Congratulating Colonel Lang on the 10,000,000 page views this blog has attained, Ishmael Zecariah described it as 'one of the few venues where "truth and honor" still have meaning.'
When, more than nine years ago now, the Colonel initiated this blog, he wrote that he would 'tell the truth as it is given to me to know the truth.' As one of the 'old lags' who has been reading and commenting on SST since those early days, I have always hoped that among its audience would be people in the U.S. intelligence community – and perhaps indeed the British – for whom the concepts of 'truth and honor' do still have a great deal of meaning.
The presence of honest and competent analysts in the U.S. intelligence community was readily apparent at the time when both our countries were lied into the catastrophic invasion of Iraq – in part because such people were 'stabbed in the back' by MI6 and the British Joint Intelligence Committee's endorsement of the claim that Saddam Hussein had sought uranium from Niger.
Subsequently, however, such analysts succeeded in frustrating attempts to misrepresent the Iranian nuclear programme so as inveigle us into another disastrous war. And while the JIC were quite happy to collaborate in attempts to lure both our countries into an attack on Syria, honest and competent analysts at the British defence science laboratory at Porton Down, if Seymour Hersh's account is to be believed, supplied their colleagues in the Defense Intelligence Agency with the evidence which enabled General Dempsey to frustrate the attempt.
For some time, the veteran journalist Robert Parry has been suggesting that what U.S. intelligence analysts know about the shooting down of the Malaysian flight MH17 on 17 July does not mesh with official claims that there is unambiguous evidence that the insurgent forces were responsible.
Yesterday, he claimed that U.S. intelligence analysts now believe that the atrocity was likely to have been the result of a deliberate attempt by extremists in the new regime in Kiev to shoot down a Russian plane.
It was at 7 pm (GMT) on this day one hundred years ago, a little after the time at which I am posting this, that, following the German invasion of Belgium, the British Government delivered the ultimatum which led to its declaration of war four hours later. Some reflections on 'truth and honor', on the claims and counter-claims about MH17, and on Europe's rush to catastrophic war a century ago may be timely.
It had for some time seemed to me to that the obvious possible explanations for the MH17 were a blunder by the insurgents, and a 'false flag' operation by elements among the Kiev authorities, and that the publicly available evidence was not adequate for anyone who was trying to keep an open mind to judge which was the more plausible.
The explanation which Robert Parry suggests is actually different. It begins with the argument – made on this blog by 'TTG', who has an abundance of relevant expertise on these matters – that the suggestion that MH17 was shot down by the Su-25 plane which the Russians have claimed was in its vicinity at the time of the shootdown cannot simply be dismissed.
Moreover, the suggestion from Parry is that U.S. intelligence analysts are treating seriously a theory which appears to have been disseminated on state-controlled Russian media, according to which the intended target was Putin. This hypothesis was dismissed by the 'Guardian' as an 'unfounded theory', which did indeed seem a reasonable response at the time. However, what Parry is now suggesting is that U.S. intelligence analysts are no longer convinced it can simply be dismissed.
According to Parry:
'Some independent analyses of the initial evidence from the crash site suggest the jetliner may have been destroyed by an air-to-air attack, not by an anti-aircraft missile fired from the ground. Yet, the working hypothesis of the U.S. intelligence analysts is that a Ukrainian military Buk battery and the jetfighters may have been operating in collusion as they hunted what they thought was a Russian airliner, possibly even the plane carrying President Vladimir Putin on a return trip from South America, the source said.'
The notion that elements in the Kiev regime would deliberately target an airliner, unless the object was to blame it on the insurgents, has always seemed somewhat difficult to believe. However, according to Parry the finger of suspicion points to 'more extremist factions, possibly even one of the Ukrainian oligarchs who have taken an aggressive approach toward prosecuting the war against the ethnic Russian rebels in the east.' Can one simply rule out the possibility that some of the 'extremist factions' are crazy enough to do what Parry suggests U.S. analysts think they may have done? It may seem unlikely, but it certainly cannot be ruled out as impossible, if the evidence does seem to point strongly in that direction.
A strange briefing.
And Parry goes on to hark back to the very strange briefing given to journalists on 22 July about the evidence obtained by U.S. intelligence:
'The Los Angeles Times article on the briefing took note of the uncertainties: ''U.S. intelligence agencies have so far been unable to determine the nationalities or identities of the crew that launched the missile. U.S. officials said it was possible the SA-11 [the Buk anti-aircraft missile] was launched by a defector from the Ukrainian military who was trained to use similar missile systems.''
'That reference to a possible ''defector'' may have been an attempt to reconcile the U.S. government's narrative with the still-unreleased satellite imagery of the missile battery controlled by soldiers appearing to wear Ukrainian uniforms. But I'm now told that U.S. intelligence analysts have largely dismissed the ''defector'' possibility and are concentrating on the scenario of a willful Ukrainian shoot-down of the plane, albeit possibly not knowing its actual identity.'
The 'possibly', of course, would suggest that the 'false flag' hypothesis has not been simply ruled out.
A great deal of what has been claimed since the shootdown of MH17 turns out to be problematic on closer inspection. So, according to the report in which Robert Parry first introduced the notion that those who at that stage it was suggested had fired a Buk missile wore Ukrainian uniforms, it was suggested that 'what looked like beer bottles were scattered around the site.' It appears however that the resolution of satellite imagery would not be adequate to identify a beer bottle. Of course, it would be possible that there was also imagery from drones, which might actually provide a better explanation of why U.S. intelligence was reluctant to acknowledge the source.
As Parry brings out in his most recent report, however, one of the best reasons for scepticism about the conventional wisdom in the West about the downing of MH17 are the sheer amount of dogs that have failed to bark, to hark back to the famous Sherlock Holmes story.
Dogs that haven't barked.
As regards the Russian side, one needs to distinguish between claims made in media which may be state-controlled, but for which the authorities do not have to take responsibility, and claims made by official spokesmen, supported by evidence which will have in due course to be submitted to international investigators.
Although the possibility cannot totally be discounted, it seems to me highly improbable that evidence of this latter kind is unreliable – although suggestions made on the basis of it may be. In support of the claims that Ukrainian forces had Buk missiles deployed in the relevant areas at the time of the shootdown, and also that two Ukrainian planes were present at the site, the Russian authorities produced some detailed imagery. Moreover, last Friday they provided a detailed analysis of images provided by the Kiev authorities which were supposed to refute their claims – contending supposedly conclusive evidence was patent disinformation which could only have been sourced from U.S. intelligence.
The unavoidable implication, if their analysis cannot be refuted, is that a cover-up is being undertaken by elements in the Kiev regime and elements in U.S. intelligence, acting in collusion.
Given the seriousness of the doubts raised about the conventional wisdom, some attempt to provide hard evidence in support of it really does seem long overdue, as Larry Johnson and his Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity colleagues suggested a few days ago. But not only has no evidence been provided – no reasons as to why it cannot have been provided have been given.
As Buk launchers are large and distinctive in shape, if they have been supplied from Russia, there ought to be clear visual signs. No relevant satellite imagery has been produced. It is indeed possible that the kind of imagery from 'social media', on which the U.S. authorities seem to rely heavily to support their case, could be conclusive. But such evidence, if it is to carry any weight, needs to be provided in presentations by officials, supported by cogent and detailed analysis of the material demonstrating that it does really prove what it is claimed it proves, which those who want to disagree have the opportunity to refute, if they can.
A broken trail.
It was claimed that such evidence located the source of the Buk, on the basis of a trail of 'flare' which went 'vertically upwards'; such evidence was not however presented by authoritative spokesmen, but an image of a broken trail of smoke, which did indeed appear to rise straight up, appeared on the net.
A BBC Russian Service journalist travelled to the site, and produced a report suggesting that other explanations of the trail of smoke were possible – this was removed, but it is suggested that it has been reposted in revised form. (A good account of this confused history, with links, is here.)
If however the report is accurate, it would follow that U.S. – and also Russian – satellites must have imagery of the battery in question. And it might – or might not – be expected that some conclusive evidence could be provided of a missile having been fired from it, rather than us having simply to rely on claims unsupported by much in the way of evidence which in any case contradict each other. The flight path shown in the presentation on 22 July had the missile rising from the same location, but at something like a 45% angle to the ground rather than vertically.
One of the claims made by the Russians was that the radar on a Ukrainian Buk battery was operational at the time MH17 was shot down. When they made the claim, on 18 July, it was suggested that this battery could have been supplying tracking information to another battery at another location. However, the suggestion now being made by Robert Parry is that U.S. intelligence analysts believe that a Buk battery was operating in collusion, not with another similar battery, but with an Su-25. And this 'meshes' with a speculation recently put up by 'the Saker'.
Records confiscated – and, does one need to trust the Brits?
At the moment, all I am attempting to do is to grope towards a view of how the version provided by Robert Parry might fit different elements together. In its favour, however, are two matters which have been puzzling me. Different hypotheses about how MH17 was shot down are likely to entail different implications about what should be on the records of the communications between it and Kiev air traffic control. It has been reported that the relevant records have been confiscated by the Ukrainian security services.
Such hypotheses are also likely to entail different implications about what should be in the 'black boxes'. After the insurgents handed the boxes to the Malaysians, these were handed to the Dutch, who handed them to the British. So far, I have seen no explanation of what measures have been taken rule out any possibility that the evidence could be tampered with by the British.
Given the performance of the JIC and MI6 over the past few years, it would be reckless to assume that all British investigators can be relied upon to display the kind of integrity apparently shown by the Porton Down experts.
What the version put forward by Robert Parry would also suggest is that one would expect to see radar activity from a Buk, but no evidence of a missing missile on any battery that had been observed. It would seem quite likely that by now both American and Russian intelligence have worked out whether there are any batteries capable of having fired a missile which have one missing.
His version could also provide a coherent explanation of what the Su-25 – and the shadowy companion plane which the Russians also claim to have identified – could have been doing. And it could provide a possible explanation of the behaviour of the Russian authorities: it may well be that they have simply put into the public domain evidence that they genuinely have, at a stage where they have not been certain how apparently contradictory elements fit together.
Clearly, however, one of two things are now going to happen. It could very well be that irrefutable evidence will emerge either that Parry's claims about what his intelligence sources told him are false, or that they are accurate, but the intelligence analysts are barking up the wrong tree. If this does not happen, however, we are liable to be back to a much more radical version of what happened in relation to the Ghouta chemical weapons atrocity.
If indeed elements in the Kiev authorities are responsible, Western intelligence services and governments are likely to find themselves with little alternative but to cover up what has happened. At the same time, however, to those who are interested in ascertaining the truth, their behaviour will necessarily bring out the fact that a cover up is at issue, which in itself will be very strong evidence that elements within the Kiev authorities were responsible.
Reckoning with 'Regulus'.
And this brings me naturally back to the events of August 1914, and also questions to do with 'truth and honor'. As to the latter term, it is not without its ambivalences. In April 1917, Kipling published the story 'Regulus', a recollection of his own schooldays at the United Services College at 'Westward Ho!' in North Devon. It was an institution set up largely on the initiative of not very affluent servants of empire, military and otherwise, to provide an affordable education for their sons.
The story is framed around an elucidation by a classics master for those preparing for their Army exams of an ode by Horace. The teaching – also inculcated by team sports, and corporal punishment – is clear: the status of 'gentleman' is one that involves willingness, if it becomes necessary, to die.
Months after the story was published, the soldier-poet Wilfred Owen, who like Kipling's own son would not survive the war, wrote a poem about a gas attack, which concluded by referring to another ode of Horace, and describing his famous line 'dulce et decorum est pro patria mori' - which means 'it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country' - as 'that old lie'.
There are ambivalences which some of us still feel, almost a century later. One the one hand, there is the sense that the culture of war and sacrifice which Kipling celebrated was part of the background to Europe's suicide in 1914-18, on the other the knowledge that elements of these values remain indispensable. This was painfully born in on us when it became apparent that the aversion to war which ran throughout British society in the Thirties was not shared by enough people in Germany to prevent Hitler indulging his lust for destruction, although it was by many senior figures in the Wehrmacht.
One then comes to the relation of 'honor' and 'truth'. At the beginning of his classic 'Drinking the Kool-Aid' article, dealing with the intelligence failures that led to the Iraq war, Colonel Lang recalled the phrase 'I will fall on my sword over that.' The saying, which again has roots in Roman times, implies that a commitment to personal honour entails a readiness to risk career, if not literal, death, if what superiors want an analyst to do is corrupt.
The saying was, the Colonel suggested, no longer commonly used in the DIA. And he noted the appearance of the infinitely sinister remark that gave his essay its name: 'I drank the Kool-Aid.'
Believing one's own lies.
Disregard for objective truth is not new, obviously, but a remark which has been echoing through my head is an aphorism of the brilliant Viennese Jewish satirist Karl Kraus, an implacable opponent of the war from the outset: ''How is the world ruled and led to war? Diplomats lie to journalists and believe these lies when they see them in print.''
Conditions today are very different from those at the time Kraus wrote. However, in relation to MH17, as earlier in relation to Iraq and to a very substantial extent in Syria, the sense of a kind of echo-chamber where claims by the authorities and the mainstream media are mutually reinforcing, and create a conventional wisdom which in some sense almost everyone involved in disseminating it actually believes, is strong. Once people have committed themselves to such a conventional wisdom, they acquire the strongest possible of 'rational' reasons for not abandoning it.
Concluding his most recent article, Robert Parry writes:
'It may seem cynical to suggest that the powers-that-be in Official Washington are so caught up in their own propaganda that they would prefer the actual killers of innocent people – whether in Syria or Ukraine – to go unpunished, rather than to admit their own mistakes. But that is often how the powerful react. Nothing is more important than their reputations.'
Of course this is so. If Obama and Kerry, or indeed Cameron and his new Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, were to come out and say that in fact it was a pro-Maidan Ukrainian oligarch who instigated the shooting down of MH17, it would not only leave their own personal reputations in tatters: the whole of their policy towards Ukraine, and indeed towards Russia, would be called into question.
And precisely the fact that the atrocity has been used to justify an intensification of sanctions on Russia, clearly intended, at the minimum, to force Putin into a total and humiliating climbdown on Ukraine, makes it more difficult for those who advocated this response to concede that the intellectual basis for it may have been wrong.
A second observation, or rather series of observations, which have been echoing through my mind come from a book I encountered quite late in life – the short 'Autobiography' published in 1939 by the British philosopher-historian R.G. Collingwood. The book was among other things an attempt to set Collingwood's impassioned opposition to 'appeasement' in the context of his philosophical ideas.
But the history it told was interestingly ambiguous. In the war whose anniversary we commemorate today, Collingwood had served in Admiralty Intelligence – in the later stages, on the preparations for the peace treaty. He adhered strongly to what has always been one view of the origins of the war – that, as he put it:
'It happened because a situation got out of hand. As it went on, the situation got more and more out of hand. When the peace treaty was signed, it was more out of hand than ever.'
History is 'with us and in us.'
The peace made at Versailles, Collingwood thought, had not been a wise one. And the experience of the war pushed him into reflecting on the extraordinary gulf between the increase which the growth of the hard sciences had caused in man's ability to control nature, and the complete absence of any corresponding increase in man's ability to understand and control human affairs. The sense of the magnitude of this gulf led Collingwood to write that at the end of the war 'I seemed to see the reign of natural science, within no very long time, converting Europe into a wilderness of Yahoos.'
The answer which Collingwood gave to this problem was emphatically not that the 'human sciences' could and should attempt to emulate the 'hard sciences'. The art of politics, as he saw it, was in the management of specific situations. And specific situations could only be understood in the context of their history. What he provided was a philosophical elaboration of the insights contained in two quotations which Stephen F. Cohen placed at the outset of his 1985 study 'Rethinking the Soviet Experience.'
One was the famous remark of William Faulkner: 'The past is never dead. It's not even past.' The other was a comment by one of the best of officially-published Soviet writers, Yuri Trifonov: 'History is not simply something that was. History is with us and in us.'
A critical point that Collingwood sought to draw out was that the presence of the past in us is commonly complex and contradictory. And he also stressed that it is precisely the way the past lives on that gives us some kind of ability to recreate it, from which it follows that the faculties of imagination which enable us to link past and present, both ways, are ones which we should seek to cultivate, not suppress.
It was a discussion which I found immensely illuminating, in part because it helped me to make sense of my own ambivalences: to grasp that the culture which Kipling celebrated, and the culture which grew up in reaction to it, in part out of the accounts of First World War experience given by figures like Owen, are both part of me.
Two views of August 1914.
As a programme for managing human affairs, moreover, it seems to me that Collingwood was fundamentally on the right lines. However, it also seems that both much of the Western 'clerisy', and also of our administrative and political elites, have moved in precisely the reverse directions to those he recommended.
On 'rational choice' theory, I and many others have commented at length over the years at this blog. However, as regards the relationship of history and politics, I was fascinated by two sets of observations relating to the origins of the First World War, to which 'Ingolf' referred me in an exchange of comments not long ago.
Asked what the British government can do ' to help stop Putin and support Ukraine', David Cameron explained that we were not 'about to launch a European war', but went to answer – to quote the 'Telegraph' – by 'alluding to the lessons Britain learned about dealing with Germany’s aggression before the two World Wars.'
As to what those 'lessons' were, Cameron explained:
'Mr Cameron said: ''Where do you want to start? I think of all we need to be clear about what is happening on our Continent.
'''This year we are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the First World War and that war was about the right of a small country Belgium not to be trampled on by its neighbours.
'''We had to learn that lesson all over again in the Second World War when the same thing happened to Poland, Czechoslovakia and other countries. In way this is what we are seeing today in Europe.'
This is the most simplistic crude, and sanctimonious version of a British nationalist historiography one can imagine, which proceeds from a reading of the events of 1914 which few if any serious historians in this country would today defend, through a simplistic reading of the events of 1939, to a preposterous conclusion about what is happening in Ukraine today.
A different reading of the events of August 1914 and their implications is given in the speech which Putin gave on 1 August at the unveiling of 'a monument to World War I heroes'.
A 'typical Soviet radish'?
This is certainly a Russian nationalist interpretation of the origins of the First World War, and much could be said in objection.
That said, it is a fascinating study in the ambivalent ways in which the present continues on into the past. Having remarked that in Soviet times the World War 'was erased from our country’s history and was labelled simply ''imperialist''', Putin goes on to claim that the victory of the Brusilov offensive of 1916 was 'stolen by those who called for the defeat of their homeland and army, who sowed division inside Russia and sought only power for themselves, betraying the national interests.'
This remark is at once a denunciation of the Bolsheviks, and also of the 'oligarchs' of the 1990s – people like Khodorkovsky and Berezovsky, with whom Western elites have been happy to identify themselves. It reminds me of what Paul Robinson – an historian now based in Ottawa who spent some years in the British Army Intelligence Corps –wrote about Putin in an article back in January 2004: that he was 'a typical Soviet radish – red on the outside but white at the core.'
If the White General Denikin could rise from the dead, he would most probably say something not far removed from what Putin has said – which is, indeed, part of the point of the 'Vineyard of the Saker' blog, whose author claims, quite accurately in my view, to come from a Russian military family which emigrated at the Revolution. The coming together of former Soviet officials who concluded that the Revolution was a disaster with elements in the emigration is a quite natural process.
There is certainly no reason why one agree with Russian nationalist views of the events of August 1914 – be they expressed by Putin or 'the Saker'. However, I think it would be wise to pay attention to what is being said. In his speech, Putin continues as follows:
'This tragedy reminds us what happens when aggression, selfishness and the unbridled ambitions of national leaders and political establishments push common sense aside, so that instead of preserving the world's most prosperous continent, Europe, they lead it towards danger. It is worth remembering this today.
'World history gives us so many examples of what a terrible price we pay for refusing to listen to each other, or for trampling on others' rights and freedoms and lawful interests in the name of our own interests and ambitions. It would be good if we could learn to open our eyes and to calculate at least a step ahead.
'It is long since time that humanity learned and accepted the single great truth that violence breeds violence. The road to peace and prosperity is built out of goodwill, dialogue, and the memory of our past wars, the people who started them and why.
'This monument to the heroes of World War I is not just a mark of tribute to their feats but is also a warning and reminder to us all of our world’s fragility. It is our duty to look after peace and remember that the most precious thing on earth is peaceful, calm and stable life.'
'We cherish the memory of World War I heroes. Glory to Russian arms and to our hero-soldier!'
Part of what makes all this important is that, ever since it happened, debates about international relations, and how to maintain a viable international order, have reflected interpretations of the origins of the First World War. This was a subject I studied, not in great depth, as a student in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Since then I have read intermittently on the subject, but not had time to keep up recent arguments.
An out-of-date understanding.
From a review of these by the Professor of the History of War at Oxford, Hew Strachan, in a recent issue of the Chatham House journal 'International Affairs', however, an irony emerges.
The interpretation put forward by Cameron is, to be blunt, not only crude and simplistic, but totally at variance with how recent historiography on the conflict has moved. When I was a student, the kind of view taken by Collingwood was being replaced, largely as a result of the work of the German historian Fritz Fischer, by the emphasis on the prime responsibility of Germany Cameron adopts. More recently, however, the intellectual pendulum, in Anglo-Saxon as well as German historiography, has shifted back to something closer to Collingwood's view.
The implications of this reading of the origins of the First World War for an understanding of current events is actually a large subject, which would take me beyond the limits of what is already a long post. However, one thing that is clear is that if, as Collingwood did, one puts the emphasis on events running out of control, it follows that crisis management necessarily involves an understanding of how other actors see situations.
In an interesting discussion of the thinking and actions of the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, in the fateful days leading up to the British ultimatum in the 'Telegraph' two days ago, Professor Strachan remarks that:
'The cardinal error committed in July by Sir Edward and his officials was their refusal to distinguish between Germany and Austria-Hungary. He could not accept that the Balkan policy pursued by Vienna after the Archduke's murder was not made in Berlin.'
When Putin referred to the 'terrible price we pay for refusing to listen to each other' he is making a quite valid point. It would have been better had the British, in August 1914, listened more carefully and been conscious of the ambiguities of German attitudes to the determination of the Austro-Hungarian elite to use the assassination of the Archduke as an occasion for eliminating the threat from Serbian nationalism once and for all. Likewise, it would be a help if Western leaders took the trouble at least to listen to Russian explanations of their policy in Ukraine – rather than repeating the familiar comparison which has been applied time and again to leaders they dislike, with Hitler.
But this leads on to other questions to do with intelligence failure. This is a subject which has been much discussed. A critical point is often ignored – that one reason why analysts get things wrong is that their task is commonly difficult, and that even if one is seriously attempting to get at the truth, it is very easy to get things wrong: particularly if one is attempting to analyse new and unanticipated situations under the pressure of time.
What however also follows from this is that to make fundamental decisions on policy towards another country – as has happened in relation to the ratcheting up of the sanctions campaign against Russia – on the basis of a premature rush to judgement on a matter, such as MH17, where it seems clear the evidence does not warrant it is folly.
A further point that emerges, however, is that, if crisis management is difficult, a critical question ought to be that of crisis avoidance. And when Putin says that 'it would be good if we could learn to open our eyes and to calculate at least a step ahead', he quite patently has a point.
The 'monstrous ifs' …
As Professor Strachan also brings out, it remains an open question whether, confronted by the German challenge to British naval power, Grey and others would have done better, rather than committing themselves to 'containment' based on an alliance with France and Russia, to pursue that strategy in conjunction with an attempt to seek some kind of compromise with Germany. As Churchill wrote in his account of the first battle of the Marne, 'the terrible ifs accumulate.'
If however one looks at recent Western policy, what is evident is a complete lack of any serious attempt to 'calculate at least a step ahead.' That an attempt to wrest the whole of Ukraine away from Russia, and incorporate it in 'the West' would produce essentially the kind of crisis that has developed was obvious to any reasonably rational being years ago. We have here, not simply a crisis of Western foreign policy, but a crisis of our whole system of government, and faith in 'democracy'.
Meanwhile, given the importance of the issues at stake, we can only hope that there will be analysts in the U.S., and perhaps also British, intelligence communities who, if the need arises, will be prepared to 'fall on their sword' to bring the truth about what happened to MH17 to light.