Nation & World

The truths lost and gained in wartime

4 min read

The symposium “War and Truth” explored the modern resonance of an ancient sentiment: “In war, truth is the first casualty.” It’s attributed to the Greek tragedian Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) and was revived to describe the events of World War I and other confounding 20th century conflicts.

Six scholars and writers investigated what truths are lost in war and what uncomfortable truths might be gained. Their 90-minute conversation, before a capacity crowd of about 180 in Emerson Hall, was sometimes “a fist fest” of opinions, said moderator Martha Minow, Jeremiah Smith Jr. Professor of Law at Harvard.

But what more fitting way to celebrate the inauguration of Drew Faust, she added, than to have such “an intellectual and politically engaged feast”?

Nicholas D. Kristof ’81, a New York Times columnist who has reported widely on the Darfur crisis, took the first turn. “Often truth is also a casualty in peacetime,” he observed of journalists. “There are a number of things we cover badly, and probably cover worse than war.”

The “miscovered or incovered” stories include matters of science and public health, said the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. But some wars are also inadequately reported, said Kristof, including unrest in the Congo that has claimed 4 million lives – “the most lethal conflict since World War II.”

Not only journalists distort war, said Niall Ferguson, Harvard’s Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History and William Ziegler Professor of Business Administration – who remarked on the glorification of war on playing fields and in video games as well as other entertainments. “It takes actually several generations for truth to be in any way retrievable from the collective efforts of the journalist, memoir writer, [and] the movie maker.”

He added, to the discomfort of some other panelists, that people should also face “the real truth about war” – that humans “have an innate aptitude for violence, and that it doesn’t take terribly much to unleash it.”

In war, truth is “incredibly complex and nuanced,” said Sharanjeet Parmar, a lecturer at Harvard Law School and a clinical instructor at the International Human Rights Clinic.

The real casualty in war is often losing the authentic voices of both war’s victims and its sometimes-victimized perpetrators, she said. There’s a need to explain war, said Parmar, as well as condemn it.

“Many multiple truths” are expunged by war – including a clear, open look at who is fighting and who is hurt, agreed author and genocide scholar Samantha Power. She’s Anna Lindh Professor of Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy at the Kennedy School.

Too often “perpetrators are essentialized to the single violent act” – just as victims are looked at one-dimensionally, said Power. “It’s a journalistic challenge to open up the lives of those we are aggregating together.”

On the military front, truth-telling should be more common than it is, said author Jonathan Shay, staff psychiatrist at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic in Boston. “Reliable and consistent and habitual truth-telling up and down the chain of command,” he said, “would be the single most transformative change we could make in the American armed forces.”

There’s merit to telling the truth of what happens in war, but there is also danger in overreacting to its horrors – “to take the position that war is always wrong,” said Ferguson. “Sometimes war is necessary.”

Getting to the truth of war can be “a healthy, chastening humility,” but should not encourage Americans to avoid all armed conflict, agreed Power, who has written about the failure of Western governments to intercede in genocides.

Sometimes “staying home,” she said, “is an untenable prescription.”