Discerning the Truth in War

“The first casualty when war comes is Truth.”  — Hiram Johnson, 1918.

Since the 2016 US Presidential election, political analysts, scholars, and pundits alike have lamented the death of truth and the ushering in of an era of ‘post-truth’. But as a researcher interested in war, I began to wonder what the era of ‘post-truth’ meant for knowing war.

Has war ever been knowable

Throughout history, war has been fought not only in the trenches, between the armed troops, but most importantly in the ‘hearts and minds’ of the civilian populations who provide the monetary, logistical, and reproductive support for the war effort. Convincing risk-averse people to risk life and loved ones for abstract political agendas has long required propaganda and black-and-white narratives of the moral superiority of ‘us’ versus the explicit evil of ‘them.’ These narratives circulate as part of the affective economies of war that make war conceivable and acceptable for the human labourers needed in the efforts.

As I write this, I am in the field conducting research on the conflict in the region (formerly?) of eastern Ukraine known as Donbass. Since 2014, a very conventional style of war has been waged over control of the region after the 2014 Euromaidan revolution polarized the country and germinated a separatist campaign in Donbass. A group advocating separation held a referendum in May 2014, to which the Ukrainian government responded by sending in the armed forces.

But even that description is largely problematic because, at the time, the Ukrainian armed forces were in disarray. By some accounts, they were non-existent. The Euromaidan revolution saw massive lustrations carried out throughout the institutions of the state, including defence institutions. Thus, many of the militants who descended on Donbass in the lead-up to and following the referendum were not formally with the armed forces, but were rather gangs of ‘hooligans‘ and far right-wing activists who had taken it upon themselves to defend the nation from internal and external threats.

When I began this research, I sought to discern Truth in this war. But the accounts from each side are so diametrically opposite. My Ukrainian respondents all spoke with certainty that this was not a civil war, but an invasion. Some recounted first-hand their evidence – that they had personally seen or taken captive Russian soldiers as prisoners of war. My separatist respondents all emphasized the grassroots nature of their movement and that the fight was not just for autonomy in the region, but fundamentally a fight against fascism.

On both sides of the conflict, both fear and love play important roles in the affective economy of this conflict. The fear is deeply ideological. For Ukrainian nationalists, it is a fear of losing their short-lived independence to a Russian neo-imperialist agenda. For the separatists, it is a fear of nazism and loss of political, social, and economic freedoms. While both sides are deeply tied to their ideological standpoint, neither is open to the idea that the other side is genuine. The Ukrainian nationalists believe that the narratives of independence, self-determination, and social improvement are a smokescreen of Russian propaganda. Meanwhile, the separatists believe that the neo-nazis are misinformed puppets of capitalist oligarchs who seek integration with Europe not as a means of improving the living conditions of Ukrainians, but as a way of further forcing down the cost of labour and exploiting the working classes.

One respondent puts it this way:

“Now, in the era of the information revolution, when all the information is available and everyone produces the information that he wants, people are not accustomed to reading about one piece of news from two, three, four sources and drawing a conclusion for themselves. They are accustomed to reading either the first thing they encounter or what someone advises them, and they tend to believe it. They believe that they have made their own conclusion and that this opinion is their conscious decision. But there is no culture of information processing. There is information, but people do not know how to process it. I made a decision for myself ten years ago that I need to read the same piece of news on five or six different resources to draw conclusions for myself. However, there are no independent resources, unfortunately; all of them are biased.”

Another, very much a veteran of the war, who has been fighting on the front line since December 2014, confided in me: “This is no longer a military or economic war. Now, it’s an information war.”

The challenge, as a researcher, is not only in discerning the Truth in war, but, perhaps more so, the politics and circulations of different versions of the Truth that give meaning and value to violence. While I cannot hope to determine the geopolitical strategies that lay behind various countries’ (in)action in response to this war, one thing I feel confident in concluding from this research is that no matter where the Truth ultimately lies, the versions of truth circulating here form an integral element of the affective economy that drives this war.