The quality of truth isstained in American life

'If the truth has no rooted power, then we are entering the realm of madness'

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For a nation so compelled by heroic mythology, America occasionally has a curious need to embrace the shame in its history. This is no bad thing. Looking back in anguish can act as a self-checking mechanism on the world's most powerful nation. It could save the United States from the hubris that led to shame in Vietnam, or the arrogant idealism that turned its efforts in Somalia into a bloody débâcle.

For a nation so compelled by heroic mythology, America occasionally has a curious need to embrace the shame in its history. This is no bad thing. Looking back in anguish can act as a self-checking mechanism on the world's most powerful nation. It could save the United States from the hubris that led to shame in Vietnam, or the arrogant idealism that turned its efforts in Somalia into a bloody débâcle.

The latest exercise in national shame revolves around the long-forgotten brutalities of the Korean war. According to an exclusive report by the Associated Press (AP), American troops, including members of the famed Seventh Cavalry (of General Custer fame), massacred hundreds of civilians at the South Korean hamlet of No Gun Ri in July 1950. As described by the news agency, the atrocity foreshadowed the notorious attack by US troops on Vietnamese villagers at Mai Lai, in March 1968.

US forces are said to have fired on the villagers as they hid in a culvert by a railroad track. The story has only come to light as a result of a lengthy investigation by the AP, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its efforts. There is one big problem though. One of the principal sources for the story turns out to be a grade-A liar who could not possibly have been at the scene of the massacre, and who may have coached other veterans into saying they took part in the atrocity. The US army investigation has concluded there were killings of civilians, but not on the scale described by AP. Crucially, there is not enough evidence to back up claims that the killings were the result of an order from a senior officer. This week The New York Times devoted a front-page story and a full inside page to its own investigation into the lies and times of Edward Daily.

It is an extraordinary tale of deception, an ingenious exercise in fabrication. Daily fooled so many for so long, you begin to suspect he really believed he was telling the truth. According to Daily's version of his life, he entered the army at the age of 17 and was assigned to the cavalry. He became an expert marksman, and was thrown into combat in the opening days of the Korean war. His military record showed that, although wounded himself, he had saved a colleague under fire. For this he was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry, and later a Distinguished Service Cross. He was also promoted to the rank of lieutenant. Later in the war, Daily was taken prisoner by the North Koreans.

Not a word of it is true, apart from the fact that he was in the army in Korea. But Daily spent the war working as a clerk and a mechanic, only spending a few weeks with the Seventh Cavalry, and this a full eight months after the massacre at No Gun Ri was said to have taken place. He was helped in his deception by the fact that army records for the period were destroyed in a major fire in the early Seventies. Veterans were asked to help create new records. And Daily did that with an exceptional flair. A psychiatrist who was asked about the case believed that Daily confessed to the atrocity at No Gun Ri to gain attention and public pity: in the victim culture of the late Nineties, he knew how to milk compassion.

The saga has summoned up memories of the CNN "exclusive" over the use of nerve gas in Vietnam. An internal investigation uncovered deep flaws in the sourcing of the story, and producers were sacked. Again the incident involved an incident of allegedly shameful American behaviour, covered up for years by official authority.

Edward Daily duped the Associated Press and several other big media organisations as well. When confronted with evidence of his creativity, he said: "I feel like I'm in a dream world." That is one way of describing it. Others might be more inclined to regard what happened in this case as entirely in tune with the times. Not at all dreamlike, but vividly underlining contemporary attitudes to truth. The case of Edward Daily is all about the quality of truth.

This is an age of conspiracy theory run riot. Nowhere is this more true than in America. The internet is clogged with oceans of nonsense; a 21st-century version of medieval witch gossip in which standards of proof become less and less exacting, where anything can be true if we will it so. The Net is still the smaller part of the problem. The popular culture in America is more than ever defined by the mythologies of Hollywood. Except that in place of the fantasies of old there is the new art of "faction", where directors such as Oliver Stone purport to tell us a true story, but instead present their truth.

Real events are taken and warped to fit the director's vision. This is more than dramatic licence, it is a rewriting of history in favour of the partisan. It pleases the intellectually lazy, and appeals to the dormant indignation that lurks in all our hearts: give us a clear-cut evil to shout and howl at so that we can leave the cinema feeling impassioned and satisfied. The most infamous example of this is Stone's appalling JFK, a film that has probably done more to shape contemporary American attitudes to the death of John F Kennedy than any number of earnest documentaries or newspaper articles. I watched Stone on television some time ago talking about his story being a version of the truth, or words to that effect.

The latest film to warp the truth is an American epic about the breaking of the Enigma code. Those who believe the British broke the code are in for a shock. It was in fact the Yanks... according to Hollywood. The director is a card-carrying member of the Oliver Stone school of truth-telling: inconvenient historical facts get brushed away. Well, not just facts: the entire historical basis gets changed. And the film is packing them in at cinemas across the US. One more lie is perpetrated and cannot be called back. Of course, the rewriting of history by the movies isn't new. Look no further than most of the films about the American West, particularly the treatment of the Indian tribes, and you can see Mr Stone's ancestors in action.

I am not naive enough to suggest a notion of absolute truth. There are lots of "versions" of the truth. Very few of them are free of the personal bias of the teller. That is true of television, radio and newspapers. At best, what we can do is sift through the available facts, stand back and describe what we know to be true. And the stuff we doubt, or cannot prove, we leave out. But in a climate where the sensational and the conspiratorial hold such sway, it will get more difficult for these older values to hold their ground. In 20 years, the likes of Edward Daily may indeed get away with a defence that he was simply telling his truth. And by the time he gets round to having to mount a defence, he will have sold the rights to his story to some latter-day Oliver Stone, who won't be troubled by trifling facts.

I began by referring to the comforting American habit of wallowing in past shame. I suggested it was a healthy habit, a means of avoiding future pitfalls. But if the memory of the past is increasingly constructed out of half-truths and imaginings, if the truth has no rooted power, then we enter the realm of madness.

The likes of Stone proclaim themselves as custodians of liberal values; that is not the case. They are egotists who project their own fantasies on to a gormless public. It makes for great movies but lousy history.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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