Falsehood in War Time

Falsehood is a recognized and extremely useful weapon in warfare, and every country uses it quite deliberately to deceive its own people, to attract neutrals, and to mislead the enemy.

Who do you suppose wrote that? Noam Chomsky? Perhaps Gore Vidal in one of his grandiloquent moments? Or William Blum, as a preamble to his chronicling US military and CIA interventions in Killing Hope? No, it was none of our contemporary antiwar critics. It was Arthur Ponsonby, British Lord and pacifistic MP, in his 1928 tome, Falsehood in War-Time.

The war-time which inspired Ponsonby’s In-war-truth-is-the-first-casualty observation was the First World War; the falsehood exposed in his book, “the fraud, hypocrisy, and humbug on which all war rests, and the blatant and vulgar devices which have been used for so long to prevent the poor ignorant people from realizing the true meaning of war.”

“Finding now that elaborately and carefully staged deceptions were practiced on them,” Ponsonby hoped, would instill in the British people a resentment which “not only served to open their eyes but may induce them to make their children keep their eyes open when next the bugle sounds.” Sadly, we know Ponsonby’s hope was not fulfilled. The “concealment, subterfuge, fraud, falsehood, trickery, and deliberate lying” used to inject “the poison of hatred into men’s minds” which the good Lord chronicled for the first war in which mass propaganda was employed have been mimicked and further perfected – and enjoyed great success – in subsequent conflicts up to our own day.

The first requirement of any government bent on war is to convince their people that their cause is just:

Facts must be distorted, relevant circumstances concealed, and a picture presented which by its crude colouring will persuade the ignorant people that their Government is blameless, their cause is righteous, and the indisputable wickedness of the enemy has been proved beyond question. (Has America – or any country – in modern times ever gone to war for other than noble reasons?)

That “a moment’s reflection would tell any reasonable person that such obvious bias cannot possibly represent the truth” is irrelevant, as “the moment’s reflection is not allowed; lies are circulated with great rapidity.” (This before 24-hour news channels invaded every home in the nation, beating unsuspecting minds senseless with the drumming of lies endlessly repeated.)

Critical to a government’s success in convincing their citizens of “the indisputable wickedness of the enemy” is to embody that wickedness in one person:

As a nation consists of millions of people and the absurd analogy of an individual criminal and a nation may become apparent even to moderately intelligent people, it is necessary to detach an individual on whom may be concentrated all the vials of the wrath of an innocent people who are only defending themselves from ‘unprovoked aggression’. Naturally, the country’s leader is chosen as that individual, no matter how bombastic (Kaiser Wilhelm in Ponsonby’s context) or nerdish (Bashar al-Assad in ours) he may in reality be.

To bolster the characterization of the leader as evil incarnate must come stories of atrocities committed by his minions. In this endeavor, writes Ponsonby, “Prominent people of repute, who would have shrunk from condemning their bitterest personal enemy on the evidence, or rather lack of evidence, they had before them, did not hesitate to lead the way in charging a whole nation with every conceivable brutality and unnatural crime.” (e.g., Iraqi soldiers taking babies from their incubators and throwing them on the cold, hard, hospital floor – the infamous Incubator Babies Story of the first Gulf War, still told by Bush the Elder long after it had been exposed as a PR firm’s fabrication.)

The most influential atrocity story of the First World War, according to Ponsonby, has a familiar ring: the myth of Germany’s Corpse Exploitation Establishment, where the bodies of the dead were rendered into fat to be fed to pigs. By most accounts it was only the corpses of German soldiers which were so abused, but this did not lessen the horrified reaction of readers around the world to the bestiality of the practice. The hatred inculcated by propaganda in the next world war was so visceral the rendering of only enemy corpses into fat would have provoked only a blasé reaction, so it was necessary to substitute a more innocent, more sympathetic victim. Hence, the WW II myth of Jewish corpses being rendered into fat to make soap (never happened, in case you haven’t heard).

Other atrocities attributed to the Germans, as chronicled by Ponsonby, include the cutting off of Belgian babies’ hands, the hoisting of Belgian babies on bayonets, the hacking off of the breasts of a British nurse, and the crucifixion of a Canadian Sergeant. To their credit, the press and even the government debunked a number of such stories while the war was still being fought, but, as Ponsonby observes, “for one person who noticed the denial there were a thousand who only heard the lie” (which may explain how 3 out of 4 Americans came to believe Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attack).

Photographs possessed great credibility in pre-Fotoshop days, so faked photos were instrumental in creating misimpressions during WW I. It’s not that the photos were faked, just that their interpretation was. A photograph of German troops marching into Belgium was claimed a month later to be a photo of Germans in retreat; photographs of Jewish corpses from the pogroms in Russia in 1905 were presented as the corpses of Poles killed by the Germans in 1915; a celebratory crowd in Berlin before the war was claimed to be a celebration over the sinking of the Lusitania a year into the war. (Now we have video, seemingly an even better witness to history but actually subject to the same misuse; e.g., Syrian victims of a claimed government gas attack writhing on the floor in pain, who are just playacting.)

One powerful ploy born of the First World War was reincarnated intact for use in the Second. This was the line from a German patriotic song “Deutschland über Alles auf der ganzen Welt”, which was mistranslated – intentionally or not – as “Germany over everywhere in the whole world”, instead of the innocuous true meaning, ”Germany above all things in the whole world [in the hearts of Germans].” (cf. the translation of Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s prediction of the ultimate demise of the political State of Israel as calling for the “destruction of Israel”.)

Despite the sadness and disgust with which Ponsonby chronicles the falsehood which led to and perpetuated the horrific slaughter of the First World War, in a spirit of truthful resignation he admits:

But between nations, where the consequences are vital, where the destiny of countries and provinces hangs in the balance, the lives and fortunes of millions are affected and civilization itself is menaced, the most upright men honestly believe that there is no depth of duplicity to which they may legitimately stoop. They have got to do it…. In war-time, failure to lie is negligence, the doubting of a lie a misdemeanor, the declaration of the truth a crime.

But does it have to be this way? Ponsonby doesn’t think so: “If the truth were told from the outset, there would be no reason and no will for war.” So why doesn’t the truth come out, when war is so brutal, so devastating, so often futile and demands such sacrifice – willingly suffered or willfully imposed – from so many?  Why do we continue to let ourselves be deceived by the falsehood of war-time?

Certainly, the inherent decency of the common man has something to do with it. Most of us would feel ashamed to tell the sort of falsehoods our betters spread with patriotic zeal. “The amount of rubbish and humbug that pass under the name of patriotism in war-time in all countries,” opines Ponsonby, “is sufficient to make decent people blush.” We could never do such a thing, especially in light of the tragic consequences, and assume our leaders are not capable of such mendacity, either. But they are, and so we are hoodwinked, “the inmates of colleges [being] just as credulous as the inmates of the slums.”

But are we so innocent? Is it only a question of our credulity or is there “a sort of national wink”? Are we not fooled so much as playing along, aware that we are being fed bunk but pretending to believe it because it meets a psychological need? We want to believe ourselves personally good, so the country of which we are citizens must be good. Any evidence to the contrary we ignore, justify, deny. Moreover, our goodness varies directly with the badness of the enemy, so we are primed to believe the worst of the enemy, the most tenuous atrocity story… or pretend to believe.

There is yet a more fundamental reason for our complicity in war’s falsehood. A world of competing nation-states armed to the teeth is a scary place. You don’t want to be the loser in a war between such states. The prospect of our side probing, questioning, demanding the truth from our leaders while the brainwashed cadres of the enemy advance in lockstep, never questioning the lies they are being told, rightfully terrifies us. So we condone falsehood, expecting our leaders “to inflame popular passion sufficiently to secure recruits for the continuance of the struggle,” in Ponsonby’s words.

But, again, does it have to be this way? Must we accept falsehood in war-time, a capitulation as frightening as losing a war as it assures a future conflict of such unimaginable devastation, given the destructive power of modern weaponry, there will be no winner? What if there were no competing nation-states armed to the teeth but a world of cooperating peoples armed with an understanding of each other begetting a universal sense of humanity? For me, that is not the best hope; it’s the only hope. That’s why I wear around my wrist a band which reads “One People, One Planet, One Future,” an affirmation that my ultimate loyalty is not to the nation-state of which I am a citizen but to all humankind.

Ken Meyercord is a retiree living in the Washington, DC area, where he haunts think-tank events by asking impertinent questions of the pompous, the hypocritical, and the dishonest. He recently published his memoir of the Vietnam War years, Draft-Dodging Odyssey (under the penname Ken Kiask). He can be reached at: kiaskfm@verizon.net. Read other articles by Ken.