The First Casualty

Recently we heard from Ukraine of a flyer distributed by Russian separatists in Donetsk. The flyer ordered the Jews of the city to register and pay a fee as a penalty for the support of Jewish leaders for the new government in Kiev. The flyer was denounced by American secretary of state John Kerry and widely discussed in the Western press as evidence of just how alarming the Russian separatists in Ukraine are. Of course, it was also completely fake.

Deception is commonplace during war, but the vital role lies play in fomenting war is not as commonly understood. We would like to believe that our “leaders” approach decisions of war and peace with great seriousness, and so some of us are willing to see the lies that lead us to war as exceptions, or mistakes. However, the pattern is so prevalent that the exception becomes the rule.

The story is of course very familiar to us – a tyrannical regime committing a litany of atrocities against defenseless civilians, remorselessly grinding them into a bloody pulp and committing an ever-increasing array of horrors against the population. Men are killed, women raped, even infants are murdered. The story is so familiar in becomes a motif, a motif that is recurring now in Syria and has occurred and reoccurred many times before.

The most famous instance is perhaps the “rape of Belgium.” The German invasion of Belgium was Great Britain’s rationale for entering the Great War, but the simple violation of Belgian neutrality was not enough for the British public. So, they were instead fed a steady diet of atrocity stories, luridly embellishing the very real horrors that accompany any invading army, with particular focus on sexual violence. Many atrocities were invented outright, such as tales of Belgian nuns tied to the clappers of church bells and crushed, or of the Germans using the bodies of dead Belgians to produce lubricants for machinery. To be clear, the German Army in Belgium committed grievous sins, as indeed do all invading armies. The concerted propaganda effort, however, removed these sins from their context, added further horrors, and focused the attention of the press on endlessly telling and retelling these tales.

In a more modern context, many readers will remember the famous testimony of one Nayirah before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. This young woman bore agonized witness to the terrible image of Iraqi soldiers removing Kuwaiti babies from incubators and leaving them to die on cold hospital floors. Her testimony was corroborated by supposed testimony from evacuees and her story backed by none other than Amnesty International.

After the war, Nayirah was revealed to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, and her testimony coached by a public relations firm hired by the Kuwaiti government, Hill & Knowlton. No evidence was found to support her lurid tales; Kuwaiti patients had indeed died, but due to their abandonment by Kuwaiti doctors and nurses fleeing the Iraqi invasion. No babies were thrown to the floor. Nayirah’s testimony is remembered; the reality of her role as a public relations flack spinning tales to outrage Americans is not.

And so today we are greeted with horror stories from eastern Ukraine and from Syria. Are terrible things taking place in these countries? Of course. But anyone who claims to know exactly what is happening and exactly who is responsible is either a dupe, or is trying to dupe you.

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