Lies told during war are the softer, even nicer, of crimes committed

Tuesday March 22 2022

A woman carries her dog during the evacuation by civilians of the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, on March 8, 2022. PHOTO | AFP


As it has been said for a long time now, in a war situation, the first casualty is the truth because, simply, more lies are told than truths, in a desperate attempt on the part of each protagonist to put out a story that will reassure its citizens, embolden its military and demoralise its enemy.

This is done with such surprising zeal and enthusiasm, although everyone knows that only the incurably credulous recipients of such propaganda will believe what they hear or read.

Even before the first bullet is fired, in the preparatory stages of the fight, truth is attacked from all the fronts in the looming conflict, as lies are told with such panache.

We witnessed this during the 2003 UN Security Council duel between the late Collin Powell of the US and the French Foreign minister Dominique de Villepin as the Americans insisted on their claims that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

UN debate

Though eventually they had to own up to the fact that these WMDs were non-existent, at the time of the UN debate, it seemed Collin and his boss George W. Bush believed they really existed, even if at the outset they stepped out with the intention of telling a huge lie.


The lies did not stop with the military chiefs and their political bosses. Even popular culture was roped in: the young crooner Enrique Iglesias lent his voice to the choir of lies when his music was played by “embedded” reporters in American Humvees, ‘‘I could be your hero, baby.”

Later, in fighting his political opponents, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad had his “terrorists” to blame for all his woes and the justification for pulverising much of his country, and the Russians found a valid excuse to render unhindered military and diplomatic support to Assad, as women and children were massacred and civilian targets became legitimate “collateral damage.”

But the lies told in times of war are perhaps the softer, even nicer, of the crimes committed. There is evidence that some military decisions are taken to sow terror in the hearts of whoever the enemy may be, deliberate actions that are calculated to be so murderous as to discourage anyone with a faint heart from taking up the fight, or trying to resist.

Some lies are told in reverse. For instance, the British have been on Vladimir Putin’s case since the Russian president sent his tanks into Ukraine some four weeks ago.

Even before the first bullet is fired, in the preparatory stages of the fight, truth is attacked from all the fronts in the looming conflict, as lies are told with such panache.

All that is fair, but it is hardly credible for the British to be the ones to decry illegal invasions and “war crimes” when it was Tony Blair, then prime minister, who told barefaced lies about Saddam’s WMDs at the behest of Bush back in 2003.

Another lie in reverse is represented by the advertisements in European stadia during football matches since the Ukraine war started four weeks ago. Where was this empathy hiding when Assad was massacring his people, aided by the same Russians who are now being vilified for invading Ukraine?

Apartheid system

All this while, the Palestinian people have lived under the yoke of Israeli occupation under a system that has rightly been compared to the apartheid system in Pretoria before 1994.

Where has that conscience been all these years when the Palestinians are being expelled from their homes in broad daylight and their catapult-wielding children are being machine-gunned with such impunity?

These are what I term “reverse lies.” There ought to be a rule that says that as long as one does not have the courage to call out an obvious crime here, one is morally stopped from calling out a similar crime anywhere else.

Lies will always take the centre stage in these modern wars, each military headquarters trying its best to vie for liar-of-the-century status against Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s master liar of World War II, and it is likely to intensify in these post-truth days of “alternative facts” given fresh currency by Trumpism.

Nil desperandum, however. Never despair. It is true that extreme circumstances bring to the fore all our fortes and foibles in their sharpest expressions so that those who were mere street liars before get recruited to lie for the state, while those who were unsung heroes in a locality get to be known as benefactors, life-savers and extraordinary keepers of their brothers and sisters.

Angela Merkel, who was German chancellor, allowed hundreds of thousands of desperate Syrian refugees into her country, despite all the cultural and religious issues that move must have provoked. Think British citizens who have recently responded to their government’s calls for volunteers to stay with Ukrainian refugees for a token stipend. Think the art curator in Odessa whose mind is so taken up by the preservation of Russian art under his care in his museum which, incidentally, was set up by Catherine the Great back in the 1760s when she invaded Ukraine.

Jenerali Ulimwengu is now on YouTube via jeneralionline tv. E-mail: [email protected]