The First Casualty

May 11, 2009

The first casualty when war comes is truth

So said Senator Hiram W Johnson in 1918, and over 90 years later, it still rings true. 

Written under a cloud of despair, ‘The First Casualty’ (Revised Edition, 2002) by Phillip Knightley laments what he sees as a dilution of truth within spheres of war reporting.  He cites a correspondent’s patriotism, military censorship, and the inability and indolence of the press to analyse official press releases as some of the reasons for this perceived demotion of the truth.  His anger, and later dismay, that truth is indeed ‘the first casualty,’ seeps through the pages, and lead to him predicting that “governments [and] their spin doctors … will find further justification for managing the media in wartime … [and that] control of war correspondents will be even tighter.”  

Indeed, Knightley’s prediction of tightening control on war correspondents leads him to despondently associate this with the demise of the war correspondent, and the death of his hero status.

Picking up on this is a comment piece by Kevin Myers in Friday’s Belfast Telegraph entitled ‘Why the Falklands is proof that truth is the first casualty of war’.  Referring to an article in last month’s Torygraph  he picks away at the misleading language, concluding that the 22 men who supposedly “saw off Argentine invaders” and gave them their first bloody nose in fact surrendered meekly after just two hours with only one man slightly wounded.   Referring to the power of myth, Myers points out that looking back at history which is ours, we inevitably exaggerate and puff it up.  With reference to 1916, he concludes

And no memory is immune to the mighty power of myth. Australian social historians were able to chart the change in the recollections of Gallipoli veterans, as the events in the truly myth-laden film ‘Gallipoli’ became indistinguishable in the veterans’ minds from their own experiences.

The power of myth is not that it is based on actual historical events. Its power derives from the needs of the people who pass on the myth. Thus Royal Marines want to revel in a victory nearly 30 years ago, though it simply did not happen.

Equally, Irish republicans wanted their own mythic, martial giants to rival the British heroes like Wellington and Nelson, and so have conjured them out of the motley band of 1916.

We tell tales. We all do. But we should remember. They are just tales. And when we turn baseless myths into icons of national identity, we are trading in a currency that is liable to inflation; for there are always those who will exult in a more extravagant and bloodier version of the myth, usually with contemporary political consequences.

One has to look very hard under the surface if one is interested in real truth.  Be that history, religion, football, whatever.  In each of these examples, there is always a side to be took.  And when bias comes into it, truth gets distorted, it gets exaggerated or played down, depending on whether it suits us or not.


Darwin’s Death Bed ‘Conversion’ – Urban Myth!

March 9, 2009

Being a Christian I have oft heard the story that Charles Darwin ‘repented’ of his theory of Evolution on his deathbed and converted to Christianity. Being a historian, I investigated this and have found to be an urban-myth-come-Christian-propaganda.

Basic googling exposes this as a lie made up by Elizabeth ‘Lady’ Hope, an evangelist who claimed that in Autumn 1881 (Darwin died in April 1882) she visited a bed-ridden Charles who was reading the book of Hebrews. She alleged that upon her speaking on the Genesis account of creation, he became distressed and asked her to return the following day to speak about Jesus to him and a room full of around 30 staff. It is at this time, that he supposedly gave his life to Christ.

It is probable that Lady Hope did visit Darwin in late September/early October 1881. His children who furiously deny this story were almost certainly absent, and therefore not witnesses to this tale.

However, historical investigation has shown several flaws with this account. Firstly, Darwin was not bedridden six months before his passing. Secondly, even if he was, the room he was in was far too small to accommodate 30 people. His wife Emma was present, and herself being a religious person why is it she never collaborated with this story? Why didn’t Darwin himself let his children or others know about his conversion? Why did Lady Hope wait until after his death before making her story known?

The urban myth still holds popularity today. It filters down and I hear many of my contemporary Christian friends speculate of this account, as it continues to snowball into supposed truth. Yet it is simply not true.

Being a Christian is not an excuse for being naive, or dismissing fact because it doesn’t fit in with our worldview. When our beliefs our challenged, we should investigate further. Likewise, to not believe in something, does not mean it isn’t true. And so, we should investigate the sources before we reject anything out of hand


The Lady Hope Story – A widespread falsehood account