The Leadership of God, Moses and Aaron

Ki Tissa Exodus 30:11 – 34:35 The Leadership of God, Moses and Aaron


Howard Adelman

There is a lot that goes on in this portion of the Torah, more than most. First, there is the issue of the census and its evident purpose, levying a tax on each Israelite over twenty years of age – no discount for those over 65 (a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight — twenty gerahs to the shekel, the confirmation of weight to be done by the priest). Is the money necessary for the upkeep of the portable sanctuary? Evidently not! The payment is called a ransom; its rationale is that it is paid so that “no plague may come upon them.” Instead of being based on a graduated tax based on ability to pay, rich and poor pay the same levy “as expiation for your persons.”

Then there is the continuation of the instructions for the mishkan, but no longer about the detailed structural and interior design. Verses 11-34 of chapter 31 are all about how to craft the utensils, the formulas for the anointing oil and incense to be used in this portable sanctuary and how they are all to be used. And, God forbid, if the high priests do not follow the directions precisely, they will surely die. These are not just rules for when the Israelites are in the desert, but for all time. These are eternal edicts to consecrate the priests. Do not try to replicate these formulas for daily use or even just to smell the incense. The punishment is dire. You shall be ostracized, “cut off from his kin.” God even names the craftsmen to be employed in carrying out the instructions. Talk about micro-management! Frankly, it all smells of the behaviour of a pharaoh from whom the Israelites had just fled.

Except the Israelites are then instructed to keep (v’shamru so familiar in a synagogue service) shabat as a sign of the covenant between God and the Israelites and as a way of remembering that the Israelites are a consecrated people chosen by God. It is a day of complete rest after working hard for six days, but, God forbid, you do any work, like fix up your recreation room. You “shall be put to death.” Only after receiving all these instructions is Moses given the stone tablets inscribed by the “finger of God.” Of course, that can only be a metaphor, for God does not have a body.

Or have we been sold a bill of goods?

Then the story gets really exciting. Moses has been away for a seemingly long period, perhaps a month. The Israelites get restless. There is a populist revolt. And the people get the High Priest, Aaron, to lead the revolt and make them an idol, a golden calf. Why would he consent to do that? Because the will of the people was too powerful and he wanted to stall until Moses returned? Because he was afraid the mob would put him to death if he did not go along with their wishes? Or because they wanted a physical reminder of their absent leader, Moses, and he was willing to oblige?

The latter seems implausible since the people explicitly asked Aaron to make them a god. When the cat’s away, the mice will play! If Aaron was afraid, there is no sign of fear. There is only the sense of an eager participant. And hardly a stall artist! He could have taken an enormous amount of time to gather the gold and the silver, to melt it down, to find just the right craftsman to make the make the mold and forge the golden calf. Nothing of the sort happened.

All these and other rationales for Aaron’s behaviour seem to be just apologetics. Someone who just tries to smell incense made according to the formula for the sanctuary is to be killed. But the leader of the rebellion who does what is considered the most horrific act of all, making an idol to be worshiped instead of God, gets off scot-free. Unjust is not the word for it! For the man who collects the precious metals, for the man who actually casts the mold and makes the golden calf, for the man who exclaims to the people concerning the golden calf, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” For the man, for the very person who is a High Priest, to then organize a hedonistic revelry for the occasion!

No thunder from on high. Just instructions to Moses to get back in a hurry to quell the rebellion against the emerging Hebrew religion. Moses, fearing God’s revenge, implores God not to wipe out the very people he consecrated. God relents. There will be no punishment for the people. But what about Aaron, Moses’ older brother, the High Priest who led the rebellion? How does Moses feel about being betrayed by his own brother?

As Moses is returning Joshua warns him about the rebellion and the revelry. Moses is in denial.

“It is not the sound of the tune of triumph,
Or the sound of the tune of defeat;
It is the sound of song that I hear!”

But Moses could not deny what was before his eyes when he returned. He lost it. He blew his cool. He confronted Aaron. What did Aaron say? It wasn’t me. The people made me do it. It is they who are evil. I did not mold the calf. It just emerged out of the fire. It is one thing to lead a rebellion. It is another to deny any responsibility. It is even worse to be such a craven coward with such a flimsy and preposterous recap. Does Moses punish his brother? He called forth the Levites, his praetorian guard, and, seemingly randomly, they slew about 3,000 of the 600,000 Israelites. Thus was the rebellion put down.

The same Moses who talked God out of revenge and punishment gave vent to his own wrath. Did he assume any responsibility for something he might have instigated by his absence and failure to leave behind a reliable second-in-command? Did he even hold his brother responsible? He did blame Aaron for letting the people get “out of control,” but even excused that by saying the people were a “menace,” thereby giving credence to the explanation that Aaron only went along because he was afraid for his life.

The behaviour of both Moses and Aaron is appalling. It is elitism of the worst sort. Most biblical exegesis offers apologetics rather than plausible interpretations and explanations, compounding the problem. Does Moses ever hold his brother responsible? The people are guilty of a great sin for making a golden statue, not because it was a piece of folk art, but because it was an idol of worship substituting for God.  And God says, after Moses’ intervention on behalf of his sinning people, I will only cut those out from my favour who were actually guilty. No collective punishment. Nor even any arbitrary punishment as Moses had meted out. God just sent a plague which presumably killed only the guilty ones. I am tempted to be sarcastic – they were killed because they would not be paying taxes any more since the taxes already paid never saved them from the plague as promised when they paid the tax. But Aaron was not killed! God also reneges on his promise to live amidst the people. Why? Because He could get so angry at their stubborn willfulness that He might slay them. God nevertheless is persuaded to agree once again to lead them to the Promised Land. What is Moses’ punishment for letting all this happen? Moses will no longer be able to see God’s face. Only his backside.

I will not go on with rest of the section that recounts how Moses carved two substitute tablets as replicas to the ones he broke in his rage. For my theme is: understanding what is said about leadership. I begin with God.

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: “The Lord, the Lord, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (34: 6-7)

God boasts. I’m a good guy. I keep my word. I am patient and kind, “forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.” But not all! When I do not forgive, the punishment will extend to the third and even fourth generation. No more collective punishment in space. Only in time. For God is a temporal not a spatial God. He sets His imprint in history, not having pyramids built in his honour like the sun god. He will remain a hidden God present only in Spirit as He withdraws from the presence of the Israelites. Not to move back to the top of a mountain, but to place Himself in the vanguard of history. Humans will only be able to see God as history unfolds. Prediction will not be part of their ken. God will become a God of deeds rather than words. In return, no miscegenation. No paying respects to local customs. Smash all the religious places and figures of the local inhabitants and engage in ethnic cleansing. God would qualify to be a leader of ISIS.

Moses, quick to anger and slow to forgive, lacking any deep sense of compassion, though pleading for his people, for without them he would have no role and no mission. If any grace is to be found, it will not be located in Moses. The only one to whom he shows kindness and forgiveness is his brother.

Aaron comes off the worst. He refuses to take responsibility. He is a person of great privilege, but one who opportunistically deserts the establishment to lead the common people, those laden with insecurity and fear, resenting the privileges of the ersatz royalty. Just as Moses deserted the Pharaoh to return to the people, so does Aaron. But Aaron does so as a coward. And then he deserts the people he once led and blames them exclusively for what happened. No wonder Moses kicked him upstairs and took away his role as a military leader. Think of what would have happened in the attempted coup if Aaron had continued to have a command and control role over the military.

I speculate that Aaron resented his “promotion,” resented from being removed from a role with real power to one that was only ceremonial. When one of the elite deserts the establishment to effectively lead a populist revolt, not only against Moses, but against God, to risk his status and the riches associated with it, suggests very strongly that Aaron in the very depths of his being resented his younger brother who was far less accomplished than he was but was given the real leadership of the people.

We have an example of the irrationality of a populist rebellion led by a member of the establishment, but one saved by that same establishment lest the very sanctity of their positions be undermined. Fortunately for the Israelites there was another leader lurking in the wings, the man who alerted Moses in advance of his return of the rebellion underway, a man who stayed inside when Moses toured the camp to receive the acclaim he felt he was due from everyone else who came outside their tents.

“Joshua son of Nun, a youth, would not stir out of the Tent.”


JFK and LBJ Redux

Corporeality XV: JFK and LBJ Redux -The Difficulties of Separation


Howard Adelman

In the light of the brief examination of each of President John F. Kennedy’s and President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s practices and efforts to operate as both America’s political leader and Commander-in-Chief, let’s recap on the general problem even if the account is not much more than that of a high school civics class. In the American system, the President is both the executive leader of the polity as well as the Commander-in-Chief. In a parliamentary system, the Governor-General, not the Prime Minister, is both Head of State and Commander-in-Chief, two responsibilities assigned to the president in the American system of government and not to a Prime Minister in a parliamentary system.

The American constitution also provides that the military command role be subservient to the political agenda. That means, there is an inherent tension between the two responsibilities, such with radically different agendas and purposes. This tension even exists, though at a far lower level, in a parliamentary system where the responsibilities of the political leader, the Prime Minister, are always completely subject to the will and consent of the legislature and the Prime Minister does not carry the responsibilities and obligations of Commander-in-Chief.

Like a President, the Prime Minister has responsibilities as Chief Executive Officer (appointment of chief justices, head of the military forces and a host of other appointments) and custodian of the economy. Further, though Canada has a Foreign Minister and the United States has a Secretary of State, Canada and the United States may be far more similar in this area than the difference in name implies. For in both countries, the Prime Minster and the President are the chief diplomats and key determiners of foreign policy.

Unlike a President, however, the Prime Minister is responsible for introducing all legislation in Parliament and ensuring passage of all government bills. In the U.S. presidential system, the President may propose legislation and use his influence to obtain passage, but he does not control Congress. He may veto bills passed by Congress, subject to override, and Congress may refuse to pass his proposals. The President’s lack of command and control over legislation while having command and control in the military arena, already creates a propensity for a President to shift the prime emphasis of his office away from domestic legislation towards foreign policy and command of the military where, on appearances, he is not as boxed-in.

In a democratic monarchy (often called a republican form of government), where the head of state is elected and caries both independent executive as well as Commander-in-Chief responsibilities, there is a specific dilemma. For the key issues for a military leader are command and control. The Latin imperium applies. But the key issue for a civilian political leader is exercising influence on Congress. Power entails an ability to coerce. Influence entails an ability to persuade. In a parliamentary system, responsibilities for coercion are delegated, subject to the civilian authority establishing the objectives and norms under which coercive power operates. It seems that, with some exceptions, when the two responsibilities are not assigned to the same person, both the division of responsibilities and the ability of the civilian leadership to ensure that military operations are subordinate to civilian political will, are less difficult. When embodied in the same person, enormous tensions arise both within the political leader and between him/her and the military.

The dilemmas go both ways. Military leaders are used to exercising imperial powers and, in a state with imperial responsibilities, the military brass dislike limitations on those powers when operating in overseas theatres, whether those limitations come from local politicians or from domestic bosses back home. At the same time, if the President as Commander-in-Chief is to exercise his civilian powers, s/he must of necessity place parameters around the use of those military powers. The military leadership has a built-in propensity to test those limits, both because they do not like being trammeled and because they carry the ball on the ground in foreign situations and dislike having their freedom of movement managed from afar, especially if it is by an “amateur.”

Dwight Eisenhower was a great success in this regard for two very different reasons. First, he carried the prestige of a highly decorated military leader of the highest rank. Secondly, and much more importantly, he understood and articulated the general principles in terms of which both bodies within the President must conduct themselves.

The portrait of JFK that finally emerged was not of a leader who was “saved” and who bought into the beliefs of the peace movement. He remained a Cold War proponent. He remained the same person who knowingly promulgated the fabricated “missile gap.” As such, he felt he had to back a plan approved by Eisenhower, but radically revised and made much riskier once he was elected President. But he did not want to appear weak before his military personnel – the military chiefs, the CIA Director, his own Secretary of Defense. How was the bridge constructed and maintained between his military functions and his civilian responsibilities domestically and as a leader of the free world?

The simple answer – they were not reconciled. In the case of the Bay of Pigs, as a Commander-in-Chief, he operated in the hidden and internationally illegal world of covert operations. In the open, he promulgated such doctrines as the Alliance for Progress. His guiding principle with respect to covert operations was that lying and condoning risky and highly illegal breaches of another country’s sovereignty were okay as long as his role and that of the United States could be protected by plausible deniability. Given that guiding principle, he developed into a leader more concerned with public image and public relations, with his legacy rather than with good policy to secure the well-being of Americans and that the U.S. remained loyal to its allies. JFK remained two-faced, but in the case of the Bay of Pigs, his secret self was exposed and he was actually “saved,” not by conversion in what he believed, but by his exposure to the actual performance of the military (CIA and Chiefs of Staff) who were not only willing to keep information hidden, but concocted policies to trap him in a direction and policy he did not want to follow – a direct conquest eventually by American troops of the island of Cuba.

Ironically, the exposure through the Bay of Pigs operation made Kennedy much more wary of advice from his military. He was not willing to become the “macho man” as his military chiefs advised and resort first and foremost and almost exclusively to exhibitions of overwhelming force. Force had to be used to support diplomacy and used in a way both proportionate to the real danger but sufficient to foster and enhance the diplomatic agenda. Only in the Cuban missile crisis did Kennedy demonstrate that he had learned to subordinate his military responsibilities to his domestic ones.

We do not know how Kennedy would have applied what he learned to Vietnam when covert operations became exposed and America’s military role could no longer be hidden and, for both effectiveness and the impossibility of disguise, had to evolve into an open war not just backed, but driven by the American military, or, alternatively, scaled back and eventually abandoned, the course as we shall see that eventually took place, but only after enormous cost to both the Indochinese and to young Americans.. We do know that LBJ did not learn from the Bay of Pigs about the perfidy of his own military commanders, but instead enhanced the role of deception and misrepresentation by participating in the concoction of the Gulf of Tonkin fabrication to obtain from Congress unfettered room to use the military for open and more aggressive war. Johnson was inherently a bully, a trait he used to good effect in passing an enormous amount of excellent domestic legislation, but one which did him in when he became an accomplice to military goals no longer determined by and subordinated to diplomatic foreign policy.

The tension was replicated within the military. On the one hand, if a military commander was dedicated to the art of covert counter-insurgency warfare, he or she became suspect in the eyes of colleagues dedicated to and trained in the principles and practices of conventional warfare, for covert operations require deception, but only in dealing with enemies. However, covert counter-insurgency warfare seemed to entail deception in dealing with one’s own superiors as well. So the two forms of warfare were inherently at odds and, during Kennedy’s term of office, the responsibilities were relegated to a different organization than the traditional military, the CIA. But the CIA had to rely on the armed forces for backup and logistics, especially when it overlapped with military functions and became for a period the driver of covert operations. On the other hand, within the military, “The whole field of guerrilla operations was the burial place for the future of any officer who was sincerely interested in the development and application of guerrilla war. The conventionally trained officer appears to feel that guerrilla operations are beneath his dignity.”

When the armed forces took over that responsibility in the Vietnam War after JFK replaced his CIA chief and limited the role of the CIA, it became impossible for the political goals of winning hearts and minds to retain supremacy in competition with narrower military objectives. Instead of becoming the main military objective, “winning hearts and minds” became not only subordinate but peripheral to military agendas. The precedent would influence future behaviour long into the future affecting the relationship between the State Department and the Department of Defence and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the second Iraq War, Rumsfeld kicked two civilians from the State Department off the plane taking personnel to Iraq to supervise the polity after the initial military victory. Thus, tossed overboard were State Department plans for resurrecting civilian control in Iraq, along with accurate prognostications of what would happen if they did not. Forty years earlier, the Defence Department combined with the Joint Chiefs of Staff took umbrage with and were incensed by the October 1963 report prepared by the State Department that the war, rather than being won, was at best at a stalemate and that any statistical analysis would show diminishing Viet Cong casualties and losses while their armed attacks kept increasing, When truth confronted power, power squelched the truth.

A number of norms emerge to complement those put forth by President Eisenhower.

  1. The conduct of counter insurgency war deserves equal respect with conventional warfare.
  2. In both types of warfare, the battle for “hearts and minds,” the corollary of the pre-eminence of the civilian over the military, must always trump mere military goals.
  3. War in whatever form is a science as well as an art and reverence for factual accuracy is not only basic, but needs to be revered even more when the “military” are engaged in counter-insurgency and covert warfare; the breach of this guiding principle became obvious when General Maxwell prevented Lt. Col. John Paul Vann reporting that the casualty figures claimed for the Viet Cong were grossly distorted because most of the dead were non-combatants.
  4. As a corollary, delusion must be avoided and critical thought deeply embedded in operational planning, as it was clearly not in the Bay of Pigs fiasco or when General Harkins was promising victory within a year and the ability to reduce American troops on the ground in six months or in the report of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, and Maxwell Taylor, then Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who reassured JFK in October of 1963 that the military task of the U.S. in Vietnam would be completed within fifteen months with only some residual cleaning up to do.
  5. Truth must never be sold out for “good” public relations. Piling lie upon lie is always bad public relations. CIA Director John A. McCone rejected pessimistic reports in favour of “sugaring the pill,” deleting lines from a report such as, “The struggle in South Vietnam will be protracted and costly [because] very great weaknesses remain and will be difficult to surmount.” The South Vietnamese government lacked “aggressive and firm leadership at all levels of command, poor morale among the troops, lack of trust between peasant and soldier, poor tactical use of available forces, a very inadequate intelligence system, and obvious Communist penetration of the South Vietnamese military organization.” Instead, the principal directive was, as distributed by the army in Vietnam to personnel was as follows: “Your approach to the questions of the press should emphasize the positive aspects of your activities and avoid gratuitous criticism. Emphasize the feeling of achievement, the hopes for the future, and instances of outstanding individual or personal credibility by gilding the lily. As songwriter Johnny Mercer put it, ‘You’ve got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative’.”
  6. Pluralism of input before final decisions are made is critical. Competing advice from other perspectives must receive a full and fair hearing. This was not the case when Senator Mike Mansfield, the Senate’s leading expert on Southeast Asia, advised LBJ to give serious consideration to the North Vietnamese feelers offering to guarantee a neutral South Vietnam in return for U.S. withdrawal, for the war cannot be won with “a limited expenditure of American lives and resources somewhere commensurate with our national interests in south Viet Nam,” contrary to Robert McNamara’s insistence that the U.S. would have to expend whatever it took to ensure a communist defeat.
  7. Tolerance along with pluralism must vanquish enforced unity and its twin, repression, and cannot make situations acceptable and tolerable, such as the treatment of Buddhists by the Catholic-dominated leadership in Saigon, especially when soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam poured liquid chemicals from tear gas grenades onto the heads of praying Buddhists in Huế. Recall the iconic picture of the Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in Saigon in protest against President Diem’s policies. Recall also the almost as famous cold and cruel response of Madame Nhu, President Diệm’s sister-in-law: “I would clap hands at seeing another monk barbecue show, for one cannot be responsible for the madness of others.” In the meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, David Cabot Lodge Jr., was organizing the plot with American military commanders, ARVN officers and White House backing, the overthrow of the House of Diem.
  8. Ensure your allies and alleged friends treat other allies and friends with the respect they deserve, in contrast with the way the Saigon Military Dictatorship treated the Montagnards (disarming the very civil self-defence forces the Americans had armed and trained, thereby undermining Operation Buan Enao. (This bears parallels with Erdogan’s Turkey bombing America’s armed and trained (and most effective) Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, in Iraq.)

The role of political leader and the role of Commander-in-Chief present in the same person inherently rest on a fundamental tension that is not only difficult but almost insurmountable to overcome. The tension introduces grave deformities in anyone who tries to fulfill both roles. More importantly, as we shall see, the office attracts both those who are inherently schizophrenic in some fundamental way as well as eager to assume the role of a Warrior Hero.


With the help of Alex Zisman

John F. Kennedy – Redux I

Corporeality XIV: JFK Redux I


Howard Adelman

I received quite a bit of correspondence from readers, especially on my Kennedy piece. Two stand out. One took issue with my contrasting LBJ’s belief in the domino theory with that of JFK. The implication was that LBJ’s beliefs made him prone to greater subservience to the entreaties of the military promoting escalation in Southeast Asia. In contrast, I pointed out that in the last year of his presidency, JFK advocated an unequivocal peace agenda that could have been taken directly from the information sheets provided by the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CUCND). The implication was that JFK, if he ever did, no longer subscribed to the Domino Theory. Victory by one set of communists in one country in Southeast Asia would not necessarily lead to a triumph of communism in the adjacent country.

The reader pointed out that one month after JFK gave his famous “Strategy for Peace” speech at American University in June of 1963, in a press conference he said the following:  “We are not going to withdraw… for us to withdraw would mean a collapse not only of South Vietnam, but of Southeast Asia. So we are going to stay there.” At the beginning of September, he repeated the same sentiments in an interview with Walter Cronkite. This was an unequivocal expression of an intention to retain troops in Vietnam and a continuing belief in the Domino Theory by JFK as well as LBJ.

A second reader from Florida, himself a Cuban exile who fled Castro’s regime, took issue with my statement that JFK had told the anti-Castro insurgents from the exile community in Miami that he would not be providing air cover when they landed, but they insisted on launching the insurgency operation anyway. There are really two issues. What air cover are we discussing – U.S. government forces, the use of which were expressly forbidden under U.S. policy with respect to covert operations, or the air contingent of the exiles themselves? At what stage of the invasion was the cancellation of air cover determined? Secondly, did JFK inform the Cuban exiles before they launched their mission that he would not authorize an air cover?

“I am very surprised that you would write the sentences below…These are patently not the facts…There was a sequence of decisions and counter-decisions made, ultimately (not always directly) by JFK that took place from Saturday April 15 (D Day minus 2) and Tuesday April 19 (D Day + 2), when it was all over. The key actor (and likely manipulator/hedger of the record as regards JFK’s precise step-by-step involvement during those 4 days, which is not 100% crystal clear) is identified by all as McGeorge Bundy (NSA), closely followed by Dulles (DCIA), Bissel (CIA DDP Plans-Ops) and Gen. Cabell (CIA, Air Force general and military liaison)….also Dean Rusk and Adlai Stevenson. I can give you the sequence of these decisions and center-decisions in that 5-day period, by the day and hour. All this is NSA open, public record, and is mostly consistent with the 2 competing post-mortem reports that JFK, followed by Bissell in his own defense, commissioned and delivered, plus a rebuttal by Tracy Barnes, a CIA Under-secretary.

“JFK approved the landing order at 12:00 noon Sunday 16, with air exile Brigade air cover. US air cover was never ever approved by JFK, the issue was the Brigade’s own air cover, flying from Nicaragua and Guatemala. But Brigade air cover, yes. He rescinded the air cover part at 9:00 PM. The final shot at an “air cover yes” from JFK took place at 10:15 PM Sunday 16th (Cabell and Bissell were offered by Rusk to insist to JFK; they declined to insist), and the landings schedule during the night of 16 to 17 was already activated. Supplies were being landed already and soldiers’ landings started at 11:00 PM – 1:00 AM. JFK “made nothing clear to the exiles” about the planned, approved and last-minute cancellation of Brigade air cover. . I can support at minimum this assertion.”

I had written one paragraph in the whole blog about the event, clearly grossly insufficient for such an important and controversial event in American history. More importantly, I missed an opportunity to zero in with greater precision on the dilemma of the President of the United States being both the political leader of the country as well as the Commander-in-Chief, and this was my main subject. Third, I had omitted my own personal involvement at the time on this issue, which I usually include. Now that President Obama has initiated the American rapprochement with Cuba and is planning a visit on 21 March, let me correct my errors of both omission and commission and, as well, zero in with greater precision on the dilemma I am addressing about reconciling two expressions of presidential power, but beginning with my personal involvement.

When Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista on 1 January 1959, in anticipation of Castro’s victory, I and most of my friends had already turned a New Year’s Eve Party into a celebratory party for the new Cuban regime. Subsequently, when the American government was giving sympathetic consideration to the Castro regime, at least as I erroneously believed then (Eisenhower and Nixon had already by then privately branded Castro a communist), I was very active in the co-operative movement. I learned of a speech Castro had given to an association of Cuban cooperative farmers after the 17 May 1959 Cuban Agrarian Reform Act was passed. In his usual long talks – this one was 3 hours – he told the farmers that the government had a shortage of seeds. Since co-operative farmers represented only the interests of members of the co-operative and not the interests of Cuba as a whole, he could allocate the seeds the government possessed only to farms that operated within the policies and priorities of INRA (the National Institute for Agricultural Reform) as was the case with the collective farms owned and controlled by the state and the co-operative farms initiated by the state.

The “best and largest lands from the U.S. monopolists,” “paid” for (at the low evaluation for tax purposes of the Batista regime) in Cuban bonds and in Cuban currency earning 4.5% in interest for twenty years, were transferred to co-operative farmers (the peasant co-operatives) which sold their products through INRA on the principle that “those who benefit must accept the conditions” that the policy was intended to serve all Cubans and not just the co-operative membership. As Che Guevara had said in 1961, “peasants fought (for the revolution) because they wanted land for themselves and their children, and to manage and sell it and enrich themselves through their labour.” They would soon learn otherwise. The underlying governing principle was social ownership of the basic means of production. What was more basic than growing food?

At that meeting to which I referred above, the “free” co-operative farms voted to subject their policies to the “guidance” of INRA, thereby, making them eligible to receive seeds – which they did. Suddenly, there were enough seeds to go around for the increase in the number of communal and government-initiated farm operations. Indeed, the farmers had sacrificed their autonomy for security. The Cuban government in 2013 finally passed a new agricultural act that restored autonomy to the older cooperatives under a new policy of decentralizing power and “updating” the system.

Incensed by the 1959 blatant act of bullying and open deceit, the betrayal of the cooperative movement and the use of state power to shape Cuban choices towards a collectivist framework, I became an ardent anti-Castro proponent and fell out on this issue with many of my close friends, but particularly with my older brother who had been in the same class in medical school. I had spent the previous year living in Mt. Sinai Hospital and working in the radiology department, but by then, I had left medical school, much to the chagrin of my brother. He became an even more avid Castro supporter whereas I had fallen away. After the Bay of Pigs incident when he finished medical school that spring, he traveled to Cuba, got trapped there by the American blockade and eventually had to be flown back to Canada on a Canadian air force plane. While he was trapped in Cuba, he became for a while a pro-Castro broadcaster in English sending news of the regime’s successes to Miami 90 miles away.

While I had been sympathetic to the expropriation of the American-owned electrical and telephone companies, and even the large land holdings of the American corporations, such as the United Fruit Company, though I admired and praised his health, educational and literacy programs, I was by the fall of 1960 critical of Castro. My friends and especially my brother remained champions of Castro. But I was also at odds with both Kennedy and Nixon who seemed to be trying to outdo one another in recreating Castro as a bogeyman. As JFK said in the Fall of 1960, “we must (my italics) make the Cuban people know that we sympathize with their legitimate economic aspirations, that we know their love of freedom, and that we shall never be happy until democracy is restored in Cuba.” We must not allow the Soviet Union to turn Cuba into its Caribbean base.” Kennedy was a Cold War warrior. Though I had become a critic of Castro, I was not.

Some have erroneously credited my passionate involvement with Cuba in 1959-61with the fact that my oldest son, who was born in 1960 when Kennedy was ending his campaign against Nixon for the presidency of the United States, with his becoming a famous historian of Latin America. I can assure everyone I deserve no such credit. My tensions with my brother and my friends over Cuba had nothing to do with my son’s career. However, credit might be given to Linus Pauling who, with his wife, visited our house when Jeremy was just a few months old just before he won his second Nobel Prize for his anti-nuclear campaigning. He physically blessed Jeremy. If there is any credit to be given, it is to Linus Pauling. With that very important piece of trivia, I will return to the main issue of the events before and during the Bay of Pigs and, subsequently to the implications for the President both being a political leader and a Commander-in-Chief.

Aaron, Moses and Donald Trump

Tetzaveh – Exodus 27:20 – 30:10  Aaron, Moses and Donald Trump 


Howard Adelman

Last week in the commentary on the mishkan, I suggested that the Israelites were given directions to build the portable sanctuary for two complementary reasons, so that God would no longer have to live alone on a mountain top but could dwell among his own people. The second reason was to permit God to be close at hand to observe whether the Israelites were transgressing, a suggestion which may bother those who believe God is omnipresent. Further, I also gave voice to a belief that the sanctuary was built with such richness as both a mode of wealth distribution as well as to build the assets of a central depository that could serve as the central bank for the nation, but it was built by voluntary donations, not by the payment of compulsory taxes

In this week’s portion, we move from the design of the portable building and its artifacts to the costume designer’s function for characters requiring and operating under an eternal light fed by the most expensive oil of all available to them, olive oil. The garments worn by the priests are designated as a robe and breaches made of the finest linen and traversed by a sash. Can you imagine? The Israelites were struggling to survive in the desert, yet they were obligated to find just the right dyes to colour a sash and the various vestments – blue and gold, purple and crimson. The High Priest was also to wear an efod that seems similar to the fez worn by Turks before the secular revolution in Turkey instigated by Ataturk. The clothing was intended to enhance dignity and use adornment to set the priests apart from the populace.

The costumes are intended to enhance and communicate the roles they play and the status they were to have. They are ceremonial, not functional. They are fixed and not varied and adapted for different occasions. The roles are to be as permanent in time as the eternal light. Then the portion prescribes how Aaron and his four sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, are to be inducted into their priestly roles and how incense was to be burned on the golden altar. All glitz and pomp, but, as I will try to show, not godawful! The alternative would turn out to be much worse.

Look at the description of the breastplate worn by the priests – trimmed in gold with four rows of precious stones, birthstones for each of the tribes – carnelian, chrysolite, turquoise, agate, topaz, onyx, jacinth, amethyst, beryl, lapis lazuli, emerald and jasper. And on the breastplate, the options in divination – Urim and Thumamin, Yes or No. Light or Night. The enlightened or the forces of darkness, despair and desperation. The irony is that these would be determinations and judgments on how to handle internal divisions and not just commandment of whether to go or not to go to war, whether God endorsed the war or not. Tetzaveh is about command and control but the stage was being set for a rebellion.

The most notable thing about this portion is not the presence of detailed designer’s directions, but the absence of Moses. He is not even mentioned. The name of Aaron, however, is mentioned 22 times. This requires some explanation. The sacred must be understood.

Sacred is associated with that which is worthy of worship and entitled to be venerated. Not just respected, but worshiped. Though often used interchangeably as synonyms, there is a great deal of difference between respect and veneration. Veneration and worship are actions. Respect is an attitude, like gratitude versus saying, “Thanks.” You have respect for…You do not say I have veneration for or I have worship for. The difference is significant. You respect someone for the qualities they exhibit. You venerate someone for the role they play. In respect, it is your attitude that is elevated. In veneration, it is the other who is elevated. Veneration elicits reverence which so easily slips into devotion and even idolatry. Respect acknowledges the dignity observed in the other. Parents and teachers deserve respect, but they only become recipients when they earn that recognition.

Respect entails holding another in esteem, but does not imply deference to that other. Disrespect entails a disregard for another’s authority, status or accomplishments. There is no such thing as disveneration or disworship. One pays one’s last respects to the dead; one does not (or, is not expected to) venerate or worship the dead. We are expected to respect parents and teachers, not venerate them. And the clue is that we venerate what we hold to be sacred, what is to be set aside and raised on high. And here is the heterodox suggestion. The sacred is that which is preserved and set aside as very special, but also raised high and out of reach. The sacred is something we put away, not something we want to or need to or should live with.

This is what is happening to Aaron and his sons. They are being given high honours and high formal roles and are being retired from their positions as military commanders married to religious convictions. It is appropriate preparation for the wars to come that will require professional military leadership. All Aaron and his sons can do is indicate whether God commands they go to war or not, whether God is on the side of the Israelites in a specific conflict. The execution of war will be left to the professionals.

Eventually, Jews would leave the role of priests and the need for temples far behind as rabbis were sent out to live among and with the people and teach them about the divine as He reveals Himself in the Torah. When God said he wanted to live in the midst of his people, He was confining and raising the status of the priests and honours bestowed upon them so that they could feel His presence. But if God Himself was simply confined to the mishkan, He would not really be living among the people.

God up high on the mountain top inspired awe and wonder. God living in the midst of his people risked becoming too familiar and accepted and even treated as an object of indifference, and worse, disdain. Aaron, on the other hand, as a military commander had power, and the best way to take away his power was to promote him to an honorific and ceremonial function. So as God was coming down to live amidst His people, the religious functions tied to military roles were being disaggregated. Aaron was being raised up as a mode of retiring him. What we want to retire, we preserve, put away and raise up so it can no longer threaten or impose itself upon us. We create a sacred realm and identify a sacred clan to preserve it.

So where is Moses? Why does he seem to have no part in what is going on? Moses was the one who convinced God to come down from on high. It was a gamble. To bring the sacred into the secular world was being balanced by creating a sacred world where military men who had the potential to initiate a coup could assume responsibilities for the polity, but only formal and ceremonial ones. They were not responsible either for the wellbeing of the nation or any longer for its security, except in the most general way in determining whether a war was to be sanctioned. Military power had to be neutralized by giving the generals honorific titles, costumes and roles.

So God had to come down from the mountain, not only because He was alone and needed human contact, not only so He could be the close-at-hand and observe the behavior of the members of the nation he had chosen and now was opting to live among, but to assign a ceremonial function to retired military commanders. The change would prove to be a big gamble that, as we shall see next week, almost went totally awry.

Sacred is opposed to the secular. It is also set opposite the profane. Moses was a stutterer like King George VI of Britain and was definitely not an orator. He was very flawed as an oral communicator, but the benefit, the great side effect, was that he introduced a reliance on written commands and prescriptions. The rule of law rather than the rule of power would be supreme. The threat that an Israelite like Aaron might copy the pattern of Egypt and impose the rule of force had been removed. But Moses by himself was not very inspiring. Not only could he not articulate his thoughts and instructions clearly and concisely, but he was fraught with other psychological and social disabilities.

Moses was a man full of inner rage, both at his sense of personal abandonment while not fully being accepted as a royal, though raised as a royal with a sense of entitlement. But this was married to a sense of injustice and resentment that exploded like a volcano when he saw how an ethnic cousin was being treated by a member of the Praetorian guard. His response was not so much of empathy, but an automatic response because of projection and identification. Moses, however, was a coward and ran away rather than either face the music or lead a rebellion.

Moses ran off and married a shiksa. After a dozen or so years, he abandoned her and their two children to return and lead his people in battle against their oppressors. He had to lead, not by example, but by magic, by wonders that inspired awe in his own people as well as in the hearts of his enemies. As a leader, Moses proved very dependent on others, especially on Aaron as his Commander-in-Chief, and on a foreigner who happened to be his father-in-law. What kind of leader delegated legal enforcement and interpretation to others?  What kind of leader could he be when he could no longer lead with shock and awe to back him up, no longer lead with the high religious authority or the prowess in commanding soldiers to guard his backside? What kind of leader would he be when he was unavailable to the ordinary Israelite to hear complaints and mediate interpersonal conflicts up until 2:00 a.m. in the morning?

Well a challenger would emerge propelled by bombast and bluff and with no respect given to what was considered sacred by the upper echelons of the nation. But what would be the appeal? The challenger would have to be one of their own, not a cross-breed or rather a cross-bred. He would have to be raised from among their own kind, one with whom they felt they could identify, even if he happened to be wealthier. But not a plutocrat, not one of the ones who donate their wealth to the mishkan to give the retired would-be powers fancy clothes and fancy titles. The Israelites had to be writhing with dissension and despair. After all, however bad it was in Egypt and however discriminated against they had been, they had lived side-by-side the Egyptians. They had been carpenters and stone masons, primitive plumbers and hard-working labourers, seamstresses and nannies. Now who were they – refugees without jobs, without any use for their skills, without self-respect?

In the meanwhile, one of their own had surrendered to the plutocrats and agreed to be installed as part of a new Camelot, primitive perhaps in comparison, but intended to rival that of the Pharaoh. Further, what had been promised them would not be delivered later that year, but it would take two generations. They would not see the benefits of such radical change in their lifetimes. They were ripe for the politics of envy and resentment, given fuller acceleration by a shift from oral rule by a chief to that of the written law. This communication revolution was powerful and disrupting, for no longer could they go to the sheik and speak to him personally to ask for an intervention to help deal with a problem. And who was their leader? A multicultural Moses without deep roots in the society in which they were raised!

They no longer had to fear the power of Aaron. He had been made impotent. Their rich compatriots had bet on him rather than them and built a portable Pharaonic throne. They were now irrelevant. Sacrifices had to be made of bull and ram, and of a lamb every single morning and evening. All that excellent food for the priests and a God they could not see nor even get near for the priests were intermediaries. Moses had consolidated his political power only to now appear naked before them without awe and wonders to intimidate them. Further, they were about to face real enemies who would challenge them directly and threaten to destroy them. Were they not better off retreating into a self-protected enclave manned by defensive barriers? The politics of nostalgia for a lost world was growing at the expense of hope for a new one.

Is it any wonder that they might look for a new god, a new order, one far more visible than the invisible hand that seemed to be controlling their lives? Is it any wonder that they might appreciate a new leader who spoke their language of resentment? Is it any wonder they might be ready to shift their loyalties to someone who promised to restore a semblance of their previous security? The Israelites were refugees, homeless wanderers in social disarray and suffering enormous psychological stresses. If our contemporary refugee camps are any indication, the Israelite camps were being infiltrated by small groups from the surrounding areas even poorer than they were and under greater threat. They were facing an unknown and very threatening future and had lived through a traumatic past. Sure, Moses had provided food and water when it was most needed. But would this welfare continue? How could it continue? Would Moses retain his magic powers? And why go to war against Canaanites? They were just defending themselves. It was a foreign war they had no business engaging in and, anyway, would likely lose. And all this because they were being led by a half-bred foreigner, but one no longer in possession of the power to impose his will.

Grim pessimism would replace the politics of hope. All received beliefs and entitlements were at risk. No more obeisance to the rich plutocrats who ruled over them. No more trust in the words of a God they could neither hear nor see. The Israelites were becoming tired of seeing themselves as losers when just a short time ago they had been such tremendous winners. The dream of conquering a promised land seemed totally at risk. Moses would soon be viewed as an alien and threatening outsider rather than one who delivered the people from slavery. Moses’ words would soon ring hollow.

The Israelites were ripe for an internal rebellion.


With the help of Alex Zisman

LBJ, LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?

Corporealism XII: LBJ, LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?


Howard Adelman

Upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November of 1963, having been Kennedy’s Vice-President, Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) became the 36th President of the United States. A year later, he won a sweeping victory in his own right, but by 1969 he had become the main villain responsible for perpetuating and escalating the Vietnam War (the American War for the Vietnamese) and decided not to stand again for the presidency. What had happened between Kennedy’s speech, “A Strategy for Peace,” and 1969? The answer can be found in what happened in 1964.

From a hawk, a presidential candidate who first won election on the fabricated claim that there was a “missile gap” between the U.S. and the USSR to the advantage of the Soviet regime, Kennedy had become a convert mouthing the slogans and beliefs of the peace movement. He had reigned in his generals, or so it seemed. But had he? There were 16,000 American servicemen stationed in Vietnam to help train the Vietnamese army and participate alongside South Vietnamese troops in fighting the Viet Cong. America suffered 122 combat deaths in 1963 alone and had become the main arms supplier for the South Vietnam government’s war against the insurgent guerillas but was losing helicopters at an enormous rate simply from ground fire.

President Kennedy in his 1963 State of the Union Address had insisted that, “the spearpoint of aggression had been blunted in Vietnam.” This was a situation that LBJ had not initiated but had inherited. But he never questioned the repeated misrepresentations by the military brass of the progress of the war in spite of the facts taking place observed by their own officers and the advice to switch the emphasis from military sweep operations to civil and political action. The top brass did the reverse, calling the “hearts and minds” operation a “sissy” approach and shifted more resources into the military battles and called for more troops on the ground.

When LBJ took office on 22 November 1963, in his inaugural speech, he promised to enact Kennedy’s Civil Rights legislation and declared his own war, not against communism but against poverty. He more than fulfilled the promise to complete Kennedy’s war on apartheid America. A year later in November of 1964, he won the largest landslide in the history of American presidential campaigns, winning with 61% of the popular vote and sweeping the Electoral College.

In 1964, after 83 days of debate, the Civil Rights Act was passed that ended legalized racial segregation in the use of any public facilities anywhere in the United States. Discrimination in employment was outlawed. The Southern control of the Senate through the use of the filibuster lay in ruins, as did future support from white voters for the Democratic Party in the south. Nevertheless, in the Johnson electoral sweep of 1964, 28 Democratic Senators and 295 Democratic members of the House of Representatives had been swept into office on LBJ’s coattails. Johnson’s bullying and entreaties, exchanges of favours and waving a very large stick, had worked wonders. In the 1965 Voting Rights Act after he won his sweeping re-election, discriminatory voting rules were banned and the gerrymandering of electoral districts was made illegal. Yet what comes immediately to my mind when I think of President Johnson? Not his enormous achievements, not his Great Society program and legislation to eradicate poverty and guarantee racial justice, not his Medicaid protections for the elderly, not his guarantees of equal access to education and his Headstart program, not the first efforts ever to protect America’s natural resources and not even the beginning of a series of missteps in America’s war against crime, but “LJ, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?”

Six months after his inauguration in his own right, in July 1965, LBJ received a request from General William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. combat forces in Vietnam, for 175,000 to 200,000 additional troops. Johnson agreed to 50,000 on top of the 16,000 already there. In February of 1963, General Paul D. Hawkins had requested 485,000 personnel promising subsequent rapid reductions. He was supported in his requests by the “optimistic” reports (some would call them exercises in self-deception if not outright lies) by Army Chief of Staff General Earl Wheeler that victory was in sight.  Those reports by the top brass were contradicted by on the ground assessments, such as that of Colonel Wilbur Wilson that the attacks against the hamlets overwhelmingly killed civilians since the advance bombardments on the hamlets forewarned the Viet Cong who escaped into the jungles.

Whereas Kennedy began as a hawk and converted to a dove, LBJ, when he was Vice-President, opposed military escalation in Vietnam, but became its adopted parent. By the end of 1965, almost 200,000 Americans were serving in Vietnam. Johnson authorized the expansion of the U.S. bombing campaign. By 1968, there were a half million American troops in Indochina. LBJ then had an approval rating of only 26% and American campuses and communities were ridden with protests and clashes over the war. Americans had become cynical about government even though economic growth had been raging forward at an average of 4.5% per annum, personal incomes were growing by leaps and bounds, and unemployment had reached a peak of an unprecedented only 3.5%. In spite of all these positive indicators, a wave of American refugees began migrating to Canada. Abroad, Americans taped the new Canadian flag on their backpacks as they traveled to avoid being reviled overseas.

LBJ’s problems began with the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution that, in the context of the fight against communism, was passed by the United States Senate in 1964 after only 40 minutes of debate. Recall that Eisenhower had advised being steadfast in one’s loyalty and support of allies, but in his twelve principles to guide policy, his last advised engaging with allies “in a ‘confederation of mutual trust and respect’ among equals no matter how weak an ally may be, and never abandon the continuing imperative in pursuit of perpetual peace and, wherever possible, the avoidance of the certain agonies of war.” To that end, the pursuit of disarmament had to remain a continuing imperative as Kennedy had reiterated this theme in his famous address, “A Strategy for Peace.”

The Gulf of Tonkin resolution was a fraud, a child of the Chief of Staff’s beliefs that, in the fight against communism, including deceiving Americans as the order of the day. Recall Lemnitzer’s proposal for creating a pretext for engaging Castro in battle by staging an attack on Guantánamo and by setting up attacks on Cuban exiles in Florida that could be blamed on Castro agents. However, with LBJ they had a willing listener. He had been left out of the loop by JFK and had not acquired Kennedy’s skepticism of the military brass. Besides, LBJ had been a firm believer in the “Domino Theory,” and a belief in helping the South Vietnamese government fight off the communists. LBJ supported the presence of American troops in Vietnam. He just did not want to support an escalation in the deployment of more troops to Vietnam until he had won re-election.

But the American Chiefs of Staff believed that American intervention was urgent, otherwise the South Vietnamese government was in danger of falling to the Viet Cong.  General Khánh, the new leader in Vietnam, spoke directly to LBJ and told him that the South Vietnamese army was not yet capable of standing up to the Viet Cong. The American presidential elections were almost a year away. As a compromise, KBJ approved continuing first “Operation Plan 34A” (OPLAN 34Alpha) which he inherited from JFK and then authorized “Operation Plan 34B”.

OPLAN 34A was a covert action program in support of the South Vietnamese government to insert undercover operatives and naval operations for purposes of sabotage conjoined with aerial reconnaissance. Under Johnson, this operation was transferred from the CIA to the American Military Assistance Command in South Vietnam under the direct command and control of the Pentagon. The trained operatives inserted into North Vietnam were being captured on a regular basis indicating that North Vietnam had a successful spy program in operation in South Vietnam. So OPLAN 34B shifted from putting its weight on its right foot and began emphasizing its naval operations, including electronic surveillance by ocean-going minesweepers. The American navy acquired and operated a small fleet of very fast patrol boats that landed rapid action teams behind enemy lines and engaged in offshore bombardment, increasing the activities enormously over the summer of 1964 after an intense engagement at Chan La.

Maritime surveillance by minesweepers had already been replaced by destroyers capable of self-defense. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam responded in turn, not by attacks on the American ships, but by deploying gunboats and torpedo-equipped frigates to track the American maritime maneuvers. On 2 August 1964, one of those destroyers, the USS Maddox, was reported as having come under fire by North Vietnam patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin.  LBJ used the alleged incident to secure passage by Congress of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (formally the Southeast Asia Resolution) passed on 7 August 1964 which authorized LBJ to use military force in Southeast Asia without obtaining the prior approval of Congress or a formal declaration of war.

It was all a fabrication. Did LBJ know that, or was he simply being used by the military brass who had no respect for civilian presidents since Dwight Eisenhower ended his term as President? There were supposedly two confrontations in the Gulf of Tonkin. Three North Vietnamese torpedo boats were alleged to have attacked the USS Maddox engaged in surveillance operations. A sea battle allegedly took place. The second alleged incident on 4 August was quickly revealed to be mistakes on radar of “ghost” ships and the attacks by the Maddox joined by the Turner Joy were against blips on their radar screens in turbulent weather rather than real North Vietnamese patrol boats. Robert S. McNamara, the Defence Secretary Johnson had inherited from JFK, in a documentary called The Fog of War admitted that there was no real incident on 4 August 1964 and, in the first incident, there had been no attack by North Vietnamese boats against the USS Maddox. In 1995, when General Vő Nguyën Giáp, former head of the Vietnam People’s Army in North Vietnam, met with Robert McNamara, the latter still insisted, however, that the whole incident had been to warn the patrol boats not to come within ten thousand yards of the American ships.

No battle at all. But a big American War followed. In 1963 we had come to believe that we were finally on the road to peace when Kennedy formally renounced the MAD doctrine and endorsed seeking a test ban treaty. All the while covert action had been underway to escalate a conventional guerilla insurgent war backed by the North Vietnamese. Johnson may not have been briefed about the perfidy of the senior American military brass, but McNamara knew and seemed willing to go along with the deception at the time. Johnson was already prone to going along with the escalation as long as it did not jeopardize his winning the 1964 election. For LBJ believed in the Domino Theory and shared the generals’ beliefs that the advance of communism could only be stopped by military means.

A prime source of the truth of what happened came from Daniel Ellsberg. At the time of the second alleged incident, he was on duty at the Pentagon receiving messages from the surveillance ships. Ellsberg was a captain in the marines and a young mathematician who had taken graduate studies at Harvard and worked for the Rand Corporation as an analyst where he was a committed Cold Warrior. Disillusioned seven years later, he became the source for the infamous Pentagon Papers. At the time he knew that there had been no provoked attack if there had been any attack at all.

As reported publicly, the Gulf of Tonkin incident allegedly consisted of the following:

  • An attack on the afternoon of 2 August by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats against the USS Maddox
  • The Maddox was attacked within 10 nautical miles of the U.S. ship that was lying in international waters 28 nautical miles from the North Vietnamese coast
  • Maddox was attacked by a torpedo
  • Maddox replied by firing its 5” guns.
  • Another torpedo was directed at the Maddox
  • The third torpedo boat, which had not yet fired its torpedo, was hit by a shell from the 5” guns of the Maddox
  • Jets were launched from the destroyer USS Turner and allegedly sunk one retreating North Vietnamese fast patrol boat and damaged another.

According to an American NSA study:

  • North Vietnamese patrol boats had never fired torpedoes against the Maddox
  • Though the Maddox claimed to be in international waters, according to Admiral Ulysses Simpson Grant Sharp Jr., it was actually within the 12 mile limit recognized internationally according to the law of the sea and claimed by North Vietnam as part of its territory; even the Pentagon orders to the captain to stay 8 nautical miles (9.2 regular miles) from the coast put the ship inside North Vietnamese territorial waters; the information did not come from a low level officer but from Sharp who was then a PACOM Commander and was subsequently promoted to a four star admiral commanding the United States Pacific Fleet from 1963 to 1964 and head of United States Pacific Command from 1964 to 1968 – another proof of how it pays to buy into and support the military brass party line
  • The Maddox had fired on fishing boats
  • North Vietnamese patrol boats then intervened to protect the fishermen, but fired guns, not torpedoes
  • According to air squadron commander James Stockdale, who was later captured and imprisoned by the North Vietnamese, there were no targets at sea except American ones, but he was ordered to suppress that information at the time. (See James Stockdale (1984) Love and War)
  • Senior CIA intelligence officer S. Eugene Poteat was asked in early August 1964 to examine the radar operator’s report, and he concluded no real torpedo attack had taken place, though retired Rear Admiral Lloyd “Joe” Vasey, backed by 18 military witnesses, testified offering details that an actual attack had taken place, suggesting not simply a mistake, but a conspiracy of deep deception not just a misunderstanding
  • See John White’s 2014 book, The Gulf of Tonkin Events – Fifty Years Later: A Footnote to the History of the Vietnam War; White, who had been previously skeptical about the incident, was inspired to write the book when he interviewed Stockdale, then an admiral, and Joseph Schaperjahn, the chief sonar operator on the Turner Joy who verified that the initial Maddox radar reports were erroneous

It was the second phantom incident that set LBJ in motion when the two American ships claimed to have sunk two attacking North Torpedo boats. There never was, even at the time, any real evidence of an attack. Cables from the Maddox from Captain John J. Herrick, indicated doubt whether any real incident had taken place. There had been only one claim that a single torpedo had been fired and it had only allegedly been heard but never seen by anyone. Nevertheless, after receiving this highly qualified alleged report of an attack, without any further critical assessment, well warranted under the circumstances, but without being informed explicitly by McNamara that Herrick himself even doubted that a real confrontation had taken place, LBJ expressed outrage and ordered retaliatory measures on 5 August. Within hours of LBJ making these claims in his Gulf of Tonkin address to the nation in which he said, “Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defence, but with a positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak tonight.” American aircraft launched from U.S. carriers were bombing North Vietnam, focusing initially on four torpedo boat bases.

LBJ never indicated that America had been involved in a covert war since 1961and his statements that America’s only goal was a limited military response as a warning to the North Vietnamese was an outright lie. Senator Wayne Morris, who had heard from a secret informant that the whole story was a hoax, was not given time to set up a Senate committee to examine the logs of the two ships and hear from various witnesses. Morris’ efforts at delay were overwhelmed by a vote in support of 88 to 2 senators giving Johnson unlimited rights to take military action. The House voted unanimously in support of LBJ.

Longer term practices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council during that period suggest deep habits of deceptions. Yet the seemingly moderate character of LBJ’s approach went a long way in misleading Americans, especially in contrast with the ardent hawkish views of Barry Goldwater whom he faced in the 1964 election campaign. A month after his inauguration, Johnson authorized “Operation Rolling Thunder” to begin on 24 February. By 8 March, 3,500 American troops landed on the ground to directly engage the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. American installations were no longer off limits for attack by the Viet Cong lest America be given an excuse to escalate its involvement. It did not matter. America’s commitment rose to over have a million military personnel involved in the war. Yet Senator Morris was defeated in his effort at re-election in 1968.

We now know that both LBJ and McNamara at the time had their own doubts about whether any attack had actually taken place. The passions for war were being stirred by the American media while LBJ was assuring Americans that there would be no war between the U.S. lest that in any way jeopardize his election chances. It has since become reasonably clear that both LBJ and McNamara had been willing dupes of a fabrication by the military brass to escalate the war in Vietnam, though the evidence remains circumstantial; no smoking gun had been produced. (See James Bamford, Body of Secrets.) Having got away with it, the American military brass now went on a course of escalating provocative incidents to bring the war to North Vietnam.

Robert J. Hanyok in his reassessment for The New York Times claimed the evidence supports a case of unintended error rather than deliberate deception. My review of both the evidence and the long term thought processes and practices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council led me to the opposite conclusion, a deep pattern and practice of deliberate deception in the highest ranks of American military and civilian leadership at the time. The irony is that all this knowledge is available because America is a more open society than any other in my experience, confirmed when I was charged with investigating the involvement of various states in the Rwanda genocide.

The course of action was assisted on its way, not only because of LBJ’s personal convictions, but by the fact that he was a bully by nature. Lester B. Pearson, after he became Prime Minister of Canada, visited Washington to discuss the possibility of cancelling or delaying the installation in Sudbury of the Bomarc missiles that were specifically designed for nuclear warheads and that I wrote about yesterday. The two were in the Oval Office. After Pearson made the suggestion, Johnson first scowled and then growled and then approached Pearson face to face, his chest within inches of Mike’s chin. The tall Johnson actually took hold of the lapels of Pearson’s jacket, lifted him off his feet and roared into his face, “You try to stop the installation of those missiles and I’ll have your balls for dinner.”

I heard the story the evening of the incident. Pearson had flown back to Toronto, rather than Ottawa. Vince Kelly, then the head of the Young Liberals of Canada, came over to my house after he dropped Pearson off at his hotel and told me the story. He insisted that Pearson was still shaking from the incident when he arrived at the airport. Years later, when I chaired one of three commissions looking into the use of nuclear energy for peaceful and military purposes and where the waste could also be safely handled, our commission heard testimony from Professor David Cox of the Politics Department at Queens University that all along the Bomarcs had just been a decoy. They had been obsolete as we had claimed in the sixties. The vital and effective nuclear tipped missiles were already on Canadian soil all along the Dew Line. The Canadian government knew nothing about it at the time.

Deliberate deception has its own hubris. Kennedy never confessed to his misleading election campaign and to the claims of a missile gap. He allowed the generals and admirals to play with their military toys safely on leash, or so he thought, while he concentrated on setting the threat of nuclear war on a new course. There is no evidence that he briefed Lyndon Baines Johnson, his Vice-President, on the madcap schemes of the American military top brass, perhaps because LBJ might sympathize with them. Because of those sympathies, because Johnson himself was a bully, he added to and exaggerated the schemes rather than reigning them in. Instead of going on record as the greatest president ever as a result of his enormous domestic record of accomplishments, he went down in history as America’s greatest killer of kids, American but especially Vietnamese.

Can Obama learn the correct lessons from Johnson’s presidency and apply them when it comes to making decisions about Syria, about Iraq, about Yugoslavia and about Libya? Johnson had allowed himself willingly to become the ventriloquist for the military machination of the top brass in the U.S. Is Obama doing the same thing?


With the help of Alex Zisman

Obama in the Shadow of John F. Kennedy

Corporeality XI: Obama in the Shadow of John F. Kennedy


Howard Adelman

In 1957 when I was in my first year of medical school studying anatomy and histology, physiology and biochemistry at the University of Toronto, I tried to spend as much time as I could reading book after book in the Hart House Reading Room. (I had a lot of catching up to do.) I also attended, but did not participate in, Hart House debates. The last time I looked, on the wall of the Hart House Debates Room, a photograph still hangs there of one of the most memorable events in Hart House’s long and illustrious record as a forum for debating. In the picture, everyone in the audience had on a shirt, tie and jacket – except one. That figure stood out because he was wearing a white shirt, but no sport or suit jacket. That was me. I did not own a dress jacket at the time.

The other outstanding characteristic of the picture is that there were no women in the audience. Outside Hart House just below the Debates Room on the second floor, the chanting of a small gaggle of female students could be heard led by Linda Silver, Judy Graner and Margaret Brewin, the daughter of that old CCF/NDP stalwart, defender of the Japanese Canadians mistreated by the Canadian government and author of the 1965 volume on Canada’s new role in international affairs as professional peacekeepers, Stand on Guard: The Search for a Canadian Defence Policy, The three female students had asked to be able to attend but had been rebuffed by Warden Joseph McCully. In this small way, the feminist movement had begun at the University of Toronto.

The demand to attend was enormous because the guest speaker on that 14th of November was a young handsome charismatic American Senator rumoured to be on the campaign trail to become the Democratic candidate for President of the United States of America. The debate topic was worded as a negative: “The United States had not failed in its role as a world leader.” Senator John F. Kennedy defended the proposition. Steve Lewis led the opposing side. Kennedy’s side won, but barely. The only thing I remember from that debate itself, if I remember anything at all, was that Kennedy both defended the American role and performance as leader of the democratic world at the same time as he insisted that the U.S. had to step up to the plate and do much more and do it better.

Two years later, by the Fall of 1959, I and another student, who would have been classified as a mature student a few years later, went to Christie Pitts to speak about the threat of nuclear testing. I copped out, but Mac Makarchuk (later a two-term provincial MPP representing Brantford) got on a soapbox and spoke before an audience of about six that had collected in front of us. (I may be exaggerating the numbers.) Our soapbox career ended when a member of the Toronto’s finest approached us on horseback. I had a reason to be wary; he came from the police station at the south-west corner of Markham and London Streets, notorious for beating up those arrested – I had lived a block away on the south-west corner of Palmerston Ave. and London St. and often enough heard the shrieks of prisoners, though no one I knew then seemed to think it was unusual for police to beat up prisoners or were disturbed by such events. It turned out, however, that the police constable was very polite. He inquired whether we had a permit to speak. We confessed that we did not even know that we needed one. He said next time get one; in the meanwhile, wind up your speech as soon as you can.

The next morning in The Varsity, the University of Toronto student newspaper then edited by Sam Ajzenstat (who would go on to become a professor of philosophy at McMaster University), had as the front page major story, “Police Break Up Student Protesters.” Alan Walker wrote the story. In The Varsity story, he recounted the alleged events. Police on horseback charged down the hill breaking up the talk and scattering the audience. When I went to the Varsity office to confront Walker – I was the drama critic for the paper. I asked where he got his story since I had not even seen him there. He replied, “I made it up from a few details I had heard.” I was dumbfounded. He merely said coolly, “You will thank me for it. I have made you and Makarchuk heroes for your fellow students.”

The irony was that there was some truth in his prophecy. Many students contacted us and we organized the Toronto branch of the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CUCND). We went on to hold large rallies and marches protesting in general against nuclear testing and against the strategy underlying the proliferation of nuclear weapons, MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) to assure mutual deterrence between the Soviet Union and the West to prevent either side from initiating a nuclear war. We argued then that nuclear weapons were only useful if they were never used, and, if ever used, would prove useless because mutual deterrence had failed and we would all be dead. Our specific target was the nuclear warheads on the missiles to be installed at Sudbury.

In the battle over the Bomarc ground-to-air missiles, designed exclusively to carry nuclear warheads, Minister of Defence George Peakes and his successor, Douglas Harkness, pushed an integrated nuclear defence strategy in partnership with the United States under the NORAD mutual defence treaty signed in 1957. The agreement entailed installing Bomarcs in Sudbury. The NORAD agreement in general had been approved by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in early 1957. Diefenbaker acted then like an American Commander-in-Chief making the decision without a discussion with or the approval of either his Cabinet or the Defence Committee.

Because of dithering over paying transportation costs, safety in storage and the need for Canadian consent for their authorized use, we protesters had plenty of time to launch a powerful campaign. We soon gained an ally in the Diefenbaker cabinet, Howard Green, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was a proponent of diplomacy and peacekeeping and opposed putting nuclear-armed missiles on Canadian soil as incompatible with our international anti-proliferation stance. A few months after his inauguration in office, in May 1961, Kennedy arrived in Ottawa to meet with Diefenbaker to use his enormous persuasive powers and charm to resolve the dispute. However, the only result of this additional pressure was deepening the rift in the cabinet. In the end, the Diefenbaker cabinet broke up over these differences and Diefenbaker lost a vote of confidence in the House of Commons.

This was but a relatively minor setback for Kennedy compared to others he suffered in his first year in office. We (CUCND) had already been in direct conflict with John F. Kennedy when he was running to be elected as U.S. president in the November elections. For he ran on a platform of American military weakness in the face of the Soviet growing juggernaut – what he had dubbed in 1958 as “the missile gap,” the claim that President Eisenhower had been weak on defence and allowed the Soviet Union to leap ahead in advanced military technology. It was a fabrication. We knew it. Kennedy probably knew it and merely wanted to show he had “iron balls,” more even than the general, then President, who had led the allied fighting forces in Europe to win WWII in the European theatre.

Subsequent scholarship had absolutely verified that the claim of a missile gap was based on the exaggerated and erroneous estimates of the Gaither Committee. Our nuclear disarmament movement in Toronto had been launched by a fiction and a fabulist. Kennedy had enhanced his own presidential career prospects on a much more profound fiction. All this is background for assessing John F. Kennedy’s role as Commander-in-Chief when he won the presidency by the slimmest of margins against Richard Milhous Nixon.

While the Diefenbaker government was being torn apart over nuclear missiles, Kennedy was suffering one setback after another, even though Democrats controlled both houses of Congress with substantial majorities. The columnist George Wills dubbed it the most incompetent first year of any American presidency. When Jack Kennedy, the 35th president of the United State, was completing his first year in office, when he appeared once again on the cover of Time magazine on 5 January 1962 as Time’s man of the year, he was just beginning to recover from the depression that he had been thrust into because of a number of setbacks – from the war in the Congo, where the U.S. financed and led the UN “peacekeeping” operation, to Laos, to Berlin, but mainly in Cuba. 1961 was the year of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. It was a wonder that his approval rating at the beginning of 1962 stood at 78%.

John F. Kennedy had authorized the invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles. The original plan had called for American air support. Kennedy took that option away and made clear to the exiles that they would not be getting that air support. The Cuban exiles agreed to go ahead with their plans anyway. The CIA had prepared a report stating that there was no chance of success without American air support but it is unclear whether Kennedy ever saw it. The General Chiefs of Staff, who had been gung ho over the plan, knew the Cuban invaders would get in trouble without air support, calculated (mis-calculated as it turned out) that Kennedy would be forced to back down and would send in air support for the invaders. Kennedy did not. Castro’s intelligence service knew where the invaders were landing, when and in what strength. The Cuban military were waiting. When the exiles landed, 100 were killed and 1,200 were taken captive. The United States, and President Kennedy in particular, were covered in mud.

We in CUCND were having our own crisis at about the same time. The USSR had resumed testing now at an even more furious pace. In October 1961, they conducted a series of tests in the atmosphere, one utilizing a 50 megaton hydrogen nuclear weapon 2500 times more powerful than the one used on Hiroshima. Danny Goldstick, the President of the Communist Party on campus, was part of our comprehensive political executive. I demanded he resign unless he denounced the Soviet renewal of testing. He would not, so I resigned asking the membership to rescind his appointment to the executive as inconsistent with his support of Soviet testing.

If I was angry at Danny, think of how furious Kennedy was with the Joint Chiefs of Staff for keeping him in the dark, allowing the invasion to go awry knowing it would, and trying to trap Kennedy into making a political decision he did not want to make. He was then determined to reign in his Chiefs of Staff. The issue was command and control. 62-year-old General Lyman Lemnitzer, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, barely kept his contempt hidden for the 42-year-old President who had only ever commanded a PT Boat. Like Admiral Arleigh Burke, Air Force Generals Curtis LeMay and Austin Power, and NATO Commander General Louis Norstad, all were anti-communist hawks. All seemed willing to risk MAD by using nuclear weapons to force enemies to retreat or back down. All jealously protected their authority to use nuclear weapons as part of strategic decision-making. Admiral Burke even went on a public speaking tour to address the issue of an overall strong response to America’s enemies by really threatening to use nuclear weapons.

General Maxwell Taylor, Kennedy’s military advisor in the White House, had preceded Lemnitzer as Chief of Staff of the Army and would succeed him as Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He had published a book called The Uncertain Trumpet in 1959 that had advocated the carefully calibrated use of nuclear weapons in a military theatre. Given the then existing right of senior officers to decide to use nuclear weapons, this would mean delegating to field commanders the responsibility for making decisions to use nuclear weapons. Kennedy acted. He insisted that senior military officers clear all speeches with the White House and took back exclusive authority to employ nuclear weapons to the Office of the President.

The Joint Chiefs were convinced that Kennedy could not be trusted to confront the communist enemy. They had even kept from the President their Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan that envisioned dropping 170 atomic and hydrogen bombs on Moscow alone. McGeorge Bundy had to order the Joint Chiefs of Staff to provide Kennedy with a copy. The ground had been set for the conflict between the White House and the Joint Chiefs during the Cuban missile crisis in light of Kennedy’s first year of experience in dealing with the Joint Chiefs and especially their role in the Bay of Pigs disaster, but also their advice on Laos that followed.

After Lemnitzer proposed putting American troops on the ground and initiating a bombing campaign to stop the communist advances in Laos, he also proposed using nuclear weapons against the Laotian communists who were marching towards Vientiane. He even wanted to bomb Hanoi for sponsoring the guerillas. He guaranteed victory if given the right to use nuclear weapons. The military leaders ran a covert campaign in the press to portray Kennedy as lacking the guts to confront the communists.

The most farcical proposal emanating from Lemnitzer himself was Operation Northwoods, a plan to set off terrorist bombs in Miami and Florida in general against Cuban exile targets and to blame the attacks on Castro. He also advocated faking an attack against Guantánamo to give the U.S. a pretext to attack the Cuban communist regime once and for all. Then came the October Cuban nuclear missile crisis. By then my wife and I had two children. We were in total fear of an all-out nuclear war. We had one closet filled with emergency supplies. After reviewing our options, we realized that fleeing north was useless as we would only face a nuclear winter. The nuclear clock was now set at one minute to midnight.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended a sustained all-out air attack on Cuba’s missiles followed by landing American military forces on the ground. Kennedy was already angry for the reluctance of the Joint Chiefs to follow orders promptly and send troops to the previously all-white segregated University of Mississippi when James Meredith, a Black civil rights worker and former U.S. air force pilot, went to enroll under orders that had gone all the way to the Supreme Court and Governor Ross Barnett had been found in contempt. The Joint Chiefs finally dispatched the National Guard and militia under Kennedy’s authority to “suppress any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy.” Kennedy then ignored, rather than directly rejecting, their advice on how to handle the Cuban missile crisis fearing counter attacks on Berlin and NATO installations in Turkey and then setting the cold war powers on a path of nuclear escalation. Shades of Vietnam to come, he also feared America getting bogged down in long term guerilla war in Cuba. Kennedy opted for a blockade, itself an act of war, in parallel with a diplomatic initiative.

Khrushchev backed down and ordered his ships carrying missiles to Cuba to turn around. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R not only agreed to dismantle the missiles already in Cuba, and balance that with the dismantling of obsolete allied missiles in Turkey, but also would eventually forge a comprehensive arms control agreement to reverse the nuclear arms race and ban atmospheric nuclear testing following his famous speech. It was my first feeling of exhilaration following the terror we all felt at the time of the imminence of an all-out nuclear war. Except for Maxwell Taylor, detailing the agreement in principle involved cutting out any of the senior military officers from even news of the advances in the negotiations being conducted by Averell Harriman.  However, at the Senate hearings, the generals attacked the treaty and the ban on atmospheric testing, but the Senate decisively approved the treaty.

In Andrew Cohen’s Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours that Changed History, he argues that the key turning point in Kennedy’s presidency came not with the Cuban missile crisis, but in the two speeches he made a half year before he was assassinated. The first was his commencement address at American University in Washington entitled, “A Strategy of Peace” on 10 June 1963. (The one the next day on American race relations can be ignored for the purposes of this topic.) Kennedy began by insisting that ignorance is too often abroad and that the truth is rarely perceived. He argued for defining peace not in terms of either “the peace of the grave” or “the security of the state.” The goal of peace had to include peace for all. For the first time I believe in public he declared what he had concluded eighteen months earlier, that the MAD doctrine and total war made no sense, though he did not repeat what he had said to Jackie in private, that he would prefer his children to be red rather than dead.

We peaceniks had won. The most powerful leader in the free world, the main publicist of the missile gap and the need to strengthen the American military, was mouthing our positions five years later. In the comprehensive test ban treaty that was reached, Kennedy had not only avoided a nuclear war, but he had kept radioactive fallout from the air and the oceans, thereby earning the country’s enduring regard for his effectiveness as a crisis manager and negotiator. When the two sides agreed to a ban on nuclear tests in the atmosphere, underwater, and in outer space, the trajectory of the nuclear arms race had been reversed. There would be no more Strontium 90 added to the atmosphere with all its dangers as a carcinogen. Kennedy had proven that diplomacy could be superior to war.

Harry Truman had understood that the Commander-in-Chief had to assert his authority over the military when senior officers indulged in a propensity to overstep their political boundaries and engage in political activities JFK’s challenges with the military had been even greater. Barack Obama would inherit a powerful precedent.


With the help of Alex Zisman

Obama in the Shadow of Truman and Eisenhower

Corporeality X: Obama in the Shadow of Truman and Eisenhower


Howard Adelman

The Obama Presidency has been marked by the strenuous efforts of Barack Obama to leave a legacy as a peace president. George W. Bush wanted to be a domestic president but was manipulated by his Vice-President, Dick Cheney, into becoming mired in two long wars – Iraq and Afghanistan. Barack Obama started as an activist president intent on getting out of foreign military adventures, specifically in Iraq, to forge a breakthrough towards peace in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians, to set relations with Iran on a new course and end the threat of Iran as a nuclear power, and to recalibrate relations with Cuba. Where military action was not a prime option and where resolving disputes was mostly under his control and a matter of skillful diplomacy – Iran and Cuba – he was successful. In the case of Israel-Palestine, he and John Kerry spectacularly failed, not for want of trying, nor even for lack of skill, but, because the “partners,” each for his own reasons, were unwilling to resolve differences in ways that would be too much of a compromise as far as each was concerned.

Obama’s greatest failures have been where his powers as Commander-in-Chief have come into play – in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan. Admittedly each of these conflicts was wrought with tremendous difficulties. But Obama has not been able to manipulate those difficulties to the advantage of the United States. When it came to the intelligent use of military power either to extricate the U.S. from wars overseas or to remain involved in wars overseas in ways that advanced American interests, Obama, thus far, has proven to be a failure as a war president. This is particularly true in Syria where a war has gone on for five years, where the side he backed is being bombed by the Russians and forced to retreat in the face of an assault by Iranian proxies, where the common enemy of both Russia and the West, Daesh or ISIS, has been forced back, but only to the advantage of Putin and his allies, and where the costs of the Syrian war to Syrians has been enormous – a country left in large part in ruins, huge number of casualties, half the population displaced and with large numbers of refugees flowing into Europe in disarray.

My argument here is that a good part of the responsibility rests in the way the Office of the President is structured, where the President must be both a political leader and a Commander-in-Chief. Dubya Bush tried the fusion approach where his Office took the path of a coup and civilians seized control of the military. Obama has taken the opposite course, not of consolidation of his powers as both a political leader and the top military commander, but by reverting to the separation of the two powers as much as possible. But, as I will explain in future blogs, Barack Obama has been trapped by the structure of his own office where he has not been able to leave the conduct of war in the hands of his military, but had to involve himself too deeply in command and control responsibilities which compromised and undermined his role as leader of the American polity.

Would the Americans have been better off originally constituting the office so that the President only had responsibilities as a political leader and where military matters, other than overall considerations of political goals and policies, were left exclusively in the hands of military commanders? We do not know. Speculations of a “what if….” variety do not help when the real issue is playing well with the cards that you have been dealt. But Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau were left with a structure of an office where separation of powers was unequivocal. Harper engaged in token military involvement and sacrificed any Canadian diplomatic role. Justin Trudeau seems to be following a course of cutting back on military involvement where it might compromise Canada returning to the international stage as a diplomatic peace broker. I suggest that, under current conditions, the resurrection of this old option will no longer work. But that is a separate subject. Suffice to say that an alternative structure to the American one, a formal separation of powers instead of marrying them in the one office is no guarantee of success, especially when a country has been handed the responsibilities of leadership for the democratic side. But the separation of powers within the one body, while now unavoidable in the U.S., needs proper management. And proper management requires adequate understanding.

The question then is, given the combination of political and military leadership in one office, given the principle that civilian leadership must take precedence over the role of military leadership, and given the prior efforts of political leadership to enact a coup over the military and assume absolute control under George W. Bush, and given that the chances of a reverse coup of the military over civilian authority, which the founding fathers most feared, is a remote possibility, how can one strike a reasonable relationship between the two roles that neither fosters military adventurism nor, on the other hand, sentences the President of the United States to tripping over the enormous military capacity of the United States?

I pose the question in its starkest way to suggest that a resolution of the dilemma is virtually impossible. What is needed, as in most conflicts, whether external or internal, is the ability to manage the problem. And that requires first recognizing that there is a problem, attempting to put one’s finger on symptoms indicating that the tension between the two roles has gone awry, tracing how and why the relationship has become unbalanced, and determining what tools are available to set the relationship between the role of the President as a political leader and his role as a Commander-in-Chief on a positive synergistic path rather than one destructive in advancing the interests of the United States and the world. Non-citizens of the United States are impacted by an improper resolution but can only try to influence the situation given their advantage as outsiders.

Let us review the anatomy of the situation. The United States President is the elected political leader of the United States and the unelected leader of the free world. His political powers at home are fenced in by the division of political responsibilities between the executive, the legislative and the judicial branches, and externally because the American leader operates in a world of independent nation states. This is a given. But the President also operates within a strong presidential system that includes the role of Commander-in-Chief in charge of the various branches of the military, including state militias. He is a two-in-one president.

Further, he is a two-in-one president in which the possibility of a military coup is remote and the fear of one even more distant. But the possibility of a civilian coup over the military is readily apparent. However, there is a real danger that, in and effort to restore a reasonable separation of powers, both the adequate execution of responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief will be undercut while, at the same time, proponents of a civilian coup will be re-strengthened for they will have the backing of a disenchanted public. The fusion advocates, those who want civilians not simply to supervise, oversee, monitor and provide political direction and parameters for the military, but to run the military, will once again attempt to actually engage in command and control functions in an even more extensive way than Cheney and Rumsfeld ever attempted. In that way, America is open to dictatorship through the back door, not by the military seizing civilian power, but by civilians seizing compete control over the military as a means to engage America once again in adventurism abroad.

lt is important to emphasize what functions the President can and should perform if the responsibilities of supervising and monitoring the military are to be carried out without engaging in military operations. Briefly, the President should maintain but not exercise authority by setting forth policy directions and parameters without attempting to manage. It is a governing and executive function without management responsibilities. At the same time, the President must not apply military powers to matters of political concern – such as the treatment of prisoners of war. This is easier said than done when the major conflicts are irregular wars rather than wars between states and when the major enemies are terrorists and not other political states. Basically, the Commander-in-Chief must ensure that the military, in carrying out its independent functions, follows executive direction and operates within the rule of law.

Though difficult, it was far easier for Harry Truman to fire General MacArthur when the latter wanted to carry the Korean War into confrontation with the Chinese at the Yalu River and not simply cross the 38th parallel and sbring the North Korean government to its knees. Confronting the Chinese militarily could escalate the war and risked war with China and even the USSR. As the UN troops marched north and captured Pyongyang, China massed four armies and three artillery divisions along the Yalu River and even sent some probes across the river. When Truman awarded MacArthur his fifth Distinguished Service Medal at Wake Island and authorized the military operation north of the 38th parallel, he also insisted that risk of any conflict with China be avoided.

MacArthur could have avoided that risk instead of carrying the war to the Yalu River and even appearing willing, and perhaps eager, to cross it. He could have stopped 100 miles south of the Yalu River at the easily defensible narrow neck of the Korean peninsula only 100 miles wide between Angu on the west coast just in from the Yellow Sea linking up to the Taedong River and then over to Hamhung on the Sea of Japan to the east.

Instead, China was now directly threatened. Truman’s parameters had been breached. Truman had no choice if civilian power was to be maintained over the military but to fire MacArthur. The advance of UN forces toward the Yalu River had not been authorized.  Lest the Americans try to topple the Communist regime, as MacArthur had expressed a desire to do (already going well beyond his responsibilities as a military commander), a reluctant Mao Zedong crossed the Yalu River and pushed the UN troops back, first a long ways into South Korea and then retreating back to the 38th parallel.

So do you have to ensure military commanders do not exceed political boundaries at the same time as you have to prevent civilians from seizing management of as well as policy direction for the military? This has been a continuing conundrum, particularly in the aftermath of Korea. The one side of the coin is not preventing a military coup, but preventing the military from seizing control of political policy by the way operations are executed on the ground. General Eisenhower assiduously drew a heavy line between his responsibilities as President and responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief, in good part by leaving the operations of the military in the hands of his military chiefs, but also, because he had been a much decorated military officer, he understood where the military should not exceed its authority.

When General Dwight D. Eisenhower became President, he was acutely aware of these tensions and risks. When he was about to leave office, he articulated very clearly how that tension must be managed, directions often overlooked because of the huge publicity given to the use of the phrase military-industrial complex. That reference echoed historic American political anxieties resulting from the fears of the founding fathers of the dangers of a huge standing army, but with the addition of even larger fears that emerged after WWII over an ever-increasing arms industry acquiring unwarranted influence.

This was especially true in light of Eisenhower’s own famous 1957 doctrine that cast an even larger shadow, the policy that a country could request American economic assistance and/or aid from U.S. military forces if it was being threatened by armed aggression from another state. However, the real core of his final speech given three days before he stepped down was not a celebration of the Eisenhower Doctrine or his warnings about the industrial-military complex that was partially a consequence of that Doctrine, but rather his advice on managing the dual faces of the presidency.

  1. Recognize that the President and Congress are mutually interdependent and seek cooperation in managing the business of the Nation, especially on issues of great moment where agreement is essential, in order to serve the national good rather than mere partisanship. On this rule, Barack Obama has bent over backwards, an effort not matched over the last five years by the Republican-controlled Congress.
  2. Maintain America as the strongest, most influential and most productive nation in the world. On this, Barack Obama has had mixed results, but largely on the positive side.
  3. Recognize that America’s leadership and prestige depends, “not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.” Barack Obama deserves high marks on the goal of attempting to move the world closer to permanent peace and human betterment.
  4. Be modest in the use of one’s strengths and never arrogant, be comprehensive and deep in the understanding of issues, and be ready to engage in sacrifice in the face of enemies eager to inflict grievous harm on America and its allies, whether abroad or domestically.
  5. Be persistent, steady and sure in direction, especially in the face of ideologies which are hostile in both intent and practice, global in scope, ruthless in purpose and insidious in method. (Eisenhower added “atheistic in character, but I have omitted that phrase.) It is unclear whether Obama has succeeded in this regard.
  6. Emphasize multiple small steps across a spectrum of fields rather than surrendering to the recurrent temptation of betting on some spectacular, costly and purportedly miraculous action to confront current difficulties. Very high marks for Barack Obama in this regard.
  7. Delegate authority and responsibilities to farseeing and responsible officials; Eisenhower increased the size of the White House staff, not to take away power from departments and the civil service as Stephen Harper did in his efforts at micro-management, but to enhance the professionalism and the expertise of advice as in creating the office of national security advisor. I believe Obama has done this, but I am unsure.
  8. Institutionalize cooperation, coordination and especially the expression, articulation and exchanges of different viewpoints and perspectives as in Eisenhower’s weekly meetings with and use of the National Security Council. Obama has continued this legacy.
  9. Make balance the byword in good judgement in making policy: balance between dealing with specific issues and broader considerations; balance in and among national programs; balance between the private and the public economy (as distinct from the recent Republican overemphasis on relying increasingly on the private sector); balance between cost and hoped for advantage; balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future.
  10. Respect independent and free research (Harper should have heeded Eisenhower’s words) while ensuring that public policy is not captured by a scientific/technological elite. (Already in 1960, Eisenhower noted that the blackboard had been replaced by hundreds of computers.) I do not believe that this has emerged as a powerful imminent danger.
  11. Do not surrender to the “impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.” Heed these words, as Barack Obama does and the climate change deniers do not.
  12. Always engage with allies in a “confederation of mutual trust and respect” among equals no matter how weak an ally may be, and never abandon the continuing imperative in pursuit of perpetual peace and, wherever possible, the avoidance of the certain agonies of war. To that end, the pursuit of disarmament had to remain a continuing imperative as “we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.” Eisenhower confessed that in this area he had failed to make progress and Barack Obama can justifiably boast that he has made some.


With the help of Alex Zisman


Indivisibility and Divisibility within the U.S. Presidency

Corporeality IX: Indivisibility and Divisibility within the U.S. Presidency


Howard Adelman

Tomorrow, President’s Day, is on Monday, the 15th of February this year. George Washington’s birthday is on the 22nd of February. In fact, the holiday, for almost fifty years has been celebrated on the third Thursday of February to accommodate a public enamored with long weekends and retail outlets in love with scheduling great sales on such days. This year, President’s Day falls only two days after Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on the 13th of February. Anticipating such a fluctuation when the holiday was set for the third Monday in February, the day was renamed President’s Day from Washington’s birthday to celebrate both presidents. In reality, the day is now widely understood as celebrating the Office of the President and all its occupants rather than just one or two presidents.

President’s Day is now more akin to Victoria Day except that, in Canada, the day that used to be celebrated just as Queen Victoria’s birthday is now celebrated as the birthday of the current monarch as well, even though Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday falls on 21 April. The shift of one celebration to honouring the Office (U.S.) to the practice in Canada of celebrating the current monarch is telling. In Canada, the monarch is supposed to be a symbol of unity, but has become the symbol of Canada’s political fault line. The day that was once known in Quebec as Fête de la Reine became unofficially Fête de Dollard after the Quiet Revolution in the sixties and in 2003 officially became National Patriot’s Day. Our focus, however, is the United States presidency and the Canadian example will be used only as a foil.

So it is appropriate at this time to write about the nature of the office of the U.S. President and its current occupant. It is not as if all the occupants are worthy of celebration. I cite just one example, George W. Bush, Obama’s predecessor in that high office. He ranks among the worst presidents in American history. Hence, the understanding is that President’s Day honours the high office much more than all its occupants. In contrast, there are no celebrations of the birthdays of any Prime Minister of Canada or the office. One of the essential features of the American presidential office, as distinct from the Canadian Prime Minister’s office, is that the person who is president is both the political leader of the U.S.A. as well as Commander-in-Chief of the American armed forces. Two positions are embodied in one person. In America, we find the dilemma of the elected king’s two opposite functions. The issue in the U.S. throughout its history has been whether those two powers are separable or inseparable in the one person, and, if separable, which part rules the other. If it is the civilian part, how is control over the military role exercised or, surprisingly since unanticipated, a coup of the military by civilians prevented?

The George W. Bush presidency can correctly be viewed as the embodiment of the doctrine both of the indivisibility of the office of the U.S. President and the infallibility of the actions performed by that office when it comes to military matters when indivisibility becomes the order of the day. The President can do no wrong. Ironically, this doctrine was enunciated at a time when George W. Bush delegated all his Commander-in-Chief responsibilities to a small coterie of officials around him. He never engaged in any substantive discussions of military policy himself. Robert Blackwill, for example, who was the coordinator for strategic planning for Iraq in the National Security Council in 2004, was never asked anything about Iraq even as he traveled with Bush daily in the 2004 elections. The exclusive focus was re-election. Further, as everyone who has written on the subject acknowledges, advisory meetings of top officials were exercises in silent hostility – whether between Richard Armitage and Doug Feith or Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld. There were presentations but no substantive exchanges or discussions about policy decisions, thereby allowing Dick Cheney to determine policy by his control of the President. Condoleezza Rice tried but failed to facilitate such debates. George W. Bush was a Commander-in-Chief, but without the dignity such an office should have as he dithered and shook his legs up and down under the table in recognition that he was involved in discussions over and above his mental capacities.

Dick Cheney is usually viewed as the Rasputin influencing, exercising and, most importantly, defending that doctrine of presidential power. Not for George W. Bush, but for himself. George W. Bush is often, and, I believe, correctly seen as Charlie McCarthy, the ventriloquist dummy for Dick Cheney, Bush’s Edgar Bergen when it comes to foreign affairs. After all, George W. Bush consulted with only two officials before deciding o go to war in Iraq. Neither Dick Cheney nor Donald Rumsfeld were military officers, but policy advisers determined to use the military for their own political purposes. This was a case of the civilians seizing absolute control of the military for strictly political purposes.

David Graham in an article in The Atlantic (5 November 2015) reinforces this interpretation based on his interview with former President George H.W. Bush in anticipation of the latter’s forthcoming biography, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. The elder 91-year-old former President, George H.W. Bush, criticized the dominating Dick Cheney and the arrogant Ronald Rumsfeld for entrapping his son in initiating a foolish war for their own nefarious purposes. He referred to Cheney as, “Just iron-ass. His seeming knuckling under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything, use force to get our way in the Middle East,” to advance their own imperial agenda.

Cheney’s belief in the untrammelled power of the Commander-in-Chief went back to his days as George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Defence. In the 1990 lead-up to the first Gulf War, President Bush overruled Cheney’s advice that the administration should go to war without Senate approval, not because the approval was in doubt, but because Cheney was committed to the doctrine of the indivisible and absolute power in matters of war of the Commander-in-Chief. Bush père criticized his son for being a patsy in the hands of those two manipulators. Over time, but too late, Bush-son became disenchanted, first with Rumsfeld and then even with Cheney. After the Republicans were whipped badly in the 2006 elections, Bush fired Rumsfeld. He also gradually became sceptical of the advice he was receiving from his Rasputin.

The exercise of supreme and unchallenged authority, ostensibly by the President, but, in reality, by Cheney, extended into legal matters as well as military ones. The U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps (the JAGs) operates a court system dealing with civil litigation, tort claims, labour law, the application of just war principles and international law, but Cheney was primarily concerned with suborning the Judge Advocates, the licensed attorneys representing military service personnel. The dictates of civilian lawyers in the Defense Department, who are political appointees more than individuals with high standards of professionalism, were to determine what JAGs could or could not do. This was another area in which there was an effort to make the rulings of the Commander-in-Chief unaccountable to the rule of law.  But the most heinous example was the rules for interrogating captured alleged terrorists and not permitting them to have independent counsel.

Obama’s presidency can be viewed as the embodiment of the doctrine both of the divisibility of the office of the U.S. President and the fallibility of the actions performed by that office.

The American Constitution insists that the highest military authority belongs to the highest civilian authority; the President is the First Admiral, the First Chief-of-Staff and Commander of the Air Force. David Luban called this “fused dominion” characteristic not only of the American presidential system, but of warlords and military dictators, ancient hero-rulers and feudal Western kings. In the fusion, could the Commander-in-Chief suborn the civilian head of state or would the civilian head of state ensure that the military remained subordinate to civilian rule as the writers of the Constitution intended? If he did the latter, could he interpret that principle of domestic rule over the military from a supervisory role and ensuring military actions were governed by civilian-set goals? Or could and would he, in effect, engage in a military coup, not of the military over civilian office, but of civilians over military professionals by seizing absolute control over the military unaccountable to any other political institution?

In Jay Bybee’s torture memo, under the George W. Bush administration, the indivisibility of the office is cited to justify the presidential exercise of untrammeled power in the area of security matters. “The Framers understood the Clause as investing the President with the fullest range of power understood at the time of the ratification of the Constitution as belonging to the military commander.” What I call the indivisibility of the highest office, David Luvan calls the interpretation, as forged by the Bush administration, the consolidationist theory as distinct from separationist doctrine. The consolidationist view is summarized in the briefing of the Justice Department Lawyer to Congress, “The President Is Always Right,” what I call the indivisibility doctrine is upheld. In this interpretation of Article 2 of the Constitution, in the global war on terror, Congress cannot second guess the President. The President is entitled to use any form of interrogation for enemy combatants deemed appropriate without Congressional oversight.

So Abu Ghraib is not just about the rights of enemy combatants in captivity; the issue goes to the very heart of the meaning of the American Constitution. In the consolidationist view, courts that generally oversee the protection of such rights must also defer to the Presidency because courts lack the requisite competence of the Commander-in-Chief and cannot and should not tie the hands of the President, even by applying a criterion forbidding “cruel and unusual punishment.” More expansively, that doctrine invades limitations on the courts even in domestic matters, for the doctrine includes an absence of geographical limits to its application since global terrorists can be found within America itself. (Cf. Padilla v. Bush) In this interpretation of the battlefield, the military, not the judiciary, determine the status of the individual as an enemy combatant. In other words, using the indivisibility principle, qua Commander-in-Chief, the powers of the President in military matters were unlimited.

Barack Obama, a former Professor of Constitutional Law, opposed the indivisibility principle for interpreting the powers of the President. Though both powers were consolidated in a single person, the doctrine of separation of powers still applied and the responsibilities of a President as the highest civilian authority in the land entailed that civilian responsibilities, and responsibilities to the democratic polity, overrode any of his military responsibilities. Though I certainly support Obama’s interpretation, it is not as a legal scholar, but as a philosopher. However, my interest here is not even defending the divisibility and separation of powers doctrine, as much as indicating that this is an issue in contention in the United States because historically the Americans copied British developments at the time where the king was both head of government and Commander-in-Chief. It would trap Obama in a paradox from which he could not escape. (Read tomorrow’s blog.) In Canada, where the system was forged a hundred years later, the divisibility of military and civilian power became the dominant conception without any equivocation.

No matter which position one takes in the United States, given the consolidation of powers in the same office, there will always be an inherent debate on the “broad substantive war powers” conferred on the President, a virtually non-exiting debate in Canada. Why in the U.S. does Barack Obama personally decide who will be the target of drone assassinations? Is this an exercise in machismo? If it were, then Obama would be directly undercutting his belief in the divisibility of powers and the subordination of military to civilian authority in the Office of the President. From my review of the literature, I am convinced that Obama does it, not to usurp the skills and prowess of the military in selecting targets, but because of the danger of the military exceeding their areas of competence and using their resources to eliminate political leaders with serious political consequences internationally. The separation of military and civilian decisions even extends to the battlefield and the requisite just war norm that civilians are not to be targeted intentionally and only may be unintentionally killed in proportion to the importance of the military target. However, as another unintended consequence, such a premise relies on making the CIA another branch of the military.

When it is unequivocal that a Canadian Prime Minister is not the Commander-in-Chief, the rule of civilian authority over military power is unambiguous. But when the two functions reside in the same one body, even when the President wants to reinforce the principle of the divisibility of powers and the supremacy of civilian over military rule, he is trapped by his responsibilities and has to stay up late deciding whether it is appropriate to target this person or that person with a drone strike. He becomes the number one assassin on the world stage. It is almost as if an American who becomes President cannot avoid becoming an imperial President to some degree.


With the Help of Alex Zisman

The Mishkan and the Magpies

The Mishkan and the Magpies: Terumah: Exodus 25.1 – 27:19


Howard Adelman

For a section of the Torah that is almost all about following directions, directions for constructing the Ark for the covenant, the table, the menorah, the portable tabernacle (the mishkan), the altar, the enclosure for the tabernacle itself, after reading this section of the Torah why am I left so puzzled? It is not as if I am unfamiliar with translating design ideas, even ones not represented with detailed architectural drawings, into actual physical objects – at least overseeing that function since I have virtually no abilities as a craftsman. I may be a philosopher, but ever since my days as a student acquiring and renovating houses as residences for students for our student co-op, I have literally overseen the renovations of dozens of buildings. I love doing it. People hate renovating their own homes. For me it has been a delight. So why do I get exasperated by a section of Torah that is, on the surface at least, about architecture and design?

It is not as if this text is strange. It is so familiar. Have you ever been in a synagogue where you have not seen inscribed somewhere the words engraved in stone or on a plaque or somewhere:

“And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם

Rashi genuinely tried to offer an explanation. The texts as inscribed are out of chronological order. The story of the Israelites making and worshipping a golden calf, an idol to worship, may follow this text in the Torah, but the events depicted preceded the building of the mishkan. God could not continue to dwell on a mountain top like Zeus or other gods. He had to descend to live among his people so the people could bask in His presence and He could ensure they did not slip into idolatry.

Thus, even though Rashi was an advocate of taking the plain meaning of the text as primary, he was no literalist. He knew that humans at the very least, not God, put the Torah together. Building a sanctuary for the sake of the Israelites so God could live amongst them did not stack up as an adequate motive. For then they make a golden calf just when God is living among them. Talk about chutzpah! Getting them to make a mishkan with the gold and silver and fine fabrics from among all the other loot the Israelites brought out of Egypt after the Israelites built the golden calf makes more sense since it takes these riches out of their possession so they cannot build another idol. And that is something God would do for He was a jealous God.

Very inventive, but not persuasive as far as I am concerned! The evidence is circumstantial rather than providing concrete literal clues to establish that the two stories were put together out of order. What would be the motive for the editor doing such a thing? Besides, the existing order makes a lot of sense on psychological grounds. When God dwelt on a mountain top, the people were full of awe and wonder. But when He deigned to live among the people, that sense of tremendous respect withered away and the Israelites could turn away from Him and adopt idol worship.

If jealousy, early warning and prevention are not adequate as motives, what could qualify? The text seems very clear – “that I may dwell amongst you.” That just begs another question, however. Why? Why does God want to dwell among His people? To be able to watch over the Israelites to observe any transgressions? At the opposite end, to share in the vibes of a growing community with a common purpose, doubly important for a disembodied being who has to live vicariously through the crazy lives of human beings? Or perhaps, somewhat related to the last, because God is lonely way up high upon the mountain top and He wants to live amongst His people, not above them. These are just some of the possibilities.

Let me suggest why it is difficult to discern the real motive or motives. One explanation the text offers is, “That they may know that I am the Lord their God Who brought them out of the land of Egypt,” (29:46) suggesting that the point of living among them is that the Israelites not forget, and, indeed, come to know the living God who dwells in their midst. But the text continues, “that I might dwell in their midst.” (my italics) This possibly inverts the meaning to mean that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt to allow God to live in their midst. Is the purpose for the Israelites to know their God or for God to have a home among his people? Rashi emphasized the latter – the Israelites were brought forth out of Egypt so God could live among them (and could not in Egypt). Ramban leans towards the former interpretation that the Israelites will know God when He lives amongst them.

The two meanings need not, of course, be mutually exclusive. God may deeply need to leave His remote and lonely refuge and “come in from the cold.” The mishkan is the place where He can dwell both among them but separate from them. But the people of Israel also need God to be in their midst both physically in terms of a dwelling place and spiritually. God also has a deep need for physicality, for corporeality, a need which can never be satisfied if you are a Jew, for God manifesting Himself as a physical being would stand against the injunction not to make physical objects idols of worship. God needs a physical presence. The Israelites need God as a spiritual presence in a physical abode. But God inherently cannot be physical. So a mishkan is built to overcome the paradox, a place where God can dwell and be present, but not personally physically present. The motives of God and his people are complementary and fulfilled by the same construction. The two needs, both of God’s and of the Israelites, can be mutually satisfied.

But then why all the luxury? Why gold this and silver that and cloth made of goat’s hair? Look at the list: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other gemstones. Can you imagine a horde of refugees in a camp in a barren wilderness being invited to give gifts of gold and precious stones to build a home for God? For they were all refugees, including God. When the people of Israel were living in Egypt, God too was in exile as well since their destinies were mutually bound together. The exodus from Egypt is a redemption for both. But why the need for a sanctuary to serve both humans and God? And why such a luxurious building when it is presumably only a temporary structure, a portable small home in today’s parlance? But a rich one! How is luxury related to sanctifying both ourselves and God?

I could pull a Bernie Saunders. It was a way of reducing inequality. Take from the rich and build infrastructure for the whole community. Except there was no taking.  Verse 2 at the beginning of the parsha reads: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” The only gifts acceptable were gifts brought voluntarily. The giver had to have his heart moved to offer a donation. But that is no obstacle to the explanation. The method of obtaining redistribution need not be compulsory. Charitable giving is an effective mode of redistribution.

Why remove the wealth from the rich who were lucky enough to leave Egypt either with much of their own wealth and/or wealth stolen from the Egyptians? Because the Israelites were all in this together. It was a collective action problem. Too much inequality undercuts the morale needed for dealing with issues as a collectivity. Second, the mishkan could serve as a central bank, much as Fort Knox once did. It could guarantee the tokens of exchange when the Israelites engaged in trade with the other tribes and nations they encountered.

But the best explanation I ever heard was from an old British folktale “A Tiding of Magpies,” birds with a well-renowned and deserved reputation for collecting bright ornaments, but also one of the most intelligent animals in the world, the only non-mammal species able to recognize itself in a mirror test. It also helps to know another folktale, this time a Chinese one called The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd, a love story between Zhinü, the weaver girl, and Niulang, the cowherd. Their love was forbidden. To prevent them getting back together, they were banished to opposite sides of the Silver River (the Milky Way). But once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, a tiding (flock) of magpies formed a bridge to reunite the lovers for one day. The 7th lunar month in the Torah is Tishrei (Ethanim) according to Kings 8:2 and the Israelite rather than the Judaic calendar. Rosh Hashanah is the first day of Tishrei. The seventh day of Tishrei is the end of the first week after Rosh Hashanah. So once a year on the 7th of Tishrei counting from Rosh Hashanah, Zhinü and Niulang are reunited with the help of magpies.

Read only vertically at first. The first eight lines of the tiding of this old British folktale reads as follows in the first column:

A Tiding of Magpies

One for sorrow                        the sorrow of leaving Egypt and the trek through the desert

Two for Joy                             in the promised land that beckons

Three for a girl                        all refugees sacrifice themselves for the sake of

Four for a boy                                     future generations

Five for silver                          the means to achieve

Six for gold                             two, three and four above

Seven is for the secret

That never can be told.


With the help of Alex Zisman


Justin Trudeau is not the Commander-in-Chief

Corporeality VIII: An Undivided Prime Minister and the Division of Powers


Howard Adelman

David Bercuson, a noted military historian at the University of Calgary and Director of its Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, is also the Director of Programs of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute also based in Calgary. He wrote an op-ed two days ago in The Globe and Mail entitled, “Remind us, why are we pulling out of the IS mission?

The op-ed began, “The Trudeau government announced its intention to withdraw from direct combat against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (the CF-18 bombing campaign) just two days after a major national poll revealed a majority of Canadians still support that very mission. To be sure, Canada’s efforts against IS will continue – we will train more anti-IS troops, we will provide more humanitarian aid, we will help our coalition partners with aircraft that can refuel their fighter jets and point them in the direction they need to kill IS and to destroy its governance and logistical centres, but we won’t be shooting IS ourselves. That’s not what Canadians want and the action taken by this government begs explanation from the Prime Minister himself.”

Not likely, at least in terms of an acceptable explanation. Instead others will have to provide one. Bercuson offers a sarcastic critical one, suggesting that the decision “possibly stems from his juvenile comment almost a year ago that his predecessor wanted to ‘whip out his CF-18s’ to meet the crisis, and nothing more. Unless that is, the Prime Minister himself is a pacifist…” There is a bit of insight in that off-the-cuff remark and even more in the book by the Canadian military historian who wrote, Canada’s Soldiers: The Military History of an Unmilitary People. We live in a peaceable kingdom but, as Bercuson says, when our soldiers “believe great evil is loose, directed against them or their allies (9/11 and IS), they do not shy away.” So why is Trudeau backing out of the air war, leaving behind refueling and guidance aircraft and reinforcing the training mission?

I have no inside knowledge, but I offer the following explanation. But first a brief review of the powers assigned to the Prime Minister for making (or not making) war. No matter which position one takes in the United States, given the consolidation of powers in the same office of both civilian leader and Commander-in-Chief, there will always be an inherent debate on the “broad substantive war powers’ conferred on the President, a virtually non-exiting debate in Canada. Canadians do not have that discussion because, in Canada, the armed forces are “Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.” David Johnson, the current Governor General, is authorized to exercise the powers and responsibilities belonging to the sovereign. He has been bestowed with the title, Commander-in-Chief, though the title has varied depending on how the armed forces have been organized.

Thus, all executive power as Commander-in-Chief is legally reposed in the Canadian sovereign. The only constitutional means by which decisions are made to declare war and who can command the deployment and disposition of the Canadian Armed Forces is the Commander-in-Chief. However, Canada has a system of responsible government. Declarations of war are issued with the approval, and in the name, of the Governor General on the advice of the federal cabinet. Further, formally, the Governor General appoints the Chief of the Defence Staff and distributes awards and honours.

There is almost no possibility constitutionally of the civilian head of the military, as commander-in-chief, that is, of the Governor General, engaging in overstretch. The GG’s functions are only formal. The resort to the use of the military is inherently a last resort by civilian authorities, making the danger of applying militarist principles to civilian life highly unlikely, but not altogether impossible as we shall see. The Prime Minister by definition is a Moses not an Aaron. He is exclusively a civilian political leader. Americans have to continually fight and argue to ensure that the President acts only in a supervisory way over the military and does not exceed his powers as Commander-in-Chief.

Military adventurism and a military coup are remote possibilities in Canada. However, the use of military measures in domestic politics has not been. This was evidenced when Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, while he was Prime Minister, invoked the perfectly appropriately titled “War Measures Act” to round up and imprison 500 or so Canadian citizens when homegrown separatist terrorists in the FLQ kidnapped and killed a provincial minister. They were arrested under the principle of état de siège fictif (a constructed state of siege).

Emergency degrees exist in the vast majority of democratic constitutions and a great deal of ink has been spilled on defining a state of exception. However, in the FLQ crisis, even the most fundamental premise of democratic government was suspended, namely Habeas Corpus. Further, it was done for the flimsiest of security reasons when there was absolutely no danger to the security of the state. Of course, coups take place in times of tumult, but replacing the fundamentals of domestic law should be reserved, if it takes place ever, only for a truly very extreme state of emergency, only then should the possibility of the suspension of the normal prevalence of civilian legal norms and invoking martial law be considered. As it were, in this case, the War Measures Act was invoked less for any “military” reasons to counteract a perceived threat than as a political maneuver to allow separatists to be branded as potential terrorists. This was the symbolic importance of invoking the War Measures Act, not civilian protection from a physical threat, but rather the political threat of separatism.

On 13 October 1970, just before Justin was born, and after Pierre Laporte’s’ body was found, that supposedly powerful proponent of civil liberties, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau promised drastic action. Three days after answering a reporter’s question of what he was going to do and, in response, replied, “Just watch me,” Trudeau delivered much more than drastic action; with the support of 87% of Canadians, he introduced the most extreme draconian curtailment of civil liberties in the history of Canada. (Cf. Larry Zolf (1984) Just Watch Me: Remembering Pierre Trudeau and the second volume of John English’s biography, Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, 1968-2000.)

When Justin Trudeau recycled the phrase in his campaign against Stephen Harper, the phrase did not mean, “I am as tough as nails.” It meant, I am my own man. Just watch me. I am not the keeper of my father’s flame. I am its antithesis with respect to war measures. I am not just a “chip off the old block” as Thomas Walkom claimed with respect to protecting human rights, easily cast aside in the face of a perceived threat. For Justin, diplomacy and witnessing would be the prime means of protecting human rights, both for Canadians and for those abroad. On the other hand, although Canadian political leaders are in a poor position to engage in adventurism abroad compared to American presidents, they are in a much stronger position to abuse human rights, especially when they have the backing of most Canadians.

Constitutionally, Canadian political leaders are predisposed towards the peaceful end of the spectrum in foreign policy but have few controls when it comes to the use of force domestically. The constitution reinforced his peaceful propensities abroad and the shaping of his psyche reinforced that predisposition so that, “Just watch me” signalled the very opposite message than the one Pierre Trudeau broadcast.

Beyond the psychological underpinnings of Justin Trudeau’s decision to withdraw the six Canadian CF-18 Hornet fighter aircraft from the field of battle in Iraq and Syria, and contrary to any suggestions that the withdrawal was a measure to prevent “mission creep” or reduce the chances of Canada being targeted by Daesh, but consistent with his psyche as it has developed, Justin had four factors pushing such a response to extreme threats. First was an image. Justin wanted to project that he was not a Top Gun, that he was not macho. He was the very opposite of Putin. Though abandoned by his mother, he remained a mother’s boy with enormous sympathy for the plight of others – hence the powerful message about Canada taking in Syrian refugees.

But then why increase the advisers and trainers on the ground? Canada has a duty to its allies to participate in the fight, but without the stark macho imagery. Trudeau wanted to project an image of Canada as a peaceable kingdom, as a compassionate nation and as a member of the world community committed to combating man-made climate change. However, there were other reasons than the issue of media image.

Money is a second factor. In 1991, in the Kuwait War, over a much, much shorter period, Canada deployed four times as many jet fighter aircraft than in the current conflict in Iraq and Syria. The costs were enormous. Jason Kenney testified in the House of Commons that the deployment of the aircraft in Iraq and Syria would cost $403 million per year. The cost of the Syrian refugee resettlement program was estimated at $1.2 billion over six years, or $200 million per year. Even with leaving the non-combat aircraft in the theatre of war against Daesh, the saving in cancelling the CF-18 fighter aircraft would far more than offset the costs of the refugee resettlement program plus the increased training program. Then there is the capital cost of replacement of fighter aircraft. The cost of 65 new F-35 Lightnings to replace the CF-18 Hornets is now $30 billion over 30 years, or $1 billion per year or slightly more than $15 million per aircraft per year.

In addition to the issues of media image and money, there is also the issue of using a measured response to the danger posed and responding in a measured or proportional way. To assess the problem, just examine the use of the six Hornets at this time last year. They were either used to directly attack ISIL targets or in support of air operations. As I counted, there were roughly 14 missions in January last year. Typically, the jets would attack a few ISIL positions and destroy some military equipment. At the end of January last year, “On 29 January, Canadian CF-18s attacked two ISIL positions and two vehicles. Following that on 30 January, they bombed an ISIL position northwest of Baghdad.”

At what cost in human civilian lives, in compromising our sense of obligation towards civilians?  “An airstrike on an ISIL position along a highway northwest of Mosul …on 21 January in support of efforts to retake the road,” resulted in anywhere from 6 to 27 civilians dead. The next major target in the war will be Mosul. It has half a million inhabBercuson

Justin Trudeau is not Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian armed forces. He can make withdrawal decisions on non-military grounds far easier than Barack Obama. George W. Bush ran for office on a domestic agenda and a foreign policy based on disengagement. He ended up becoming a war president. Early in his presidency, Condoleezza Rice, his National Security Adviser, insisted that Bush had no interest any longer in America serving as the “world’s policeman.” Look where he ended up! Based on his foreign policy adventurism guided by a Svengali vice-president, Dick Cheney, George W. Bust became one of the worst presidents in American history. Barack Obama was elected to unify America, to restore its economy and to withdraw from undesirable wars like Iraq. He presides over a deeply divided America though with a recovered economy, but without benefitting most Americans. Most of all, to his personal great regret, America is once again deeply involved in Iraq.

When it is unequivocal that a Canadian Prime Minister is not the Commander-in-Chief, the rule of civilian authority over military power is unambiguous. But when the two functions reside in the same one person, even when the President wants to reinforce the principle of the divisibility of powers and the supremacy of civilian over military rule, he is trapped by his responsibilities and has to stay up late deciding whether it is appropriate to target this person or that person with a drone strike. He becomes the number one assassin on the world stage. It is almost as if an American who becomes president cannot avoid becoming an imperial president to some degree.

I do not know how valid this effort at an explanation is, but it behooves all of us to search deeper for explanations instead of simply serving as Justin Trudeau’s superego. I believe that strategic considerations alone do not come near to explaining Trudeau’s withdrawal from the field of battle of the six Hornets since the withdrawal makes too little strategic sense.


With the help of Alex Zisman