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War Is a Lie | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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War Is a Lie

It was a Republican US senator, Hiram Johnson of California, who is credited with coining the phrase: "The first casualty when war comes is truth."

Johnson, a reluctant backer of World War I who quickly grew to be horrified by the war profiteering, assaults of civil liberties and official deceits that characterized that indefensible conflict, would before the fighting was done argue that "the war warps us, distorts our judgment, and destroys our sense of justice, and our ideals."

The experience of World War I led Johnson—and fellow Republican senators such as Wisconsin's Robert M. La Follette and Nebraska's George Norris—to believe that wars were, invariably, founded on falsehoods, deceptions and lies.

Were he serving in the Senate now, Hiram Johnson would go to the floor of the Senate, hold up a copy of David Swanson's essential new book and demand that the chamber and the whole of the American people recognize the reality of its title:

War Is a Lie.

Swanson, arguably America's most determined antiwar campaigner, was the driving force behind the After Downing Street movement. That movement spread the word in the United States about revelations that first appeared in the British media—regarding a classified British government document that came to be known as the "Downing Street Memo"—that confirmed the deliberate deceptions in which former President Bush, Vice President Cheney and their inner circle engaged in to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The smoking gun line in the Downing Street memo was a quote from the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), who said after traveling to Washington that "[George W.] Bush wanted to remove Saddam Hussein, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

The notion that US intelligence was "fixed" to create the fantasy that Iraq posed a threat was confirmed in the memo by former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who said Bush had "made up his mind" to go to war—even if no legitimate grounds for doing so could be found.

The document led members of Congress, millions of citizens and honest players in the media to reach a conclusion that was perhaps best expressed by the Minneapolis Star Tribune in a Memorial Day 2005 editorial that read:

President Bush and those around him lied, and the rest of us let them. Harsh? Yes. True? Also yes. Perhaps it happened because Americans, understandably, don't expect untruths from those in power. But that works better as an explanation than as an excuse…

David Swanson would remind the Star Tribune editors that millions of Americans saw through the lies in 2002 and 2003 and sought to prevent the rush to war.

But that is not the most vital clarification that Swanson would offer.

While Swanson's new book details the lies of Bush and those around him, it takes the next step and explains that wars are invariably based on lies. Swanson's book is fact-based and rich in history. And it is appropriately blunt, with chapters titled:

1. Wars Are Not Fought Against Evil
2. Wars Are Not Launched in Defense
3. Wars Are Not Waged Out of Generosity
4. Wars Are Not Unavoidable
5. Warriors Are Not Heroes
6. War Makers Do Not Have Noble Motives
7. Wars Are Not Prolonged for the Good of Soldiers
8. Wars Are Not Fought on Battlefields
9. Wars Are Not Won, and Are Not Ended By Enlarging Them
10. War News Does Not Come From Disinterested Observers
11. War Does Not Bring Security and Is Not Sustainable
12. Wars Are Not Legal
13. Wars Cannot Be Both Planned and Avoided
14. War Is Over If You Want It

That last chapter heading gets to the point of Swanson's activism and his book.

It is important to expose the lies. Swanson has been doing that for years. "But," he says, "don't think the war machine will grind to a halt without a massive movement. The oil in the machine is lies. The monkey wrench we can throw into the gears is public resistance to being lied to."

The first step in that resistance involves buying and reading Swanson's vital book.

It proves, beyond doubt or debate, that Hiram Johnson was right: "The first casualty when war comes is truth." But it adds two footnotes:

1. War comes because of the lies that are told to prepare for and justify it.
 2. War (makes that "wars") ends when we the people stop accepting those lies from war presidents, war publicists and war profiteers.

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