As I write many of us are watching the Ukraine war. Reports are fast flowing, to some extent live so that we sometimes see what is happening. Observers and journalists are visiting the sites of summary executions and clearly arbitrary killings of civilians; we can see hospitals and schools among the many civilian targets. There are reports of rapes and taking children as what can only be described as hostages. We are not aware of many of the probable war crimes committed by defenders; the focus is on the invaders. However, at home Russian media are claiming all verified and unverified reports are fake, that Ukrainians are murdering their own people to make the Russian ‘saviours’ appear guilty of these crimes. They have made it a crime to tell the truth about what is being done in Ukraine, still selling the myth that this is a kind of rescue mission to liberate their Ukrainian brothers and sisters in a country that does not really exist but is part of Russia. People are more or less forbidden to tell the truth, yet it is there in small pockets and people are protesting and speaking out at great risk. The truth hides away except for the occasional fleeting glance as it shows itself.
This is what is happening now. History is full of lies. We often hide behind the word propaganda. It is a powerful political weapon in many situations including, as right now, war. It is used to dehumanise, to create hatred toward a supposed opponent or enemy by creating a false image in the minds of a population. It makes false promises in order to win elections, to persuade armies to attack and fight people who are not enemies, sometimes saying the invasion is actually liberation. Propaganda presents lies as truth, that truth is the first casualty of war but also democracy when used by populists to dissuade people from choosing liberating and liberalising political regimes. Old moral values that were never right to begin with are present as saving graces for populations today, hence demonising of not just abortion but women who have abortions, not just life and identity issues but difference in general which what was beginning to be openness about LGBT choices and people being turned round to be prejudiced and justify punishing those people. Truth gets in the way.
Lies take many forms. Let’s have a look at a few familiar examples. People in the UK and those looking from outside will probably remember the big red bus emblazoned with the message ‘We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund the NHS instead’. It was not the only lie used to win an advisory referendum that was then made binding without using the advice to double check whether the opinion it had sought did, in fact, justify leaving the EU.
A few years earlier, in March 2003 the invasion of Iraq that lasted just over a month, with twenty-six days of major combat operations, then last officially until December 2011, was led by the USA on the basis of their intelligence that said that Saddam Hussein’s forces possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Once the initial invasion was over there had been no discoveries of WMDs, but still lies had to be told to justify the lies that had justified the invasion and eight year long occupation.
As we unravel history we find similar twists and turns time and time again. Hitler used them. In 1933 he created the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda that was headed by Joseph Goebbels. Before that a complicated set of events that no amount of analysis more than a century later can rationalise WW1 began, largely on the basis of very little truth. A century earlier Napoleon Bonaparte had used untruths as reasons why France had no choice other than to expand their empire to protect themselves.
Less familiar is the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in ancient Greece from 431 to 405 BCE relied on political and religious propaganda to justify the conflict between the two most powerful cities in Greece at that time. If history was better recorded than mythologised, constructed and reconstructed then we could take much of the Old Testament apart and, at the very least, for lack of evidence either way say either that they are interestingly but unconvincingly constructed stores, but they have persuaded many people they are true.
We can look at almost part of the world; we will find the same many times over.
What we are watching now is, in other words, not new. Yet beneath it we should remember that simply repeating a lie doesn’t make it true; just scratch the surface of many of the lies then they will bleed themselves dry very quickly. Our universal problem is that the liars make it as close to impossible to challenge their word, thus make that scratch, by use of one level or another of fear. There are people who are not afraid, but we must remember that for each one who tries to overturn lies with truth there is also another countering lies with lies. Whenever we search for truth it is inevitably hidden behind a wall of lies. It is there somewhere, elusive.
Featured image by Ramdlon on Pixabay.