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Rebuilding Iraq


Wartime lies

The history and ethics of military deception

By Laura Secor, 4/6/2003

FOR MOST CIVILIANS, the ethics of war are a dark thing of mystery. In a realm where killing is not only tolerated but required, can we seriously quibble over, say, when it is or isn't right to tell a lie? And when people or regimes like Saddam Hussein's are fighting for survival, can we expect them to stop short of double-dealings we intuitively find abhorrent-like pretending to surrender, or donning civilian guise?

Well, yes. The Geneva Convention, which was adopted in 1949, prohibits the feigning of civilian status, surrender, neutrality, and wounds. In doing so, the convention merely codified popular intuitions about combat ethics. Fake surrender, explains just-war theorist Michael Walzer, ''undermines the convention of taking prisoners and points toward a war without quarter.'' Similarly, regular soldiers may not disguise themselves as civilians because in doing so they knowingly place civilians in harm's way.

Saddam's forces are hardly the first to violate these prohibitions. Some Bosnian Serb troops, for example, disguised themselves as UN peacekeepers. But the systematic use of what the Geneva Convention terms ''perfidy'' is rare. Shannon French, a philosophy professor at the United States Naval Academy, observes that ''guerrilla warfare blurs the lines between combatants and civilians, but in Iraq we're seeing an intentional, methodical effort to create

confusion as to legitimate and illegitimate targets. That might actually be new.''

What's not new is military deception itself. Strategists and soldiers have long distinguished between perfidy and what might be called honest deception, and the latter has enjoyed, as it were, a long and distinguished military career. John Mark Mattox, a career military officer and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Maryland, explains that in the ''highly specialized'' context of war, you expect that the enemy will attempt to deceive you and to kill you. But the acts defined as perfidy violate reasonable expectations. ''Before the Geneva Convention existed, it was well understood that these were proscribed acts of bad faith.''

Like chemical warfare and other proscribed acts, they also happen to be highly effective.

Too bad. ''The rules of war can't make it impossible for you to fight,'' says Walzer. ''But they can make it impossible for you to win.''

Good-faith military deception, on the other hand, has a long and storied history. Some of the most basic military stratagems count as deception, including hiding in foxholes, using camouflage, and lying to the enemy. All of these are permissible under international law. So, too, are more elaborate deceptive techniques. In military parlance, ''ruses'' are deceptions involving enemy colors or equipment. ''Displays'' use elements like light, dust, smoke, or decoys to falsely indicate the position of landmarks or equipment. A ''demonstration'' is a move that implies a specific follow-up that never comes. And in ''feints,'' troops actually attack or retreat, but weakly, while the main assault occurs elsewhere.

These practices are as old as warfare itself. ''The Art of War,'' by the legendary Chinese general Sun Tzu, is practically a manual in deception. The ancient Israelites and Carthaginians are said to have bluffed their way through battles with superior foes. In the Middle Ages, the creators of chivalric codes frowned on even simple deceptions like ambushes, writes the British military author Jon Latimer in the recent book ''Deception in War.'' But during the same period, deception thrived in Byzantium, notably in the form of feints and the sending of forged letters to enemy officers that would make it appear that the officers had committed treasonous acts.

Deception is a classic underdog maneuver. Outnumbered and outgunned, a small or backward army often has no better option than trickery. ''Deception is asymmetrical warfare,'' says the military historian James F. Dunnigan. Latimer offers a vivid example from the American Civil War. Confederate forces under General John Bankhead Magruder numbered 8,000 and knew they'd be facing 120,000 Union foes. Magruder fortified his lines by alternating his guns with what became known as ''Quaker guns'': painted logs festooned with wagon wheels. Knowing that the enemy could glimpse his activities only through a single clearing, he also marched one battalion in circles until the opposing general became convinced he was facing more than 100,000 men.

Displays like Magruder's contain an element of theatrical audacity. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that some of the most spectacular displays of World War II were arranged not by a general but by a trained illusionist. Jasper Maskelyne, a London stage magician whose grandfather invented the modern magic show, volunteered his services to the Royal Engineers in 1939. Charged with concealing British forces in North Africa from German reconnaissance, Maskelyne put together a team that included engineers and stage-set builders. German bombers aiming for Alexandria instead targeted a dummy harbor that Maskelyne's team had fashioned from canvas and plywood in a neighboring bay. Maskelyne even hid the Suez Canal, using strobe lights that disrupted bomber pilots' bearings. He called his work ''misdirection'': Like magic, it relied on diverting its audience's attention from the real business at hand.

In the 1999 Kosovo war, the Serbs used cruder decoys to considerable effect. Dunnigan, who designs war games, points out that the Yugoslav military trained for 40 years to hold out against a vastly superior foe, whether that would be NATO or the Warsaw Pact. ''They institutionalized the use of deception in their regular military training,'' says Dunnigan. After the war, it became clear that NATO bombs had destroyed just 10 percent of the vehicles that aerial reconnaissance had shown them striking.

Aerial reconnaissance is vulnerable to such low-tech deceptions. During the war with the Soviets, Afghan warriors wore brown cloaks the color of the local terrain. When reconnaissance planes passed overhead, they would simply drop to the ground and spread their cloaks. Even in broad daylight, they were ''literally invisible,'' Dunnigan says.

Dunnigan claims that a substantial literature on legitimate deception techniques circulates openly in China, and that senior Vietnamese generals have written books detailing their own best deceptions. But because it puts little emphasis on deception and counter-deception, Dunnigan laments, the US military has taken little notice of these treasure troves. In a 2002 RAND report sponsored by the US Army, analysts Scott Gerwehr and Russell W. Glenn also charge that deception is insufficiently studied. They argue that it could benefit by analogy to the animal kingdom: There is much to be learned, they soberly opine, from the caterpillar of the Cerura vinula moth, which has the capacity either to blend into the scenery or to disguise itself as something much larger and more fearsome.

Deception may be blithely practiced by caterpillars and infantrymen, but in ordinary human conduct it is something we tend to treat with wariness and even abjure. When we designate certain forms of lying, like certain kinds of killing, acceptable, do we open the floodgates for more pernicious, though still legal, forms of deceit?

Deception, after all, occurs at high levels as well as tactical ones. Should leaders lie to their publics when doing so serves a military objective? Military history certainly abounds in examples. Allied publics were led along with the enemy to believe D-Day landings would be at Pas de Calais rather than Normandy. The American public expected an amphibious approach to the first Gulf War, rather than the charge across the western desert.

Few ethicists would dispute the legitimacy of these public deceptions, particularly if they are accomplished through hints and omissions rather than through outright lies. But other public lies cast a far more ominous pall. During the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein had soldiers' corpses refrigerated so that they could be sent back to their families over intervals of time, concealing the truly catastrophic death tolls of certain battles. When NATO mistakenly bombed a train crossing the Serbian bridge at Gurdulice in the Kosovo war, officials aired a film that was doctored to show the train moving so quickly that bombers could not abort their mission in time to avoid hitting it. Tricks like these cost democratic powers like NATO even more than they cost tyrants like Saddam, because they undermine the public trust.

Shannon French says that very rarely a public deception can be tolerable: ''You make a judgement about the people you're deceiving. Would they consider the lie justified when they found out the truth? Would they see it as having been for their own good, or as a betrayal?'' But Michael Walzer takes a starker view: ''In a democratic state, a public official lying to citizens is a great wrong in any case.''

In a realm defined by violence, we still do consider it important to act in good faith, to tell one's own people the truth, and to observe certain conventions that make it possible for soldiers to exit battle-and for civilians to avoid entering it. Is this wishful thinking, or the one thing that differentiates war from, as Mattox puts it, a ''street brawl''?

In ''Just and Unjust Wars'' (1999), Michael Walzer writes, ''War is so awful that it makes us cynical about the possibility of restraint, and then it is so much worse that it makes us indignant at the absence of restraint. Our cynicism testifies to the defectiveness of the war convention, and our indignation to its reality and strength.''

L aura Secor is the staff writer for Ideas.

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This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 4/6/2003.
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