This will be the second time today that I like to Jim's post, Stark Weather, and I do so because you've got to read the comments. Megan McArdle linked it, and some folks dashed over to aver that it really was horrible to suggest that a president might get some martial pleasure out of kids getting blown up in a war. Historically, of course, the world's most powerful men have quite enjoyed wars, which fill them with a sense of something or other. But the outrage, the utter conviction that not only does this president not take pleasure from war and death, but that it is categorically impossible for this to be the case--that a president simply cannot, could not, would not, has not, shall not indulge a lust for blood--is, comment dit-on, evidence that more than a few lights need more than a few higher-wattage bulbs. Over to you, Gore Vidal:
The unifying Leitmotiv in these lives [the lives of the twelve Caesars as told by Suetonias] is Alexander the Great. The Caesars were fascinated by him. He was their touchstone of greatness. The young Julius Caesar sighed enviously at his tomb. Augustus had the tomb opened and stared long at the conqueror's face. Caligula stole the breastplate from the corpse and wore it. Nero called his guard the 'Phalanx of Alexander the Great.' And the significance of this fascination? Power for the sake of power. Conquest for the sake of conquest. Earthly dominion as an end in itself: no Utopian vision, no dissembling, no hypocrisy. I knock you down; now I am king of the castle. Why should young Julius Caesar be envious of Alexander? It does not occur to Suetonius to explain. He assumes that any young man would like to conquer the world. And why did Julius Caesar, a man of the first-rate mind, want the world? Simply, to have it. Even the resulting Pax Romana was not a calculated policy but a fortunate accident. Caesar and Augustus, the makers of the Principate, represent the naked will to power for its own sake. And though our own society has much changed from the Roman (we may point with somber pride to Hitler and Stalin, who lent a real Neronian hell to our days), we have, nevertheless, got so into the habit of dissembling motives, of denying certain dark constants of human behavior, that it is difficult to find a reputable American historian who will acknowledge the crude fact that a Franklin Roosevelt, say, wanted to be President merely to wield power, to be famed and to be feared. To learn this simple fact one must wade through a sea of evasions: history as sociology, leaders as teachers, bland benevolence as a motive force, when, finally, power is an end to itself, and the instinctive urge to prevail the most important single human trait, the necessary force without which no city was built, no city destroyed.The emphasis is mine.
This is a point I made recently:
The myth of altruistic intent is irrepressible but false. The President of the United States is the most powerful man in the world. The Office of the Presidency is the single most powerful human institution in the entire history of mankind. Fuck the "Iraqi Quagmire" and the limits of American power. No king, no emperor, no potentate, no general, no premier, no commissar, no pope, and no messiah during his lifetime has ever wielded more power over more people over a wider geography than the President of the United States. To pursue that office is to pursue that power. That is true of Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Giuliani, Romney, Thompson, and the rest of that passel of madmen and lunatics.In the immortal words of Walter Sobchak: Are we gonna split hairs here?
Are there really people so naive as to believe, then, that it is quite impossible for the nearest thing the world has to a ruler to enjoy a few fractured bodies? Sure. They're commenting on Jim's blog even as we speak. What's the source of the disconnect?
The source is plain and twofold. Both are matters of perspective. First: people read their own private morals and ethics onto rulers unconstrained by morality. Morality and ethical behavior are at their roots nothing more complicated than getting-along. What are they but mutually-agreed, if vague constraints on our actions for the broad purpose of accomodating others? And why, pray tell, should that concern Caesar? Power corrupts--that's a bland nostrum hiding a more interesting truth. Why does power corrupt? Because it removes others from consideration. To whom does the President answer for his actions? History? God? Here, friends, I have a fine piece of swampland to sell you.
The second error is the belief that enjoying cruelty means that, given the opportunity, the President would plunge the knife into some 18-year-old private's ear himself, and laugh as the brains leaked out. The President isn't quite that mad--I don't believe so anyway. I suspect that he would be horrified at the sight of a mangled body. Yet the exercise of power with the inevitable end of producing precisely such bodies is his stock in trade. It is, by his own constant admission, the central purpose of his presidency: to fight a vast, neverending, expanding conflict, whose end result has been hundreds of thousands of deaths. How can it be farfetched to say that he likes it a little bit? So he doesn't like to see blood in person. So what? Eichmann, remember, was desperately squeamish.