities, and the same might be said for the Germans and Japanese. But we publicised every inhuman act of our opponents and censored any recognition of our own moral frailty in moments of desperation.

It is not my intention either to excuse our late opponents or to discredit our own fighting men. I do, however, believe that all of us, not just the battle-enlightened GIs, should fully understand the horror and degradation of war before talking so casually of another one. War does horrible things to men, our own sons included. It demands the worst of a person and pays off in brutality and maladjustment. It has become so mechanical, inhuman, and crassly destructive that men lose all sense of personal responsibility for their actions. They fight without compassion, because that is the only way to fight a total war. ...

Peter Bowman summed up our victory to date in Beach Red when he wrote, “Battle doesn’t determine who is right. Only who is left.” We destroyed fascists, not fascism; men, not ideas. Our triumphs did not serve as evidence that democracy is best for the world, any more than Russian victories proved that communism is an ideal system for all mankind. ... Today we stand on trial – we are either for peace or for war, and the rest of the world is prepared to move with us or against us. The burden of proof is on us; and our willingness to make peace, not our capacity to wage war, is the true measure of our good-neighbourliness.

Edgar L. Jones
“One War Is Enough”
( The Atlantic Monthly, February 1946)

Virtuous Leaders or War Criminals?

Charles Munger is so deeply sceptical about the human condition, wrote Roger Lowenstein in Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1996), that Warren Buffett has called him “the abominable no-man.” A tenet of Munger’s approach to investing – and to life in general – is constantly to ask what can and likely will go awry. “Invert, always invert,” said the mathematician Carl Jacobi, and for decades Munger has faithfully applied this maxim. Invited to address high school graduands, he did not laud the habits and qualities that would promote health, wealth and wisdom; instead, he denigrated those that would ensure emotional penury and material misery. In effect, he counselled his young audience “If you don’t do the things I’m going to talk about, then chances are you’ll be just fine.” More whimsically, he once wondered aloud where he would die “so that I never go there.”

Clearly, to “invert, always invert” is to mitigate the downside and let the upside take care of itself. It is also to see things from another person’s point of view; and a particularly illuminating way is to consider a contentious situation from the perspective of an opponent or adversary. If we can avoid harming others (or offer amends to those whom we inadvertently harm), then we lessen their incentive to hurt us; and if we can make habits of civility and neighbourliness, we will likely reduce some of the misfortune that life routinely tosses into our paths. Resentment and hatred seem to flourish longest and deepest among people who have lost (or never possessed) the capacity to empathise with the people whom they have harmed, and also among the people who have retained the capacity to remember the harm they have suffered. How to avoid injuring others? We become more inclined to treat other people as we would want them to treat us, and thereby to increase the chances that we enjoy their goodwill, when we try to see their situation, predicament or grievance through their spectacles. Accordingly, a good way to avoid unintended consequences, mitigate what might go awry and return to haunt us is to walk in others’ shoes.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, seemed to be thinking along these lines when he said “If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. ... We come from Israel, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler and Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?” (for details, see John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy).

Alas, Ben-Gurion did not seem to be “inverting” when he said “We must use terror, assassination, intimidation, land confiscation and the cutting of all social services to rid the Galilee of its Arab population.” Even more regrettably, this apparent lack of compassion for people other than his own also spread further abroad. In 1948, the year the State of Israel was founded, he declared “We should prepare to go over to the offensive. Our aim is to smash Lebanon, Trans-Jordan, and Syria. The weak point is Lebanon, for the Moslem regime is artificial and easy for us to undermine. We shall establish a Christian state there, and then we will smash the Arab Legion, eliminate Trans-Jordan; Syria will fall to us. We then bomb and move on and take Port Said, Alexandria and Sinai” (see Michel Bar-Zohar, The Armed Prophet: A Biography of Ben-Gurion, Barker, 1967).

Viewing things from an unaccustomed, unconventional or unpopular angle often helps to understand them more thoroughly, appreciate their worth and acknowledge their flaws, and thereby promotes humility and inoculates against narrow-mindedness and intransigence. “Inversion” does not necessarily corrode one’s principles; still less does it inevitably overturn them. Yet once in a great while, it triggers a fundamental alteration of outlook. But because it is so emotionally difficult – indeed, because something akin to the Stockholm Syndrome usually prevails – people go to extraordinary lengths to avoid painful reappraisals of their rulers and their basic policies. Perhaps that is why so few Australians, for example, think seriously about how their rulers’ policies affect people in other countries. After all, these lands are usually distant and unfamiliar; there are only so many hours in the day to inform oneself about them; and other matters, from mortgage rates to petrol prices, seem to be more pressing. Accordingly, are not such specialised matters best left to the anointed experts in Canberra, the universities, think tanks and editorial pages? And in the final analysis, surely the motives of Australian politicians and their Anglo-American masters are unimpeachable?

But shortages of time and energy do not provide very satisfactory explanations of this general abandonment of the classical liberal virtue of vigilance. It is clear to anybody who opens his eyes that the policies of the political class in Canberra, Ottawa, Westminster, etc., create messes and disasters at home: so why on earth should they foment anything other than chaos and misery abroad? Alas, few of the ruled ask this question. Instead, many avert their eyes and blindly accept what their rulers tell them about foreigners and far-off parts of the world. Why? Perhaps because if they saw things from the point of view of people at the receiving end of Western governments’ foreign policies, an awful truth would stare them in the face: during and since the Second World War, some celebrated Western “leaders,” particularly American and British, have, by the standards employed at Nuremburg, qualified as war criminals.

To read the entire Newsletter (PDF), click here.

Chris Leithner


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