The quote, “Truth is the first casualty of war,” gets attributed to everyone from Aeschylus, a Greek tragic dramatist (525 BC – 456 BC), to fifth century Chinese Gen. Sun Tzu, to an address in 1918 by U.S. Sen. Hiram Johnson (R-Calif.) and on to British politician Arthur Ponsonby’s “Falsehood in Wartime: Propaganda Lies of the First World War,” published in 1928.
But no matter who first coined the sentiment, it’s as true today as it was in ancient times or the 20th Century. Actually, with our Internet and 24-hour news cycle it’s probably truer today than in the past, recent or distant.
Wednesday morning, when this column was written, there were glaring headlines on the BBC Online front page — “Crimea crisis: Pro-Russians seize Sevastopol Ukrainian naval base”.
“Seize” is a very strong verb we journalist like to use, especially in headlines. And a crowd of pro-Russian supporters did crash the gate. Some, but only some, were carrying weapons.
They removed Ukrainian symbols, but as the Ukrainian military were leaving the building, the crowd applauded them. It’s a crisis, but none of us are yet sure how critical a crisis… or how political.
Over the weekend, pundits on TV were likening Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Crimea to Adolph Hitler’s incursion into the Sudetan area of Czechoslovakia.
There are similarities, but also huge differences. Hitler’s excuse was to protect ethnic Germans. Putin has claimed ethnic Russians in Crimea need his protection. And both actions were primarily bloodless.
But the ethnic Germans in Austria and the Sudetan had never been governed by Germany.
Until 1954 and since 1788 when John Paul Jones, “The Father of the American Navy,” helped Catherine the Great finally seize Crimea from the Ottoman Turks, Crimea had been part of Putin’s country. Not just part, an important part.
Sevastopol is the Russian Federation’s only warm-water port. That’s where the country’s Black Sea fleet is harbored. It was vitally important to the old Soviet Union and even more important to the old Czarist Empire as it strove to become a peer among peers in Europe.
This doesn’t give Putin the right to topple governments, and expanding the Russian Federation into former Soviet Bloc areas could cause some serious instability in the region.
But if our leaders think they can back Putin off of something that he believes is his nation’s “manifest destiny,” to recoin a phrase, we’re in for a rocky ride too reminiscent of the Cold War years.
There are other news reports, or call them blog reports, that hint the information we are receiving through our mainstream media may be one of those truth casualties in this non-shooting war.
“Freedom Post” is one of those blog sources that’s chronically distrustful of the liberal media. It includes ‘Don’t Tread on Us” on it’s front page, so it’s fair to suspect it has a point of view.
There’s an article, written two weeks ago in the blog by Dean Garrison. He’s editor and writer at DCClothesline.com and calls himself a conservative independent.
Garrison says he received an email from a friend in the Navy, using the pseudonym John Paul Jones.
This latter-day Jones said reports about Russian troop and armor movements on the peninsula make him ask, “Who exactly counted the tanks and vehicles as they rolled off of the transport planes? Who chose to hang around during an invasion by a foreign armed force? How accurate and trustworthy are these reports?’
“Jones” said reports that a Russian corvette and a hovercraft were off the Crimean coast seemed to be little more than hysteria. “A corvette is a small ship, barely more than a patrol craft in most cases. A hovercraft might be big, but are normally never armed with more than one or two .50 caliber machine guns. Nothing to really worry about in a naval sense. Worry when the rest of the Black Sea fleet arrives.”
This unidentified naval officer said it’s looking to him like news reports citing official sources may be making more out of the situation than just reporting the truth.
As well as news from official sources available in print and on cable TV, I also receive Pervie Kanal (Channel 1), a Russian newscast that spots the official view from Moscow. It’s via my Blu-Ray system, so the only way I can record it is with my hand-held digital sound recorder.
I recorded a short Russian news report about Ukraine’s statement at the UN. I don’t speak Russian anymore, and never was all that good at it while I was in the Army Security Agency (ASA). So it took me 10 days to get the short broadcast translated.
It said the Ukraine report that 16,000 Russian soldiers had been deployed across Crimea ignored a primary fact. The alleged invasion force has been stationed in the Crimea for 15 years. It was hardly a full scale invasion, the Russian news anchor said.
I don’t trust the Russian news anymore than I trust blog reporters. But I do trust reports I get from former associates in the ASA.
Our job in Europe in those Cold War days was simple. Spy electronically on everything the Soviets and their Warsaw Bloc allies did. We did that in border sites, from in the air and from Turkey’s northern coast.
An Air Force base at Sinop in northern Turkey was the closest land mass to the Crimea and the Soviet fleet headquarters in Sevastopol.
Craig Rawlings is a fellow journalist, semi-retired, and a former member of the ASA. He served in Sinop and flew on missions along the East German border gathering intelligence on Warsaw Bloc military units. He also was technical chief at Gartow, one of the intelligence outstations in the battalion where I served.
He lives in Tallinn, Estonia, now and teaches part time at the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences. He also writes articles for the local newspaper and is a past president of the Estonian-American Chamber of Commerce.
And he’s still curious about the people we used to listen in on and the places where they worked that were barred to us in those years. But not anymore.
On March 8, he wrote to a group of former ASA personnel about his recent observations.
“A few years ago my wife and I drove around Ukraine, including the Crimean peninsula. It is a desolate and dry place except for the mountains and beaches along the south. The most interesting place is the old sub base with underground tunnels. Crimea cannot exist on its own without Ukraine that supplies all the water and electricity that is needed there…”
Rawlings said there some facts he wanted to remind his former ASA associates about:
“Russia has not invaded Ukraine. In their agreement to keep their naval base, plus two other military bases, one which houses a large unit of Marines, they have the right to keep up to 25,000 Russian troops there.” he said.
“They pay just under 100 million (rubles) a year to rent the spaces. The two Ukrainian bases house old Communist military units and are all Russian people. The so called helicopters rushing in from Russia is a lie. They came from the Marine base to surround the other two bases and they asked for the Ukrainian/Russian soldiers to secure their weapons, this was to avoid any gun battles.”
Rawling’s analysis is the propaganda from the west is all a result of hurt pride when Kiev signed an agreement with Putin.
Like Rawlings, I too believe Putin to be a warmonger and a dictator.
As of March 8, Rawlings believed an escalation of the war was unlikely. Of course much has changed since then and I haven’t heard an update from him or others in the ASA group who have expertise in the area.
But one thing hasn’t changed. And that’s that truth already is a casualty.
Our administration and the Russian administration seems to be playing more to their constituents than attempting to find a way to reduce tensions.
That’s a dangerous game.
The Russians feel they have a right to the Crimea, and they’ve got a strong tactical advantage.
The name Ukraine comes from the Russian word ukraina, which means the borderlands. Putin would love an excuse to cross into Russia’s traditional borderlands. And if he did, there’s little that the U.S. and Europe really could do it. That’s the ultimate truth in the situation. And like it or not, we have to accept that.