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Character flaws and circumstances in America's deadly warriors-in-chief

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Military interventions were launched throughout a sizeable part of the world over 300 times by 43 of our 44 presidents. President Benjamin Harrison didn't have time or strength to flex his muscles, dying from an illness after being in office only 32 days. The death toll of Americans alone from all those interventions amounts to over two million. Between six and seven million civilians died from U.S military intervention in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. A former CIA agent has estimated that six million people have died from covert CIA operations alone. [2]

 

Why do U.S. presidents make those choices?

To understand why anyone, presidents included, do what they do requires acknowledging their gender and knowing their character and their circumstances. As an organizational psychologist turned political psychologist in retirement I am going to tell you what I have concluded from decades of studying leadership. It's been leadership outside the Oval Office, but I think what I have learned can be generalized to it. What influences CEOs and presidents alike is more similar than different.

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Gender

 

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Need more be said? In the corporate world males sit atop the glass ceiling. Atop the political world is always a male warrior-in-chief. Wars throughout history have been started and fought by males with very few exceptions (Cleopatra and Margaret Thatcher, for example). America has always been a male dominated and aggressive society. While testosterone may play a tiny role in a president's aggression, it is to other personal characteristics and their circumstances we must look for primary explanations.

 

Character flaws

 

Several character flaws predispose leaders to abuse their power in harmful ways whenever they are in tempting or pressuring circumstances of their own or others' making. Four flaws in particular would seem to apply perfectly to our presidential warriors; greed/ambition, moral frailty, narcissism, and close-mindedness.

 

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1. Greed/Ambition. Greed is when enough is never enough, wanting more becomes a craving, getting more later isn't soon enough, and thus motivates the abuse of power. In the corner offices of the corporate sphere, the profit motive and greed go hand in hand. In the political sphere greed becomes excessive ambition and in the Oval Office motivates an imperialistic drive. It has been a hallmark of all U.S. presidents.

 

2. Moral frailty. This characteristic is the sine qua non of people for whom the ends justify the means. The late psychologist Lawrence Kolhberg's theory about levels of moral development and how by adulthood the person's moral development would come to rest at one or the other of the levels is instructive here.[3] I've condensed his six levels into three; unconditional ("wrongdoing is wrong"), conditional ("it depends"), and unprincipled ("do whatever is necessary") morality. People at these last two levels always rationalize their bad actions as good ones Most of our presidents rested at the third level. Historian John Dower refers to them as "moral imbeciles' for "grossly misunderstanding or simply ignoring their enemies, their own impulses, and history itself."[4]

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Retired organizational psychologist.

Author of The Devil's Marriage: Break Up the Corpocracy or Leave Democracy in the Lurch; America's Oldest Professions: Warring and Spying; and Corporate Reckoning Ahead.

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