"Bureaucratic Homicide" And American Power

by Swans

A brief statement including excerpts by Richard Barnet, with credit to a Chicago friend who wrote it.


February 3, 2003


Looking back at Richard Barnet's very fine, late-Vietnam-war era book, Roots of War: The Men and Institutions Behind U.S. Foreign Policy, (1) Chapter One was titled, appropriately enough, "Bureaucratic Homicide and Imperial Expansion;" and Chapter Twelve, "A Generation of Peace?"

That is a big question mark indeed. For if anything, Barnet's analysis is even more relevant today than it was 31 years ago, when he first published Roots of War. Nor is the reason for this very hard to understand: The objects of his analysis, the "men and institutions behind" American Power, are more firmly rooted -- more ubiquitous, more global -- in this new century than ever before.

"Thinkers with as different a view of the world as Sigmund Freud and Mikhail Bakunin (2) have been struck by the fact that the role of the state is to assert a monopoly on crime," Barnet opened, invoking some strong critical traditions. "Individuals get medals, promotions, and honors by committing the same acts for the state for which they would be hanged or imprisoned in any other circumstance."

"The essential characteristic of bureaucratic homicide," Barnet continued, "is division of labor. In general, those who plan do not kill and those who kill do not plan. The scene is familiar. Men in blue, green, and khaki tunics, and others in three-button business suits sit in pastel offices and plan complex operations in which thousands of distant human beings will die. The men who planned the saturation bombings, free-fire zones, defoliation, crop destruction, and assassination programs in the Vietnam War never personally killed anyone."

Reviewing the human-social-institutional dynamic of what Hannah Arendt famously (and notoriously, too -- though not in my eyes) called the banality of evil, (3) Barnet wrote: "Bureaucracy by nature finds it easy to accept an assigned homicidal role. On January 20, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the SS, called a meeting of fifteen high-ranking representatives of various ministries to the lovely Berlin suburb of Wannsee 'to clear up the fundamental problems' of getting rid of all the Jews of Europe. Plans were carefully and coolly discussed and implemented. Although there was serious discussion of the transportation problems connected with the 'final solution', no on questioned the project. Adolph Eichmann was a dispassionate long-range killer who, according to testimony at his trial, hated to visit the camps. His pleasure was in designing virtuoso solutions to complicated logistical problems. The psychiatrist who visited him in an Israeli jail reported that his tests revealed an 'insatiable killing intention', but his record suggests that he would do any job of disposal well. The bureaucratic killer looks at an assigned homicidal task as a technical operation, much like any other. He does not question its moral purpose. Indeed, he is not even interested in such questions."

Barnet also quoted the 19th Century Italian political figure, Camillo Benso di Cavour: "If we did for ourselves what we did for our country, what rascals we should all be."

Perhaps the time has come for a few more of us to stop acting "for our country" (whichever country one cares to name), and start acting FOR HUMANITY! For a change.

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1  Richard J. Barnet, "Roots of War: The Men and Institutions Behind U.S. Foreign Policy," New York: Athenaeum, 1972. Barnet worked at the Department of State under the Kennedy Administration, co-founded in 1963 The Institute for Policy Studies ("An institute for the rest of us." I.F. Stone) and is the author of 14 books and hundreds of articles on security, war, global corporations and children.  (back)

2  See, e.g., Mikhail Bakunin, "God and the State" (1871): http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/bakunin/works/godstate/index.htm#intro.  (back)

3  "[W]hen I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial. Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth. Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing. It was precisely this lack of imagination which enabled him to sit for months on end facing a German Jew who was conducting the police interrogation, pouring out his heart to the man and explaining again and again how it was that he reached only the rank of lieutenant colonel in the S.S. and that it had not been his fault that he was not promoted. In principle he knew quite well what it was all about, and in his final statement to the court he spoke of the 'revaluation of values prescribed by the [Nazi] government'. He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness -- something by no means identical with stupidity -- that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is 'banal' and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace. That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man -- that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem. But it was a lesson, neither an explanation of the phenomenon nor a theory about it."
(Hannah Arendt, "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil," Penguin Books, 1977, pp. 287-288.)  (back)


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Published February 3, 2003
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