Jewish World Review April 8, 2003 / 6 Nisan, 5763
Leonard Pitts, Jr.
Truth during war seen through prism
I've been looking for a suitable quote to anchor this column about
truth, lies and the Information Ministry of Iraq.
Problem is, I've got so many to choose from. Like California Gov.
Hiram Johnson's famous admonition that, ''The first casualty when
war comes is truth.'' Or Winston Churchill's observation that, ``In
wartime, truth is so precious that she should be attended by a
bodyguard of lies.''
But it occurs to me that the flavor of Information Minister
Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf's press briefings is probably best
captured by an old Richard Pryor line about a brazen man caught
cheating by his wife. The man swears he wasn't cheating at all.
''Who you going to believe?'' he demands. ``Me, or your lying
Similarly, Sahhaf told reporters last week that American forces
''are not even [within] 100 miles,'' even as U.S. troops were
seizing Saddam International Airport, 12 miles outside of
Baghdad. ''They are not near Baghdad!'' Sahhaf said. ``Don't
One is reminded of the Wizard of Oz crying out to Dorothy and
friends, ''Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!'' For
those of us who have been following the minister's briefings, it
was another virtuoso performance. Sahhaf has continued to deny
American military success even as evidence of that success
becomes too near and, you'd think, too obvious, to ignore. He will
probably still be swearing U.S. forces are nowhere near Baghdad
on the day he is taken away at gunpoint.
Certainly, there's nothing surprising in Sahhaf's less-than-intimate
relationship with truth. Still, it offers a telling window into the
mind-set of the regime he represents. In Iraq, evidently, people
are conditioned to believe something because the government
tells them to. In Iraq, the obvious and the apparent are
secondary to what Saddam Hussein and his functionaries say. In
Iraq, if you are given a choice between the government and your
lying eyes, you'd better curse your lying eyes.
Again, this is not uncommon for your average dictatorship. Still,
Sahhaf's fresh demonstration that denial is more than a river in
Egypt comes against a fascinating backdrop. Meaning the ongoing
debate over how we should regard this war.
Reams have been written and many broadcast hours used in
analyzing the various biases and prisms through which this affair
is viewed. American media have been accused of cheerleading,
the BBC of being too sharply critical. Record numbers of us have
turned to Al Jazeera and other Arab news websites in search of a
different perspective than we will find on CBS, CNN or in the
pages of The New York Times.
This is a healthy thing. It is, in the purest sense, a search for
truth. Or, perhaps more to the point, a recognition that truth --
especially in as fluid and chaotic an enterprise as war -- is often a
subjective thing. It's a diamond with many facets. What you see
depends on where you stand.
We are all prisoners of our own perceptions, all live in boxes
constructed of our own backgrounds, beliefs, values and
aspirations. And once you understand that, it only makes sense to
try to get beyond that, seek to understand what they are thinking
in those boxes on the other side.
Information is a weapon in time of war, a means of encouraging
or demoralizing both soldiers and civilian populations. It's called
propaganda, and that's what Baghdad is engaged in. Quiet as it's
kept, Washington is, too. You and I are the prize in a battle for
hearts and minds.
That's what makes the search for truth difficult. It's also what
makes it important.
In all likelihood, though, the truth we seek -- to the degree it is
knowable at all -- probably won't be found until years after this
business has been completed. But thanks to Mohammed Saeed
Sahhaf, there's one thing, right now, that we can say for sure.
We may not know where the truth is, but we definitely know
where it is not.
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