“The first casualty of war is the truth.”
Different versions of this proverb have been passed down over the centuries.
Though the saying is not attributable to a specific individual, the basic concept — that combatants will of necessity adopt deceptive tactics to secure victory — was described as early as the fifth century BCE by the Greek playwright Aeschylus (c. 523–456) as well as the Chinese philosopher-general Sun Tzu (c. 544–496).
“All warfare is based on deception,” Sun Tzu wrote in his influential text The Art of War. “Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away.”
As I look out over the intellectual wreckage of America today, I sense the presence of powerful combatants who have come to the same conclusion about warfare as Sun Tzu, and I am struck by the sense that truth has indeed been killed in action.
Our citizens have been drafted, in many cases without their full consent or knowledge, to fight numerous wars on dozens of fronts.
The generals waging these wars are not traditional soldiers with traditional weapons. They are information warriors who — at least for now — relish the proverbial power of the pen over that of the sword.
No truth is sacred from these soldiers of misfortune: no line is uncrossable, no decision is free from Monday-morning quarterbacking, no concept or ideal is safe from distortion.
Their scorched-earth tactics have laid waste to the already fragmented landscape that exists in the wake of our tumultuous 20th century, and now Americans of every generation have been stranded in a blasted and jumbled expanse with only their outrage to guide them.
Illusions and chimeras are easily manufactured in this ruined landscape, distorting scale and concealing the truth in a way Sun Tzu would have favored: fake companies and organizations are created to hide sources of funding and lend credence to otherwise discredited ideas; biased journalists use undercover tactics usually reserved for police officers and federal agents, penetrating unsuspecting organizations and making illegal recordings that are then edited and released publicly to much fanfare; the active measures of one group are met by the counter-measures of its opposing group, and small details of a news item that have already been taken out of context are re-framed until each side is defending and attacking their own misconceptions.
Everyone claims to be acting in service of the Truth.
But rather than putting their trust in traditional and well-established American institutions that can discover and decide on the truth — journalism, science, and the court of law are among the most noble in my opinion — today’s information warriors on both sides of the political spectrum have used every opening to attack and discredit these institutions without proposing any replacements.
The result has been a widening divide between neighbors, a decrease in knowledge and understanding about our government and the legal system among supposedly well-educated citizens, and a scathing distrust of the mainstream media — still our best source of high-quality information.
As many professionals who are nominally engaged in the discovery of truth will tell you — perhaps in a bar after a few beers, or maybe they’ll just put it out there on a blog — the reality of finding the capital-T truth can be pretty messy.
The more complex the issue, the more investigation and research is required. Good judgment and logic is often involved. And even then you still might not get it right.
Indeed, many professional attempts to pursue the truth in America not only end in failure, but result in a corruption of the ideals of the institution.
Just one glance at the corrections column in a typical newspaper, for example, is enough to cast some doubt on the ability of journalists to find and report on the truth. There have also been damaging examples of plagiarism over the past few decades, as well as issues with unethical reporters who are shills for various special interests.
The scientific process, meanwhile, has yielded great technological advances in just a few short centuries. But the process is not bulletproof, and it can be marred by falsified data, plagiarism, and fake experiments. Wikipedia contains over 60 examples, mostly from the last two decades, of biomedical fraud by researchers in the United States and many other nations.
As for the court of law — that sacred place where witnesses are instructed to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” — we are often painfully aware that truth is not always told and justice is not always served. The public finds out about some of these cases but not others. How many innocent people have gone to jail? How many guilty people have gotten away with their crimes?
It is by and large the basic tactic of most information warriors to take case studies of failure and create straw-men out of them, concluding or else implying that nothing short of a total rejection of certain individuals, institutions, and professions is required for justice to be done and truth to prevail.
But this is neither practical nor logical.
To use a sports analogy, imagine a good athlete making a bad or unlucky play on the field. It would be ridiculous for fans to demand that the athlete be thrown out of the game on account of the play; only if the athlete began to exhibit obvious betrayal (e.g., started playing for the other team) or exhibited a repeated pattern of failure would it make sense to call the player’s suitability into question.
Similarly, many Americans today have had their judgement twisted so that they reject those institutions that would serve their best interests overall on the basis of conspiracy theories, biased reporting and allegations, or a few outright failures.
In reality, a perfect state of truth and justice cannot, and never will be, achieved.
Despite the multitudinous case studies that are available to critics of “fake news,” “junk science,” or “activist judges,” there is no reason to abandon any of these much-needed human enterprises.
If anything, the solution is more education and more constructive — rather than destructive — debate.
Certain kinds of information can clearly be factual or have a basis in fact, with technological solutions such as video or audio recordings allowing journalists to provide very strong evidence fairly and accurately.
The scientific process works. It has resulted in great progress over just a few centuries, succeeding at marvelous feats of healing, communication, agriculture, and travel where untold millennia of human rituals and prayers did not.
And even though our legal system is flawed, it provides an important structure for a society that would otherwise devolve into anarchy. We need judges, lawyers, and police officers because nobody has yet figured out a better way to protect people and keep society chugging along in a predictable way.
When seen in a more complete light, truth is rightly understood to be more like an ideal that we reach for, a goal or a standard that we use to evaluate our progress.
What is critical is to understand that we often fall short of the truth because of human nature, and that human institutions that are charged with discovering truth are held to incredibly high, often impossible, standards by those who put their trust in them.
But this is not a cause for alarm.
This is a call to action, a call to defend our truth-seeking institutions and embed them more firmly in our national fabric for the benefit of everyone.
Help stop the war.
Help resurrect the truth.
Don’t let attacks on straw-men and unfair criticism erode your faith in the ability of institutions to hold our country together, however imperfectly.
The alternative — as we can see in looking at the legal systems, media, and scientific progress of nations such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, and North Korea, all of which lack a strong tradition of democratic truth-seeking — is much, much worse.