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There Will Be Many Ghosts in Kiev

The vast technical improvements in the tools of its dissemination mean that propaganda need not be subtle at all now.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy holds a press conference on Russia's military operation in Ukraine, on February 25, 2022 in Kiev. (Photo by Presidency of Ukraine/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In the 21st century, the fog of war looks crystal clear. Every advance in communication technology—from the telegraph to telephone to radio to television, and now on to the digital world of social media and livestream—has added verisimilitude and detail to what remains an illusion. We have only pictures of wars, landscapes of battlefields and portraits of soldiers; we do not actually see the thing itself. No man does, though the great military geniuses of history got closest. Napoleon and Caesar knew what was being done, what needed being done, what motivated men, and some of what it would mean. War remains, as Heraclitus said in the 5th century B.C., “father of all, and king of all. He renders some gods, others men; he makes some slaves, others free.”

Remember this, then, as you play spectator to the Ukraine conflict. The tools of propaganda in mass society have only grown with the tools of mass communication. You cannot see the war in its entirety—where it comes from and where it will go and what may come of it, and most of all what is happening now, on the ground—but you can be made to think you see, told that you are a part of a great and noble effort, even from the sterile security of your office or the comfort of your home. There are two wars, which are in the end still really one war: that between Russia and Ukraine, and that waged in the information sphere by parties both known and unknown, state and non-state actors alike, around the world. Since history is written by the victors, the thinking goes, if you write away now you might just win. 

Sometimes this second war of appearances itself appears obvious enough for anyone to recognize. Consider recent reports of potential prosecution by the Czech Republic of citizens who post pro-Russian statements—a country not formally involved in the war in Ukraine mobilizing the tools of a total war effort. Or look on in wonder at Canadians filling the streets of Ottawa again, this time with members of parliament and city counselors among them, demonstrating in “solidarity” with people who live in a country on the other side of the world, a week after the demonstrations and solidarity of their fellow citizens were crushed. Or gawk at CBS highlighting transgenderism in Ukraine right now. Propaganda is not always subtle, even if the final aims of the information war they are a part of seem obscure. 

The vast technical improvements in the tools of its dissemination mean that propaganda need not be subtle at all now. One can and probably should debate whether it ever was—the American security state’s Cold War partnership with industrialists and cultural influencers was more tasteful than that of today, but was it really less obvious? But in our moment that is beside the point. What is clear, as Darryl Cooper of the MartyrMade podcast observed recently, is that “Modern propaganda doesn’t even bother trying to convince (if even by deception). It merely says if you think This, you’re good, if you think That, you’re bad, then encourages the Good People to go attack the Bad People.”

That principle, and the intersection of the war in Ukraine with the other war of appearances (which, remember, has its own ends, other than the liberation of a country) presented itself almost immediately in the first couple days of the invasion. “The Ghost of Kyiv,” we were all breathlessly told—and soon telling each other—was a mysterious flying ace knocking Ruskies out of the sky right and left. An ace in the first day of fighting! More than ten “confirmed” kills! Never mind that further details were not forthcoming. Never mind that it sounded too good to be true. Never mind, as Germany’s DW News has helpfully detailed, the viral purported images of this hero are fake, all misdescribed or cooked up. When people online began to question whether there really was a “Ghost of Kyiv,” or whether that name might not be in fact a kind of ironic disclosure of method, the faithful jumped to the story’s defense, arguing that it didn’t matter if the pilot wasn’t literally real, it was important for Ukrainian morale for us to pretend. 

This is juvenile. Not because there is no case in which a legend is good for fighting spirit, but because American observers of the war in Ukraine are deluding themselves into thinking their posting matters to the war on the ground, that their viewing of conflict content has any direct relation to the thing itself. Ukrainian citizens in bomb shelters are not the audience for “Ghost of Kyiv” propaganda—we are. They have other things to worry about, like whether lights will stay on or food will reach the city. But we have a brand new superhero flick to watch in real time, an augmented reality game to play, infotainment feeding us beautiful narratives like so much stale popcorn made delicious by movie magic. There’s that old line, “if you’re not paying for it, you are the product.” Our sentiments are being fed. It feels good, right? 

This is also corrosive. Lies kill far more than ugly truths. Indeed, if the truth appears ugly to us our aesthetic sense requires an adjustment. What we in the West face in the Ukraine conflict is the tension between a moral desire for action and responsible care for those things we have personal responsibility for. The lies of propaganda let us focus on the first, feelings primed and passions ready to be directed, and offer a pleasant distraction from our failures at the second. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a dissident from both the Soviet and liberal empires, prophesied against the danger of lies. Perhaps best known of his statements, but most easily forgotten, he warned of the laziness and pride that looks for simple stories of good and bad in human history and forgets our shared fallenness in the light of eternity:

If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

On this Wednesday of all days—ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ—as we pray for peace in Ukraine, let us remember and reflect on this truth.

about the author

Micah Meadowcroft is managing editor of The American Conservative. He is also a 2021-22 Robert Novak journalism fellow for the Fund for American Studies. Before joining TAC he served as White House Liaison at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and assisted in speechwriting there. He holds an MA in social science from the University of Chicago, where he wrote on political theory. Previously, he worked as associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon. This is his second stint at TAC, as not so long ago he was an editorial assistant for the magazine. His BA is in history from Hillsdale College, where he also minored in journalism. Micah hails from the Pacific Northwest, and like Odysseus hopes to return home someday after long exile in the East.

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