The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life - Robert Trivers (2011)

Chapter 11. Self-Deception and War


It has been said that truth is the first casualty of war. Actually, truth is often dead long before war begins. Processes of self-deception make an unusually large contribution to warfare—especially in the decision to launch aggressive ones. This is as depressing as it is important: one of our most critical behaviors, often with huge, widespread costs, appears to be strongly ruled by forces of self-deception. There is, indeed, a subdiscipline of military studies devoted to the study of military incompetence, and this does not usually refer to computational error. It refers to biased and self-deluded mental processes. Think Custer’s Last Stand.

Faulty decisions are said to arise from four main causes: being overconfident, underestimating the other side, ignoring one’s own intelligence reports, and wasting manpower. All are connected to self-deception. Overconfidence and underestimation of others go hand in hand, and once self-deception is entrained, the conscious mind does not wish to hear contrary evidence—even when provided by its own agents, whose express purpose is to provide such information. Indeed, the old rule was to shoot the messenger. Likewise, self-deception will make it more likely that manpower is underestimated (vide US invasion of Iraq in 2003) or employed along illusory lines of attack. In the military it is said that “amateurs talk about strategy, professionals talk about logistics.” False logistics easily feeds overconfidence and vice versa.

For faulty logistics (and other acts of self-deception), Napoleon’s invasion of Russia provides the classic example. In an extreme act of overconfidence, he grossly underestimated the enemy, the harsh conditions of the Russian winter, and, most critically, the problem of supply. When he reached Moscow, he was more than a thousand miles from home and his men and horses required 850 carts a day for their care alone, never mind the additional carts needed to transfer weapons, medicine, the injured, and so on. There was no way such a feat could be sustained, so the French were forced to live off the land, but of course the Russians did their best to make this difficult. Stuck without resources far from home, with no ability to seize Moscow (or clear advantage in doing so) and the Russian winter closing in, Napoleon was forced to withdraw. He marched in with 450,000 men and returned with 6,000. Even worse, he lost 175,000 horses. The men could be replaced; the horses could not. After another disastrous foray by Napoleon into Russia a year later, the Russian army stood outside of Paris. It was the problem of supply that broke the back of the overconfident warmonger. Napoleon had been very successful before his disastrous Russian adventure. This is a deep feature of self-deception: success entrains confidence but also overconfidence. How many of us have taken success one step too far? (Bill Clinton and his women?)

Here we will gain an overview of the evolution of warfare in humans and the growing role self-deception plays. Besides such classics as World War I, we will concentrate especially on recent wars where the facts are well known: the US war on Iraq in 2003 and the US-supported Israeli assault on Gaza in 2008. These are not to suggest that the war in the Congo is not more hideous than all other ongoing wars put together, and probably more deserving of analysis in terms of deceit and self-deception, but the relevant information for this is far more meager than for the recent US and Israeli wars.


Chimpanzees reveal a likely route to human warfare. Chimps raid other groups, or, more precisely, usually three or more chimpanzee males working together will watch a neighboring group until they spot a chance to make a lightning strike on an isolated male (or occasionally more), who is attacked and killed. The marauders quickly return to the relative safety of their own territory. If over a period of time enough males are killed, the killers may take over their neighbors’ territory, along with some of the surviving females, but with even a single rival dead, the killers can expect to gain a little more territory and, thereby, food. At the Gombe Preserve in Tanzania in the 1970s, one group of chimps appeared to pick off and kill isolated males in a neighboring group until, after four years, all seven were gone. In another area of Tanzania, five adult males in their prime disappeared under similar circumstances, and after ten years the entire group was gone, with most of the females (and territory) absorbed by the larger (murderous) group. Attacks appear to be carefully planned, that is, launched when there is a clear likelihood of success—an isolated male is quickly overwhelmed by a superior force acting in silence.

In both chimpanzees and our own lineage, primitive warfare—or raiding—was a male territorial strategy based on the coordinated murder of neighboring males. The benefits were increased access to resources, including, in some cases, adult females—in either case, a net increase in reproductive rate. Deception by attackers was based primarily on hiding and surprise, with traps on the other side unlikely. Recently, remarkable evidence has surfaced of ten to twenty males engaging in regular warfare against a neighboring group. About every two weeks, males are drawn by some unknown signal to walk very quietly, single-file, into a neighboring territory to attack a vulnerable male. Infants are often killed, as in animal infanticides more generally, the better to bring the mothers into reproductive readiness. Likewise, an adult female is sometimes killed, but the overwhelming targets are other males.

This pattern of intergroup male raids leading to murder and later territorial expansion probably lasted in our lineage for several million years, undoubtedly increasing steadily in subtlety and design. Detailed studies of surviving hunter-gatherers suggest that intergroup war was widespread and dangerous. The best data from both archaeological sites and current hunter-gatherers suggest an astonishing 14 percent of human mortality every generation due to war (a percentage that thankfully has declined steadily since then). Killers were almost always men, as usually were the victims. Circumstances varied from massacres of vulnerable strangers encountered by chance to deliberate forays in search of victims in distant groups. The key was usually overwhelming advantage in surprise, numbers, or technology. Sometimes surprise consisted of inviting people to a peace banquet and then slaughtering them. Evidence from slash-and-burn agriculturalists (such as the Yanomamo of South America or the Dugun Dani of New Guinea) suggests that raiding often resulted in killing but that battles were rare, largely ceremonial, and ended badly only when one displaying group discovered to its dismay that it was greatly outnumbered, after which it might well be massacred. Participation in warfare was voluntary, but since attackers were rarely killed, it was, for them, not very dangerous.

The emergence of battles—conflict between massed warriors on each side—is much more recent, almost certainly connected to the large increases in the size of human societies about ten thousand years ago associated with the introduction of agriculture and animal husbandry. With these battles involving large numbers of soldiers, several new elements came into play. Relevant information was apt to be much more scarce, the outcome harder to predict, the opportunities for fooling the opponent greater, all of which are more congenial to self-deception. Overconfidence emerges as a key variable, a factor that by itself can create wholesale slaughter, especially when practiced on all sides (witness World War I).

Perhaps worst of all—from an evolutionary perspective—there is now lower negative biological feedback on those making bad decisions. You decide, hundreds die—but do you also die or even suffer? If you choose to attack an apparently isolated male chimp in a neighboring group and you miscalculate, you may lose your life. That is, natural selection acts directly back on any self-deception that helped produce the mistake. The same was probably often true of primitive warfare. Of course, it is sometimes true of those initiating large-scale wars: not only may your own country be invaded and your relatives slaughtered or suppressed, but you too may be killed—vide Adolf Hitler, whose thousand-year Reich ended with his own pathetic death by suicide in a concrete bunker only six years after he launched his disastrous wars. Still, in terms of natural selection, this was one, or a few men, who launched wars with aggregate costs of probably more than sixty million people killed.

Even minimal evolutionary feedback to leaders is not necessarily the case. The war on Vietnam was a disastrous miscalculation, violating a fundamental US Army doctrine: no land war in Asia. It cost more than fifty thousand US lives and well over a million in Vietnam, and another million in Cambodia and Laos, while bringing on the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia with an additional million or so slaughtered. It also left behind an ecological disaster that to this day is producing, among other effects, horribly mutated and deformed children. It produced no known “strategic” benefit. But those who designed and propagated the war in the United States suffered no such adverse effects. Neither JFK’s advisers—“the best and the brightest”—nor LBJ and his, nor Nixon and Kissinger suffered, so far as we know, any adverse consequences to their inclusive fitness. In other words, there may well have been stronger selection against warlike stupidity and self-deception in chimpanzees than in ourselves where the decision-makers are far removed from the biological consequences of their decisions. Herbert Spencer summarized the general effect: “The ultimate effect of shielding men from the effects of their folly is to fill the world with fools.”

The switch to large-scale battles and warfare that may stretch for weeks and even years has several important consequences for self-deception. Predicting the future is far more difficult than in a single cross-border chimpanzee raid, and there is opportunity for bluff on a large scale. One may bargain in bad faith. It may also be necessary to convince the home population or onlookers that the war is worth fighting or supporting—in any case, not opposing. These generate a whole host of new opportunities for deceit and self-deception. Recent wars, such as the 2003 US war on Iraq, for example, are more of this kind: not fooling your opponent but your own citizens and, if possible, the larger world.


Evolutionary logic suggests that self-deception is expected to be especially likely (as well as costly) in interactions with members of other groups. In interactions with group members, self-deception is inhibited by two forces. Partial overlap in self-interest gives greater weight to others’ opinions, and within-group feedback provides a partial corrective to personal self-deception. In interactions between groups, everyday processes of self-enhancement are uninhibited by negative feedback from others or by concern for their welfare, while derogation of the outsider’s moral worth, physical strength, and bravery is likewise unchecked by direct feedback or shared self-interest. These factors result in systematic faulty mechanisms of assessment, in turn making aggression more likely and contests more costly (without any average gain). Processes of group self-deception only make matters worse. Within each group, individuals are often mis-oriented in the same direction, easily reinforcing one another, while absence of contrary views is taken as confirming evidence (even silence being misinterpreted as support).

When you and an opponent who are fairly equally matched face off in an escalating fight, each has to decide how long to persist—given that if one is going to lose anyway, it is better to lose early and thereby lower the costs. There seem to be several reasons why in an even match, a positive illusion that exaggerates your own competitive abilities and chance of prevailing may reduce your chance of losing (along with the cost of battle). The positive illusion increases self-confidence and, therefore, apparent competitive ability and motivation. It decreases signals indicating fear and other emotions that would undermine the effectiveness of any threats. It therefore increases the chance that the opponent will view you as unbeatable and will give in outright (or be so scared that he fights poorly). The positive illusion may actually make you more effective mentally, because it reduces cognitive load by making you focus on positive strategies that may work instead of the full range (although there is, of course, a risk in inattention to the downside). In short, positive illusions may be important in a fight, because we partly commit more resources to it. On the other hand, we will suffer less ability to read our opponent and fail to respond appropriately to negative information.

Sports would provide a useful parallel, but there has been precious little useful study of self-deception in sports. It would be interesting to have data from sports. Are more fearful individuals worse at sports, since to be good at competition it helps to think you are going to win, which is easier the less fearful you are about losing? The only evidence I know of comes from swimming. Individuals who are more likely in a choice situation to concentrate on negative rather than neutral stimuli do worse, while those who concentrate on positive over neutral do not do any better.

It is a striking fact that almost every category of self-deception we have described in this book is conducive to aggressive wars. Modern war is conducted against an out-group by powerful people who have an exaggerated opinion of themselves and their degree of morality, are overconfident, often have an illusion of control, enjoy taking risks, and are almost always male. Let us briefly review these biases.

The general bias to consider oneself superior to others is obviously congenial to waging war, where these positive traits include strength, endurance, fighting ability, and so on. Both sexes display this bias. Derogating others is especially dangerous if it both incites your aggression and prevents you from seeing the power and tenacity of the resistance your aggression is likely to engender. Overestimating your own morality is a critical bias since it naturally leads you to overemphasize the strength of your own position and to underemphasize that of your opponents. After all, when you invade your neighbor’s country, there is already a prima facie case in favor of the neighbor and an expectation of a “home field” advantage (see page 255).

All of the above feed into overconfidence, one of our deeper and deadlier delusions where fatal aggression is concerned. Men seem especially prone to overconfidence, as we have seen already in financial trading, where they trade too often and lose more money compared to women (see Chapter 8). It is likely that a much longer history of being evaluated for degree of confidence, both in male/male interactions and in courtship of females, has led to greater degrees of overconfidence supported by deeper structures of self-deception.

A related variable is thrill seeking. A tendency toward thrill seeking can be measured by choice of risky driving, risky sports, drugs, and gambling. Measured this way, men are much more prone to thrill seeking than are women. Of course, wars can be very thrilling, at least at the beginning. It is also easy to imagine that an illusion of control gives greater impetus toward war. If you think you can control events favorably after initiating an (often surprise) attack on your neighbor, you are more likely to do so.

War is waged by the powerful. They decide and typically send others to die. Being put in a position of power—made to feel powerful—reduces one’s orientation to the viewpoint of others, their welfare, and their emotions (see Chapter 1). So warlike decisions will be helped along by the biases that power induces. Except for some civil wars, typically wars are fought by an in-group against an out-group. (Even in civil wars, in-groups and out-groups can be, and are, quickly formed.) As we have seen, few distinctions are as powerful in our psychological lives as that between in-group and out-group, with the latter easily inviting derogation, dehumanization, and overt attack, with the aim of elimination or subjugation. This must have begun long before human warfare, in intergroup violence in our chimpanzee (and more distant) past. But warfare presumably intensified the negative consequences and connotations of being an out-group member.

An additional sex difference is highly pertinent. There are several lines of evidence to suggest that men are likely to be less compassionate toward others than are women. They are less likely to read emotions correctly from facial expressions (the sex difference persists even when the time given per expression is only one-fifth of a second). They are less likely to remember emotional information and relate it to the emotional reaction of others. And there is evidence that men are much less likely than women to show compassion toward others who are perceived to have acted unfairly against them. For example, women treated either fairly or unfairly by a partner in an artificial economic game show similar evidence of compassion toward the two when either is being given an electric shock. By contrast, men show no neurophysiological evidence of compassion toward the unfair person when that individual is subjected to electric shocks. Indeed, they show pleasure in inflicting pain. This predicts a male bias toward self-deception whenever it can be based on perceived unfairness. Moralistic outrage in men is expected to be especially heartless and easy to manipulate—toward war, for example.

False historical narratives also contribute. An honest narrative might force people to make reparations for past crimes and to confront more directly their continuing effects. A false one permits a continual policy of denial, counterattack, and expansion at others’ expense.


The derogation of the abilities—never mind moral value—of others can have immediate, dangerous consequences when contemplating war, especially if the other people are assumed to lack fighting ability or motivation. Contrary to conventional wisdom, for example, it has been shown that planning for the US war on Vietnam in the 1960s was rational and calibrated on almost every point except one—the United States underestimated the discipline of its opponents and their willingness to absorb punishment.

This mistake is especially striking, since there is a near-universal rule in animal behavior (including that of humans) of a “home field” advantage: the lizard wins in his or her own territory against an opponent he or she would lose to in the opponent’s territory. Motivation is stronger to protect what you have than to seize what you don’t. Why would one ever assume that the locals cared less about your invasion of their land than you do? But nationalist and/or racist conceptions tempt us to exactly this position. Home-field advantage is true of sports teams in front of their own fans—where they show both a boost in testosterone not enjoyed when playing on the road, as well as a greater chance of winning. Anything that tends to increase fan effect (such as domed stadiums) tends to increase home-field advantage. But much of the effect may be due to the referees who show an increasing bias toward the home team with the same factors. Incidentally, in baseball there is something called “home-field clutch.” In the World Series, the home team wins more often during the first six games, but if the playoff goes to a final, seventh game, win or lose, home teams lose more often than outside teams. Apparently the pressure is just too much.

Regarding self-deception and war, it is easy to forget that a human holocaust such as World War I, which lasted a full four years with twenty million dead in the fighting alone, was launched in a festive, holiday spirit, partly grounded in nationalistic and racist views of the opponents. All sides were convinced that the war would be short, they would win, and victory would bring benefits, none of which (excepting victory for a few) turned out to be true. There was dancing in the streets throughout Europe and men rushed to recruiting offices, lest the war end before they could enjoy the fun. In August 1914, hundreds of thousands of people in Paris and Berlin celebrated the outbreak of the war. Only three months later, 300,000 French and Germans were dead, with a further 600,000 injured—and the war still had four years to run. When the first (enthusiastic) British infantry arrived in France in October, they started losing five hundred men a day until three weeks later, scarcely an eighth of the original soldiers remained. Thus does fantasy collide with reality.

Each expected to best the other one. The Germans believed the French were not prepared for a fight, while the French expected a quick victory, and a British officer predicted that Germany would be “easy prey” for the British and the French. Austria and Russia both expected to beat each other. Russian officers believed they would reach Berlin within two months. Turks got caught up in the frenzy and imagined that after victory in the Caucasus, they might very well march through Afghanistan into India. There were exceptions, of course—midlevel German military officers were in no way convinced of quick or even ultimate victory, but no one paid them any mind.

A classic case of overconfidence was based in considerable part on deeply held racist attitudes by the British toward Turkish people in general and their army in particular. The notion that any and all British troops must be superior to their Turkish counterparts was widespread throughout all levels of British society, and the commander at the disastrous Suvla Bay invasion believed that British soldiers must win every time because they were superior to Turks in such well-defined traits as “ideals” and “joy in battle.” The British soldier was worth several dozen Turks, he declared, though the actual statistics of the battle suggest the reverse, one Turk worth about ten British when fighting on Turkish soil.


From the outset, the US war on Iraq in 2003 was drenched in deceit and self-deception. Using the false pretext of 9/11, it was a war of choice and aggression apparently designed for control of oil and related economic assets, as well as to build a regional power base and to support its joined-at-the-hip ally, Israel. It was of course sold under patently false pretenses. If the world survives, this war will surely be taught as a textbook case of a colossal military blunder entrained by deceit and self-deception.

One nice feature is how much of the internal deliberations are already known to us so that the underlying processes can be studied in detail. Although as usual, overconfidence was a key factor, another was the one we have seen so vividly with NASA (see Chapter 9). When you are selling a lousy product under false pretenses, you do not wish to hear about the downside. This was not a war in which the adversary needed to be fooled or in which capturing the capital and routing the enemy could be in any kind of doubt. So there was little or no self-deception to deceive the enemy on this point—all of the self-deception was directed toward internal and international consumption and had to do with the aftermath of this action and its beneficent effects, for which no rational planning was seen as either necessary or desirable, turning a blunder into a catastrophe.

As has well been said, if Iraq’s major exports were avocados and tomatoes, the United States would have been nowhere near the country. Of course, this had to be denied, but two small facts alone symbolize the truth. When looting broke out in Baghdad within days of US arrival, the United States did nothing to defend the treasures of this great civilization, libraries and museums of immense value (despite repeated pleas from the relevant Iraqis), but they did station guards in front of the oil ministry (of trivial importance even to the oil industry). Likewise, before all hell broke loose in Iraq, the United States announced that any country that did not participate in the invasion would be frozen out of bids for oil reconstruction and redevelopment projects. Nothing was said about the avocado industry.

The war’s rationale was based on two unlikely falsehoods: that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), including nuclear warheads, and that he had somehow been involved in perpetrating 9/11. Evidence, however feeble, was organized to support both claims that were then widely trumpeted as true. Was the administration lying or simply mistaken? A very nice linguistic analysis suggests lying. When making statements about the (in fact missing) WMDs or Iraq’s (in fact nonexistent) connection to bin Laden, the statements showed the classic signs of deception we saw in Chapter 1 (compared to statements on neutral subjects made by the same people). That is, the first-person pronoun (“I,” “we”) was sharply reduced, the better to reduce personal responsibility. Exclusive words (“although it was raining”) were also reduced, the better to avoid complexity, cognitive load, and the need to remember. Negative words were increased, perhaps due to denial or even unconscious guilt. The only variable that ran in an unexpected way was action words. These were reduced, perhaps because planned action was then being denied. It is notable that the linguistic features predicted lying better in real life than in the lab—just as expected, since the consequences of lying in the lab are usually trivial compared to those of lying on the international stage.

These falsehoods and the underlying aggressive logic of the war also entrained a series of self-deceptions with very unfortunate consequences. Chief among these was the denial of the enormity of the undertaking and the need for careful, adequate advance preparation, including the use of far more troops on the ground. An outline of the key events goes as follows.

The war was decided on very quickly, with a minimum of deliberation. Although “regime change” in Iraq was declared official US policy in 1998, no planning for an invasion seems to have occurred prior to 9/11. Iraq, in turn, had nothing to do with this event—indeed Saddam Hussein was more anti–bin Laden than was the United States. Nevertheless, the US government immediately turned its attention to Iraq. Bush asked counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke and others to gather any evidence of Iraqi complicity, and the next day (September 12) Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld made a revealing remark. “Afghanistan,” he said, “has no targets worth bombing, while Iraq has many.” Presumed translation: Afghanistan has no resources worth coveting, while Iraq has them in abundance. Within weeks, lower-level Pentagon generals knew that the United States intended to attack Iraq and that an ambitious five-year plan had been drawn up for the successive attack of a series of countries after Iraq: Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and finally (the prize) Iran. Under one popular neoconservative version, the inspirational example of Iraqi freedom would lead to a domino effect, similar to the fall of the Berlin Wall, causing many of the above countries to embrace democracy and the United States without the need for invasion. The immediate stimulus for all of this cogitation was an attack on the United States emanating from Afghanistan.

Here was an imperial fantasy to fit the full grandeur of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny. In a unipolar world, the United States is now an empire, the greatest ever, and an empire creates its own reality, something people in the “reality-based” world do not appreciate. The United States will seize on 9/11 as a pretext to launch a series of interconnected, aggressive wars with lightning speed and increasing beneficial effects on themselves and others, including those being invaded. Here self-deception is directed at the nation and the world. The more we are convinced by our fantasy of imperial action, the more easily we can unite ourselves and others in pursuing this fantasy. But fantasies, as we have seen, are intrinsically dangerous—we do not wish to hear information, however important and true, that would disturb the fantasy.

Six weeks after the attack from Afghanistan, in mid-November 2001 a secret, formal order was given by President Bush to the secretary of defense to initiate detailed planning for the invasion of Iraq. Within months, resources and personnel were being moved from Afghanistan to just outside Iraq. The United States decided to go to war very quickly and then maintained a long (and unconvincing) public posture that war was the very last resort. As we know, this decision had a catastrophic effect on the future of Afghanistan—the second US abandonment in twenty years, with effects reverberating to this day. Psychologists long ago showed that when we are deliberating a decision—such as whom to marry or what job to take—we are willing to consider contrary evidence and to evaluate alternatives rationally, that is, with reference to benefits and costs. But once we have decided—to marry Susie, or take that job in Beirut—we no longer wish to hear about the choices not made or the possible downside to the decision we have made. We are now in the instrumental phase; we are carrying out our decision. By deciding within hours to attack Iraq, on entirely fictional grounds, with hardly any follow-up appraisal, the period of rational decision making was truncated to nothing at all. Once the decision was made, not only were alternatives no longer embraced, but there was no appetite to hear any evidence regarding the potential costs—the downside to this whole enterprise. Quite the contrary, there was active avoidance of any such evidence, while seeking out the flimsiest kind of evidence to hype the upside.

In the process, the United States easily imagined that the invasion was seen as good for the Iraqi people. The United States will naturally act in the interest of the Iraqis, who will appreciate this fact, so the United States will be seen as liberators and not occupiers. This was backed up by such reliable informants as “Curveball” and the notorious con artist Ahmed Chalabi. Here the US thinkers were swallowed by their own self-deception—denying that this was an aggressive war to grab control of very valuable resources, they embraced the countervailing fallacy that they were doing this for everyone else’s benefit—ridding the world of the threat of nuclear war, weakening terrorists worldwide, and (especially when these rationalizations became implausible) freeing the Iraqi people of their longtime oppressor and our former dear ally, Saddam Hussein. American exceptionalism out there pulling off another exception.

The decision had to be sold to the larger country. This consisted of emphasizing that the goal was important and legitimate—preventing an imminent terrorist attack—as well as safe and inexpensive. There would be no casualties (or very few), asserted Bush to White House visitors days before the attack, and Paul Wolfowitz of the Pentagon assured Congress that the war would be inexpensive, perhaps on the order of a few billion dollars, that Iraqi oil would pay for the reconstruction, and that a modest number of soldiers could easily do the job. The war has cost more than four thousand US lives alone and its direct and indirect costs to the United States, including lifetime care for more than twenty thousand grievously wounded soldiers, exceed $2 trillion and counting. So much for a safe, inexpensive excursion into Iraq. As for WMDs, before the war UNSCOM (the UN organization tasked with investigating nuclear activity) had virtually proved their absence, and the occupation soon confirmed this. As Hans Blick, the chief UN inspector, later put it, “Could there be 100 percent certainty about the existence of weapons of mass destruction but zero-percent knowledge of their location?”

A striking illustration of the power of denial in public opinion occurred in 2003–2004, some six months after searches for WMDs in Iraq turned up nothing. A strong split appeared in the US population over knowledge of this new—and apparently incontrovertible—evidence that there were no such things, WMDs being apparently nothing more than a US/UK fantasy used to justify invading another country. Democrats found it relatively easy to believe they had been lied to, and most knew about the new evidence. What was striking was that more than half the Republicans (the war party) had either not heard of the new evidence or had dismissed it out of hand and believed that WMDs had been found. With this strength of confirmation bias, you need merely state the lie of your particular group to get almost everybody aboard. And counterevidence ends up being cited as evidence.

Some people have argued that you can’t infer self-deception, that US spokespeople could simply be bald-faced liars, and that is indeed a general problem when trying to interpret official behavior, but I do not think this is plausible here. Some exaggeration surely the actors were aware of, but did any of them imagine the scale of the disaster they were producing? Did Wolfowitz appear before Congress conscious that the war might easily cost more than $1 trillion, with no known economic benefit (or indeed any other kind) while killing more than a hundred thousand Iraqis and displacing from their country an additional four million? Seems doubtful. Of course, it could simply be a mistake—computational error—or a symptom of underlying mental illness or whatnot. By definition, one can’t prove self-deception through examining people’s behavior alone, but I find the notion of simple, unbiased “error” naive on its face. Wolfowitz and others at the top practiced one of the most elementary forms of self-deception: they made sure they were not exposed to information that conflicted with their optimistic fantasies.

It is certain that among the decision-makers, little effort was made to learn relevant information about ruling Iraq once the invasion succeeded. No national intelligence estimate was made on the conditions to be expected during and after the war, yet such estimates are routinely produced for a large range of less important (and certain) contingencies (such as invading Bolivia). The CIA began war-game exercises in May 2002, to plan for what might happen after the fall of Baghdad, and people from the Defense Department attended the first of these sessions, but when their superiors found out, they were ordered not to attend again. The key is that postwar planning was seen as an obstacle to war itself. Paul Pillar, who was the national intelligence officer in the CIA for both the Near and Far East, points out that no one had any appetite for such assessments and gives two general reasons:

Number one was just extreme hubris and self-confidence. If you truly believe in the power of free economics and free politics, and their attractiveness to all populations of the world, and their ability to sweep away all manner of ills, then you tend not to worry about these things so much. The other major reason is that, given the difficulty of mustering public support for something as extreme as an offensive war, any serious discussion inside the government about the messy consequences, the things that could go wrong, would complicate even further the selling of the war.

These are the two great drivers of self-deception: overconfidence and active avoidance of any knowledge of the potential downside to one’s decisions. The contrast with World War II is instructive. Before the United States even entered that war, teams at the Army War College were studying what went right and wrong when Germany was occupied after the previous world war. Within months of the attack on Pearl Harbor, an entire School of Military Government was created at the University of Virginia whose mission was to plan for the occupation of both Japan and Germany. But of course this was much closer to a just war and was designed and thought through without the need to sell the war under false pretenses likely to induce self-deception. Injustice always requires justification and special pleading, justice less so.


As in the Challenger and Columbia disasters, where top management did not want to know about safety problems, during the Iraq war, no one wanted to hear about the problems on day two in Baghdad. Such knowledge interferes with the sales job. In the case of NASA, the safety unit was degraded to a caricature of what such a unit should look like. In the case of planning for Iraq, a truly bizarre partitioning took place. A set of working groups was duly created, then walled off from the decision-makers and the rest of the government to render the working groups impotent. Each involved knowledgeable people from throughout the US government, the army, the CIA, State Department, USAID, and so on. The State Department’s Future of Iraq project began a month after 9/11 and was publicly announced in March 2002, eventually comprising seventeen working groups and producing fourteen volumes of detailed findings. The project was headed by a man who was skeptical of the wisdom of the war but certain that planning for its aftermath was essential.

Given the chaos that ensued, it is worth noting that in the summary report, stress was placed on (1) the need to get the electrical grid up and running and with it the water system, (2) the need to plan carefully for the change in the Iraqi army by removing its leaders without losing the ordinary soldiers, and (3) the need to plan for civil disorder, including the emergence of common criminals bent on rape, murder, and looting. All of these turned out to be exactly on the mark but were overlooked entirely. In September 2002, USAID also began what would soon become the Iraq Working Group to study the problems of postwar occupation. Drawing heavily on expertise from numerous nongovernmental organizations, it too highlighted some of the obvious problems forces occupying Iraq would face.

These working groups were walled off from the rest of the operation, in particular from those actually making the decisions; information flow was halted in both directions. Individuals close to power who happened to attend meetings of either study group were chastised, and higher-ups were ordered not to attend any of these meetings. Why bother with a detailed analysis that is deliberately overlooked? This seems extraordinary. Perhaps those in charge learned that the news was pessimistic and did not wish to hear the details, or perhaps they set up this whole charade in the first place to look as if they were taking seriously problems that they were not.

Curiously enough, identical forces were at work in the UK. Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted on limiting key war decisions to a very small (like-minded) group within his cabinet because of the danger of information leaking to the press. Precisely the problem one would expect with a questionable or unethical decision: let’s avoid group introspection and do it on our own. In the effort to limit information leaving the small group, information is diminished within the group.

In any case, in for the dime, in for the dollar. When Jay Garner, the first person put in charge of “administering” the new Iraq, asked that the head of the Future of Iraq study group be assigned to him as an aide, the request was denied at the highest level of the administration. This is an extraordinary self-inflicted wound. It is one thing to exclude him in advance, while you are still hyping the adventure to self and others, but quite another to spitefully deny yourself his knowledge when you desperately need it—first blinding, then beheading yourself. Self-deception seems like a drug: once you start, it’s hard to stop.

Having sold the public on the war through two lies, the US government then wasted at least six months’ time and resources in Iraq looking for the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and torturing prisoners to try to get them to give up the nonexistent link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. The intelligence agencies and interrogators were told to do “whatever it takes” to get the information from their detainees, and when they still came back empty-handed, they were told to push harder. Of course, the one sure property of torture is that it creates in the victim a desire to say whatever the torturer wishes to hear. Many Iraqis described the situation as surreal. The first question posed was, “Where is Osama bin Laden?” and the answer was, “How should I know? I am in Iraq.” From this point the relationship went downhill. It seems absurd that such a farce could be entrained by an initial simple lie; months after the invasion, people were being tortured to generate evidence in support of the lie, even though the lie had done its job.


War is a rapidly changing phenomenon, driven in part by continual technological development, which is surprisingly susceptible to change in the wrong direction. For example, the invention of armored knights on armored horses led to hundreds of years of investment in Europe in a manifestly foolish strategy: the knights were easily overcome by soldiers on foot.

World War I was (roughly speaking) the last major war in which troops were sacrificed to protect civilians, and the majority of those dying directly in the war were soldiers (more than eighteen million versus five million civilians, not counting the influenza pandemic). World War II reversed this pattern, which has remained reversed ever since. Careful estimates from World War II suggest that at least fifteen million troops and more than forty-five million civilians died.

The key to this change was massive aerial bombing of civilian populations. Although the Allies began by emphasizing tactical bombing—of military targets and key industrial areas—by the end of the war, they had perfected large-scale bombing of cities with or without any military value. Among the cities were Hamburg, Cologne, and Dresden in Germany, and almost all the major cities of Japan, including Tokyo, in which more than 100,000 people were incinerated in a single night’s conflagration, the deliberate firebombing of a largely wooden city in order to create a massive inferno with temperatures reaching 1,800 degrees and winds more than fifty miles an hour. In all, more than sixty Japanese cities were destroyed by intensive bombing, leaving almost nothing of the cities on the list that bore the names Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

An enduring fallacy of surprising strength is that wars can be won through airpower, bombing from the relative safety of the skies, decoupling the killer and the killed. Among other virtues, it is claimed that bombing can turn a population against their leaders, whose activities are said to have induced the bombing. Proven wrong in World War II (with the single exception of the nuclear attacks on Japan) and repeatedly since then, nobody seems able to drive a stake through the heart of this fallacy. As recently as 2006, both Israel and the United States imagined that a devastating bombing campaign against all of Lebanon would turn the country against Hezbollah as the presumptive cause of the bombing. In fact, the campaign had been conceived about a year earlier and extensively wargamed by Israel and the United States in the six months leading up to the onslaught. As usual, the bombing had the opposite effect: the country rallied behind Hezbollah, which enjoyed its highest levels of general support ever during the bombing itself.

For the United States, the Lebanon war was apparently meant as a prelude to a larger bombing attack on Iran based on the same absurd logic—in this case, that the Iranian people would rise up against their leaders for having somehow provoked the United States into mass attacks on their people. The notion that the Iranian people might regard the United States instead as a mass murderer seems scarcely to have reached the consciousness of these decision-makers. And the mistake continues. In Afghanistan, US murder of civilians from the sky may be driving the population into the arms of their murderer’s enemies. Or as one headline (May 17, 2009) put it: DEATH FROM ABOVE, OUTRAGE DOWN BELOW. In 2009, the United States acknowledged that killing fourteen alleged al-Qaeda members cost seven hundred civilians their lives in Afghanistan for a 98 percent cost on the innocent.

One of the most spectacular failures of mass aerial bombing occurred in the US war on Vietnam, with truly horrific consequences, quite apart from the hundreds of thousands of civilians directly slaughtered. In Cambodia alone, an entirely innocent bystander in the US assault on Vietnam, the United States dropped more than 2.75 million tons of bombs between 1966 and 1973, during 250,000 missions on more than 100,000 sites. That is to say, more tonnage was dropped there than by all the Allies on Germany and Japan in all of World War II, including the two atomic bombs. Put differently, an average of almost 1,000 tons of bombs were dropped every day on Cambodia for about 2,900 straight days, during 100 separate attacks each day. This was on a small rural country that had not attacked or threatened a soul.

More than 10 percent of these sites were completely indiscriminate, in the sense of never having been targeted or described. The stated purpose of this horror? To deny the Vietnamese troops safe haven in the Cambodian forests. Survivors describe scenes out of hell, massive bombs looking like lightning bolts and producing terrifying explosions that ripped trees and people apart, leaving deep craters and victims walking around dazed and haunted by the recent horror from above—some struck speechless for days, only to be revisited by fresh attacks. The full scale of the assault emerged to general knowledge only when President Clinton (in a gesture of reconciliation) released in 2000 data on bombs dropped, in order to help the Vietnamese and Cambodians find unexploded ones still waiting to claim lives and limbs.

And what was the effect on Cambodia’s social and political life? A small radical fringe group in the countryside—the Khmer Rouge—grew in five short years of US carpet-bombing from a poorly organized force of 5,000 to a raging and well-organized army of 250,000. When it seized control of the capital, the group turned on its own population, fulfilling, in effect, the genocidal words of Henry Kissinger when he transmitted President Richard Nixon’s orders to carpet-bomb Cambodia: “Hit anything that is moving with anything that is flying.” Subsequently, more than a million Cambodians were slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in less than two years.

War these days has all sorts of unintended and unvisualized consequences, such as the entire destruction of Cambodian society, its evisceration from the inside. The horrors being inflicted are usually deliberately hidden from view of the society inflicting them. No one is describing the horrors and, in any case, a mentality of “we are at war” rules at home, discouraging interest in such “side effects.” Efforts are made to hide the truth from the larger world and from later historical memory, the better to maintain a false positive collective view of one’s past. The United States did not slaughter Asian people wantonly in the 1960s and 1970s. Instead it fought international communism with some collateral damage.


Bombing can be used to alter history and to impose it. The importance of eradicating history is nicely illustrated by two bombing runs during Israel’s assault on Lebanon in 2006. In the first, the Khiam prison near the Israeli border was obliterated. The prison had no military value, no rockets were being fired from its midst, and there weren’t even any civilians inside to terrorize. The attack was not an accident; it was a systematic bombing raid designed to obliterate the prison, as indeed it did.

The prison was a museum, the actual prison in which southern Lebanese men and women not cooperating with the Israeli occupation were housed in the 1990s. I visited it myself six months before the war. Except for two guides, it was empty. Signs on the wall said that women were allowed to bathe for fifteen minutes once every two weeks but men only once a month. And there was a torture chamber, somewhat resembling the old electrocution chambers in the United States. Noam Chomsky was photographed sitting in such a chair. And that is precisely the point. The living memory of the prison invited Israeli destruction, the better to destroy the past and build future, false narratives.

The second bombing run destroyed another museum, built on the site of the Qana massacre of 1996. This massacre took place during one of Israel’s periodic assaults on its northern neighbor Lebanon. As shown conclusively later, successively calibrated shells fired by the Israelis finally landed on a UN refuge, their intended target, overhead drones providing the key information. Within the refuge were huddled women and children trying to survive the general bombing while their men remained at large. Of those sheltered by the UN, 106 were incinerated, mostly women and children. Many of the victims were then buried there and a museum erected with photos and exhibits of that dreadful day: ghastly burned corpses, shredded bodies, blood everywhere—the pitiful remnants of human beings cowering under the wings of the UN for false protection. (They would have been better off widely dispersed in the open. Many more sitting ducks would have survived.) Yet why does Israel now bother with the museum, with rebombing dead people? Precisely to kill the victims for good, so their memories do not come back to haunt or to indict. Rewriting history through rebombing.

An extraordinary—if very ugly—bombing also happened in 2006, with very different intended effects on group memory. The Israelis perpetrated a second Qana atrocity—with similar loss of young life. From their drones in the sky, the Israelis had been carefully tracking the residents of Qana, who were forced to join together in ever-tighter clusters as homes were successively destroyed. Children played outside in the daytime, easily visible to the drone. Then one night Israel attacked the final house where twenty-seven were huddled, claiming a fresh set of seventeen dead children. This was deliberately grinding salt into an old wound. So here we have Israel acting oppositely regarding the history of 1996: to the outside world it wants to destroy direct physical evidence of the atrocity, but to the local Arabs it wants the dreadful memory of 1996 to be reinforced, as if to say, “We will murder you as piteously as we choose, when and where we choose. We will then do everything to deny and eradicate in the minds of outsiders what we have just done to you.”


In what seemed to me, a mere bystander, to be a stupefying act of violence, Israel attacked the people of Gaza at eleven o’clock on a Saturday morning, December 27, 2008, when the streets were bustling with people and a graduation ceremony for police cadets was under way. Within the space of twenty minutes, almost two hundred people lost their lives, including many young men who were about to become police officers. In one sense, it was beautifully planned, two days after Christmas, the last day of Hanukkah, a few days before the new year. Who would have guessed that Israel would choose this time to launch a savage attack long in the planning? Israel’s biggest-selling newspaper called this “a stroke of genius” since “the element of surprise increased the number of people who were killed.” “Genius” seems a curious word to describe what is only a well-timed act of malevolence. Another commentator echoed earlier US self-praise in Iraq: “We left them in shock and awe.” Or as another put it, “Israel can and must mete out a severe punishment to Hamas, one that sears its consciousness (yes, sears its consciousness) and causes it to hesitate before it fires again.”

American editorialists and commentators rushed to Israel’s defense. As gathered from a single day’s commentary (January 4, 2009), the following talking heads on US television justify Israel’s brutal assault: three governors, one senator, and one newspaper columnist. “The missile firing into Israel, I think, brought the proper response from the Israelis.” “All Americans know what we would be doing if missiles were landing . . . from Vancouver, Canada, into Seattle.” “It is inconceivable to me that if missiles were coming out of Cuba into south Florida that we wouldn’t respond.” “Israel has no choice but to take military action.” “Israelis are doing the only thing they can possibly do to defend their population.”

It would be much more accurate to ask: If Vancouver were imposing an economic stranglehold on Seattle, and regularly assassinating and kidnapping its city leaders while murdering civilians at will, would we consider a barrage of primitive rockets from Seattle—incapable of landing with any precision—to be an appropriate response? And if, in alleged response to such crude rockets, Vancouver bombed and invaded Seattle, with horrific effects on civilians, women and children alone numbering in the hundreds, what would we then do? And which objective observer would put credence to any claim that the attack was Vancouver’s only option in self-defense?

If you are inverting reality, it helps to have many others inverting it, too, making it more plausible by repetition alone and by excluding alternative voices. To me, the near-unanimity of the political class and most of the news commentators in the United States in supporting Israeli terror on a mass scale is astonishing—evidence of the stranglehold that a good false historical narrative can exert on an entire group. It is, after all, the unconditional support of Israel by the world’s military superpower that permits Israel to act in ways it would never dare if it had to relate to its neighbors on a level playing field. Here the false historical narrative is so powerful—the hate-filled terrorist Palestinians, anti-Semitic to the core, need regular punishment—that hideous attacks on one’s neighbor are both moral and praiseworthy.

The savagery continued for seventeen days and included numerous well-known Israeli devices, including attacks on UN positions, on ambulances, on mosques, on infrastructure, on civilians ordered to leave buildings, on young men, women, and children. That numerous assaults on civilians were deliberate is evident on inspection even if routinely denied. A war that began with lies ended with them. Indeed, it was not actually a war, more like a massacre of any and all. “Shooting fish in a barrel,” as one observer aptly put it.

Certainly if it was meant as a surgical strike on an alleged terrorist group (Hamas), someone forgot to tell the soldiers. When leaving homes they had vandalized after murdering the occupants and their neighbors, the soldiers left behind graffiti more honest than any Israeli government spokesperson: “Arabs need 2 die,” “Die you all,” “Make war not peace,” “1 down, 999,999 to go,” and written over the image of a gravestone, “Arabs 1948–2009.” Hamas, like Hezbollah, is a fictitious enemy, or at least a demonized one. The whole point is to frighten—indeed terrorize—the enemy into submission.

Someone also forgot to tell soldiers afterward not to tell the truth about the onslaught. As we know from Israeli testimony alone, massive firepower was used to cover advances, there was systematic demolition of housing, indeed constant destruction through massive firepower regardless of whether buildings were known to be occupied, the use of Palestinians as human shields, the use of deadly white phosphorus, rules of engagement in which “any movement must entail gunfire. . . . No one is supposed to be there. If you see any signs of movement at all, you shoot.” These rules referred not to combatants but to everyone.

Military rabbis were busy whipping the troops up to a pitiless state because “the Palestinians are like the Philistines of old, newcomers who do not belong in the land, aliens planted on the soil which should clearly return to us.” Not too different from the hordes of clerics who proclaimed passionately on each side of America’s Civil War over slavery, or the clerics who have risen up to support numerous other wars. In this case, ancient genocidal logic is called upon to justify the current form. Of course, the Israeli military kept up the usual pretense. Its actions were governed by “uncompromising ethical values,” which is certainly true, but are they just values or purely Israel-benefiting ones? Far from wantonly slaughtering innocent people, Israel made “an enormous effort to focus its fire only against the terrorists whilst doing the utmost to avoid harming uninvolved civilians.” But quite the opposite was true.

The attack was sold under patently false pretenses. Hamas and Israel had agreed to a six-month cease-fire, during which rocket attacks on Israel (by primitive devices lacking guidance signals and killing all of seventeen Israelis in the previous seven years) were reduced by 97 percent, and the remaining few may well have been beyond Hamas’s control. It was Israel that broke the truce, first by failing (as required) to open access to Gaza when in fact it slowly tightened its stranglehold. Israeli forces then entered Gaza contra agreement on November 4 and murdered six so-called Hamas militants; the next day, Israel cut imports to Gaza to one-tenth of their former trickle. Hamas responded by not renewing this one-sided “truce,” and Israel in turn unleashed its long-planned assault, killing about 1,300 Palestinians in three weeks, roughly the number it had killed in the previous five years. The vast majority were civilians, and more than half were women and children. There can be no doubt that the operation’s chief function was to terrorize, once again, its Arab neighbors. Only thirteen Israelis died, for a kill ratio of 100:1.

The brutal opening assault on police cadets held a special irony, because one of Hamas’s signal achievements since gaining power through democratic elections was its ability to sharply reduce common street crime, including murder, robbery, and rape. But when the Zionists are in full blood, the Arabs are not allowed even police guns to protect themselves. They are seen instead as irremediable terrorists intent on inflicting suffering on their innocent prison wardens, the Israelis.

What is striking about the Gaza attack is how radically differently it is viewed by most of the world—the account given above is a fair summary—as opposed to the version believed by Israel and the United States. Why this incredible blindness in the United States to the moral outrages being perpetrated by its client state of Israel? The key factor, I believe, is the false historical narrative that links Christianity, Judaism, and American exceptionalism—that is, Christian Zionism (see Chapter 10). Fortunately, the excesses of the Gaza operation seem to have caused enough general revulsion that a prominent Jewish-American critic of Israeli behavior can ruefully title his new book on the subject This Time We Went Too Far.

Likewise, there are welcome signs in the US Jewish community alone of a change in the narrative. A revulsion at the old “anything Israel says is fine and anyone who says otherwise is an anti-Semite” style of arguing is seen in such organizations as J Street in Washington, D.C., Jews-4-Peace in Los Angeles, and Justice in Palestine, popular at US universities, to name but a few. There are parallel, though unpopular, organizations in Israel.


In one sense, Israel’s attack on Gaza was a stupefying act of violence. In another, it was merely the latest example of heartless intergroup murder and warfare that stretches back perhaps some five million years when, chimpanzee-like, we started to regularly kill neighboring group members. That is, by the standards of behavior within a group, the attack was stupefying, heartless, and cruel, but by the standards of behavior between groups, it was routine. We have all done it: Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, animist, and atheist. In Sudan, people are raped and killed by the thousands, in the Congo, by the millions. Every ethnic group, it seems, in every corner of the globe indulges this ancient habit.

Of course, we have made enormous progress since chimpanzee days—in technological sophistication, for example, and in the scale of the adventure, but also in the use of language, both prior to the attack (permitting planning and coordination) and afterward (permitting rationalization). The latter is especially important in the face of onlookers, members of the rest of the species who may witness the attack or learn about it, yet another novel feature of recent warfare, depending also on language.

Chimpanzees appear not to face this problem of verbal self-deception or to have any verbal component to warfare. Indeed, it is hard to see any communication system, though one surely must exist. Nobody has been able to detect a signal by which male chimps organize for war. So far as we can tell, when they are about to go to war, they do not suddenly start looking at one another or otherwise communicate before setting out on territorial patrols, a common prelude to attacking neighbors. They do so either spontaneously or in response to a sound or smell from a neighboring territory. When on a border patrol, males are quiet—they stop, sniff, listen as a group, and are at all times alert. Sometimes they make deep incursions into neighboring areas, the signal or means of coordination being completely unknown to us. Nobody has seen anything resembling group discussion afterward—certainly no need to justify the behavior in the face of external observation—so that the verbal element seems entirely missing from chimpanzee warfare start to finish and the basis for the cooperative synchrony is completely unknown.

By contrast, consider the contrary set of arguments unleashed after Israel’s attack on Gaza. Either, at one extreme, the attack was a fully justified assault on a terrorist entity and its critics were Hitler’s newest anti-Jews or, at the other, it was an Israeli terrorist attack on the human remnants of the ethnic cleansing on which it is itself based. So language, which permits the past to be expressed, communicated, and remembered, both vividly and in detail, adds immense opportunities to dress up the past or deny it, to one and all, present and future. Perhaps no aspect of language acts as a more powerful force for war than religion, the topic to which we turn next.