The Shameful Power of Lies

I refuse to believe that the truth no longer matters. I refuse to believe that the truth is simply what I choose to believe. I’m loath to admit it, but a clear-eyed look at world politics today and examples from the past suggests I’m wrong. Too many lies have been casually accepted as truth and too many lies have sparked monumentally consequential change.

A young George Washington never cut down a cherry tree or confessed with the line we all know: “I cannot tell a lie.” Biographer Mason Locke Weems made no mention of the tale in the first five editions of The Life of George Washington but the incident suddenly appeared in the sixth. Weems made it up. Similarly, there was no gift-horse, filled with soldiers, with which the Greeks duped the Trojans. Nero did not play the violin as Rome burned. When leaving the room, Galileo did not mumble, “But it does move.” Newton’s work on gravitation was not inspired by a falling apple. Benjamin Franklin never flew a kite in a lightning storm. I could go on.

Lies such as these have been repeated as fact by so many and for so long that they’ve become accepted as true. Joseph Goebbels would understand. As Hitler’s propaganda minister, he said a lie becomes truth when forcefully presented and repeated. Donald Trump certainly understands.

Politico.com studied Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign speeches and determined that, on average, he lied once every five minutes and sometimes twice in a single, rambling, non-sequitur littered sentence. He lied about having seen thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9-11 attack. He lied about MSNBC distorting his views by editing his statement on abortion. He repeatedly lied about America’s crime rate being higher than ever, about GDP growth being zero for the previous two quarters, and about the United States having the world’s highest corporate taxes. All the lies were shown to be lies but it didn’t seem to matter. Mr. Trump won the presidency. He continues to lie. He recently said there are 96 million unemployed Americans but that counts retired folks and kids in school.

Do the lies that inform so much of what we think we know about our past and Mr. Trump’s successfully lying his way to the White House prove that we don’t care about the truth? We should. Because sometimes lies bring about changes that are enormously consequential. Consider two examples.

President Truman said he approved the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan to save the lives of American soldiers who were preparing to invade the island. With each subsequent interview, Truman’s estimate of the number of men saved went up. He couldn’t quantify it because his justification was a lie. Truman had been advised by the scientists who created the bomb that its use would be immoral. A number of generals and military advisors, including future president General Dwight D. Eisenhower, said it was unnecessary. Japan was on the verge of collapse. All its major cities had been incinerated. The Soviet Union had declared war and was moving on Japan. Japanese leaders were preparing to surrender and Truman knew it.

But the bomb was not really about Japan. Truman agreed with Secretary of State John Foster  Dulles and other advisors that the bomb had to be dropped to brandish its power, especially to the Soviet Union, which they had decided to turn from ally to enemy. They had to demonstrate that America would dominate the post-war world. And so the bombs fell. Months before, Japanese leaders had offered to stop fighting with the condition that Emperor Hirohito stay in place but the Americans refused with their insistence on unconditional surrender. With the atomic bombs suitably displayed, Truman accepted the surrender terms that had been unacceptable before. Hirohito remained. The war ended. But Truman’s lie unnecessarily murdered 150,000 people in Hiroshima and 75,000 in Nagasaki with hundreds of thousands suffering life-altering wounds and horrifying birth defects.

While Truman’s lie involved the end of a war, other lies have started them. The Iraq War was based on the lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He didn’t. In 1964, Congress gave President Lyndon Johnson unrestricted power to wage war in Vietnam after an attack on the American destroyer USS Maddox. But the attack didn’t really happen. The lies are disturbing but sadly, tragically, not rare.

At 9:40 in the evening, on February 15, 1898, a tremendous explosion sent a fire ball into sky above Havana’s harbour. The American battleship Maine, which had been anchored there as an expression of American power, had exploded. The ship was destroyed. Its burning, shredded hulk sank, and 266 Americans lost their lives.

Cubans had been rebelling against their Spanish colonial masters in a low-level guerilla war. Thousands of Cuban refugees had been working from new homes in Florida and New York to entice America to intervene on their behalf. After all, they argued, the Monroe Doctrine said that the United States considered the western hemisphere its back yard and would take action to keep countries stable and Europe out.

Powerful newspaper owners had joined their fight. The New York Journal’s William Randolph Hearst and the New York World’s Joseph Pulitzer were in a circulation war and both saw a Cuban war as their ticket to victory. They both had reporters in Cuba before the explosion writing articles that urged President William McKinley to take military action. Two days after the Maine explosion, Hurst’s Journal ran the headline: “Destruction of the warship Maine was the work of the enemy.” The next day, an article quoted unnamed naval men as believing that a Spanish mine had caused the explosion. Hurst offered $50,000 to anyone who turned in those responsible for the mine. Readership soared.

Thousands of Americans wrote to their president demanding a war of revenge with Spain. Militia groups formed and volunteered to leave immediately. Men yelled “Remember the Maine and to Hell with Spain!” as they swamped recruitment offices. Congressmen joined the jingoist parade, declaring that American honour had to be respected. A March 28 Naval Court of Inquiry moved with lightning speed to conclude that the Maine had indeed been downed by a mine. President McKinley was suspicious of the evidence but the mounting political pressure was enormous. He acquiesced. In April, the United States declared war on Spain.

The war lasted only ten weeks. The most famous battle was the taking of San Juan Hill by the Rough Riders, a rag tag group of cowboys, college students, and ex-convicts organized by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, who had quit his post to join the fight. The war was won when the American navy destroyed Spain’s Atlantic fleet in the Philippine’s Manila Bay. About 2,000 Americans died in the war, all but 385 of disease. About 60,000 Spanish and Cuban soldiers and civilians died. America’s victory led to the Paris Treaty which gave Cuba its independence and ceded the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the United States.

The war’s second phase began when Filipino nationalists insisted on independence rather than trading one colonial master for another. When rebuffed, they shouldered rifles. The fighting lasted three years and took the lives another 4,200 Americans and over 20,000 Filipino combatants. The war also saw about 200,000 civilians die from war-related famine, violence, and disease.

The Maine attack and wars that followed entered American civic understanding alongside Washington’s hatchet and Franklin’s kite. They were true because they were believed to be true. But the truth is stubborn.

In its rush to not really investigate but simply confirm the mining of the Maine, the US Naval Court of Inquiry had refused to hear from a number of experts. Included among them was Navy ordnance professional Philip R. Alger. He told the Washington Star that the explosion’s power and ship’s wreckage suggested that the blast had originated with a fire in the Maine’s engine room that ignited its magazine, the room where ammunition and gun powder was stored. In fact, another naval inquiry had reported only a month before that designers of ships such as the Maine had put magazines too close to coal-fired engine rooms. This was alarming because coal bunker fires were a regular problem on naval ships at the time and it had been found that those carrying bituminous coal, like the Maine, were far more likely to suffer spontaneous engine room fires than those carrying anthracite coal. Those salivating for war knew all this but ignored it as they silenced Alger.

In 1974, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover initiated an inquiry into the Maine’s sinking. American, Spanish, and Cuban records were scoured and experts on ship explosions were interviewed. The study concluded that “without a doubt” the Maine had been sunk by a spontaneous combustion fire in her engine room that ignited the magazine. The Spanish had nothing to do with it. Wars had been fought in Cuba and the Philippines, thousands had died, the Spanish empire had shrunk, the American empire grew, and Roosevelt’s political career took flight, all because of a lie. It was a lie the American media helped create and then exploit and that the American people were too willing to believe.

Today, in the revered Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac from Washington, lay the remains of over 14,000 American veterans. On a hilltop near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, towers a gleaming white mast. It’s the Maine’s mast. In 1915 it was salvaged and erected atop a large concrete base resembling a ship’s turret. The mast throws a shadow over the respected dead laying nearby while serving as a monument to the power of lies.

power-of-lies-memorial

Maine Memorial (Photo Arlington National Cemetery)

Lies led to the dropping of the world’s worst weapons, were cynically employed to elect a president and used to start unnecessary wars. Lies ended lives and changed the world. It is said that we live in a post-truth era. No. No! We can’t afford that luxury, that embarrassment, that threat. Ignorance is not bliss, it’s dangerous. Ask those resting in American military cemeteries laid there by lies or the ghosts haunting Cuba, the Philippines, Japan, Iraq, and Vietnam. Ask Joseph Goebbels.

The media has an awesome responsibility as the citizens’ eyes, ears, and conscience. It must question and say no to power and not be its poodle. Rewriting press releases is not journalism. The media cannot, as Hearst did, and as Fox and others do, report lies or fashion lies of their own for ratings, clicks, and sales while making us dumber and less safe. We must join the media in robbing lies of their power by calling them what they are and calling out those who either don’t speak the truth, don’t seem to care, or don’t know the difference. We deserve the truth. We can handle the truth. We must demand it.

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10 War Words We Use Today

We are people of peace who use words of war. We can’t help it. They have entered the vernacular so completely that we don’t even realize we are doing it. Consider the following ten and listen for them as you go through your day.

  1. Deadline

American Civil War battles sometimes resulted in the gathering of hundreds or even thousands of prisoners. It was seldom possible to quickly transfer them to camps or arrange prisoner swaps so they had to walk along with victorious army. At night or during rest stops, guards would draw a line in the dirt around prisoners and warn them that if they stepped over that line they would be shot. It was the deadline.

  1. Chatting

Soldiers in First World War trenches found, among other hardships, that their hair and uniforms were infested with lice. They would sit across from each other and use fingernails or cigarettes to remove the lice and their eggs – chats – from their mate’s hair and clothing. While doing the deed they would talk and soon, soldiers referred to anytime they made small talk as chatting.

I Was There: The Great War Interviews

(Photo: http://www.dailymail.co.uk)

  1. Heard It Through the Grapevine

Samuel Morse invented the telegraph. It was a code that could click messages through wires at a speed that was a 19th century marvel. At the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, both sides strung wires from city to city and to the front lines. The wires reminded folks of hanging grapevines and so when asked where one had heard a particular bit of news it became common to respond, “I heard it through the grapevine.”

  1. Sniper

In the late 19th century, British soldiers seeking to amuse themselves with proof of marksmanship took birds as their targets. The most difficult to hit was the small and quick moving Snipe. Those able to accomplish the feat became known as snipers. The name stuck when in the First World War Germans began using telescope-sighted rifles to shoot individuals in enemy trenches. Soon, all armies used, and called them variants of, snipers.

  1. Bikini

In the first year of the Cold War, in 1946, the American military needed a remote spot to test atomic bombs. A group of Pacific Islands was deemed perfect and so 167 native people were moved from their homes. The women were wearing skimpy clothing that exposed their midriffs as they were removed from Bikini Island. The bikini bathing suite went on sale shortly afterwards.

  1. Lock, Stock, and Barrel

A 19th century Civil War musket had three parts: a lock, a stock, and a metal barrel. Each part was useless without the other one but deadly when working well together. Thus, when a person put everything into an action he was said to be doing it “lock, stock and barrel.”

  1. Beer

There is evidence that all ancient cultures made and enjoyed beer. However, it was not until Roman soldiers began moving north and drinking a home-made brew in what would later become Germany that the name was invented. They called the hearty ales and lagers by the Latin word for drink – biber. When Romans conquered the southern part of England they found English folks drinking the same grog and they Anglicized it to beer.

  1. Cardigan

During the Crimean War, an English military leader named James Thomas Burdenell carefully drilled his men so that they were unbeatable in battle. Their prowess led to their being called the Light Brigade. In their famous charge, he courageously led them from the front. That day, like many in which the morning dawned chilly, he wore a gift from his wife over his uniform, a knitted, buttoned sweater. Burdenell, his men, and his sweater became famous. He was the 7th Earl of Cardigan.

  1. Champion

Medieval knights trained in contests held on a large field which, in Latin, was called a campus. The contest winners were deemed the campion. For reasons unknown, English spellers simply added a letter to make it champion.

  1. D-Day

The expression came from a First World War way of explaining operations without revealing the time or day of an impending attack. The practice remained common in the Second World War. The first field order mentioning the Second World War amphibious landing at Normandy, consequently, stated that the allies would attack at “H-Hour on D-Day.” The D, rather redundantly, stands for Day. So D-Day, used now for many of our deadlines, recall that is another war word, really means Day-Day.

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The Ancient Understanding of Water

Dear Canada,

The intrepid explorers who left Quebec’s relative comfort for God and gold did not scar the land. They didn’t bang and clang along in wagons breaking trees and cutting tracks. No, they slipped through in canoes, in silence, leaving not a trace of their passing.

Voyageur_canoe

It’s perhaps this collective memory, this ancient understanding down deep in our souls that urges us to water. We are born of water. Many of us are baptized with water. Water is our playground where we seek sanctuary and salvation in splashing and skiing and paddling and floating. Blessed is the contentment of long, gentle afternoons in hypnotic contemplation of sparkling waves. We bob at dusk in little tin boats with smelly worms and silly hats and silently wish that a splashing bass will not spoil the tranquility. We work fifty weeks to afford a clean and tidy house and then leave it for two to paddle a canoe and haul it over treacherous rocks and roots, and all to live from a sack, sleep on rocks, and eat food we’d send back in the dingiest diner. And we love it all, because we’re on water.

The Atlantic was your welcome mat and the St. Lawrence your doorway. It invited us in. It was your superhighway to your inland seas – the mighty Great Lakes. Settlements grew to towns and then cities along their shores. Without the lakes there would be no Kingston, Toronto, Hamilton, Thunder Bay, and the rest.

The lakes are a line. We’re here and the Americans are over there. They always coveted more and once they crossed the lakes to get it. As blood-soaked armies showed neither mercy nor shame, battleship artillery boomed. It drowned out the cries of the poor drowning men. We burned their capital. They returned the favour and burned ours, but we beat them in the end; we beat them 18 to 12. We then agreed to ban the guns on the lakes and try, one more time, to live a hard and bitter peace.

Another war’s end, a couple of wars later, offered its own kind of boom – prosperity and babies. The navy sold out at garage sale prices and shipping companies soon had plenty to ship in their ships. Supply could not meet demand to fill new houses in new neighbourhoods with new stuff. Europe was still bleeding and Canadian wheat, iron, and wood steamed through the lakes to help with the healing.

The big freighters lumbered like slow-moving monsters. They chugged from plants and mills and lake to great lake and on up the St. Lawrence to the sea. Their choking smoke, like the belching factory stacks, were a sign of good times. The depression and war were over and we yearned for order. There was an old man on parliament hill and a young Elvis on TV, well, from the waist up anyway, and the smoke stacks meant there were jobs for everyone. For most of us, it was a Leave it to Beaver world and folks along the lakes were lulled in their beds each night by the freighters’ mournful horns echoing over still and foggy water.

Edmund Fitzgerald

Edmund Fitzgerald

But just like life was not so serene everywhere, the ships were romantic only to those elsewhere. Life was tough and the men tougher. Ships were too often floating sweatshops. Company men and the politicians they bought winked and nodded as captains ignored the imaginary border drawn somewhere on the waves and rival union goons broke skulls and laws.

There were moments of calm amid the chaos. Peaceful nights on watch with no shore in sight allowed a man to imagine himself at sea. The lake’s gentle roll offered time to recall what drew him to that life in the first place. Then, sudden gales could whip up mountainous waves and transform freighters big as towns to bathtub toys. Everyone knew their jobs but when the running lights and radio went out as another wave crashed over the deck there was nothing to do but pray. Like in a battlefield foxhole, there are no atheists aboard freighters locked in the cold embrace of a Superior storm.

The Great Lakes’ beds are rusting, ramshackle naval museums and holy unmarked graves. Canada, your lakes and the rivers both mighty and small are the blood in your veins. Their waves are the rhythm of your soul.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

This is one of a collection entitled Love Letters to a Nation, inspired by the songs of Gordon Lightfoot. If you liked it, please share it through social media and see some of the others at johnboyko.com

The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald               © Gordon Lightfoot

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early
The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
Then later that night when the ship’s bell rang
Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
When the wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too
‘Twas the witch of November come stealin’
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashin’
When afternoon came it was freezing rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind
When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck
Sayin’ “Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya”
At seven PM a main hatchway caved in
He said, “Fellas, it’s been good to know ya”
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went out of sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her
They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams
The islands and bays are for sportsmen
And farther below, Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral
The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early