Wars make for gripping video. This past weekend it was dead civilians lying in the street, the open maws of suspected mass graves, and oil refineries set ablaze. There were more of the usual carcasses of blasted Russian tanks and block after block of ruined apartment buildings. For human interest, heart-breaking interviews with the wounded and refugees alternating with the bracing uplift of displaced kids making a go of it in a foreign land.
It has all made the invasion of Ukraine the real first world war, gushes New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. What with mobile phones and social media, everybody everywhere can watch the horrors of Vladimir Putin’s savagery up close in real time, creating a tidal wave of denunciation that he never anticipated and cannot overcome. Well, anything that undoes Putin and his ways is fine by me. But I wonder if the media surge isn’t as much our problem as any solution. Does its fascinating immediacy drive out memory—and obscure responsibility?
There’s plenty to remember. Please note: nothing that follows is meant to—or actually does—excuse Putin and his cronies for what they are doing in Ukraine. May they soon fail, and fail abysmally. But everything they have done the United States has done too. If Vladimir Putin is a war criminal, then George W. Bush is too. In 2003 it was Putin appealing to international law and decrying the United States’ unprovoked invasion of Iraq. (And it was Tom Friedman crowing over its success.)
I see your devastation of Mariupol and raise you the U.S. Marines’ destruction of Fallujah in late 2004, leaving ten percent of its buildings destroyed and over half the rest damaged and thousands of civilians killed and most of the rest of the city’s residents—some 300,000—put to flight.
I see your 4.2 million Ukrainian refugees living abroad and another 6.5 million displaced at home—all told, roughly 25 percent of the nation’s population. I ask us to remember their 9.2 million Iraqi counterparts, 36 percent of the nation’s 2003 population and 22 percent of today’s.
One more look at Afghanistan? 241,000 deaths including 71,000 civilians. Precision strikes by much-vaunted “smart weapons,” minimizing civilian casualties while maximizing combatants’? Under U.S. military policy, any raid calculated to kill no more than thirty civilians in the course of taking out a “high-value” target was authorized in advance; anything more than that required approval higher up. Sometimes the target was really a military operative; the civilian casualties count as a war-crime nonetheless. Often enough the strike was a total mistake—a wedding or funeral procession, an automobile driving in a “suspicious” manner. It is so fitting that the concluding act of the American war in Afghanistan was the mistaken bombing of ten civilians on a side street in Kabul.
Two kinds of urgency
Again, none of this justifies Russian behavior in Ukraine. And it prescribes nothing for American policy there except the caution that so far has been in place and a strong dose of humility going forward. Exactly the qualities that our breathless videos militate against. They scream Danger! URGENT!! DO SOMETHING, NOW!!! Their immediacy also blocks out memory. Fallujah? Shock and awe? So twenty years ago. And that last act in Afghanistan was, like, last August.
Leaving the war-gaming to those in charge, dubious though their record may be, what else might we do? Well, there are all those refugees amassing among Ukraine’s neighbors. The U.S. has pledged to take in 100,000 of them, a modest gesture but a notable improvement above the mere 20,000 Syrians taken in from that nation’s 6.7 million refugees (and that many again displaced internally, amid a total population of 22 million). Remember the hue and cry about the infiltration of Islamic terrorists raised against even that modest figure? We left it to Turkey, with a fraction of America’s population and resources, to absorb half the flood, even though the flood was unleashed in significant degree by the American invasion of Iraq and topped off by the American obliteration of Raqqa in 2017 via 30,000 rounds of artillery. Since there was very brief media coverage of that event, here’s a representative picture of the result. Look familiar?
Closer to home
Is Syria so far away that it’s none of our business? Surely that is not the case with El Salvador where, the weekend before last, 62 people were killed in one day by gangs whose core business is drug-trafficking, the United States being a primary market. Once, American aid tried to spur economic development there and in neighboring Honduras and Guatemala to provide better opportunities and, not least, stem the wave of refugees pushing up against the U.S.-Mexican border. Then The Former Guy translated that wave into a mortal threat, and his vow to build a wall against it helped sweep him into the White House. Among his policies: cuts to the development aid meant to quell the crisis.
Certainly, race and religion have something to do with America’s differential response to refugees, but the picture soon gets complicated. Syrians are brown and Muslim—case closed. Salvadorans are Christian but probably too brown to let that register in American eyes. Ukrainians are not only white but often blond-haired and blue-eyed in the bargain. Yet their religion is of the same brand that Vladimir Putin champions.
I think it’s the pictures, or lack of pictures, that count. If American news networks kept the plight of the poor and vulnerable in Central America before our eyes with one-hundredth of their focus on Ukraine, would we “build a wall”? If “shock and awe,” which accomplished nothing of its mission to obliterate Iraq’s political leadership, had not worked so well on the American television audience, would the destruction of that country have proceeded as long as it did?
Imagination over sight
I’m in a group at church that’s trying to envision our long-term future. Our consultant says that the most important step in the process is for the congregation to expand its Christian imagination. Our pastors are trying to redeem, of all things, the prayer of Jabez (1 Chronicles 4:10) with its plea that our borders be enlarged, that new possibilities of serving God and our neighbors open up before our hearts and minds.
Surely that is good instruction for taking in the daily news too. The images can be crushing; so can the memories. But faith remains the conviction of things unseen.