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The Role of Propaganda in War

One party’s fake news is another party’s weapon for the greater good.

Every war involves propaganda as a weapon, and only much later can we determine which information was accurate and which was carefully designed to achieve some desired outcome. By looking at well-known examples from the past, we may be able to catch a glimpse of the tools used in the war in Ukraine.

Carrots

In the early days of World War II, the British government instructed its citizens to use blinder curtains at night to make it harder for German bomb planes to find an easy target. However, despite the dark, British pilots of the Royal Air Force (RAF) were highly successful in shooting down German planes. RAF Flight Lieutenant John “Cat’s Eyes” Cunningham earned national fame for shooting down 20 enemy aircraft. The reason? Carrots.

Cunningham loved carrots, and it is a well-known medical fact that vitamin A, of which carrots are a plentiful source, is essential for good eyes, especially night vision. Cunningham ate so many carrots that he could see the enemy in near pitch darkness.

There is only one problem with this story: It’s baloney. Cunningham and other British pilots used a new secret weapon, the Airborne Interception Radar, which allowed pilots to locate their targets even during complete darkness.

The carrot diet was a cover story to prevent the Germans from realizing the Brits’ technological prowess. Carrots are good, but not that good. However, to this day, many people still tell their children that they should eat carrots so that they can see in the dark. That’s one spectacular victory for war propaganda.

Enigma

GettyImages-90736442 German Enigma encryption engine

(Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Another example from World War II is the German Enigma encryption engine. Thanks to the genius of mathematician Alan Turing, the Government Code and Cypher School was able to build a computer system to break the code and decipher the messages of German U-boats. Using this technology, the Brits tilted the war decisively in their favor.

However, they were faced with a conundrum. The Germans would know that the Enigma was compromised if the Brits used the code too blatantly. Therefore, they had to hide their mission successes behind “luck,” which meant allowing the Germans to succeed in destroying a sufficient number of British targets to fool them into believing Enigma was safe.

It meant the Brits had to let civilians and soldiers die for the greater good of preserving their secret code-breaking capability. It was also a form of war propaganda that cost many innocent lives but ultimately enabled a swifter victory over the Nazis.

Ukraine

We can use history to make certain intelligent guesses about what type of media information is war propaganda intended to fool the Russians in Ukraine. For instance, the news has been full of stories about how wonderfully effective the Javelin and Stinger anti-tank and anti-air missiles have been in hampering the Russian invasion. This story may be true in the same way that carrots are good for night vision.

New Banner Military AffairsIf NATO provides Ukraine with powerful intelligence data and secret, ultra-powerful smart weapons, they may not want the Russians to know about it for two reasons. First, it makes NATO a far more active player in the war than anyone is comfortable admitting. Second, suppose Russian soldiers can be made to believe that a handful of Ukrainian soldiers with handheld rockets can neutralize the entire mighty Russian army. In that case, they might be demoralized enough to increase the chance of a withdrawal.

An uncharitable observer might call such war propaganda fake news, but what is fake news in the eyes of the enemy might be called an information weapon for the greater good by the party wielding it.

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