Benjamin Hertwig is a writer and former Canadian soldier whose first book of poetry, Slow War, was a finalist for a Governor-General’s Literary Award.
During my time in the early days of Task Force Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, a rumour circulated about a deadly Chechnyan sniper picking off coalition soldiers on convoys to remote forward operating bases. The story passed from soldier to soldier and the feeling of that rumour – the pricking of skin, the clenching of my stomach – remains with me still.
Similar stories have been picking up speed in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion, but through a different grapevine: Twitter. One user states that a certain Ukrainian sniper “has slaughtered 23 Russian soldiers” and “is our hero.” As I write, this unverified statement has been retweeted 90 times and received almost 1,000 likes. Welcome to the digital quagmire of modern warfare.
Under normal circumstances, the internet is a firehose of information – a river of surplus images, opinions and factoids. And during times of war, it’s more like the burning river Phlegethon in Greek mythology, where the water – and everything in it – is aflame and inflamed. For outside observers of the conflict, how do we separate the truth from the fake or superfluous? How, during times of war, do we responsibly engage with information when there is so much of it?
Over the past week, I experienced digital whiplash as I followed the online attempts at meaning-making in a war that feels both anachronistic and impossibly modern. I am far from alone in being both transfixed and horrified by what is going on in Ukraine. This is the first war I have watched primarily online, by computer and phone, as I no longer own a television. And as I scroll through social media, heartsick and heavy about the loss of life and the displacement of civilians, I am confronted with an uncomfortable reality: The chaos in the digital sphere mirrors the actual chaos of war.
It felt like my experience in Afghanistan, where I absorbed overwhelming stimuli on the battlefield, but knew only a very limited context. In our strange new reality, memes exist alongside the very real horror of civilians dying. In one TikTok video, a Ukrainian woman with a humorous personality joyrides a stolen or abandoned Russian tank. Munitions explode across the Kyiv skyline as Ukrainian influencers dance in bathrobes.
For those of us who watched the Persian Gulf War in the living rooms of our childhoods, the television and radio were primary sources of information. Even the early days of the American invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq were not primarily online. But for the war in Ukraine, the videos and stories and pictures and commentary appear online and are broadly disseminated before fact-checkers can verify them or governments or NGOs can claim or contextualize them.
The internet is a contested space, used by both Ukrainian and Russian forces to wage the war on public opinion, though the Western world seems almost unanimous in its support of Ukraine – as it should be. This digital space is also inhabited by the opportunistic, the predatory, the opinionated, the curious and the grieving. Search the hashtag #Kyiv on Instagram and you will see photos of charred wreckage, wounded civilians, dead combatants, rippling Ukrainian flags, religious icons updated with anti-tank weapons, fresh-faced soldiers posing with rifles, models taking selfies and random photos of food.
A host of competing human voices and bots is searching for narrative supremacy. People are searching for symbols. And as everyone knows, the power of stories and symbols is primal and terrifying – enough to end a war or start or continue one, to raise the morale of besieged Ukrainians or break the spirit of invading Russians.
Take, for example, the story of the “Ghost of Kyiv,” the disputed but already potent myth of a Ukrainian Fighter pilot who, in a far older and vastly inferior jet, supposedly shot down six Russian planes and become the first European flying ace since the Second World War. Early in the invasion, this story was trending on Twitter and was even boosted by the official account of Ukraine: “People call him the Ghost of Kyiv. And rightly so – this UAF ace dominates the skies over our capital and country, and has already become a nightmare for invading Russian aircraft.”
Fact-checkers have since concluded that some of the footage of the flying plane was taken from a video game, Digital Combat Simulator. But the idea is more powerful than reality – what the Vietnam veteran and novelist Tim O’Brien calls the “happeningness” of the situation. As the YouTuber who created some of the digital footage states, “If he is real, may God be with him; if he is fake, I pray for more like ‘him.’ ”
Vulnerable Ukrainians are searching for hope in difficult days. Real and imagined tales of heroism sustain and fuel their struggle. A former television comedian becomes a brave leader of the Ukrainian nation at war: true. A former Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World becomes the defiant Mayor of Kyiv, urging his fellow citizens to fight: true. The Ghost of Kyiv patrols the skies like an avenging angel, taking down the Russian invaders: understandably partisan and probably false, the sort of information we should avoid sharing without proper context. Online misinformation is rampant, though corporations such as Facebook and Twitter are finally moving to censor state-sponsored Russian media outlets, which are arguably among the world’s worst perpetrators of online misinformation.
And as Ukrainian citizens arm themselves with rifles and Molotov cocktails, I am disturbed by the almost gleeful delight exhibited by some in my digital sphere, including the widespread enthusiasm for insurgency tactics that have historically received widespread condemnation as “barbaric” when utilized by insurgencies in non-Western countries. For some, the white skin and blue eyes of the victims in this war make them more innocent than others enmeshed in recent conflicts in the Middle East or Africa. Since 9/11, wars have taken place in locations the West easily forgets when it no longer has the appetite to remember: Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Somalia.
The people of Ukraine certainly need and deserve support, but the world does not need more photos of soldiers and civilians posing with rifles, regardless of who is doing the posing. The people of Ukraine have the right to defend themselves from violent Russian aggression, but we must not accept as normal or desirable the violence of war or the symbols it creates.
The established order of the past 30 years is shaken. Germany just doubled its defence budget. The former prime minister of Japan is calling for debate surrounding the hosting of nuclear weapons in Japan, a position long considered anathema. People around the world are sharing videos of weapons and soldiers and violence. Can we support the people of Ukraine without thirsting for blood and spectacle? Can we gather information without participating in digital nationalism ourselves? We should instead advocate for policies with an eye for the vulnerable and the displaced, regardless of their race and status, and whose borders they cross.
For the Russian soldiers, those who survive will carry the physical and psychological wounds back to a country already suffering as a result of reprehensible decisions from autocratic and imperialist leaders. For both the Ukrainians and Russians, the orphans and spouses and families of the dead are already numerous. They too will also carry these wounds. For the people of Ukraine, whether they are displaced by war, fighting to protect their land or spread out in the diaspora by the Holodomor, we can honour their bravery and resilience while also lamenting the cultures of violence that are glorified in times of war.
Let us not celebrate violence like spectators at a sporting match, even against those who seemingly deserve it.
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