The first rule of American war is not to believe what we’re told

Summary: Another war starts with its barrage of propaganda on America, raising the usual questions. Can we learn from experience? Will we demand accurate information and better analysis, laughing at those who have been so often wrong?  Today’s post provides some context that might help you decide what’s happening, or at least create useful doubts.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“‘Truth,’ it has been said, ‘is the first casualty of war’.”
— Philip Snowden in his Introduction to Truth and the War, by E. D. Morel (1916).

Ministry of Truth


  1. Update from Ukraine.
  2. About previous clashes with Russia.
  3. Compare Ukraine with Vietnam.
  4. Conclusions.
  5. Other posts in this series.
  6. For More Information.

(1)  Update from Ukraine

The US Army announced that “about 300” soldiers from the 173rd Airborne arrived in Ukraine on April 14 “to begin a six-month training rotation with Ukrainian national guard forces”. The NY Times describes the training in the upbeat prose typical of its stenographers repeating what they’re told, with a few specifics (“The courses will train 705 Ukrainian soldiers at a cost of $19 million…”). Canada has sent 200 trainers, Britain has sent 35, and perhaps Israel has sent some as well.

There’s no mention of involvement by US Special Forces, the premier trainers of foreign armies in the methods to fight civil wars, beyond a bland announcement by Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) of deployments to train local troops in “Poland, Slovakia and the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia involving several hundred personnel from U.S. special forces”.  No mention of direct involvement of US special operations troops, the covert tip of DoD’s spear — but then we shouldn’t expect to be told.

Relive the cold war

(2)  Compare it to previous direct confrontations with Russia

As usual with American geopolitical analysis, many “experts” quickly lose their perspective at the first hint of conflict, venting breathless warnings that we’re in a new Cold War — perhaps even sliding to nuclear war. It led them to predicted scores of great power wars since WWII; every month brings a new crop of war rumors (last year the hot “news” concerned war between some combo of Japan, the Philippines, and China).

Back on Earth, nuclear powers tend to walk lightly around each other after their first close call. For the US and Russia that was a close brush with death in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (see the tapes of the NSC meetings described in Virtual JFK; you’ll have a far higher opinion of him after reading it). For India and Pakistan that was a not-close but still scary moment during Kargil War in summer 1999.

One glimpse of atomic death convinces national leaders to avoid direct confrontations of armed forces, relying instead on proxies willing to die for the interests of their great power sponsors. After centuries of experience, western governments have become expert in managing these.


Vietnam memorial
Never forget the expensive lessons of Vietnam.

(3)  Compare our escalation in Ukraine with Vietnam

“I have similarly directed acceleration in the furnishing of military assistance to the forces of France and the Associated States in Indochina and the dispatch of a military mission to provide dose working relations with those forces.”

Statement by President Truman about the Situation in Korea, 27 June 1950.

The first rule of American war is not to believe what we’re told. We know little because the government tells us so little — plus lies. The second rule of American war is not to believe what we’re told; we know little because the government tells us so little — plus lies.

History books recount the slow increase in the numbers and involvement of US troops in Vietnam begun in 1950. These mislead the reader, because these actions were not visible to people at that time. Truman’s one line mention of Vietnam gave no numbers, a precedent followed by Presidential speeches during the next 2 decades. Even the documents stating key decisions seldom give specific numbers.

For example, see the Vietnam War’s equivalent of a next step Obama might take:  National Security Action Memorandum No. 111: First Phase of Vietnam Program, 22 November 1961. This outlined JFK’s first big expansion of the war. At the end of 1960 we had roughly 800 troops in Vietnam, including ~400 special forces; by the end of 1961 there were aprox 3,200, including ~2,000 in MAAG — with 11 dead so far (different sources give different numbers, illustrating the vagueness of primary sources about expansion of Vietnam War).

The bottom line was increased commitment to the war. We sent more troops, incurring more casualties as US helicopters with US pilots carried ARVN into battle, accompanied by US military advisers. None of this was known to the public except in a vague sense. President Kennedy spoke often about Vietnam, but with few details (see this summary).

Even the passage of key milestones were invisible to contemporaries, such as the creation on 27 September 1950 of a Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Vietnam, the organizational framework for expanding our involvement — or the momentous creation on 8 February 1962 of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam — a war-fighting force headed by a commander (Paul Harkins, a good but rigid man put into a job where everything he knew was wrong).

We knew only that our brave troops supported a beleaguered nation fighting for its freedom. Much like today, as in this cheery bit of propaganda from Stars and Stripes, so carefully devoid of context that tells a fairy tale. Although about today’s Ukraine War, change the names and it could be dated 1962.

The Truth key

(4)  Conclusions

If this is a path similar to the escalation in Vietnam (which I doubt), we’re in an early stage. Like early or perhaps Summer 1961.

To understand these events, apply the lessons familiar to anyone who has read post-WWII history. Assume you know only half of what’s happening. Regard with skepticism the confident statements of “experts”. Watch the trend of events rather than the narrative (e.g., NATO has reported several “invasions” of Ukraine by Russia, which oddly seem to have produced relatively few casualties, little combat, or any results).

In this, as in so many areas, the information superhighway does not appear to make us better informed than the people of pre-e days of 60 years ago. In 1962 we knew the government’s goals but not its actions. Today we don’t even know its goals. What were the objectives for the invasion and occupation of Iraq? What are the objectives of Team Obama in Ukraine? We can only guess at these why’s — the most difficult of questions.

(4)  Other posts in this series.

  1. The most useful news story of 2015: the truth about the bin Laden hit.
  2. The day after Hersh: rebuttals & more evidence about the bin Laden hit.
  3. The first rule of American war is not to believe what we’re told.
  4. The debate about Hersh’s revelations reveals more than his article.
  5. Should we use our special operations troops as assassins? Is it right, or even smart?

(6)  For More Information

In Salon: “Historian Stephen F. Cohen on the U.S./Russia/Ukraine history the media won’t tell you:  The New York Times ‘rewrites whatever the Kiev authorities say’. There’s an alternative story of Russian relations we’re not hearing.” Also see Patrick L. Smith in Salon: “The New York Times does its government’s bidding: Here’s what you’re not being told about U.S. troops in Ukraine: U.S. troops are now operating openly in Ukraine. The paper of record’s ‘coverage’ is an embarrassment, per usual.” This has interesting background information about the Ukraine war, although some details are exaggerated.

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10 thoughts on “The first rule of American war is not to believe what we’re told”

  1. Caveat emptor. Stephen Cohen is hardly an unbiased source.

    As can be immediately ascertained by googling, he has been thoroughly comprehensively trashed by any number of articles elsewhere. Now one might say “of course, the powers that be will discredit any critic” – yes, but sometimes it is deserved. Cohen’s weird pro-Putin track record began years before this Ukraine crisis, and despite Salon’s hagiographic portrayal of Cohen’s past, criticism of his strange ideas are not new, see for a spanking of Cohen in …. 2001.

    1. FP,

      (1) There are no unbiased sources writing about current wars.

      (2) “Salon’s hagiographic portrayal ”

      Exaggerate much?

      (3) You give an article in Commentary as a rebuttal? Home of neocon hacks, including members of the “always wrong club” like Max Boot. Also, this is from 2001 — and subsequent events have proven the Editor’s analysis quite wrong.

  2. George A. Wojtowycz

    Anne Applebaum asked Cohen a very revealing question during the Munk Debates, when she asked him if he has any expertise in Ukraine, it’s history, or if he read any Ukrainian publication. His answer was equally revealing …. no!

    I don’t have to be a “neocon hack,” just to know if someone has a lot of bias and no credibility like Cohen.

    1. George,

      What an odd comment.

      “has a lot of bias”

      How sad that you believe there are people writing about wars without “a lot of bias”. That’s remarkable blindness.

      “if he has any expertise in Ukraine, it’s history, or if he read any Ukrainian publication. His answer was equally revealing …. no!”

      I suspect you’re making that up. The actual question I see was “”How many Ukrainian newspapers do you read a day?” To which Cohen replied “I read 10 Russian newspapers a day.” Which makes sense, as he’s a professor of Russian Studies at NYU (Wikipedia bio). As such he’s better qualified to comment on the Ukraine-Russia conflict that most people chattering about it (my guess is that he’s better qualified than the people you rely on for information).

    2. Snake Pliskin

      “I don’t have to be a “neocon hack,” just to know if someone has a lot of bias…”

      Maybe not, but if you’re citing Applebaum as some kind of disinterested arbiter, you’re doing one helluvan impression of one. Especially when it comes to any discussion about Russia or Eastern Europe generally.

  3. “No mention of direct involvement of US special operations troops, the covert tip of DoD’s spear — but then we shouldn’t expect to be told.”

    My own impression, for what is worth, is that there is little actual appetite for what this would likely entail (direct clashes with russian SOF, prisoners being taken etc.). I think US pols are quite happy with the option of training local cannon fodder to send it against the Russians and their proxies for as long as it will be possible. The beautiful thing is that, from a strategic point of view, should Ukraine implode it will be Russia and the EU which will get sprayed by the brown stuff once it hits the fan, while the USA will be able to walk away with little more than a reputation bruise.

    In general I suspect the strategy is to put Russia under pressure until the oligarchs off Putin or “The People” rise up against the “Evil Dictator”. Both are unlikely to come about but I doubt american policymakers can come up with something better without violating their own dogma.

  4. Pingback: The First Rule of American War … | Bill Totten's Weblog

  5. George A. Wojtowycz

    If there were any Ukrainian publications in Russian that Cohen could have read, he might have mentioned it to us during the debates, “Ukrainska Pravda,” founded by journalism’s martyr Georgiy Gongadze, or Gordon UA. And, is he better qualified than say: Timothy Snyder, who is an expert on Ukrainian Studies, residing in Kiev these days, or Alexander Motyl, also a Ukrainian Studies expert? Is he better than the countless new dissidents residing in Russia like Yulia Latynina, Yevgenia Albats, and the rest of the folks at Ekho Moskvy, the late Valeria Novodvorskaya, and Yulia Ioffe, whose entire childhood was spent in Russia, and not on junkets at the Valdai conferences as a guest of Putin lobbyists, people who face a fate like that Boris Nemtsov every day of their lives for exposing Putin for who he is? No!

    1. George,

      The “better than” argument does not make any sense at all to me. Finding a ur-expert for wars is almost impossible. As I have said so often, the obvious truth is that wars seldom have objective observers. As seen in the comments here, this is a hard insight which people refuse to see.

      You appear to adopt the usual method of being misinformed: rating experts by how closely they match your biases. A better way would to tilt your reading more to people who have different biases. You would diversify your information, and find insights which challenge your beliefs — rather than drifting along.

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