The sentiment has been expressed in various ways, from Aeschylus to Winston Churchill, and I am referring to the very pointed sentiment that the first casualty of war is the truth. That said, I really like the way Samuel Johnson expressed it.
‘Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.’Samuel Johnson, The Idler
So as we proceed, I encourage you to keep that bit of wisdom in mind. I would also encourage you to recall that the self-evident truth of all such adages is known to be true on a very different footing than the way that you might know whether or not a couple hundred Russian tanks have been destroyed.
Stay with me now.
Why Putin Has Already Lost
I went back and forth in my mind about whether to build up to my conclusion, or to do what I eventually settled on, which is to start with my conclusion, and try to clear up questions afterward. You can see from the header which way I went.
Even though Putin’s army is obviously still operational, his argument is in shambles—by the side of the road, treads off, and on fire. His rationale looks like the tail end of Napoleon’s army headed west from Moscow. Not only so, but I don’t see any path forward for him that would in any way salvage his argument.
The day before the invasion, Putin gave a speech in which he declared that Ukraine was actually a fake country, that it was really part of Russia if you thought about it, and that it was currently being manipulated by the West by means of neo-Nazi leaders, with the avowed intention of destroying Russia. This being the case, a Russian incursion would be a war of self-defense and a war of liberation. This pseudo-history was delusional on any number of levels, and was promptly refuted in practical terms by the stiff resistance mounted by Ukrainians across the board. The Ukrainians did not act as though they liked being liberated.
With regard to the neo-Nazi claim, there is a far-right militia that exists in eastern Ukraine, and a political party to match. They got a walloping 2% of the vote in the last election, and have no seats in the parliament. So I will have a few festive things to say about this neo-Nazi angle in just a little bit. Again I say, stay with me.
Two Kinds of Deception
One of the principles of warfare is surprise. In an effective encounter, one side is surprised and the other side surprises. In the very nature of the case, this kind of surprise depends on deception. Deception is a legitimate and very common weapon of war. During the Second World War, the Germans painstakingly built an imposing armored force out of plywood in order that our aerial reconnaissance might mislead us regarding their strength (we did the same thing also, back in England, prior to D-Day). But on this occasion, British forces let them finish their building project before flying over the operation and dropping a fake wooden bomb on it.
This kind of deception (this one being successful) is how Joshua won at the second battle of Ai—pretending to flee in panic when he had another force up behind Ai ready to sack the city (Josh. 8:3-4).
The war in Ukraine has more than a little bit of this going on. It is a war that is being conducted in an age of social media, and the Ukrainians have exploited this to their advantage greatly.
Now Putin’s invasion was morally atrocious to begin with, and making it seem a tad more atrocious was kind of easy, like hitting the ground with your hat. But the real issues surrounding deception lie elsewhere—when it comes down to the actual outcome of the fighting, Putin expected an easy conquest, and he got a very difficult one. Social media is being used very effectively to make it appear that the Russians were even more inept and disorganized than we thought. The Russians have had surprising difficulty, and social media is being used to amplify the level of difficulty. The Russians are not as weak as they are being made to appear, but making them appear that weak is having the objective result of weakening them. This is shrewd and intelligent warfare on the part of the Ukrainians.
But at the same time, anybody who actually swallows a story that has a Ukrainian grandmother capturing six tanks, to make one up, is someone who probably shouldn’t be allowed to discuss international affairs without being accompanied by a trained service animal.
Nevertheless, it is undeniable that this war has been a disaster for Putin. He did not accomplish his military objectives within the time frame that he needed to. He outran his supply lines, and the resistance of the Ukrainians has meant that the Russians have expended a lot more fuel than they were expecting. This is something we can all see. This is something we can all know without having access to the executive session minutes of the Illuminati’s high council. You don’t need to trust conspiracy theories in order to have eyes in your head.
Do not trust any analysis that depends on secret intel from some cryptic corner, or any analysis that makes everything tidy and simple—especially with all the wickedness on one side and all the virtue on the other. This is not orcs and elves, but rather an ordinary human war, and if you are praying for Ukraine to prevail, as I most certainly am, it ought to give you at least some discomfort that you are on the same side of an issue as Bernie Sanders. The international outpouring of support for Ukraine reminds me a little bit of the universal outpouring of support for America after 9-11, a support that lasted for about three weeks before everyone reverted to their factory settings.
But if you go through life like the protagonist in that great novel Gullible’s Travels, and you believe absolutely anything you read on the Internet that a. makes the CIA look bad, b. locates George Soros on an evil villain island a la James Bond, c. blames America for all of it, d. sympathizes with Putin because he is hostile to the LGBTQ+ derangement, or e. leaves David French with egg on his face, then you are the kind of person that used to be called “cannon fodder.” You are the kind of person who can get swept up in martial excitements, and off to war you go, without a thought in your head. And there are people of this sort on both sides of virtually every war. I believe a Christian has a responsibility to not be one of them.
So in a righteous cause, deception as a tactical matter is required in war. Using it adroitly is a simple matter of craft competence. An intelligent commanding officer would never be so stupid as to believe that it is a violation of the ninth commandment to feint left and launch the actual attack on the right flank. Here is Sun Tzu, for the win:
“All warfare is based on deception. 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; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”Sun Tzu, The Art of War
But deception in war is a problem when it is used to manufacture some kind of cooked up causus belli. If one nation wants to take territory from another, and they don’t want the world to view it as a naked power grab, then they have to come up with some pretext—as some interpret Henry V as doing with his outrage over the gift of the tennis balls.
In just war theory, this is called jus ad bellum. Do you have right on your side when making the decision to go to war? The Ukrainians most certainly do. Jus in bello has to do with your conduct in the course of the fighting—the avoidance of war crimes and so on. Deception in jus in bello situations is par for the course, and social media spectators need to budget for that.
The Midianites believed that Gideon’s forces were larger than they actually were, and you want the Russian troops to believe at least some of the stories they hear about Ukrainian grandmothers. That’s all fine.
Reading the Larger Story
So with the eruption of war between Russia and Ukraine, I have seen hot takes all over the place—among Christians. Some are sympathetic with Putin, most are sympathetic with Ukraine, and some Christians in the middle wonder how they could possibly make any intelligent determination if three weeks ago they would have been unable to find Ukraine on an unmarked map.
If you want to read the story accurately, you need to reason prudently from premises that you actually have access to. You should have a Bible, you need to have a biblical world view, you have to know what the basic logical fallacies are, and—this one is key—you have to be willing to be a partisan while refusing to become a hard partisan.
A partisan is one who is willing to decide what side he supports. A hard partisan is someone who is incapable of loving his enemies. But we are Christians and Jesus commands us to love our enemies. This is basic Christianity. But I am not bringing this up here because hating your enemies is sinful, although it is (Matt. 5:44). I am bringing this up because hating your enemies makes you stupid. I can pretty much guarantee that if you go into a war filled with hatred, you will be one of the participants who does not know what is happening.
Here is an example for you.
The “ghost of Kyiv” was a Ukrainian pilot who purportedly shot down 6 Russian planes in the early hours of the war. This was not a story that could be verified, and was almost certainly a manufactured morale booster. But the fact remains that the morale was in fact boosted, and the Russians do not yet have uncontested air superiority, and have not yet captured Kyiv. So there’s that, ghost pilot or no ghost pilot. This means that a premise that we do have access to is the fact that the Russians do not yet have a puppet government set up in Kyiv, with some Slavic stooge with Brezhnev eyebrows waving at all of us from some balcony.
Lovers of Ukraine who simply buy this story or any others like it are being too gullible. And others who start jeering when it is revealed to be false, and who then start claiming that the CIA is therefore making up all of these stories are also being gullible, and in exactly the same way. Blind partisan hatred always makes you stupid.
For an example of the kind of “zoom out”reasoning that I am commending, Jonah Goldberg makes a number of trenchant points about the Monroe Doctrine here. He recognizes logical contradictions when he sees them, and mildly points out that the Monroe Doctrine cannot be unparalleled perfidy when America does it, and understandable realpolitik when Putin does it. Jonah is simply reasoning from premises he has access to. He is not analyzing the war, but rather analyzing people talking about America and Putin in contradictory ways, and he simply quotes them. Thus far I am entirely with him.
At the same time, Jonah does miss a few key things. In objecting to the facile way in which haters of the West have (for decades now) tended to flatten the differences between the free West and the autocratic bad guys, Jonah says that “NATO is a voluntary organization that requires its members to be democracies.” This might come as something of a shock to dissidents and jailed journalists in Turkey, a NATO member, as Peter Hitchens has pointed out. It is hard to gin up outrage over Putin when we have Erdoğan, a Putin-like character, sitting in on our meetings. Kind of like giving Bill Ferny a seat at the Council of Elrond.
The other thing that Jonah misses is the depth and extent of the psychic damage done to the rank and file citizens of the West (think Canadian truckers) due to the behavior of our ruling elites over the last couple of years. We have been told lie after lie after LIE for twenty-four months running, and the faction controlling our White House and both houses of Congress would be happy to call someone a neo-Nazi for making a meme that maintained that little boys can’t become little girls.
This incidentally is the same structure as Jonah’s argument about the Monroe Doctrine. You cannot tag Putin as a deranged lunatic for coming up with Ukrainian neo-Nazis out of thin air without simultaneously recognizing that our political establishment, our media, our entire educational system, our entertainment industry, and our military top brass are all under the sway of such dangerous lunatics. What does it take to get tagged as a fascist, a white supremacist, or a misogynist these days? In career-ending ways? In the free world? Anybody remember that Trudeau said about the white supremacists in trucks who came to to visit him? When Solzhenitsyn told us to “live not by lies,” he was referring to any lies, not just to Putin’s lies. And our establishment lies just as egregiously, and in very similar ways.
In other words, when William F. Buckley first formulated his (very fine) argument against framing a moral equivalence between the free world and the commies, that was a time when commies were not openly running our public life here in the West, the way they are now doing. The objection used to have a lot more force, in other words, and I think that Jonah is being a tad nostalgic for an America that is le gone, as the French put it. The moral superiority of the West has been tarnished, shall we say, by millions dead through abortion, by the demented ruling of Obergefell, the Stage IV Mammon-worship among our ruling elites, the Big Tech disdain shown for free expression, and so on, down the street and around the corner. The only thing remaining to be done is for Caligula to make his horse a senator, and for David French to argue that genuine conservatism ought to be good with it.
The people in charge of our public life, in other words, seem hellbent on demonizing the human, and humanizing the demonic. Some of us in the evangelical world have noticed this macabre shift, and we have gotten to high levels of outrage, such that ten percent of our evangelical conservatives are even willing to say something about it. Publicly.
But incidentally, if you reacted with angst over the fact that I praised Goldberg, even partially, rather than answering his solid point about the Monroe Doctrine, then you are part of the problem.
Eric Hoffer once wrote an insightful book called The True Believer. There is a certain kind of personality that simply wants to know what direction to march, what flag to fly, and where to point their rifles. They have not thought through the issues, in other words. They prefer yelling to debating. But don’t mistake me—there comes a time when you do have to march in a certain direction, and fly a particular flag, and point your rifle in a specific direction. But you don’t have to lose your mind to do it. You don’t have to hate. You don’t have to see red.
A Couple Zoom Out Questions
If the West’s constant and unrelenting goal has been to destroy Russia’s economy, why haven’t we done it yet? We have had many opportunities. If this is all part of a grand Russophobe conspiracy, then why didn’t we deal with them when they invaded Georgia? Or annexed Crimea? Why, if there is a constant deep state animus against Russia, did Obama cancel the missiles we had promised to Poland? Why did Obama refuse to sell Javelin missiles to Ukraine, and why did Trump reverse that? If Obama’s policy had been sustained, Russia would be having a much easier time of it now. Why are we continuing to buy 600K barrels of oil a day from Russia? Instead of drilling and keystone-pipe-lining here? In other words, if we were actually traveling down a hard-line Russophobe road, we would be there by now.
Has anybody noticed that right when the Democrats needed the COVID issue gone for the mid-terms, we find ourselves with a war in Europe? I am asserting nothing here, apart from the reasonableness of asking questions. The Democrats did not just need the masks and lock downs gone from our lives, but needed the electorate to forget all about them. It would be insane conspiracy-thot to assume that Putin and the Democrats are in cahoots on something like this—with Putin offering to immolate himself so that the Democrats might do a little better in the mid-terms—but it would also be moronic to assume that our progressives, who are dedicated to Rahm Emmanuel’s dictum that you should never let a crisis go to the waste, are about to let this crisis go to waste. Look at the big picture.
What You Can Do
There are hundreds of thousands of refugees as a result of this war, up to a million, and we obviously can’t help them all. But we can help some, and should do what we can. Nancy and I have been to Ukraine before, and we have good friends in Hungary, Poland, and Ukraine, saints who are deeply involved in ministering to the hurting, and all while going through their own trials. We have a number of our churches there in Eastern Europe (in the Hus Presbytery of the CREC), and I can vouch for the invaluable work they are doing—ministry with real integrity. Please consider giving to their efforts here.
Our friend Attila in Hungary has helped numerous refugees already, and these are folks he has received into his home. These good people are Ukrainians from Ivano-Frankivsk now in Diosd, Hungary. These photos were sent to me by our friend Bubu, a Polish pastor and the presiding minister of Hus Presbytery.
These are the kinds of folks that your gift will help.
Please consider it, and thank you. Even if you don’t know very much about the conflict, you can know that you are helping to make things better for some.