Some commentators claim that America’s new civil war in the Ukraine has already generated the best war footage ever. So far as I can tell, this is a mad overstatement.
Of course, the war isn’t over yet. We can’t be too quick to yawn. But as a reviewer, where I have to be right now is: y’all started a civil war in a nuclear power—for this?
Well! I’m sure hardly anyone else shares this perspective. Let’s unpack it.
True: cameras are always improving. But unless you are either a resolution queen or into heavy gore, the Moscow-Kiev conflict has nothing on our late, lamented Syrian civil war. Every T-72 in Syria seemed to be tricked out with a GoPro, and every jihadi with a Javelin missile (lovingly wired by union electricians in San Diego) had a cousin filming the shot with an iPhone. Allahu Akbar!
Even the editing was ambitious—once (back when any Kremlin-backed den of misinformation could just post this kind of hardcore war porn on YouTube, like if America was still a free country or something), I saw this epic ANNA News POV clip of armored war in a dead city. Your tank would back up, swivel the gun, roll over a pile of bricks, and blast some faraway structure—then a haji takes you out with an RPG from behind—and ANNA cuts to the jihadi POV. Incredibly based journalism! And it was magic hour in the Holy Land… For all the tax dollars that go into producing these wars, this is the content Americans deserve—and what are we getting? Some blurry vertical videos from a 5-year-old Korean phone of a faraway MLRS strike? Yet another still of a couple of burned-out BMPs in the snow? I mean: how does Putin expect to win a media war, when his tanks aren’t taking video? What? What? Sometimes I think I’m the only sane person left on earth…
But, dear reader—I suspect you find this perspective a little cold. Psychopathic, even?
No—this is not how I actually think about this war. But what I want to do is show you how—at least if you are a normal American consumer of broadcast and social media—your perspective on the conflict in the Ukraine is even colder and more psychopathic. If you adopted this attitude of the unabashed, deranged, bloodthirsty war-porn coomer, you would totally be upgrading your karma.
So, Ukraine is a country in Europe. It exists next to another country called Russia. Russia is a bigger country. Russia is a powerful country. Russia decided to invade a smaller country called Ukraine. So, basically, that’s wrong, and it goes against everything that we stand for.
If you are a normal American, red or blue, Republican or Democrat, you more or less agree with Vice President Harris’s ELI5 explanation of what “we stand for.” So you are not entitled to mock it.
Indeed I find it a lovely summary of the conventional perspective at an elementary-school level. It reminds me of the glorious simplicity of classic WWI war propaganda. Kids, I give you democracy in action—here is how the long suicide of Europe began:
Do you really think the same exact thing isn’t happening right now? Or couldn’t?
In fact, it may well be possible that the only thing between you, me and nuclear war is… the notorious “Deep State,” which still holds some ancient 20th-century “realist” silverbacks who on Tuesdays know a hawk from a handsaw. If US foreign policy was set by Twitter poll, as one day it surely will be, the ICBMs would probably already be flying. Wilsonian liberalism is a weapon of media war far older than anyone alive, but it was then guided by canny, pragmatic statesmen—not demented Internet egregores.
So, I’m sorry to say this, kids, but it might not be too early to stock up on canned food. Of course, I said the same thing about covid. But of course, I was right. (Kind of.
In any case, dear reader, you and I have two ways to go here. Either you are interested in finding another way to think about this and other wars at a level deeper and more subtle than “DESTROY THIS MAD BRUTE,” or you aren’t. If you aren’t—well, I’m sorry someone sent you this link. Just text him back and say you weren’t super into it.
Another way to think about a distant war
Let’s start by assuming that Putin, this mad brute—whom some are already calling “Putler”—is entirely responsible for all the bloodshed and violence of this war. This is surely the position of our Vice-President and her many Twitter fans. Putler is guilty! We must hang this Putler, and the evil imperial henchmen of his evil Putler empire.
Now, let’s suppose someone replaces Putin with a robot. This machine looks exactly like Putin and behaves exactly like Putin, and has exactly Putin’s job. However, being a machine and not a person, it cannot be guilty of anything. Possibly the person who installed it is bad—but we have no idea who that is. In any case, this Putinbot, this evil AI, is the absolute ruler of Russia and makes all its political decisions.
Under this identical but oddly different scenario, what is the morally proper way for the American people, in our collective democratic capacity as the State Department of our democratically elected, or at least democratically validated, government “USG,” to conduct our foreign policy toward Russia?
See, we are not allowed to ask what the Putinbot should do; it cannot be swayed; it is a robot, a machine, a force of nature. Its acts are acts of God, against which we can only guard ourselves as best we can. As Genghis Khan used to say when he besieged a city: “If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me.” The aggressor is a non-player character; you cannot play him, you cannot blame him. Playing only one player is a basic principle of the statesmanship game.
The purpose of this thought-experiment is to force your mind into the actual position of a statesman, not a six-year-old playing kickball. You are not a statesman, of course. Maybe you vote. Maybe you are some asshole on Twitter. Maybe you’re at the NSC. In your job or your life, wherever it sits in our oligarchic democracy, there is no call for the skills of a statesman. This is a problem. It is not a problem you or I can solve. Yet rowing is also fun and good exercise, though Athens today has not one trireme left.
This experiment in statesmanship does not define the goal of your plan. Traditionally the statesman was only concerned with the interests of his country and its citizens—a bit hardcore for our weepy 21st century, if actually ideal from a systemic perspective. But we’ll handle this old angle briefly before returning to classic American altruism.
The realist goal
A foreign policy conducted solely in the interest of Americans would not involve intervening in a civil war against a nuclear power on the banks of the Dnieper, for the reason that there is absolutely no resource of interest to Americans, on the banks of the Dnieper, which could outweigh the risk of a global thermonuclear war.