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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.)

And so:


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.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thanks for this, and thanks for the courage to write it. “Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners. Grant to your servants grace that we may love what you command and desire what your promise, the among the swift and varied changes of the world our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found.” We Americans, like the Russians, because we consider ourselves a “Christian nation,” like the Russians, with a world-political mission beyond ourselves, like the Russians, and regard ourselves a special country with special privileges and the right to war, like the Russians, have duly to be reminded.

  • Susan says:

    Thank you for the reminders of what the Bible teaches. This is a call to action for us. But what to do? Vote!

  • Ann McGlothlin Weller says:

    Our collective memory-span in this country gets shorter and shorter, along with our willingness to take a hard look at our own history, past and present. Thank you for your post today.

  • Fred D Mueller says:

    The seen and unseen. The forgotten. We see the log in the eye of the neighbor, missing the log, just as large, in our own. Our expenditures on “defense” are obscene. I hate the slaughter and misery paid for by my taxes. Thanks for speaking out and for the reminders.

  • David Hoekema says:

    Depressing, disheartening, and prophetically true. Thank you for opening our eyes. And our hearts? They’re much more skilled at selective vision.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    At my community college in the SW burbs of Chicago, just a few short miles from neighboring Ukrainian Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic churches, and within Arab immigrant communities, embracing refugees from Yemen / Syria / Iraq as well as Palestinian diaspora, the shared weight of destruction and terror and uncertainty is palpable among the student body, staff, and faculty. The disparity and irony of US and world-response to Ukraine’s plight is noted among the Arab community, most being Muslim also; and yet the majority will also support the Ukrainian cause in word and deed and prayers and donation.
    Must be Ramadan.

  • Harold S. Gazan says:

    Thank you for drawing some parallels with our own past “wars of liberation” — Iraq in particular (there is also Viet Nam — too distant for the newer generations, I’m afraid). And, this unprovoked war against Ukraine is horrific, and I pray for peace to prevail in what appears to be an impossible situation because of the evil character of Putin.

  • Ron Calsbeek says:

    These truths go beyond inconvenient. Thanks for this much needed dose of reality, Jim.

  • David Stravers says:

    Thanks for writing what so many of us are thinking. I’m still left with the puzzle of how to respond to Putin’s war besides caring for the victims…

  • Thanks to Jim for writing this. Much of Christian faith depends on memory. And widening our attention span is a critical part of deep spirituality. Our media environment works to erode both of these. And faced with the cold, calculated atrocities of Putin, it is all too easy for the U.S. to ignore the log in its own eye. I’d add to Jim’s indicting examples this: We now are hearing much discussion about the International Criminal Court in The Hague as a means to eventually hold perpetrators accountable for war crimes. But no commentator I’ve heard has pointed out the the U.S. is one of only seven nations that opposed and did not join the ICC. (We’re in the dubious company of China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Yemen, and Qatar). Nor did we sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions ten years ago, and didn’t even participate in the process leading to its drafting and adoption. So yes, it’s urgent to bear witness to the truth, standing firm against Putin and Kirill, his religious enabler. But let’s bear witness to all the truth.

    • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

      Thank you for being the one to point out: the the U.S. is one of only seven nations that opposed and did not join the ICC. (We’re in the dubious company of China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Yemen, and Qatar). I’m appalled.
      And how many people have to suffer before we EVENTUALLY hold the perpetrator accountable for war crimes!?!
      I’m left with David Stavers on how to respond.
      Some say Gandhi said: An eye for an eye will leave everyone blind.

  • Jim says:

    I had forgotten that, Wes. Thanks for the reminder.

  • James C Dekker says:

    Sorry I’m late to this string. Thanks, Jim. You mention El Salvador’s recent horror. Then there are the hundreds of brutal “applications” of The Monroe Doctrine and the euphemistically “sphere of influence,” a phrase allegedly first cooked up by A. Hamilton and made official policy under Monroe.
    1) Invasions I remember and have not only read about: Guatemala (barely recall, but while living there in the 80s, it was still a living memory of lots of folks; Cuba (Bay of Pigs guys), Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama.
    2) Economies monopolized all over Central America by United Fruit Company–with the Dulles brothers as lawyers for years.
    3) Bribes to and support for dictators: the Somozas, Trujillo, Castillo Armas, Ubico and more and more.
    And other quasi-legal and brutal business still goes on. Will it ever end?

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