The Means and the End

As a schoolboy, I read Desmond Young’s biography of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel who commanded the Germans in North Africa during World War 2. His Afrika Korps achieved stunning victories against the Allies and Rommel earned the nickname, The Desert Fox. He later commanded the German defense in Normandy and was finally forced to commit suicide for his role in an attempt to assassinate Hitler.


Erwin Rommel

In 1941 while Rommel was earning his legendary reputation, the Nazi propaganda newspaper Das Reich published an anonymous article and circulated it among foreign correspondents in Berlin. It claimed that Rommel was the son of a working man who after the first world war had left the army to study at Tubigen University. He then became one of the first Nazi storm troopers and a close friend of Hitler.

Rommel who was descended from school masters and had remained an army officer through the inter-war period reacted violently to these lies. After much pursuing, he finally got an answer from Dr. Meissner of the propaganda ministry. Young describes it thus.

What had been written about General Rommel in the article, said the doctor, could do no harm to the reputation of that excellent man. Indeed, it could only do good, by making him a more familiar and sympathetic figure to the foreign war correspondents. Perhaps, he concluded, it would have been a good thing, from the propaganda point of view, if the statements, though admittedly incorrect, had, in fact, been true.

Desmond Young declared this comic masterpiece an example of why German propaganda could never be effective in the long run.

On a much smaller scale, when Trump’s entry ban came into effect, this meme started circulating online.


I remarked online:

I find this table odd. How come Iraqis killed 0 Americans? Were all IS and militia fighters in Iraq foreigners?

I was told this only referred to Americans killed on US soil. I replied that this could be possible but that the disambiguation should be clearly mentioned. Another person on the thread remarked that even with that restriction, he could not get the numbers to match and that the graphic was misleading. The reply was,

You’re letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Maybe the graph isn’t 100% accurate but it actually clearly represents the ridiculousness of Trump’s policies. The nazis, OTOH have told 20 new lies while you fret about the perfection of one truth.

I don’t think any of the participants in this exchange was a supporter of Donald Trump or his policies, yet some people clearly felt that the ends (standing up for what their values) mattered far more than the means they used to do it (distorting facts) while others did not.

This is hardly new. Many years ago, in a family discussion, an uncle remarked that there was if our history books ignored or highlighted certain sections, what was the harm if it gave some courage to Indians who had been browbeaten and downtrodden for so long?

The idea of “alternative facts” has been around far longer than the last US election.

History would be a wonderful thing – if it were only true.”

Leo Tolstoy

The ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata has a scene germane to this. The protagonists of the Mahabharata are the 5 Pandava brothers. The eldest, Yudhishtira was reputed to have a saintly disposition and who never spoke a lie.

The scene took place in the climatic battle at Kurukshetra where the Pandavas fought the far larger Kaurav armies for the throne of Hastinapur. The Pandavas’ old archery teacher Drona  fought against them and he wreaked havoc on their armies.

In desperation, the Pandavas tried a stratagem. Drona was devoted to his son, Ashwatthama. There was also an elephant in the battle field by the same name. Bhima, Yudhishtira’s brother killed the elephant and proclaimed that he had killed Ashwatthama.

When the news reached Drona, he rushed to Yudhishtira and in the midst of the fighting asked for the truth. Yudhishtira answered, “Ashwatthama is dead.” And then in a whisper below Drona’s hearing he continued, “but it is the elephant, not your son.”

Believing his son dead, Drona lost the heart to fight. He lay down his arms and sat in meditation. He was found and killed by Pandavas’ brother in law, Drishtadyumna.


The death of Drona

Yudhishtira was burdened by guilt afterwards, but was counselled by Krishna about the necessity of his actions.

Clearly, to lie and deceive enemies has always been acceptable in war. But who are we waging war on here? Ourselves?


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