What's Left

November 20, 2002

Arthur Ponsonby's Dream

By Stephen Gowans

Sometime before 1928 Arthur Ponsonby, Member of Parliament for Stirling Burghs, hit on the idea that if people were warned about the lies their governments had told to win consent for a global conflagration that had blotted out the lives of 30 million a decade earlier, they might be less likely to be led into another war.

Ponsonby had been sceptical of the stories the British, French and German governments had told in WWI, about the enemy's corpse factories, where the bodies of dead soldiers were said to be rendered for fats and lubricating oils, about a Canadian soldier who had been crucified by the Germans, his hands and feet pinned to a wall with bayonets, about a Belgian girl whose hands had been lopped off by German soldiers, about how the passenger liner Lusitania, sunk by a German U-boat, carried only passengers, not arms and munitions.

The stories, he discovered, were false, fabrications intended to whip up support for the war effort.

Ponsonby concluded that "the authorities in each country do, and indeed must, resort to [lying] in order, first, to justify themselves by depicting the enemy as an undiluted criminal; and secondly, to inflame popular passion sufficiently to secure recruits for the continuance of the struggle."

If people could be shown, he reasoned, how they had been deceived, they might be inoculated against the falsehoods they would inevitably be presented with the next time. "With a warning before them," he wrote in his alarum, Falsehood in Wartime, "the common people may be more on their guard when the war cloud next appears on the horizon and less disposed to accept as truth the rumours, explanations, and pronouncements for their consumption."

His wish was in vain.

Decades later, an Australian songwriter named Eric Bogle would sit in a cemetery in northern France near the Belgian border, a tranquil spot, where poppies grew all around the tombstones marking the graves of 310 young men who were marched to their deaths by the lies Ponsonby later debunked.  Bogle wondered whether the young soldiers had believed what they had been told about the reasons for the war, and whether they really believed the cant about WWI ending all wars. If you did, you were deceived, he said. "It's all happened again and again and again and again."

Some 70 years after Ponsonby would write his warning, governments would be telling tall tales again, this time "to justify themselves by depicting the enemy (the Serbs) as an undiluted criminal; and secondly, to inflame popular passion" for a NATO-led bombing war against Yugoslavia. The falsehoods would be as scandalous as any Ponsonby had documented.

In April, 1999, the US State Department would declare that 500,000 ethnic Albanians had been murdered by Serb forces acting on the orders of Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Yugoslavia. A month later, US  Defense Secretary William Cohen would say, "We've now seen about 100,000 military-aged men missing...They may have been murdered." And German Defense Minister Rudolph Scharping would point to "satellite images showing mass graves," and "refugees literally [walking] along mountains of corpses."

After 78 days of high intensity bombing, twenty teams of investigators from 15 countries rushed to Kosovo, the alleged killing ground, 500 investigators in all. It was only then -- too late -- that the world (or parts of it that were paying attention or cared anymore) discovered it had been deceived. "The ignorant and innocent masses in each country," wrote Ponsonby, "are unaware at the time that they are being misled, and when it is all over only here and there are the falsehoods discovered and exposed."

Dr. Peter Markesteyn, a Winnipeg forensic pathologist, among the first war crimes investigators to arrive in Kosovo, recalls, "We were told there were 100,000 bodies everywhere. We performed 1,800 autopsies -- that's it."

A team of Spanish investigators was warned they should prepare themselves to perform over 2,000 autopsies. They found 187 bodies, more than half victims of NATO bombs that fell on a prison at Istok.

The Trepca mines were reported to be the site of a huge mass grave, housing the remains of at least 700 ethnic Albanian Kosovars. Not a single corpse was found.

French investigators expected to find 150 bodies at Izbica. They found none.

Emilio Perez Puhola, who led a Spanish team of forensic pathologists, found no mass graves. He called the stories the "machinery of war propaganda."

By October, a little over 2,000 corpses have been disinterred, most found in individual graves,  Serb, Albanian, non-combatant, guerillas, or how they were killed (in the secessionist war that had raged for over a year, or by NATO bombs?) up in the air.

Paul Buteux, a political scientist at the University of Manitoba, would say "The first casualty of war is the truth," echoing a cliché that is sententiously uttered after every war, but, it seems, never learned from.

"It gets very murky. I have no doubt that whoever was putting those intelligence reports together prior to the NATO air campaign would be under pressure to put things in the worst possible light. There was a point when the spin doctors came in."

Spin doctors? Even in confronting the unpleasant truth that we've been lied to, we take pains to avoid the words.

"President Bush, speaking to the nation this month about the need to challenge Saddam Hussein, warned that Iraq has a growing fleet of unmanned aircraft that could be used 'for missions targeting the United States,'" said the Washington Post, last month.

Continuing, the Post added, "Last month, asked if there were new and conclusive evidence of Hussein's nuclear weapons capabilities, Bush cited a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency saying the Iraqis were 'six months away from developing a weapon.'"

Noting that the "assertions were powerful arguments for the actions Bush sought," (that is, war on Iraq)  the Post declared Bush's statements to be "dubious, if not wrong."

"Further information," the newspaper explained, "revealed that the aircraft lack the range to reach the United States," and "there was no such report by the IAEA." In other words, reports, like corpses, can be conjured up out of thin air.

But are these statements "dubious, if not wrong" or are they, as Ponsonby would have put it, "rubbish and humbug" that are "sufficient to make decent people blush," pressed into service by a government seeking "to justify themselves by depicting the enemy as an undiluted criminal; and secondly, to inflame popular passion"? These aren't dubious statements; they're deliberate lies, told by a calculating, though transparent, fabulist,  designed to secure support for a war that could kill up to 500,000 Iraqis (according to a group of British medical professionals), while bringing the Middle East's oil -- and the oil-dependent industrialized world -- under Washington's thumb. Lies that would make "decent people blush" and condemn hundreds of thousands to death should be called what they are.

Instead, the Post, in the best traditions of a pusillanimous American press, beat around the bush, as if "Bush the liar" is equivalent to Harry Potter's Voldemort, "the name that must not be mentioned." We get, "for Bush, facts are malleable," the president is guilty of "distortions and exaggerations," Bush was "imprecise," the president has "taken some liberties," he has "omitted qualifiers," "the president's assertions simply outpace the facts." And acknowledging that blatant lying is as much a Democrat as Republican practice, we're reminded that Bush is carrying on a "presidential tradition of embroidering key assertions," and that "presidential embroidery is, of course, a hoary tradition."

A hoary tradition, indeed. But why is it a tradition at all? Why is it that the best that comes of learning we were deceived in the last war, is a crop of new aphorisms warning us to be vigilant about the lies that will be told to justify the next war? "You will find wars are supported by a class of argument which, after the war is over, the people find were arguments they should never have listened to," remarked John Bright. Stanley Baldwin added, "In the areas of international rivalry and conflict men have placed patriotism above truthfulness as the indispensable virtue of statesmen." And in our time, Harper's publish John MacArthur warns "politicians are lying to you," adding that "one of our big problems is that reporters themselves are helping amplify the lies."

Ponsonby's efforts -- and those of others who've followed -- have failed, for two reasons: reach and credibility. Governments have both; people like Ponsonby have neither. Sadly, governments can spread lies widely, counting on the media to act as a largely passive and uncritical conduit between itself and the public (unofficial PR agencies for the government, or stenographers for those in power, as critics put it.)  And the face of government is made up of those who have that much sought after quality, "credibility," something some people twist themselves into knots of endless compromise to acquire. But presidents need not comprise, for it's an article of faith that, on matters of foreign policy, the president has credibility; if he's caught making "dubious" assertions, it's because he slipped or exaggerated for effect or was imprecise, not because he lied or can't be believed; which is to say, those who are granted credibility as a matter of course, are the least deserving.

Incensed that  "the press account of the 'terrible atrocities' (said to be committed by the enemy in WWI) were nothing but propaganda," The Nation predicted in March, 1929, "when the next war breaks out, statesmen will lie again; again deliberately set out to deceive and cheat the people in order to make them hate and fight." Yes, there is indeed a tradition of presidential lying in the service of war.

Ponsonby may have dreamed that someday, someone would be able to write, "when the next war breaks out, statesmen will lie again, and the people will call them liars, and will refuse to be cheated and deceived into going along."

After decades of being cheated and deceived, it's time we brought Ponsonby's dream to life.

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