Alternate Realities Are Like Athlete’s Foot

April 25, 2014

Accusations of atrocities are really hard to get rid of, kind of like athlete’s foot.  That is why it is so important to get accusations right and not poison the discourse with false allegations.  However, for many people in the world, reality is a matter of opinion and political convenience, not of…well, reality.

Consider the Syrian opposition.  In the last few days, it has accused the regime of using lethal chlorine gasWestern governments, the United Nations, and China are all investigating.  Unsurprisingly, the Iranian media says that chlorine was indeed used, but by the opposition, not the government.  Similarly, when somebody used sarin gas in Syria in 2013, expert opinion uniformly blamed the regime, but many people, including Seymour Hersh, Ron Paul, RT and others blamed the rebels.

These alternate views, as insupportable as they may be, will be with us forever.  Consider the North Korean, Soviet and Chinese accusations that the United States used biological weapons during the Korean War.  Despite longstanding denials by the U.S. Government, the North Koreans still believe this.  And so do many others, including respected Western scholars.

This is ironic given that Cold War documents from Soviet archives indicate that the Soviets and their allies knew at the time that the accusations were false.  As an example, consider this document available in the Digital Archive of the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP).  Dated shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953, it shows Lavrenty Beria, the most feared man in the USSR at the time, angry that he had not been informed that lower level Soviet officials had helped the North Koreans fake evidence of the use of biological weapons by the Americans.  Ominously, Beria asked permission to “investigat[e] the circumstances of this question and nam[e] the guilty parties.”  For a fuller discussion and more documents on this topic, see the CWIHP’s Bulletin on the topic here.)

The remarkable thing is that this and similar documents came to light in the late 1990s, but the story lived on despite the proof of its falsity.  We should expect the same thing with Syria.  The accusations—on both sides—of chemical weapons use will continue to poison the political environment and make peace and reconciliation harder for the foreseeable future.  After all, in politics, perception is reality.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.