Manipulting the truth in love and war

on the Vietnam War


The last person left standing gets to tell the story;  or at least the person with a camera, microphone of the ear of the CIA it seems.  Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, known to intelligence agencies as “curveball”,  has confessed to the Guardian in England that he made up stories about Iraq’s chemical weapons program.  He apparently was such a good liar that the intelligence community believed him enough to keep passing the information up the ladder of command and decision making, even if the information was unsubstantiated.  The government of Saddam Hussein has fallen and now he wants credit for his heroic actions – Iraq wants no part of him – and Germany may prosecute him for actions “with the intent to disturb the peaceful relations between nations, especially anything that leads to an aggressive war”, a crime under German law; in the meantime Germany has been paying him about $5000 a month. The estimates of the number of people killed vary from 100,000 to a 1,000,000; the finance cost is estimated to be about $775 billion.  If one is to believe the press coverage – and the story is getting lots of coverage both in Europe and the Middle East – one man’s lies were the tipping point that lead to the war in Iraq.

For a long time I have said that the last person left alive gets to tell the story; for me that has been a eulogy, a story or some other form of recreating or retelling a person’s life.  My versions are not always popular with other people who also witnessed a life from a different point of view – but, oh well.  To me, it has always seemed innocent;  and for me it is a way to explore relationships and put closure on death.  However, not all personalized versions of history are quite so innocent.  One that strikes me is Vietnam, even today the American media claims a major role in the final chapter of Vietnam for the United States; this morning I listened to an NPR discussion on the subject, all the panelists agreed that the nightly images from the battlefields were decisive in forcing the American withdrawal.  I am not here to argue the right and wrong of Vietnam, but I do question that some groups of people with the stage feel they have the right to shape public opinion and the course of history.  We need not look as far in the rear view mirror as Vietnam for other examples of media portrayals shaping the course of events; more recently we have had the Iraq war and most recently the events in Egypt. In each case what we know about the events and what we feel about them is heavily influenced by the personal biases of individual reporters and the corporate bias of their employer.  And clearly not all of the reporting is reporting the news, for example daily repeating the number of deaths has been proven to influence public opinion and put pressure on politicians to make changes.

What to believe is very tricky and we have to believe some of what is told to us just to survive.  We cannot always learn everything from the source – no civilization would have progressed past its first stages if we did not pass on from generation to generation our collective knowledge.  We also have to learn and adapt daily based on what our peers have learned – image driving down a freeway and not slowing down when you saw the tail lights of cars ahead of you responding to something you cannot see.  Or sitting in a burning theater until you personally saw the flames or could smell the smoke.  Life is full of times when we change what we are doing or thinking on faith – faith in the information someone else has relayed to us.  And that is what makes the truth so important; it is the fabric of our personal lives and of our society.  Without it we cannot function; we have to tell our family, spouses and employers the truth, just as we depend on them telling us the truth – and the category of people on which we rely on for truth extends to far past our direct contacts and includes very remote and abstracts personifications such as the media and our politicians and leaders. And by telling the truth, I do not mean the selective telling of some of the facts to manipulate someone else.  I resent that from anyone and that includes presidents, reporters,  lovers, family and close friends.  Curveball may not have any obligation to me, but to at least some of the Iraqis who have died he owed something.  Simply the truth does not always match what we want it to be, but we have to cope with life as it is, not as we want it to be.  Work for the changes you believe in, but don’t lie to me to get your way.



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February 2011
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