Monday, July 21, 2014


About 50 years ago I read a column by I. F. Stone. He said “All governments lie.”  That idea has never left me and I think of it whenever a controversy or war erupts.  It was reinforced when I did the research for a book on Agent Orange which I shelved.  I read hundreds of declassified documents and I also attended an International Conference on Agent Orange in Ho Chi Minh City.  I learned that a major reason for classifying documents as secret is not to prevent an enemy to know our plans but to shield our government from embarrassment. Thus in the early phase of the Vietnam War when we were still advisors and not participants, we arranged for US trained South Vietnamese pilots to use our planes modified for spraying but had these painted with Vietnamese identification.  We could then pretend that this was a Vietnamese operation. When I visited the War Museum the North Vietnamese built after the war, its exhibit on the war included some misleading representations of the effects of Agent Orange, including a picture of a child with advanced retinoblastoma in one eye.  No data supporting the incidence of exposed and unexposed populations was used.  The data was misleading but I can understand why Vietnamese would want to blame Agent Orange for any child born with a birth defect. At the conference when I pointed out the low frequency of birth defects among non-exposed populations in a paper presented on Agent Orange and birth defects and why the US and Europe and other industrialized nations have incidences ten to one hundred times higher, he said this was because Vietnam had virtually no industrial pollution.  I suspect, but cannot prove, that most of the data was compiled by self reporting from parents who would claim exposure to Agent Orange if they had a child with a birth defect. Today’s reports on the Ukrainian disaster with a Malaysian plane shot down likely by Russian trained missile operators reflects Stone’s insight as we listen to each side blame the other for an event that should not have happened had more thoughtful people been in the decision making process. Similarly it is small comfort in wars to victims of “surgical strikes” if innocent families are trapped in their neighborhoods to be told that “every effort” was made to avoid civilian casualties.   If they are not “precision bombings” then we invoke another lie.  We say it was to save more lives that would have been lost if we didn’t ….[fill in the blank: kill the Jews in death camps before they destroyed our German culture and way of life; drop the bomb on Hiroshima to end the war and spare American lives; cluster bomb Coventry and London to break the will of the British people; fire bomb Tokyo and break the will of the Japanese people]. The list of rationalizations is quite large.  A corollary of Stone’s comment is “the first casualty of war is truth.”  What is remarkable is how effective lies are in convincing the public that its government is righteous and our sacrifices are both noble and necessary.  It works with the same certainty as Lucy pulling the football as Charlie Brown tries to kick it in Peanuts.

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