Truth: The First Casualty of War


It is not clear who first said truth is the first casualty of war. What is clear is that whoever said it was a very smart person.  It might have been Samuel Johnson for he was a very wise man and he said, “’Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.‘ (from The Idler, 1758). The second part of that statement is also important—the insidious effect of credulity is very important. Many of us have been conditioned to believe without evidence or reasoning. Critical thinking matters and the abandonment of critical reasoning is vitally important. We learned it in the pandemic and we are learning it again in the war.

Apparently in Russia about 2/3rds of the country support the war against Ukraine. Of course, they do that based on false information. Most of them don’t know the truth. They believe what they are told.

Many people in Canada and the US ask how is it possible that so many Russians believe the propaganda?

Are we any better?  It is estimated that in the US about 1/3rd of the people believe that last presidential election was “stolen” by Joe Biden, despite the fact that there is almost no evidence to support this claim and it flies in the face of any critical thinking. As Ioffe said, “it turns out it is not that difficult to fool people.

I heard a fascinating interview with Russian born American journalist Julia Ioffe who is an acknowledged expert on Russia. She has spent a lot of time there and has friends she can trust and call to find out what is going on now. Her articles have appeared in many respected journals including some of my favourites.

In Russia people have learned that people who ask questions or protest the government actions are often severely punished. Added to that, Russians have suffered a lot of trauma. Over 50 million Russians including Ukrainians, lost their lives in wars, terror campaigns, and pogroms between 1914 and 1945. In the 4 years the Russians fought World War II they lost 15% of their population. This was after waves of political arrests. As a result Russians are among the most cynical and distrusting of all people. This includes Russians who have moved to Canada. I have talked to some of those Russians hers in Manitoba and I understand this.  They have good reason to distrust their governments. That distrust spills over to our governments too.

Ioffe pointed out that we should remember as Ioffe said, “Russians have been living under an ever tightening noose of censorship for 22 years. So, they have been conditioned not to question what they are told.” What excuse do Americans and their Canadian fellow travellers have?

Distrust is dangerous for democracies and standard fare for autocracies.

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