Examples of deception abound in war accounts. It is accepted military practice but is it justifiable?

A pawn is quickly sacrificed. A bishop is lured from its important role of defending another piece. A knight falls prey to a disguised maneuver.

Deception tactics – methods to distract, deflect and divert – are common in a good game of chess. It is a strategy that hinges on not revealing one’s true intention and using the opponent’s lack of anticipation to move in for the kill.

Such tactics pervade and are used effectively in field sports as well – American football, for instance. Here, the quarterback – the central figure of a team’s offensive drive – uses misleading eye and arm movements to trick the defense into believing that he is going to pass in one direction when he really intends to hand the ball to the running back in order to rip through a gap in the defense.

In many a past war, according to both mythical and historical accounts, some form of subterfuge has played a key role in enabling victory. Homer’s Greeks, for example, displayed supreme cleverness in biding their time inside a large wooden horse until that opportune moment when they could emerge and decimate the unsuspecting Trojans.

Similarly, in World War II, the Allies used an interesting misinformation tactic that helped alter the course of the war. As they prepared for an invasion of Italy in 1943, they were looking for ways to throw the Germans off track. In order to do this, they dropped a man’s body in the sea near Spain, with documents that described a planned invasion of Greece, 500 miles away.

Dubbed Operation Mincement, the improbable trick worked, with the other side being completely blindsided as the Allies came in through Sicily instead. The rest, as they say, is history.

Most battles are governed by some ground rules. Even the legendary Battle of Kurukshetra had a laundry list of dos and don’ts. For instance, killing an unarmed warrior or one whose back is turned was frowned upon.

However, these were rules of direct combat, not ones that governed more covert practices. In one of the war’s deceptive moments, the Pandavas kill an elephant named Aswathama and then convince Dronacharya, the master trainer of the Kauravas, that his eponymous son had fallen. The morally upright Yudhisthira confirms this while muttering, under his breath, that it was the elephant and not the man who had died. The subtle deception finds its mark, sending Dronacha-rya into a despondent slump.

The Art of War, the ancient Chinese war treatise by Sun Tzu, describes deception as lying at the core of wartime strategy. It is filled with clear and coherent advice such as this: “…when able to attack, one must seem unable to do so; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.’

But how much is too much? Ethicists have raised this question from time to time. In an article titled ‘The Moral Status of Military Deception’, Major John Mark Mattox, a career military officer and professor, plumbs the dilemma posed by this accepted wartime practice. Insofar as military deception amounts to lying – to the enemy or the public at large – can it be justified? According to Mattox, there are absolute philosophi-cal positions that hold that lying – even the non-malicious variety – is always harmful.

Various post-war agreements, including the Geneva Convention, do prohibit ‘acts of perfidy in order to kill, injure or capture an adversary.’ But they stop short of banning ‘ruses of war’ such as camouflage, decoys, mock operations, and misinformation – tactics that any thinking adversary will likely expect from the other side. Mattox goes on to conclude that it is this expectation of deception that ultimately legitimizes it.

War readiness means that each of the parties engaged in combat is also mentally prepared for the shadowy tricks and maneuvers of the opposite camp. Also, as Mattox says, war creates a somewhat abnormal situation in which taking human lives, destroying property, and suppressing personal freedom are all sanctioned. In this context, a little deception may not be such a terrible thing.

This is not to say that it should be completely unhindered. Deception, as a military tactic, may be here to stay but it still needs some boundaries to contain and guide it. The best validity test combatants can use for their tactics is to check whether they move them towards the end goal described in Sun Tzu’s manual: “The true object of war is peace”.