Truth As a Casualty of Wars

The saying that “The first casualty of war is the truth”  has been credited to anti-war Senator Hiram Warren Johnson in 1918  and also to the ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus. We have seen this played out dramatically with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. From the Ukrainian side have come the predictable overinflated estimates of the enemy’s losses, and perhaps understated reporting of their own casualties. Also, on the first day or two of the war there was a raunchy defiant response of Ukrainian defenders to a “Russian ship” that was demanding their surrender; as far as I know that exchange was for real, but the initial report by Ukraine that all the heroic defenders were killed was not true. Maybe I am biased here, but these sorts of excesses are stretching some core truth, not trampling over it roughshod.

On the Russian side, perhaps because there is no even vaguely legitimate justification for their invasion, the lies have been simply ludicrous. Apparently, the Russian troops have been told that they are going there to rescue Ukrainians from the current regime which is a bunch of  “neo-Nazis”.  If Putin’s thugs had a sense of humor or perspective, they might have discerned the irony of characterizing the Ukrainian regime as “neo-Nazi” when the president (Zelenskyy) is a Jew, whose grandfather’s brothers died in Nazi concentration camps.

And the Russian lies go beyond ludicrous, to revolting and inhuman. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has dismissed concerns about civilian casualties as “pathetic shrieks” from Russia’s enemies, and denied Ukraine had even been invaded.

The Associated Press snapped a picture in the besieged city of Mariupol a few days ago which went viral, showing a pregnant woman with a bleeding abdomen being carried out on a stretcher from a maternity hospital which the Russians had bombed. The local surgeon tried to save her and her baby, but neither one survived. The Russian side put out a string of bizarre and contradictory stories, claiming that they had bombed the hospital because it was a militia base (a neo-Nazi militia, of course) but also that no, they didn’t bomb it, the hospital had been evacuated and the explosions were staged by the Ukrainians, and the bloody woman in the photos was a made-up model. Ugh. I find it chilling to observe a regime in operation where there is absolutely no respect for what the truth actually is; rather, lies are manufactured to serve whatever purpose will suit the regime.

I know that some of that goes on even with Western democracies, but we are still usually ashamed of outright lying, and stand discredited when exposed. But with hardcore authoritarian regimes, there does not seem to be even this minimal respect for integrity.  

Freedom of speech becomes even more critical as cynicism about truth becomes more widespread in the world, even in our own political discourse. Putin is trying to suppress the truth within Russia, now with very harsh penalties (fifteen years in prison) for those disseminating information contrary to the party line. All he needs to do is deem such talk as “treasonous”, and into the clink you go.

I do worry about similar trends towards censorship within the West. In our case, it is not so much governments (so far) doing the censorship, but Big Tech. If Google [search engine and YouTube] / Facebook/Twitter disapprove of your content, they can label it “hate speech” or whatever, and your voice disappears from public discourse. But what gives the high priests of big tech the authority and the powers of moral discernment to rule on what discourse is permissible? Also, the algorithms of social media sites usually direct you towards other sites that reinforce your own point of view, so you rarely get exposed to why the other side believes what it does. However annoying it may be to see various forms of nonsense circulating on-line, the time-tested democratic response is to allow (nearly) all points of view to be fairly stated, and to trust in the people to figure out where the truth lies. Otherwise, the truth can become a casualty of culture wars, as it is in shooting wars.

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