Ukraine News

The Art of Choosing the Victim to Justify Your War

The Ukraine conflict can be understood from a variety of angles but one thing is clear it has produced victims and continues to produce more, not only in Ukraine itself.
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Loving mother holding her child in the bomb shelter © Marko Subotin / shutterstock.com

March 29, 2023 09:26 EDT
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Last week Fair Observer published an article in which John Feffer once again speculated about the state of the war in Ukraine. For the past year the public has been subjected on a regular basis to such speculation. President Joe Biden famously promised that the war will last “as long as it takes.” That means that in the coming months and perhaps years, the stock of speculation will continue to grow for months, if not years.

In previous columns, Feffer made it clear where his hopes lie. In his latest account, there is enough bad news concerning Russia’s fate in the war to keep the author happy. But this time there is not enough good news about Ukraine to justify the claim he made in these columns last November, when he claimed that “Ukraine has a considerable edge over Russia.”

Like many defenders of Ukraine’s sovereign right to install NATO not just on Russia’s border but even more critically as the dominant military force in the Black Sea, Feffer’s optimism is slightly attenuated by recent events that fail to validate the hope of an imminent expulsion of Russian troops from Ukraine. His belief in the cause nevertheless remains intact, which he expresses in the final sentence of last week’s article: “Perhaps this second year will see the biggest surprise of all: an end to the war that is just, with the aggressor punished and the victim vindicated. That kind of peace is certainly worth fighting for.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Victim:

In any conflict or quarrel, with whom the person the speaker or writer identifies or sympathizes

Contextual note

There can be no doubting the simple fact that Russia has played the role of the bellicose aggressor in the ongoing war. That simple fact means that Ukraine is the victim. The evidence of victimhood, the unspeakable horrors of war, abound. But any reasoning being with no preordained ideological commitment would ask the question that Feffer avoids: is Ukraine the only victim?

Echoing the US government, Feffer talks about what is “worth fighting for,” though no Americans –

 apart from a gaggle of misguided volunteers who “lie, waste and bicker” according to the New York Times – is actually fighting or risking their lives. Instead US policy incites a foreign population to do the fighting.

For many decades, Americans have cultivated the art of standing as judges of what people thousands of miles away should be fighting and dying for. Once “worth” is attributed to a particular cause, the unique victim to be defended and avenged can be identified. Then everything focuses on how to punish the perpetrator. Sanctions, invasion and wars of attrition constitute some of the standard punishments. Once the victim is identified, there is little time for due process and historical debate. Negotiating itself is a game for sissies. It will immediately be slandered as appeasement.

The culture of victimization; though a relatively recent feature of US culture, has become central to the way Americans think about any conflict, whether it’s gender rivalry or the mission of eliminating autocratic regimes. Once victimhood is attributed, rescuing the victims becomes a noble cause. Vital to that logic is the refusal to consider that victimhood might sometimes be shared. 

In the case of the Ukraine war, only committed ideologues could refuse to consider the obvious fact that eminent analysts such as John Mearsheimer and George Friedman have been highlighting for the past eight years: that Russia considers itself a victim of NATO expansion promoted by the US. The claim may be exaggerated or even specious, but it would be dishonest to deny that the feeling not only exists but is shared widely across Russian culture. In such cases, psychologists recommend that those feelings be explored rather than simply ignored or dismissed. The means of exploration is called negotiation or the art of diplomacy. Alas, the insistence on applying  the “rule of law” subordinates problem-solving to the pitiless application of ironclad principles. And of course it’s the hegemon that retains the prerogative of defining what the principles are. Negotiation becomes an unnecessary, time-consuming luxury.

Historical note

After two full years as “the leader of the free world,” the Biden administration’s foreign policy has manifested itself in a pair of major events. The first was the awkward withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. The second is its commitment to a faraway war in Ukraine. Many observers see these events as evidence of Washington’s dependence on, if not addiction to war. Defense once meant protecting one’s territory. But defense of an empire cannot be merely defensive. Hiroshima and Nagasaki established a precedent: that defense of superpowers relies first of all on the demonstration of a massive capacity for destruction deployable on foreign soil.

Hiroshima implanted another idea: that acts of war could be initiated without risking the lives of one’s own combatants. This contradicted previous notions of warfare, but it was not totally new. In medieval and early modern Europe, warring kings preferred to rely on Swiss mercenaries rather than recruit their own subjects. The rise of the nation-state in the 17th century definitively changed that trend. Warfare became linked to the notion of national identity and  patriotic duty.

Over the past 50 years, the paradigm has shifted again. Before the war in Vietnam, citizens viewed war as the compelling cause of the nation intent upon defending itself and its values. During the Second World War, valiant young men responded to the slogan: “Uncle Sam needs you” by enlisting in the army. But it wasn’t only men who worked for the cause.  The image of Rosy the Riveter emerged as a champion of the war effort. American GIs and Joseph Stalin’s brave workers-turned-soldiers, accompanied by the women who worked in the factories all willingly sacrificed not only capitalist comfort and communist pride, but even their lives. 

The war in Vietnam changed everything. The nation’s youth refused to identify with a war that seemed both remote and artificial in its historical logic. Only a few years earlier President Eisenhower’s had uttered his dire warning that the government itself was being taken over by an uncontrollable military-industrial complex. The idea of alienation promoted by French philosophers, the existentialists, took hold among the younger generations. The era of Dr Strangelove (1964) had dawned. War was no longer a noble cause, but a form of irresponsible madness.

When the war in Vietnam eventually wound down, President Nixon found a neat solution to the problem of alienation. He abolished the draft. The US would no longer sacrifice its unwilling citizens to defend its chosen causes overseas. It created: a volunteer army designed to get the job done for pay rather than glory.

With George W Bush’s “war on terror” twenty years ago, the trend evolved again. To avoid the costly loss of lives that tarnished the cause in Vietnam, the military returned to employing mercenary armies for the most dangerous work (Blackwater) and increasingly relied on remote-controlled drones. These two innovations meant that killing could continue while more and more of “our boys” (every mother’s kids) were kept out of harm’s way.

The Ukraine war has taken the logic one step further. This is a war Americans support and even manage from the safety of their own homes. Ukrainians are not only dying in place of Americans, they are also providing the media with that valuable commodity known as martyrdom. They are the precious victims that the US is called upon to rescue and avenge.

Hollywood could have written and produced a carefully plotted scenario. For decades, starting with the fall of the Berlin wall, the US pursued an aggressive foreign policy directed against Russia and focused on controlling Europe via NATO. Increasingly it aimed at provoking an extreme reaction to finally break Russia’s resistance. That dramatic moment erupted spectacularly in February 2022 with the invasion of Ukraine. 

The American public now has the luxury of witnessing in the comfort of its living room the ongoing martyrdom of a brave population defending its sovereignty. The US assumes the less perilous task of supplying enough cash and armaments to prolong the spectacle as Russia faces slow extinction. Americans can breathe easy. Not only are “our boys” safe; our defense industry prospers.

Some see this as a symptom of growing cynicism about human life itself. War itself has been transformed into essentially a business built on three pillars: entertainment (in this case a tragedy whose victims can be pitied), industrial prosperity (things have never been better for weapons manufacturers), and the assertion of global reach (war is also a marketplace). The Ukrainian victims can be counted on to play their noble role. And Vladimir Putin stands alone as the solitary evil villain. Most significantly, the show must go on, as we have been reminded, “as long as it lasts.” It is indeed a business. But it’s also a show that back in 1935 the decorated and popular Major General Smedley Butler dared to call “a racket.”

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.

Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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