Sunday, August 14, 2011

With Few Exceptions, Most Great Men are Bad Men

     (Most of the following article is excerpted from volume one of a three-volume history I’m writing. The name of the book is And West is West: De-mythologizing the Boxer Rebellion and the China Relief Expedition. This article contains additional material to suit the purpose of the article.)

     With few exceptions, most great men are bad men. To say so is to contradict a myth that historians perpetuate, but casual observation reveals the truth of this statement. Greatness among national leaders is usually judged by the scope and size of wars the leaders launch, the powers that leaders amass unto themselves at the expense of others, the number of human beings they slaughter or subjugate, and the size of the geographical areas they conquer.
     War is the ultimate exercise of power. It’s the ability to get large numbers of people to leave the comforts of family, home, and private pursuits and travel to distant places for the purpose of killing their fellow man, and be killed by their fellow man, to the benefit of no one but a comparative handful of people who bear none of the risks or hardships. War is the only form of homicide that leads historians to crown the perpetrators with glory or ignominy, depending on whether the perpetrator succeeds or fails in the attempt to bend others to his will. Those marked as the villains of history are the ones who fail.

Eighteenth-century China as One Example

     History delicately tells us that, in 1735, immediately after Chien Lung became emperor, his armies “suppressed,” or “put down” the Miao Rebellion. The Miao are recorded as rebels rather than patriots because they lost. The Miao were an ethnic minority who fought back against Han encroachment. The Chinese means of suppression involved destroying 1,200 forts and killing 18,000 Miaos. The causes of the revolt were left unaddressed and led to renewed fighting six decades later….
     Historians are equally fond of saying that empires “rise” and “expand,” or that they “fall.” They use these words every bit as glibly as you or I would use when speaking of a cake in the oven. The rise, expansion, and fall of empires are much messier and more serious affairs than cakes in the oven.
     …In terms that recognize the humanity of the people involved, Manchu rule was forced on unwilling subjects in East Turkistan (renamed Xingjian Province and henceforth redefined as historical and inseparable parts of China.) Dzungaria (a Mongol region), and other smaller regions also came under Han rule. The human cost for Dzungaria was the death, by war or smallpox, of 80% of the population, as well as the extinction of the Dzungars as an ethnic group.
     Chien Lung’s armies thwarted the Mongol attempt to take over Tibet. Driving the Mongols out of Tibet, Chien Lung installed the Dalai Lama as puppet ruler of Tibet.
     Nepal fell under Manchu hegemony, though not under Chinese sovereignty, and became a tributary of China. Meanwhile, at the eastern end of the Empire, China maintained control over Korea, another of China’s tributaries.
     Historians are not the only people who display the moral failing of excusing successful acts of villainy. Most of us—scholar or otherwise—overlook the human cost of great accomplishments and notice only the evidence of our eyes. Just as the Great Wall of China was constructed at the cost of thousands of Chinese workers who died building it, the Four Treasuries Project had its human cost. Chien Lung’s massive project had two major aims: to preserve great works from the past and to suppress works containing ideas that may have undermined support for his rule. The works that were not chosen for preservation were summarized, banned, or burned. Even the books chosen for preservation were subject to censorship via modifying or deleting passages. The banned or burned books included political opposition or writings about defense or frontier problems. In all, some 150,000 copies of 31,000 titles were burned or banned.
     More current writings deemed objectionable resulted in the writers themselves being modified or deleted. In 53 cases, the least unfortunate writers were the ones who were executed before their bodies were mutilated. As for the most unfortunate writers, executioners took their time killing them by means of an exotic Chinese torture called lingchi (凌迟): “death by a thousand cuts.”

(“Great” European Rulers Were Just As Bad If Not Worse.)

     During the Middle Ages, one third of all popes and European kings were murderers. The Crusades were mainly quests for power and wealth. The popes were as guilty as the nobility.
Of the five English monarchs who ruled from 1509 through 1603, all but one ordered the death of a close family member in the interest of personal power. The sole exception was seventeen-year-old Lady Jane Grey, who reigned for only nine days and was beheaded on the orders of her first cousin Queen Mary I. Mary, in turn, was executed on the orders of her first cousin once removed, Queen Elizabeth I. Since Elizabeth I died without issue, the Tudor line of succession enjoyed by that dysfunctional family was passed to another branch of the family, and so on.
     The dysfunctionality didn’t end with the Tudor line. Future generations refined it. Instead of crowned heads of Europe lopping off other crowned heads, they used proxies in the form of frequent wars. Most European royalty from Britain to Russia were blood relatives, a fact which casts a different light on the never-ending series wars to which Europeans seemed addicted.
     A case in point was the First World War, the last major war over which kings presided over opposing states one another. King George V of England and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany were first cousins—grandsons of Queen Victoria. Constantine I of Greece and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia were George and Wilhelm’s first cousins by marriage. George V and Nicholas II so closely resembled each other, that, when they posed together for a photograph in 1913, it was impossible to tell their faces apart.
     The European tendency toward homicide was so well known that, during the late nineteenth century, the American Hiram Maxim was advised, “If you want to get rich, come up with a more efficient means for Europeans to kill each other.” He got rich by inventing the Maxim gun, the most efficient killing machine of its day.
     These remarks about the criminality of European rulers don’t by any means excuse Emperor Chien Lung. Rather, they serve to demonstrate the degree to which most great movers and shakers of history, as I’ve said, are bad men.
     The point I’ve just stated and illustrated serves to spotlight yet another principle, which is one of the purposes of this book. In war and diplomacy, both sides claim to be right; and often both sides claim to enjoy the favor of heaven. Abraham Lincoln—another great man who committed great evils—wrote, “Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.” Both sides can’t be right, Lincoln pointed out, but both sides can be wrong. Just as Lincoln saw the War Between the States as the Almighty’s judgment against both sides, we may see the Boxer Uprising in the same light.

(What about Today?)
     You’ve just read about the evils of great men and women in various parts of the world from the Medieval Period up to the end of the First World War. You’re probably less surprised than I was while I was doing the research for these passages.
     My biggest surprise was the contrast between, on one hand, Emperor Chien Lung; and, on the other hand, Prince Duan and the Empress Dowager Tze Hsi. Historians generally demonize Prince Duan and Tze Hsi; yet, for all their faults, I found them far more sympathetic characters than Chien Lung. History doesn’t castigate them for their selfish ambition; it castigates them for unwise decisions they made in the defense of their country against foreign aggression.
     People find it easy enough to believe stories of past leaders’ evils and even criminal psychopathic behavior. Most people, however, find it impossible to believe that political leaders today could be criminal psychopaths. Ask yourself two questions: “At what point in time did criminal psychopaths disappear from political life?” and, “What event, if any, caused the disappearance of criminal psychopaths from political life?”
     Here are a few more thoughts for you. Three people—Bush, Cheney, and Rice—lied to the public over 90 times (about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction) in order to start a war that took the lives of over 70,000 Americans and 1,000,000 Iraqi civilians. Chief arms inspector Scott Ritter tells us that all of Iraq’s WMDs were destroyed by 1999. (link) Bush tells us that his administration’s belief in WMDs was all a mistake and that we’re supposed to sympathize with his embarrassment over the whole thing. Nonetheless, he was never embarrassed enough to pull out of Iraq, and neither was Obama, who, during the 2008 presidential election, had promised to do so.
     Plans to invade both Iraq and Afghanistan were in place months before the events of September 11, 2001.
     WMDs and 9/11 were the excuse for starting the bloodiest war in American history and one of the bloodiest in the history of the world. (The War Between the States resulted in the deaths of 600,000 people, mostly American servicemen. The present, illegal wars against the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya—have I left out a country?—have claimed the lives of over 1,000,000 people, mostly innocent civilians.)
     If neither Iraq nor Afghanistan provided the excuse for the slaughter, who did? Can it be that criminal psychopaths have not really disappeared from political life? (link) Whether the perpetrators are criminal psychopaths or just garden-variety gangsters, American judges and prosecutors have a responsibility to issue arrest warrants against the murderers of our fellow Americans; and an international war crimes tribunal has a responsibility to bind them over trial as war criminals.


  1. Mary was not executed by Elizabeth.

  2. According to the Wikipedia entry, Queen Elizabeth was reluctant to sign Mary's death warrant, on the grounds that it might set an undesirable precedent. She sought other ways to "shorten the life" of Mary. In the end, Elizabeth signed Mary's death warrant.

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