In the 21st Century, Going to War Means Not Having to Say You’re Going to War

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Sept. 2 2014 1:24 PM

The Invasions That Dare Not Speak Their Name

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A Pro-Russian fighter stands on a road near Donetsk airport on Sept. 2, 2014.

Photo by Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, I wrote about the rhetorical contortions the Russian government and its rebel allies have employed to discuss the increasingly obvious and blatant presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. While the Ukrainian government is describing Russia’s actions as “undisguised aggression,” the Kremlin still hasn’t publicly acknowledged any Russian military presence across the border. President Vladimir Putin, though, may be a bit more brazen in private. According to a leaked report today, he told the president of the European commission that his forces could easily conquer Kiev if he wanted them to.

While Russia’s behavior vis-à-vis Ukraine is particularly brazen, it’s not the only example of this type of open but unacknowledged military action. Isabel Coles of Reuters reports today on the role Iranian forces seem to have played in fending off the ISIS siege of Amerli, a predominantly Shiite town in Northern Iraq:

By a convoy of armored police vehicles, a man speaking Farsi described himself as coming from Iran and said he was there to help with training police.
A peshmerga commander in Suleiman Beg acknowledged the part played by Iranians in the assault on Islamic State positions. “The Iranians had a role in this. They supplied weapons and helped with the military planning,” he said on condition of anonymity. …
On Saturday, a senior member of the Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, told Reuters the Iraqi military, Kurds and Iranian advisers had joint operation centers
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It’s not clear if these advisers are actually fighting or just providing expertise, but at the very least, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s statement last week that “We have no military presence in Iraq” seems not to be the full truth.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Covert operations in warfare are nothing new, but these appear to be a bit different: military operations conducted in full view of the international media but without the official acknowledgment of the governments ordering them.

It’s not only dictatorships that engage in this kind of thing. The United States’ covert drone program has been “covert” only to the extent that the administration has refused to acknowledge individual drone strikes. Until 2012 the U.S. didn’t discuss the program at all, and the CIA has continued to maintain its total silence regarding drones, a stance that a federal appeals court criticized in 2013, noting that the “president of the United States has himself publicly acknowledged that the United States uses drone strikes against” al-Qaida.

I’m not drawing a moral equivalence between these examples. I’m simply comparing them to note that it seems to be quite easy for governments to pretend they’re not engaging in large-scale military operations that everyone in the world knows about.

It seems intuitive that in a world of high-detail satellite imagery, instantaneous media coverage, and frequent massive national security leaks, it should be harder for governments to carry out military operations—whether you’re talking about counterterrorism operations, military coups, or atrocities against civilians—with no public accountability. Indeed, this assumption is at the core of organizations ranging in ideology and institutional support from WikiLeaks to the Harvard-based, George Clooney-supported Satellite Sentinel Project.

But even in the era of big data and increasing access to information, “neither confirm nor deny” is still a surprisingly effective answer.