The first casualty of war is truth

By BOB TEOH

It's been often said the first casualty of war is truth. No one is sure where this quote came from. Some attribute it to US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson who is purported to have said it in 1918 although there is no record of it.

In Sun Tzu's (544–496 BC) ancient Chinese military treatise –The Art of War - "All warfare is based on deception."

About the same period, Greek writer/poet Aeschylus (525BC - 456BC) wrote: "In war, truth is the first casualty."

Around that time too Greek general and historian, Thucydides, wrote a history of the 27-year Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) which was fought between two Greek city states, Sparta and Athens.

In writing his classic work, Thucydides highlighted what we would call the discipline of verification which serves as the essence of journalism today. He spoke of the need for factual reporting of events so that truth was easy to discover. This is especially so when "different eyewitnesses give differing accounts of the same event, speaking out of partiality for one side or the other…"

The cynic says in order to fight a war or to start a war, we have to lie. And those who disagree are often silenced as unpatriotic or subversive. This is true from ancient times till today; the Vietnam War and the Gulf War being recent examples. Anyone who disagreed with Bush, both the father and the son, was smeared as anti-American.

This is how every war is fought. Although the attack on Lahad Datu and its environments by the so-called royal army of the Sultanate of Sulu is by no means a war, what has emerged is that media coverage of it is beginning to look like war reportage complete with action graphics and stunning war photos with punchy headlines. It has taken on "they”versus"us coverage.

The role of the press in times like this when the country is under armed threat from foreign elements is not to resort to jingoism. This is not the time for flag waving or arousing patriotic emotions. Much more is at stake particularly the lives of our men in uniform. Already so many have been killed mercilessly, the highest peace time casualty no doubt. On the opposite aside, many too have been killed.

It's good to remember that we should not be pre-occupied with statistics of engagement. Behind every death is a family and an extended family in grief. They are not cold statistics but living persons in mourning and bereavement. The dead leave behind traumatised widows, children, parents, neighbours, friends and more. It matters little now whether they are enemies or otherwise.

This is the time for redeeming the situation with professional journalism by way of fast and accurate reports so that the public is well informed. As pointed out by Thucydides, "different eyewitnesses give differing accounts of the same event, speaking out of partiality for one side or the other…"

Journalists need to get the story out as fast as possible and as accurately too. But all this takes time and professionalism; this is the journalism of verification. To do this, many media agencies have despatched their best reporters to the scene.

Sin Chew Daily too has sent its team from its head office joined by others from its Sarawak and Sabah regional bureaus to ensure that reports are verified on the ground before publication. This is necessary so that truth need not have to be the first casualty of war.