“The blind idiot god Azathoth, Lord of All Things”

“Azathoth,” by “Servant of Entropy”

Three days after the US presidential election, CIA chief David Petraeus stepped down from his post.  In his letter of resignation, General Petraeus confessed that he had carried on an adulterous liaison with a woman named Paula Broadwell.  Ms Broadwell had written a book about him.  The book was titled All In, about which title I will not make any jokes.

Many observers have speculated that there must be more to the story than this.  Surely the head of the most famous and most lavishly funded spy agency in the world could not be ousted simply because of a private indiscretion.  For example, on Counterpunch Bart Gruzalski speculated that the general may have burbled out some state secrets to Ms Broadwell, and that these state secrets may have threatened to damage the reputations of well-connected figures.

Glenn Greenwald analyzes the matter, and points to what I would consider the most chilling explanation of all.  Mr Greenwald points out that General Petraeus, as Director of Central Intelligence and in his previous posts as commander of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, would seem to have done a great deal that one might consider objectionable:

[I]t is truly remarkable what ends people’s careers in Washington – and what does not end them. As [Michael] Hastings detailed in that interview [broadcast on MSNBC’s Martin Bashir Show on 9 November], Petraeus has left a string of failures and even scandals behind him: a disastrous Iraqi training program, a worsening of the war in Afghanistan since he ran it, the attempt to convert the CIA into principally a para-military force, the series of misleading statements about the Benghazi attack and the revealed large CIA presence in Libya. To that one could add the constant killing of innocent people in the Muslim world without a whiff of due process, transparency or oversight.

Yet none of those issues provokes the slightest concern from our intrepid press corps. His career and reputation could never be damaged, let alone ended, by any of that. Instead, it takes a sex scandal – a revelation that he had carried on a perfectly legal extramarital affair – to force him from power. That is the warped world of Washington. Of all the heinous things the CIA does, the only one that seems to attract the notice or concern of our media is a banal sex scandal. Listening to media coverage, one would think an extramarital affair is the worst thing the CIA ever did, maybe even the only bad thing it ever did (Andrea Mitchell: “an agency that has many things to be proud about: many things to be proud about”).

Perhaps the real reason that General Petraeus resigned was nothing more than meets the eye.  While the directorship of Central Intelligence is a civilian post, the general retains his commission in the US Army, and under Article 134, paragraph 60 of the USA’s the Uniform Code of Military Justice it is a crime for an American soldier of any rank to commit adultery.  It may be the case that the Army prosecutes that crime only occasionally; however, if an officer of General Petraeus’ prominence were to be allowed simply to disregard a long-established and well-known provision of military law, morale in the ranks might well collapse.  So his resignation might have been unavoidable.

Mr Greenwald’s column is well worth reading; his main theme is the extent to which the Washington press corps has come to regard the US military and its senior commanders as figures above reproach.  So for example, when Mr Hastings listed the grounds quoted above for regarding General Petraeus’ recent career as something less than glorious, the ostensibly progressive Martin Bashir hustled him off the air with unseemly haste.  The overall portrait Mr Greenwald paints of the Washington press corps reminds me of C. Wright Mills’ concept of “crackpot realism.”  As Mills explained it on pages 86 through 88 in his 1958 book The Causes of World War Three (as quoted here):

In crackpot realism, a high-flying moral rhetoric is joined with an opportunist crawling among a great scatter of unfocused fears and demands. In fact, the main content of “politics” is now a struggle among men equally expert in practical next steps—which, in summary, make up the thrust toward war—and in great, round, hortatory principles. (p. 86)

. . . The expectation of war solves many problems of the crackpot realists; it also confronts them with many new problems. Yet these, the problems of war, often seem easier to handle. They are out in the open: to produce more, to plan how to kill more of the enemy, to move materials thousands of miles. . . . So instead of the unknown fear, the anxiety without end, some men of the higher circles prefer the simplification of known catastrophe. (p. 87)

. . . They know of no solutions to the paradoxes of the Middle East and Europe, the Far East and Africa except the landing of Marines. Being baffled, and also being very tired of being baffled, they have come to believe that there is no way out—except war—which would remove all the bewildering paradoxes of their tedious and now misguided attempts to construct peace. In place of these paradoxes they prefer the bright, clear problems of war—as they used to be. For they still believe that “winning” means something, although they never tell us what. (p. 88)

. . . Some men want war for sordid, others for idealistic, reasons; some for personal gain, others for impersonal principle. But most of those who consciously want war and accept it, and so help to create its “inevitability,” want it in order to shift the locus of their problems. (p. 88)

The crackpot realist regards his or her warlike worldview as the only one worth taking seriously for a most understandable reason.  S/he is surrounded by highly competent, impressive people who command great resources and occupy lofty positions within the social order.  The sheer fact that these individuals want a thing makes that thing seem reasonable.  That they constitute an isolated group with interests that are far removed from those of society at large does not seem credible when one is in their presence.  Yet the more impressive such a group is, the more of their wishes it is likely to persuade the public and policymakers to grant.  A group that is as impressive as America’s generals and admirals undoubtedly are will be very likely to press its agenda far beyond what the national interest demands.  Mr Greenwald quotes John Parker’s remarks on this phenomenon:

The career trend of too many Pentagon journalists typically arrives at the same vanishing point: Over time they are co-opted by a combination of awe – interacting so closely with the most powerfully romanticized force of violence in the history of humanity – and the admirable and seductive allure of the sharp, amazingly focused demeanor of highly trained military minds. Top military officers have their s*** together and it’s personally humbling for reporters who’ve never served to witness that kind of impeccable competence. These unspoken factors, not to mention the inner pull of reporters’ innate patriotism, have lured otherwise smart journalists to abandon – justifiably in their minds – their professional obligation to treat all sources equally and skeptically. . . .

Pentagon journalists and informed members of the public would benefit from watching ‘The Selling of the Pentagon’, a 1971 documentary. It details how, in the height of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon sophisticatedly used taxpayer money against taxpayers in an effort to sway their opinions toward the Pentagon’s desires for unlimited war. Forty years later, the techniques of shaping public opinion via media has evolved exponentially. It has reached the point where flipping major journalists is a matter of painting in their personal numbers.

To that, Mr Greenwald adds “That is what makes this media worship of All Things Military not only creepy to behold, but downright dangerous.”

Undoubtedly it does.  But there is more to it than that.  If General Petraeus, high priest and god-king of Washington’s cult of military worship, a man exempt both from the laws that forbid extreme violence and from the rational scrutiny that analyzes the costs and benefits of public policy, can be brought low by what is in the end a conjunction of personal weakness and bureaucratic inertia, then “the sharp, amazingly focused” minds at the helm of the USA’s military establishment have not coalesced into an intelligent policymaking body.  As individuals they are eminently rational; as a group they are a mindless thing.

Warfare and spycraft are endlessly fascinating to adolescent boys; much of the military worship current in the USA is an outgrowth of the fact that many men never outgrow that fascination.  Action movies, thrillers, and war-themed video games form much of the canon of twenty-first century culture; lessons about the rule of law, the value of restraint, and the role of diplomacy find little reinforcement in this canon.  I’ve taken the title of this post from the writer of another sort of story that appeals chiefly to adolescent boys.  H. P. Lovecraft wrote horror stories, eventually uniting them with an elaborate, and to me frankly rather boring, system of mythology.  Still, his description of one figure in that mythology haunts me, and seems perfectly apt as a description of the National Security State and its worshipers:

Before his eyes a kaleidoscopic range of phantasmal images played, all of them dissolving at intervals into the picture of a vast, unplumbed abyss of night wherein whirled suns and worlds of an even profounder blackness. He thought of the ancient legends of Ultimate Chaos, at whose centre sprawls the blind idiot god Azathoth, Lord of All Things, encircled by his flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers, and lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a daemoniac flute held in nameless paws.

(from “The Haunter of the Dark,” 1935)

A “flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers… lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a daemoniac flute held in nameless paws.”  That fits the Washington press corps perfectly.  Perhaps I’ll call them that from now on.  Or perhaps I’ll shorten it to “the flopping horde.”

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