The First Casualty of War

“The ‘Royal Prince’ and other Vessels at the Four Days Battle, 1–4 June 1666” (oil on canvas, circa 1670), by Abraham Storck. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Writings on war from ancient history shed light on the Ukraine crisis. The war of information in the age of information is the same as it ever was. And worse than it ever was. 

I’m reading up on some old human rights and humanitarian law readers I have lying around these days because of the situation in Ukraine, and found a passage which helped me think about some things.

Today I was re-reading excerpts from Hugo Grotius, a 15th century Dutch humanist scholar of law. Grotius, or de Groot, which was his real name, is generally held to be one of the major thinkers on international law, including the laws of war and maritime law, both of which he practically invented, as well as being one of the most defining thinkers on natural law and just war theory.

Even today he holds widespread influence and his work is often held to be the “paradigm shift” (the “Grotian moment”) in which international law as a field comes into being.

A passage in De jure belli ac pacis (On The Laws of War and Peace, 1625) is helpful in thinking about how long we’ve known about the concept of the information and propaganda aspects of war:

Chapter XXII: On Unjust Causes of Wars

I.

1. We said above, when we set out to treat the causes of wars, that some were justifiable, others persuasive. Polybius, who was the first to observe this distinction, calls the former “pretexts”, because they are wont to be openly alleged … and the latter … “causes”.

2. Thus in the war of Alexander against Darius, the “pretext” was the avenging of the injuries which the Persians had inflicted upon the Greeks, while the “cause” was the desire for renown, empire and riches, to which was added a great expectation of an easy victory arising from the expeditions of Xenophon and Agesilaus.

The “pretext” of the Second Punic War was the dispute over Saguntum, but the cause was the anger of the Carthaginians at the agreements which the Romans had extorted from them in times of adversity, and the encouragement which they derived from their successes in Spain, as was observed by Polybius …

(…)

XII.

No less iniquitous is it to desire by arms to subdue other men, as if they deserved to be enslaved, and were such as the philosophers at times call slaves by nature. For even if something is advantageous to any one, the right is not forthwith conferred upon my to impose this upon him by force.

What’s interesting about this passage is that it shows such a lucid awareness of the fact that rulers need to justify and make claims of legitimacy for any war they undertake. There might be something a little surprising in this. In the time before democracy, did rulers really to make claims of legitimacy in order to get people to go to war? Wasn’t it enough that they were the boss?

It wasn’t, apparently. Wars are always fought by the common people and the military classes. And some form of claim needs to be made in order for them to risk their lives. Some kind of complicated narrative needs to be spun. This leads to the rulers waging this war of information in which their motives need to be partially hidden from the people doing the fighting and the dying.

Fast forward to modern Europe. There is an intense, international crisis with Russian troops massing on the border of Ukraine and invading Crimea. The justifications are patently absurd. The ethnic Russians are supposedly in danger, as are Russian interests, claim Russia. The only Russian so far killed was a protester shot and killed by a police sniper.

I’m not going to go into the dismantling of the Russian claims. It is, in one sense at least, fairly easily done. I’ve had a lot of interest in the work of Timothy Snyder, who has done an absolutely excellent job of analysing and eviscerating the Russian claims in a series of articles in the New York Review of Books.

I feel that there can no longer be any reasonable doubt not only that Russia is violating international law and binding legal agreements they have made with Ukraine — specifically, the UN’s general ban on violence and the short and crystal-clear Budapest Memorandum, which was apparently not worth the paper it was written on — but also that the justificatory apparatus with which they attempt to legitimate the unlawful invasion is a house of cards in a wind tunnel.

What is amazing to me is just how effective the war of information is. There is no justification, but still, the memes emitted from Moscow are spreading virulently throughout Russia and the Western World. The new Ukrainian government are fascists, we learn. The protesters on the Maidan were skinheads and nazis. Russians are in danger throughout the Ukraine. The US is behind it all. Gayropa wants to make the Ukraine gay with their insidious, EU-ey, homosexual ways. The only way to protect Mother Russia from fascism and homosexuality is to invade the country. 

Where I live, these talking points (minus the homosexuality ones, obviously) are mimicked even by upstanding intellectuals. Far left and far right alike find much reasonable in these claims. With very little facts at their disposal, very little evidence. What I am seeing is the gradual erosion of the truth by the constant repetition of lies. It is Goebbel’s old principle of lies repeated becoming truth all over again.

What I think this shows, and the point I want to make here, is just how much democracy is bound up with information. Democracy is only possible when people have access to proper information and data, and when the ability of the rulers to obfuscate the truth is minimised. This means also that far more than the phalanxes and populus of ancient Greece, Persia or Rome did, modern warfare demands a deep understanding of the war in the population, and a rooted legitimacy in the voting public.

The war needs to exist and be legitimate in the minds of the public, in order for it to exist and do its work in real life. The people can quite simply stop wars more easily because they have more power. This is why the informational side of war has escalated in intensity and importance. The ruling elites engaged in unjust wars now need to justify unjust wars with disinformation or outright lying on a larger scale.

This has been a trend in democracies engaged in unjust military campaigns recently. Examples that come to mind are the Gaza wars of Israel, Chezchnya, The Balkan Wars, and even more recently: the invasions of Georgia and Crimea by Russia: vast, traditional and social media campaigns employing all the most advanced PR-strategies, including some dark arts: everything from sockpuppeting, trolling and DOS-attacks on interlocutors in addition to normal social media engagement, to leaks, ad campaigns, using traditional allies in foreign countries, PR-agencies lobbying newspapers and governments, etc. The definitional war is quite simply a huge part of modern military strength.

Think about this in the coming days. Think of it when you read the newspaper columnists:

When you hear the news about how terribly things are going in the Ukraine:

When you hear the assurances of Russia:

When you check out the cute social media moments (this one was interesting, actually, it has some depth to it if you read it against the grain):

In short, whenever you hear arguments justifying a war couched in terms that are trying to sell you something, hiding something or telling only one side of the story, be wary. Be especially wary when it sounds vaguely like something out of Upworthy:

Be sure to look at what is actually happening as much as you can. Real journalism helps. And photojournalism:

Whenever someone is not telling you the full truth about the situation, they are not being democratic. Whenever someone is trying to deny you the full picture, they are not your friend.

This is what the Russian military aggression and the infowars are all about. In Orwell’s words:

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

And that brings me to another passage from Grotius which I felt was fitting to the times:

There are some who rush into war without a cause of either sort, led, as Tacitus says, by the desire of incurring danger for its own sake. But the offense of these men is more than human; Aristotle calls it “the savagery of wild beasts”. Concerning such persons, Seneca wrote: “I can say that this is not cruelty, but ferocity which delights in savagery. We can call it madness; for there are various sorts of madness and none is more unmistakeable than that which turns to the slaughter and butchery of men.

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