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Secrecy and transparency in war

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This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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13 March 2012 16:11


This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

The piece by Nicholas Gruen that we published yesterday was cross-posted on Club Troppo, Nick's regular blog haunt, and it's worth pointing to the subsequent discussion in the comments thread.

In response to a reader, Nick mentions a section of his draft post that we agreed to omit from the final, in which he juxtaposes Churchill's willingness to show mercy during World War II with Western behaviour in the fight against terrorism: 

When the West fought its last war of survival – WWII – Churchill memorably offered these words. “be the ordeal sharp or long, or both, we shall seek no terms, we shall tolerate no parley; we may show mercy-we shall ask for none.” And yet, a decade after Western liberal capitalism became the unchallengeable default setting for modernity, at the first whiff of grapeshot countries which had honoured the Geneva conventions either engineered or became complicit in widespread abuse of prisoners involving ‘extraordinary rendition’ and ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ such as waterboarding.

I'm attracted to Nick's broader argument that government has become more 'performative' in recent times, and that this manifests itself in what he calls 'soft secrecy'. But the Churchill example Nick cites does not illustrate this point very well. After all, although the breaches of the Geneva Conventions during the war on terror have been shocking, compared to the incendiary bombing of German cities carried out on Churchill's orders during World War II, they represent a minor lapse in just-war standards.

In fact, for a number of reasons, the kind of carpet bombing used routinely in World War II and as late as the Vietnam War is unthinkable today. Partly that's because technology makes it easier and more affordable to be discriminating in the use of aerial weapons. But the capacity of the mass media (and now the new media) to transmit to the world the evidence of mass suffering that would result from such tactics surely also plays a part. As a result, Western norms about proper wartime behaviour have changed dramatically for the better.

This returns us to Nick's point about modern government as performance. For modern warfare is increasingly a media event, where the battle for headlines and public opinion is considered almost as important as what happens on the battlefield. Modern war is in large part a public performance, and civilian casualties get bad reviews from the punters.

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