The use of fraud in conflict

“Force, and Fraud, are in warre the two Cardinall vertues.” When Thomas Hobbes wrote that, he was not thinking of traditional moral virtues (which he thought only exist in society, after individuals have agreed to observe rules). Rather, he was referring to the strengths or skills that are most effective in achieving goals. In a conflict, each side can overwhelm with force, or undermine with deception. And in any real conflict each side always uses both.

It seems to me that the power of fraud has been greatly underestimated in recent times, despite playing an increasingly important strategic role in determining the outcome of conflicts. Of course, deception has always been used in war, from the Trojan horse to the “man who never was” (i.e. the dead body carrying fake invasion plans dropped overboard for Nazis to find). And propaganda has long played a role in persuasion, so much so that the word ‘propaganda’ is often used as a synonym for misinformation.

But the rise of mass media news sources (TV, internet, etc.) in the late twentieth century opened new vistas and opportunities in the old art of wrong-footing the enemy. In particular, it enables parties to a conflict to harness the widespread politically correct assumption that “the people” can do no wrong, because “the system” is always at fault.

In recent years, “playing the victim” has become one of the most effective weapons in the ancient arsenal of fraud. A typical example might involve a confrontation between protesters and police, which can be understood in game-theoretic terms. The “game” for police is to beat up protesters, and then to lie about it. The “game” for protesters is to get beaten up by the police, and then to make a great public display of their victimhood for the media. Please note that both sides hope to gain from their respective “game”, as often happens — and is often overlooked — in conflict situations. Many conflicts resemble a private arrangement between sadist and masochist, but underneath the cooperation is the serious purpose of defeating the enemy. Like a round of poker, only one player can win, but other players stay in the game as long as it looks advantageous to them.

I have used the example of police-protester brutality because we all see this sort of thing in the media quite often. And please be clear that I regard police brutality as a completely unacceptable use of force, and police denial of brutality as a completely unacceptable use of fraud. But I also regard the deliberate attempt to make a show of one’s own victimhood as an unacceptable use of fraud.

On a larger scale, beyond the everyday spectacle of conflict between police and protesters, there is conflict between nations and ethnic groups. Here too each side typically tries to present itself as the underdog, as long as there is strategic gain in doing so. In general, such gains are possible as long as the conflict takes place under the eyes and auspices of a larger “community” of observers such as an international media or bodies such as the United Nations. Where there are no such observers or agents, no such gains are to be made. I would argue that that explains why there was remarkably little victim-stancing during the Second World War, despite the fact that there were so many actual victims.

With the advent of so many new direct forms of communication, I wonder if the tide is turning. In the present century, the increasing use of peer-to-peer rather than top-down news feeds (via Twitter and the like) can “exclude the middleman” of mass media news sources. Eventually, this may do the great good of making news reporters and cynics of every one of us.

“All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” And they that live by the lie shall be disbelieved, because they play fast and loose with their own credibility.

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