The first casualty of war is truth

By Tim Fitzsimons

September 4, 2013

About a hundred years ago an isolationist U.S. Senator reportedly said something along the lines of "the first casualty of war is the truth" as World War I raged far away in Europe.

These days, even though news need not travel on steam ships and telegraph wires, truth seems to have a tough time of rising above the din of fakery that the algorithms of Facebook and Twitter promote when emotions are heightened. Fact checking is not in fashion now anyway, but when it comes to the sensitive matters brought to the fore by the Syria war — the first fully-YouTubed conflict — we see the ways in which truthiness trumps fact.

A screenshot from a Facebook-fueled rumor that John Kerry used an Iraq War photo to justify his Syria chemical weapons claims.

A screenshot from a Facebook-fueled rumor that John Kerry used an Iraq War photo to justify his Syria chemical weapons claims.

A few days ago I noticed a strange photo that was making the rounds on Facebook. It was a photograph with a caption that claimed Secretary of State John Kerry had used a photo from the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to justify his claims that the Syrian government had gassed its citizens. And thus, his claim that the U.S. should take military action.

Whether or not Assad did gas his citizens is irrelevant. The photo was posted online by a Facebook user named "Jason Benghazi Smith" and contained the following text:

So, Secretary of State John Kerry referenced this photograph when making his speech today, trying to drive home how awful the Syrian chemical attack was as he tried to convince us why we should go to war. One problem. The picture isn't even from Syria. It's from Iraq in 2003. The photographer, Marco di Lauro, said he nearly "fell off his chair" when he saw it was being used to promote a war in Syria. It's getting pretty disturbing to see how far our politicians, both Republican and Democrat, are willing to go to drum up support for a war nobody wants.

How odd, I thought. I saw the speech and did not remember that part. The photo it linked to is a famous one from the Iraq War of a child jumping over countless rows of white-shrouded corpses. It linked to the website of the photographer, Marco Di Lauro. I did a little digging.

Di Lauro captioned that photo as follows:

An Iraqi child jumps over a line of hundreds of bodies, in a school where they have been transported from a mass grave, to be identified. They were discovered in the desert in the outskirts of Al Musayyib, 40 km south of Baghdad. It has been estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 Iraqis had been reported missing in the region south of Baghdad. People have been searching for days for identity cards or other clues among the skeletons to try to find the remains of brothers, fathers, mothers, sisters and even children who disappeared when Saddam's government crushed a Shi'ite uprising following the 1991 Gulf War.

So what exactly did Kerry say? Here's the text of the speech, and here's the passage they are talking about:

And just as important, we know what the doctors and the nurses who treated them didn’t report -- not a scratch, not a shrapnel wound, not a cut, not a gunshot sound. We saw rows of dead lined up in burial shrouds, the white linen unstained by a single drop of blood.
Instead of being tucked safely in their beds at home, we saw rows of children lying side by side, sprawled on a hospital floor, all of them dead from Assad’s gas and surrounded by parents and grandparents who had suffered the same fate.

Don't take my word for it, watch the passage yourself:

What happened next, it seems, is that the conspiracy-theory website InfoWars, run by Alex Jones (seen here going crazy on the BBC about how the Euro is a Nazi plot) posted an article that started the whole rumor. The problem is that InfoWars looks like a legitimate website, so people sometimes make the mistake of taking it seriously.

The article, which called the fake-news a Syria "bombshell," read:

Attempting to drive the point home, Kerry referenced a photograph used by the BBC illustrating a child jumping over hundreds of dead bodies covered in white shrouds. The photo was meant to depict victims who allegedly succumbed to the effects of chemical weapons via Assad’s regime.

As we know from the above information, Kerry said no such thing. The InfoWars people, who desire to see conspiracy theories in their morning cereal bowl, rushed to connect Kerry's speech to a photo error made by the BBC last year after the Houla massacre. The incorrect photograph was live on the BBC website for 90 minutes, and the BBC issued a correction, as legitimate news sources do when they make a mistake.

It was a mistake - rectified by the removal of the image as soon as it was spotted - and we apologise for it.

Indeed, InfoWars was right about one thing: Di Lauro did fall of his chair, but a year earlier, and when his photo was misused for the Houla massacre.

To the BBC's credit, the Houla massacre, in which over 100 people were murdered, did indeed result in images of corpses in rows, and it was likely a mistake made by a web editor, perhaps even one who was overworked and underpaid (imagine!).

I reported the Houla massacre last year. It was a tough one to report, with tough photos to look at — babies and toddlers who had peed their pants in fear before militiamen slit their throats. It had the effect of hardening global opinion and led to a mass exodus of diplomats from Damascus. This was, it is hard to fathom, before Syria's war became synonymous with the worst kind of death, destruction and violence human kind has to offer.

The images from the Ghouta chemical attack that Kerry was referring to were ones that, unfortunately again, I spent a lot of time watching the day of the massacre itself, when I helped report the story for NPR.

Here's one:

Here's another, of the a child near death:

So I end this post with a plea to all who read to be extra careful in these dangerous times. News now moves too quickly for information to be parsed in any meaningful way before lies spread like wildfire across the internet. It's worth remembering that wars have been started because of lies — Iraq, for one, and also the Spanish-American War a century ago — but that should not prevent us from always searching for the truth as deeply and thoroughly as possible. Check the sources. If it smells like bullshit, it probably is bullshit.