In one of our previous articles we tried to explain the mechanism by which the media often publishes “sensational refugee testimonies” that have little to do with reality, by paying attention to how the conspiratorial explanation of the incident is different from the real one. This article is in part a continuation of this theme, explaining why significant incidents such as the worsening of inter-Korean relations in August 2015 and the current crisis in Russian-Turkish relations often bring about a lot of conspiracies that demonstrate very little understanding of the back story of these events and the response of the authorities thereto.
I’m forced to disappoint fans of regaling tales about insidious and well-thought-out plans that are “almost certainly approved at the very top.” These people live in some kind of perfect world in which power has absolute omniscience, and the military always carry out their orders to the letter and deadline. Our real world looks a lot different, and this “non-ideal” system of power is everywhere. A number of scandals in the South Korean Army demonstrate that the armed forces of some countries are also susceptible to this malady. In other words, the lack of order on the ground, the wrong or incorrect understanding of an order or situation where the leaders do not always have the complete picture of what is happening on the “territory under their command” – this is more the norm than the exception.
Ideal systems are plagued by the “fog of war”, which causes decisions to be made with incomplete information. The opposing sides are far from always aware of each other’s actions, plus irrational factors also come into play. The situation of mutual tension increases the overall level of stress and nervous tension, resulting in dangerous and important decisions being taken under the influence of the nerves or emotions, including the fear of losing face or being branded weak, or unable to respond to a blow to the ego.
Human stupidity also has no limits, people (and politicians too) can make mistakes, therefore the “analyst” who supposes that all political decisions are made with a calm head runs the risk of wishful thinking. An example of this is when the South Korean Boeing was shot down over the USSR, an event brought about not by evil will, but a combination of a series of errors and accidents.
And if tensions and disorder get added to the absence of a “hot line” between the sides, or someone’s vested interests, the probability of an incident occurring not at the highest but medium and even lower level are all the more increased. If that nervous tension is running high, and both sides have already exchanged antagonistic statements, there is always a good chance that an incident of unknown origin and even more likely the actions by the other side can be misinterpreted or the reaction to them may be inappropriate not only because prior to that someone issued an order from the top.
It is a whole other story that this “stupid initiative in the field” is rarely ever admitted. The fact is that, from a bureaucratic point of view, recognising that your subordinates secretly did something and now you’re faced with an unpleasant situation is a very severe blow to the prestige of those in command. What kind of leadership cannot even imagine what their subordinates are up to? How can that leader control them and be in charge of them at all?
In addition, especially when it comes to the army or the security services, where corporate solidarity is well developed, the principle of “we look out for our own” comes into play. The perpetrators can be dealt with, but after the fact and without washing your dirty linen in public. As a result, it is easier for superiors to tacitly admit that everything happened to their knowledge than to admit any inability to control their “territory.”
But say an incident has happened. What reaction from the authorities can be expected? No authorities possess instant omniscience. They can be made aware of the fact of the incident quickly enough, but without any superfluous details. Of course, the order to investigate and unearth reasons is almost always given, but, firstly, this investigation takes time, and secondly, the results make their way up the bureaucratic ladder slowly.
From the outset, news of unfortunate incidents is not always reported to the superiors in a clear and detailed way, particularly if those responsible for delivering the report are in line for a dressing down from their superiors. Therefore, quite often attempts are made to quash reports and hope that everything “blows over.” And even if it does not “blow over”, it should always be taken into account that even the results of the investigation might not get reported to the top in full: as the report rises up through the chain of command, this information will be corrected and certain critical points may be cleaned up.
Let’s not forget about the internal state of affairs. Aside from the desire to hide their mistakes, the officials delivering the report often follow the principle of “tell the superiors what they want to hear.” This does not mean a report can be entirely falsified, however, this factor will also mean that the results of the investigation are slow to reach the upper echelons and may even be subject to corrections.
However, information often spreads faster outside the system than inside – there may still be no results of the incident investigation, but journalists are already knocking on the door, and they need to say something. Demonstrating ignorance or remaining silent are not the best strategies either. “I haven’t been informed of this matter yet” portrays the negative image of a man who missed the incident, and attempts to hide behind expressions like “no comment” are traditionally interpreted as “a sign of the corruption of the media”, and a refusal to answer questions is usually perceived as ” something terrible happened, but I can’t tell you about it.” That, in turn, gives rise to sentiments such as “the authorities are hiding something from us!”.
Therefore, regardless of the whether the results of the investigation have reached the top or not, the relevant structures within the government immediately begin to fashion the official version of events. The more serious the incident, the faster this version is created. This official version is partly an attempt to anticipate the likely course of events – to describe the development of the situation, which may later turn out to be true. But it is the political situation that influences this official version to a much greater extent. This manifests itself in several ways. Firstly, the official version should “reassure people” or conform to “the expectations of the masses.” Secondly, it must not cast the state its leadership in a bad light. So, if the incident involved two sides, before the investigation has even shown who was right yet, each of them defensively starts to blame everything on the other side with the argument that “they started it first.”
There are several factors that reinforce this trend. Firstly, in an information society, information of this type is very quickly transformed from a question of knowledge to one of faith. If society has already formed a certain consensus about the fact that “the other side” are the bad guys who capable of anything, the news that they were to blame for the incident, easily fits into these preconceptions.
Secondly, in a number of cultures, such as the Middle and Far East, where “courtesy is mistaken for concession and concession – for weakness”, the one who looks weak (by admitting their guilt or ignoring an insult, for example), loses face. For a number of political leaders, brought up in a traditional society, this strategy is not acceptable because, paradoxically, it is better to be regarded as a villain than weak. However, this isn’t just a case of tradition values – US President Johnson explained that his country’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict was very similar. “If I had lost Vietnam, people would have say that I was a coward, a wimp, or a spineless wuss.”
And if these moral characteristics are inherent in both sides involved in the incident, then, by the time the results of the investigation finally reach the top via open or closed channels, the official version has usually already been formed, and there has already been an active back-and-forth between the official versions of one country and “the other side”. It is fine if the results of the investigation fully or partially confirm the official version, but sometimes it is also the case that by that time tempers have flared to such an extent that only partial correction of the position is deemed acceptable. In the worst case scenario, the unpleasant truth gets shelved. At best, as the official argy bargy continues, some of the representatives of the sides begin to look for a reason to quietly negotiate in order to gently and gradually reduce the degree of tension.
But usually by this time, in the mass consciousness the question of identifying the true culprits ceases to be one of searching for the truth. It becomes a question of faith and propaganda. Even if there is evidence that clearly indicates the direct blame of one side or another, which becomes well-known, this does not lead to the proponents of the “not our fault” position dramatically changing their standpoint due to the facts. Someone, perhaps, will do so, but they will be in the minority. Most simply ignore this information, which does not fit into their already existing world view, or find a way to call the data falsified, and, therefore, once again, do not change their position. It’s sad, but these are the laws of the dissemination of information in the modern world.
Moreover, in the context of a confrontation, it seems natural to think that the incident which caused the confrontation could not happen by accident. “Certainly an order was given at the top”, although very often a country’s leadership is hostage to the situation, and is like a cat on a hot tin roof trying to find a way to hush up the incident all the while trying to maintain their “tough guy” image by refusing to compromise with the enemy.
In this situation, all that remains to do is hope that wisdom will prevail over hysteria, and while maintaining public rhetoric, carrying out all the necessary ritual gestures, including mutual accusations, both side can quietly step back or gently let off steam without stirring up more serious action.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.