The First Twitter War
The Ukrainian military’s counteroffensive has struggled to live up to Western expectations, but wartime propaganda has gone on uninterrupted.
On Monday at 12:30 a.m., a video was shared on Telegram by the Ukrainian Special Operations Forces. The video contains brutal footage of trench warfare and the battlefield killing of numerous Russian soldiers—ten were “destroyed” according to the SOF. Only 17 minutes later the video made its way to Twitter, posted by the SOF with an English caption.
The original post has over 800,000 views; a version reposted by a journalist for the Kyiv Independent has over one million. One commenter reacted to the violence: “This went well with my morning coffee. I feel happy and energized.” Another viewer communicated his desire for more content, saying, “Cool. More vids like this? I wanna see more close quaters [sic] fighting.” The wish was granted. Another Telegram video, edited to include dubstep music in the background, was shared by the SOF on Monday afternoon, this time depicting a drone strike that “put an end to the senseless existence of the invaders.”
Public messaging in war has always sought to dehumanize the enemy. In World War I U.S. propaganda portrayed Germans as apes. During the Second World War Disney and Warner Bros. created cartoons mocking the Japanese. In eras past wartime propaganda was effective precisely because it was an exaggeration or caricature of the enemy. Indeed, many a war story include a soldier’s realization that he shares much more in common with the enemy than originally thought.
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Likewise, intimate media coverage of fighting in Vietnam—a conflict often considered the “first television war”—had the effect of dramatically reducing domestic support for continued intervention. The bitter reality of wars previous could not be fully comprehended by those at home through print newspapers. When Pope St. John Paul II issued his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae and lamented a “culture of death” that ignores the killing of the most vulnerable, he was at least able to find hope in a “new sensitivity ever more opposed to war as an instrument for the resolution of conflicts between peoples, and increasingly oriented to finding effective but ‘non-violent’ means to counter the armed aggressor.”
Yet only a generation later, full exposure to the reality of bloodshed between Ukrainians and Russians has hardly moved the American people toward a will for peace. While declining, 47 percent of Americans still say that Ukraine is either getting the right amount of aid or should be given more, while only 28 percent believe the U.S. is giving too much.
Maybe the insensitivity to war can be attributed to the fact that—at least for now—those dying are not American sons and daughters. Yet it surely has as much to do with spiritual decay and the continual growth of a culture of death.