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The recent outcry over the Israel Defence Forces possible use of social media to deceive the enemy in order to gain a tactical edge reveals that some people are unaware of the most basic reality of wartime – governments and the military control the flow of information. They also create some false information too.
As I noted in previous blogs (link, link, link), deception in war has a long history and the likelihood of deception should be assumed by consumers of media.
But is that deception right? That depends on who you ask.
Theologians such as Thomas Aquinas have written on the subject of deception in war. Aquinas sought to make distinctions between normal relations, the rules of war, and the commonsensical requirements of battle, as well as the differences between concealment and deception. He wrote:
The object of laying ambushes is in order to deceive the enemy. Now a man may be deceived by another’s word or deed in two ways. First, through being told something false, or through the breaking of a promise, and this is always unlawful. No one ought to deceive the enemy in this way, for there are certain “rights of war and covenants, which ought to be observed even among enemies,” as Ambrose states (De Officiis i).
Secondly, a man may be deceived by what we say or do, because we do not declare our purpose or meaning to him. Now we are not always bound to do this, since even in the Sacred Doctrine many things have to be concealed, especially from unbelievers, lest they deride it, according to Matthew 7:6: “Give not that which is holy, to dogs.” Wherefore much more ought the plan of campaign to be hidden from the enemy. For this reason among other things that a soldier has to learn is the art of concealing his purpose lest it come to the enemy’s knowledge, as stated in the Book on Strategy [Stratagematum i, 1] by Frontinus. Such like concealment is what is meant by an ambush which may be lawfully employed in a just war.
Nor can these ambushes be properly called deceptions, nor are they contrary to justice or to a well-ordered will. For a man would have an inordinate will if he were unwilling that others should hide anything from him.
Politicians in democracies are accountable to the public, but no politician is foolish enough to reveal detailed war plans with the general public (and especially the enemy!). They must maintain a delicate balance of honesty, accountability, and wartime wisdom. Outright deception may be fine with one’s enemies – but to deceive one’s own citizens may lead to a damaging loss of trust on the domestic front (or in international relations) and may not be worth it in the end.
As for military leaders, deceiving the enemy is part and parcel of any conflict. In fact, degrees of lying and deception are necessary in war. As Sun Tzu wrote in the ancient Chinese text The Art of War, “The military is a Tao [way] of deception.” Or as Winston Churchill quipped, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”
At the end of the day, the old adage “the first casualty in war is truth” still rings true. And no contemporary outrage over a Twitter post will change that. What we do with the reality of deception is what matters. First, we need to be less naive and more discerning when reading wartime reporting. Second, we need to hold governments to account for their track record on honesty – politicians may think it necessary to deceive us in wartime, but our loyalty is not blind and we can make them pay (at the ballot box or even in the courts) when we think they have gone too far.
 Summa Theologica, 2.2. Q. 40, Article 3. https://www.newadvent.org/summa/3040.htm