John Chomeau

Dr. John Chomeau reflects on the status of deception in military operations and the question of when lying is permissible for a member of the military profession. In this aptly titled article, he reflects on where we draw the line, noting that the traditional view is that lying and deception for service people are strictly prohibited by institutional standards except in the extraordinary circumstances of war. He reviews numerous examples of deception, the various categories of deception, and the purpose of deception operations in war. Dr. Chomeau concludes that "the American people expect the military to favor honesty over deceit, but that in cases of clear self-defense or where U.S. forces are at a disadvantage, then a resort to lying and deception is justifiable." The test is that military and political leaders must be prepared to justify their actions publicly after the fact.


The use of strategic and tactical deception in warfare has become an almost universal practice. With the attention given to the recent 50th anniversary of the allied landing at Normandy and the on-going U.S. policy debate about the wisdom and justifiability of intervention operations such as in Kuwait, Somalia and Haiti, the morality and suitability of military operations increasingly has been discussed in the media and the Congress. Questions relating to the use of deception are usually dismissed by the statement that "All's fair in love and war." Yet if one looks carefully at the historical trend in deception operations and the changing American social values and attitudes toward lying and deception, the case for the use of strategic deception is less firm and there are some apparent limits (to even tactical deception operations.

It is not so much that basic moral principles have changed as that newly voiced concerns among members of our society--our values and attitudes toward justifiable use of military forces and a past reliance upon deception operations to gain an advantage in conflict have changed. These attitudes, more than the laws of warfare and the code of military justice, describe what is acceptable to the American people in terms of lying in order to gain a strategic or tactical advantage. The United States has a reputation as a nation which plays by the rules. We have traditions such as George Washington saying "I can not tell a lie and the saying that "Honesty in the best policy", or the golden rule "Do unto others as they would do unto you." A prevailing view has been that lying and cheating are improper--except in extraordinary circumstances such as war. Michael Handel, in his work Military Deception in Peace and War, notes that cheating, deception and fraud are punishable under our criminal code, but that different norms have come to be accepted in diplomacy and international affairs, espionage, covert action, and the conduct of warfare. Do we have two sets of books? Are there two standards? Mark Twain suggested that when in doubt, tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends. Since the use of military force for other than clear cut national survival and the honesty of our civilian and military leaders is being called into question more and more frequently (witness the Iran-Contra affair), what are the rules of the game in a changing world environment as they relate to strategic and tactical deception?

The history of warfare is replete with examples of deception. Sun Tzu is almost universally cited: All warfare is based on deception." Early examples include the breaking of the siege of Troy with the Trojan horse--although Neoptolemus had argued that it was morally and tactically the better choice to meet the Trojans head on in combat without resort to ruse. Similarly, Alexander the Great argued at the battle of Gaugemele that he would not steal a victory by attacking under the cover of darkness; but the Spartan general Brasidas believed in the use of stratagems by which a general can gain total victory by deceiving his enemy. Deception was quite prevalent in Europe during the Middle Ages. Machiavelli advised the Prince "never to attempt to win by force what can be won by fraud" and one must be a fox to recognize traps and a lion to frighten wolves. Those who wish to be only lions do not recognize this Joshua used deceptive tactics, both in his attack on Jericho and particularly after this battle to lure the defenders out of neighboring Ai so that he could more readily attack that city. Hobbes reflects the prevailing view toward deception in the Leviathan where the major premise of "Do unto others, before they do it to you" is supported by statements such as "In war, force and fraud are the two cardinal virtues."

There were, however, periods in history when gentlemen with relatively high moral values and an aversion to deception engaged in combat. In Europe during the period after Charlemagne, when the field of combat was a field of honor and there was a prescribed etiquette of battle, there was little resort to deception. The knights and their armies met at the appointed time and place, engaged in battle, and retired before sunset. The British and the German traditions have been that gentlemen and sportsmen make war and that they play by the rules--albeit their own rules. Many of these attitudes persisted up through the American revolution. The British "redcoats" who exposed themselves to enemy fire while marching line abreast into battle believed the colonials who fired long rifles from cover were violating the laws of combat. Colonel Garnet J. Walesley in "The Soldier's Pocket Book for Field Service" explained that:

As a nation we are bred to feel it a disgrace ever to succeed by falsehood. The word spy conveys somethings as repulsive as slave; we will keep hammering along with the conviction that "honesty is the best policy" and that truth always wins in the long run.


That said, George Washington and those fighting for independence did not hesitate to use deception operations and espionage throughout the war of independence, as in the attack on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec where a force of 4,000 defeated Howe's force of 27,000. Similarly, British General Clinton was deceived by the use of fictitious movement of provisions, forage and barges to the north for an attack on Staten Island, so that Washington's forces could attack a weakened Cornwallis at Yorktown. Ben Franklin as a diplomat in Paris also proved to be quite adept at deception. (Diplomats by their very nature appear to be two-4faced. The word's Greek derivative is "two eyes".

There have been fairly healthy debates of some of the moral issues surrounding deception throughout U.S. history. Col. "Scrapping Fred" Funston used deceptive tactics during the Philippine insurrection in 1901 by dressing American troops and others as POW's in order to gain access to the enemy's camp and to spread false information about a phantom army. His operation was quite successful, yet he was attacked widely in the U.S. press which believed that it was better to lose by conventional means than to win by subterfuge. "It is not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game." Between WW I and WW II, the use of submarines to attack undefended merchant ships became a serious moral issue. Attacking from a position of stealth and without warning was held to be uncivilized and to violate the laws of warfare. Virtually all the nations of the world signed a series of international conventions stipulating that this was an immoral act yet after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the USA moved rapidly to initiate a war of attrition against the Japanese merchant fleet and the Germans were waging a similar campaign in the Atlantic against U.S. war material headed for Europe. (President Roosevelt even had to deceive the American people about the war preparations he had secretly been making in suport of Churchill prior to Pearl Harbor.)

Another early example of the use of deception was the practice during the 1800's of the warships of France, Britain, Spain and Portugal in the Mediterranean to show false (usually neutral, but sometimes friendly) colors to gain the confidence of an unsuspecting target, and then once they had gotten within range of their cannon to strike the false and "to show their true colors" at the moment they commenced firing. The "Q" ships of WW II used similar deceptive tactics to draw U-boats within range.

Deception operations have been part of most modern military campaigns as well. They have been effective when used as a means to confuse the enemy about your intentions, force disposition, movement, or capabilities and thereby to gain a strategic or tactical advantage. Since they are relatively cheap, they tend to be used more by the weaker force in an attempt to "level the playing field" against a superior force. Deception is a good force multiplier when used to cause the enemy to make an incorrect estimate of your strength or intentions and thereby hold troops needlessly in reserve or even to redeploy them to meet a perceived threat. The allied use of deception against the troops under General Rommel's command during the Normandy invasion were a classical example of strategic deception. Operation Fortitude created the phantom First U.S. Army under George Patton so that the Germans would continue to expect an allied assault at Pas de Calais, and permitted a numerically inferior allied force to fight its way ashore at Normandy. Thanks to Ewen Montague's brilliant stratagem in Operation Mincemeat, a royal marine courier's body which washed up on the coast of Spain deceived the Germans as to the time and place of the allied attack on Sicily.

Studies of the psychology of deception indicate that in lieu of attempting to get an enemy to believe something which is not true, it is more effective to find out what the enemy is predisposed to believe and to reinforce those beliefs while at the same time altering your plans to take advantage of these reinforced false beliefs. The result is that the Ienemy is quite certain of the tactical situation and takes improper, yet decisive action. To be totally sure and totally wrong.

Some interesting quotations relating to this type of self-deception:

P. T. Barnum "There's a sucker born every minute."

Goethe "We are never deceived, we deceive ourselves."


According to Michael Handel, deception can be used to misdirect the enemy's attention, to cause him to squander his resources, or to dull his senses and catch him off guard. An example of the first type was Operation Fortitude. In the second example, the enemy squanders munitions, equipment, personnel, and time and is thus poorly prepared for the engagement. About ten years ago, I participated in a war game at the Naval War College where we used technical deception (including false targets and degradation of surveillance sensors) against the "Blue" forces. The initial reaction of the Blue commander was to scramble aircraft and redeploy warships against the threat perceived when his surveillance systems picked up the false targets which we had deployed. When he later discovered that these forces had been drawn away to a large piece of open ocean, the commander's response was to redeploy Blue forces only when a valid threat had been identified with the "mark one eyeball"--thus depriving these forces of considerable surveillance data which was both valid and quite valuable. At an extremely small cost and virtually no risk, we had cut the effectiveness of Blue's forces by at least forty percent.

Examples of the use of deception to surprise an opponent through the repeated generation of false or ambiguous data include the German invasion of the USSR (Operation Barbarosa) where Stalin was so convinced that Hitler would not invade that he believed any information to the contrary to be part of a plot by Churchill to draw him into the war. Stalin ignored nearly forty excellent sources of information giving the precise time, location, and order of march of the German invasion forces. The result was that Soviet ground forces and aircraft were easy targets for the Wehrmacht and Luftwafte. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor also made effective use of deception, and American leaders likewise were slow to accept good information on the attack because it didn't make it past the filter of their preconceptions. More recent examples of these techniques were the Israeli raid on Entebbe and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia where technical (electronic) deception was used as well. Prior to the Egyptian attack across the Suez Canal into the Sinai in 1973, Anwar Sadat's forces had worn down the Israeli readiness by making frequent feints at a canal crossing operation. Egyptian troops would mobilize and rush toward the canal, only to turn back. This "cry wolf" operation resulted in almost total tactical surprise and the use of high pressure water canon to wash away the Israeli berms defending the east bank of the canal brought technical surprise as well.

Don Daniel, in his book Strategic Military Deception, describes a hierarchy of deception operations ranging from the simple use of cover and camouflage, through the use of lies and artifacts, to active deception techniques. Deception subsumes lying, but is not synonymous with it. Deception is done to gain a competitive advantage over the enemy and is predicated on the enemy taking some type of incorrect action. Deception can either be used to increase the ambiguity of the situation and thereby confuse the enemy or directly to mislead a foe.

Honest states (and for that matter, honest men) are the best deceivers. If one has a reputation for telling the truth, then the better and more credible the lie used in creating the deception. For this reason, the British, who had a moral tradition of the doing the proper thing became quite effective during WW II in their deception operations; whereas the Americans who had been somewhat of an unknown quantity to the Europeans had a more difficult time selling a falsehood.

Likewise, it was found during WW II that intelligence officers do not work out too well as planners and executors of military deception operations. Although the nature of their intelligence work includes cover, half-truths, lies and deception; when they make the transition from espionage to strategic and tactical military planning, they do not appear _Jto be able to shed that readily their psychological ties to clandestinity and covert action. The objective of deception is to do something overtly (or covertly which the enemy will uncover and believe) which is patently wrong, yet thoroughly credible. The British found that academics and others who had not previously been immersed in the world of clandestine activity made excellent deception planners. Probably the best of all were professional magicians who excel at creating illusions.

This is not to say that intelligence does not have a key role to play in deception operations. One must have a means of first knowing what the enemy is predisposed to believe (which way are they leaning) and secondly a means of knowing whether the enemy has taken the bait and is acting in the predicted and desired manner as a result of the deception. Again the Normandy operation provides a good example. Through the efforts of the code breakers at Bletchley Park, the allies were able to read the messages encoded on the German enigma machines. Moreover, the British had rolled up all the German secret agents in the UK, yet kept them in place-- reporting valid, yet slightly doctored information. These double agents were used to feed to the German high command false information on the upcoming invasion which, based upon the secret agents' past reporting history, was highly credible.

Several serious moral paradoxes were raised as part of these efforts. It has been widely reported, for instance, that through the highly classified Ultra material Churchill knew of a planned German air raid on Coventry; but had to permit it to take place, knowing that to take defensive action would have compromised the code-breaking effort. Several writers, including R. V. Jones, who was one of the giants of British technical intelligence during the war, have looked at this question and have found no firm evidence that it was true. Similarly, Peter Wright in his book on British intelligence stated that the British deliberately allowed one of their agents to be arrested and tortured by the Germans so that he would give convincing false information (which the agent believed to be correct and had to be protected at all cost) on the invasion plans at Pas de Calais. R. V. Jones again believes that this was probably not so, but if not, the British went too far. The moral question here is whether one life can be sacrificed in order to save thousands? Francis Gary Powers faced a similar dilemma when his U-2 spy plane was shot down over the USSR. Neither his cover story nor the subsequent denials of the U.S. _Igovernment worked. Khrushchev exhibited both the aircraft and the pilot and the "fact of" airborne espionage was no longer deniable. President Eisenhower stood forward and assumed total responsibility and Powers made the correct moral decision by not taking the suicide pill which had been furnished.

R. V. Jones lists the following objectives of deception operations.

Negative Objectives: Prevent the enemy from deducing at least one of the following:

--where you are

--what weapons and forces you have at your disposal

--what you intend to do

--where you intend to do it

--when you intend to do it

--how you intend to do it

--your knowledge of enemy's capabilities and intentions

--how successful his operations are--leading him perhaps to overextend


Positive objectives: Persuade the enemy to deduce

--you are somewhere else

--your weapons and forces are different from what

they are

--you intend to do something else

--you intend to do it elsewhere

--you intend to do it at a different time

--you intend to do it in a different manner

--your knowledge of the enemy is either greater of less than it actually is

--his operations are either more or less successful

than they actually are


The various means used to carry out deception operations include cover and camouflage, building and deploying decoys, dissemination of false information (through letters, press releases and other means), making false deployments and feints, developing misleading or false tactics and tactical doctrine, and a series of technical (mainly electronic) means such as chaff, jamming, false target generators, false IFF transponders, etc.

As an aside, Russian military doctrine differentiates between "Maskirovka" and "Activnomeropriatiya" where the former is primarily tactical cover and covert movement of forces and the latter is targeted against the enemy leadership--to bring about a change in policy. A good example of the latter was the Soviet effort to foster internal American resistance to the Vietnam war effort. A third Russian term "disinformatsiya" refers to propaganda and other active means used to "disinform" the enemy.

In today's context, it is proper to raise a series of questions relating to the moral use of strategic and tactical deception techniques. How far can a military commander or the national command authority properly go in lying to an enemy? It is no longer "all's fair in love and war" (and it probably never was). To whom is it proper to lie? In some cases, certainly the enemy. But can one also lie to one's allies, either to make the lie to the enemy more credible or because we don't believe our allies can keep a secret? What about the units of your own force which are not involved in the deception.? How much can be held back from them? Can we deliberately deceive them in order again to strengthen the lie. One of the basic tenets of secrecy is that the more people that are in on a secret operation the less likely is it to remain secret. Yet, this has been one of the principal criticisms of Jimmy Carter's hostage rescue attempt into the Iranian desert. Security was so tight, that units which which took part in the operation and needed to know about activities of other units were kept out of the loop.

One of the most burning questions is lying to the American press. They have been quite adept about digging out and publishing details of secret missions. Will they play along and not divulge the details of an upcoming deception operation or must we also deceive the press? Various approaches have been tried. In some operations, we have simply excluded the press--not permitting them into the theatre of operations as during the invasion of Panama. In others, such as Desert Storm, we had hoped they would play along and even reinforce a deception such as the feint of the amphibious forces into Kuwait when we knew that an amphibious landing there would be a disaster. We had to get Sadam Hussein to believe that we were coming in over the beach into Kuwait, so many command briefings and subsequent press play highlighted the upcoming amphibious assault. Finally there is the moral and legal question of lying to the American people and the Congress. In the aftermath of the Iran-Contra affair, one would think that these limits had been well established, but there is certain to be a case in the future when the sensitivity of the operation demands the creation of a cover story to be told to all but the few involved in its execution.

Moreover, given today's spectrum of conflict and our vulnerability to second guessing by those who oppose the operation, who will make the decision on strategic deception? Tactical deception such as the use of electronic jamming, chaff, noise generators as well as maneuvers and feints are well within the responsibility of the on-scene commander. But because of the problems of maintaining secrecy, the higher one goes up the chain of command, the less likely a deception operation can remain secret and thereby deceive the enemy. In addition, because we are a nuclear power and there has been a proliferation of other nuclear powers, it is now critical that we give precise and unambiguous signals of our intentions to both our allies and our enemies. A false signal could lead a nuclear enemy toward a pre-emptive strike, or in today's complex international alignment of power, some smaller power might feel obliged to attack one of our nuclear allies on a pre-emptive basis.

Bok in her books Lying--Moral Choice in Public and Private Life and Secret --On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation, provides some guidance on these questions. First one must clearly define the enemy and his intentions. What scope and level of warfare is likely? How vital are U.S. strategic interests? What are relative force strengths and dispositions? Is it likely to be a localized conflict or will it broaden? What about the anticipated duration of the conflict? What are expected casualties? What about civilian casualties and population displacement? The answers to these questions will help make a determination as to whether a moral case can be made for the use of deception based on the principles of self-defense. If used to divert or weaken enemy forces or to assure their defeat through stratagem, the use of lies and deception can be justified. The general principles of fairness toward the enemy, however, prevail. After all, upon completion of the conflict the equation in all likelihood probably will change. Also the military commander should always keep in mind the principle of doing the minimum amount of harm to the enemy and keeping in check any collateral damage. The danger in all of this is that we may begin to deceive ourselves--viewing the enemy as we did the Japanese and the Germans during WW II. Not only did we abhor that war but we hated the soldiers and the nations fighting against us. Our propaganda designed to strengthen the resolve of the allies and to weaken the enemy produced a situation where there was inhumane treatment of prisoners and mistreatment of civilians on both sides. This phenomenon turns the conflict into a holy war such as the Islamic "Jihad" or the Christian crusade. We may also become so intent on the operation that we fail or refuse to recognize its tactical shortcomings as in the Bay of Pigs and several hostage rescue attempts.

Societal values must not be at variance with those enshrined in a particular military operation. There is a strong tendency to justify heroic and extraordinary military measures on the basis of the pressure of maximizing own results and minimizing losses in a conflict and thereby to deceive ourselves as to goals and objectives. All too often the strategic objective is total defeat of the enemy and his unconditional surrender--leaving no room for a negotiated cease fire and and peace. The initiation of hostilities is rather easy compared to the burdens of making peace. Our basic moral guidelines and societal values suggest that the American people expect the military to favor honesty over deceit, but that in cases of clear self-defense or where U.S. forces are at a disadvantage, then a resort to lying and deception are justifiable. In such cases, the military and our political leaders must be prepared to justify their actions after the fact to the American people. The enemy must also realize that in conditions of war, tactical--and particularly technical--means of deception are to be anticipated. The principles of "caveat emptor" apply.