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Mainstream, VOL LX No 16, New Delhi, April 9, 2022

Why states lie during war times? | Garima Mani Tripathi

Friday 8 April 2022


by Garima Mani Tripathi *

War is always fought on two fronts. On the actual battle ground, war is fought in terms of men and material losses on both sides. Concurrently, at a psychological and propaganda level, both sides also resort to contested narratives about causes of war, losses on each side and claim incoming victory on their side. Truth, then becomes the sacrificial lamb in the alter-ego clashes of rival parties who resort to lies after lies. The ongoing Russia — Ukraine War is just another chapter in warfare history alluding to this bitter contrast between competing narratives and philosophical metamorphosis of truth.

Contemporary wars, unlike the ones being that were waged in earlier times, are being beamed directly to our homes. Therefore, most of us have a rough idea as to what is happening on ground zero! And yet, differential war interpretations do not confirm to Thomas Kuhn’s ‘scientific paradigm’, i.e. scientific universal truth. Warring parties have their own manufactured tell-tales to be conveyed to the global audience that are often in contradiction with each other. The search for truth and correct knowledge in wars are, therefore, unending in most cases and it may take decades of archival research to come to some definitive conclusion.

While Michael Walzer hypothesised that all wars may be ‘just’ or ‘unjust’, the actual categorisation of the warring parties may not be that easy. For instance, the Russian perspective about the ongoing war may be more about the ‘just causes’ of its increasing security problematic vis-à-vis Ukraine’s likely membership of NATO. The alternate perspective may like us to empathise with narratives such as Russia’s increasing territorial aggression against Ukraine and promoting secessionist tendencies in its Russia- speaking areas. Russia’s annexation of Crimea few years back could be cited as testimony to Russia’s aggressive tendencies. Positioning of such counter narratives may make our philosophical quest for real truth rather difficult!
A major problem in contemporary wars is legal-political-philosophical consensus on the aggressor. On the face of objective facts, Russia would clearly be identified as aggressor. And yet, Russia could not be declared as an aggressor in the UN Security Council meet since there were, and are, perceptional differences among the participating members. Seen from a Russian perspective, it was compelled to take a pre-emptive military move to thwart NATO’s aggressive instincts in Ukraine. It is, therefore, possible for some truth in both the perspectives. War histories are replete with numerous such examples wherein both the sides have perceived each other as aggressors.

Number of deaths in a war is another issue that has more than one versions. Early in the war, Ukraine claimed killing more than 5000 Russian soldiers. Since then, the claimed death has only gone up! For records, it is a conventional war and the military balance between Russia and Ukraine is quite asymmetrical, evident in poor defensive mechanisms displayed by Ukraine so far. Why should Ukraine’s claims be taken at face value when Russians have strongly refuted the same? But then, even in cases when the actual numbers are too less, states still resort to lies. For example, in the Galwan Valley clashes of May/June 2020, China grudgingly accepted the death of only four PLA soldiers wherein all the neutral reports, including that from Russian press, claimed at least forty deaths on the Chinese side!

Victory in wars are also contentious, more so, since contemporary wars are characterised by stalemate in most cases. While Russia may emerge as victorious in the ongoing war at some stage, NATO would still claim moral victory over Russia, piggy-riding the sanctions regime. Another glaring example back home would be the 1948 and 1965 wars between India and Pakistan. War narratives from both sides claim victory. It is also debatable if there could be a clear military victory in contemporary wars, since there are colossal infrastructure and human losses on the victorious side too! For instance, Russian economy may go backwards by fifteen years due to war costs and war effects.

There could be many philosophical considerations why states resort to false narratives during war times. First, inter-state relations are ultimate manifestation of human nature. Human nature is not homogenous and perceptional differences are quite common. Truth, knowledge and reality may differ amongst the motley group, driven in part, by individual self-interests. The same is true of inter-state relations since these states have to fend for themselves in an anarchical set up where state interests often clash with each other, resulting into differential perceptions of the reality and righteousness in their actions. Truth, then, gets metamorphosed to subjective perceptions wherein states make a villain of each other. Second, war narratives are always nationalism-driven. The press, the media, the intellectuals and the bureaucratic machinery - always look towards the state for guidance. National military or military tactics seldom come in for criticism. Conjectures cooked by the state get proliferated as ‘gospel truth’ by national elites and other stakeholders. Concurrently, the national media burns the midnight lamp in covering the truth coming from the rival side under the carpet. The state ensures mobilisation of uniform public opinion that sees no evil in (possibly defective) national war strategy. Third, Plato and many subsequent philosophers have been quite unambiguous that there would always be a difference between ideal and actual. Differences between perception and reality apart, human beings are also fallible to locational differences and there may be a gap between the two sides that often lead to communication problems. The end result is a perceptional variant of truth.

Wars symbolise philosophical puzzle and indeed a moral crisis, since states and their leadership resort to blatant lies. Such lies militate against the philosophical propositions of Immanuel Kant who said that truth is always ‘universal’ and all nations must strive towards ‘perpetual peace’. Unfortunately, the Kantian path to truth may remain an ideational dream only and we may have to live with more lies coming from the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War.

* (Author: Dr Garima Mani Tripathi is an Associate Professor of Philosophy in Mata Sundri College for Women, University of Delhi).

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