“You can’t do too well if you are creative or very imaginative, in Washington DC,” said the senior member of a Congressional staff who I was meeting in the nation’s capital. This was a few years ago, when I had just finished my Master’s degree and was managing a small nonprofit.
I was the Executive Director of an NGO, that was working to place minority youth in public service careers and I was meeting her to get some advise on placing our alumni in internships or jobs. Her comment struck me as odd and unusual, but given that she worked for a US Congressman and had spent a large part of her life in the nation’s political machine, I gave her the benefit of doubt.
Fast forward a few years, I am reading a book titled “The Italians,” by John Hooper, on Italy. He makes several interesting and insightful comments in the book about the Italian bureaucracy. A recent trip to Italy in late July sparked my interest in the country. A small but influential country that has given the world its share of geniuses, but also dealt with its ghosts of fascism and is now dealing with other issues now – a slowing economy, stagnant population growth and issues around migration.
One particular chapter stood out for me. It was about the Terzo Corpo designato d’Armata, a force of armed men, supposedly numbering in the thousands that was created to fight the Soviets, during WWII. While it existed – on paper- till the 1970s, the truth is that it never really existed. It was part of the military propaganda to keep the enemy at bay. As Hooper adds “This was an army unit, three hundred thousand strong, deployed in the 1950s on the flat Venetian hinterland as a bulwark against invasion by the Soviet Union and its allies. Except it never existed.” Hooper adds that fantasy has been a key resource for Italians and has helped them outwit invaders, foreign occupiers and others.
Afghanistan papers is another example of a recent discovery by reporters at The Washington Post, who revealed thousands of pages of documents that showed that lies, half-truths and propaganda have shaped our perception of the war in Afghanistan, which we have called off, after 20 long years. The American effort in Afghanistan, with over a trillion dollars spent can be summed up in just one phrase: a Himalayan blunder. While the US tried to shape Afghanistan in its image, it has failed to do one thing that it set out to do: build a nation-state out of the many people and provinces that make up the country we call Afghanistan. This notion of Afghanistan in itself may be a fantasy that we need to re-examine, closely.
Why do bureaucracies around the world need to invent half-truths, convenient lies and fantasies of victory, when the truth is the exact opposite? While there is no one answer, the simple explanation may be the need for self-preservation. Every state (and nation-state, in particular) feels the need for protecting itself against the ‘other,’ the invader, foreigner, aggressor or any threat. This need for placing self-preservation as a value above all else does not leave much space for discussing or negotiating the truth. The only truth that is possible is the one that helps sustain, propagate and prolong the nation-state’s existence.
Everything else is denounced as propaganda and lies.