Part 1: The War on TV

Russia, Send Your Sons Home photo by Amaury Laporte, 4/22, courtesy Flickr CC

(Note: This is Part 1 of an ongoing series. Read Part 2: I was only following orders, here.)

Just as the tide began to turn in the battle for Kviv, the first phase of the Russo-Ukrainian war, I watched a few videos taken by Ukrainian soldiers on their cell phones. One clip showed captured Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers lined up along a road or being moved to the road from the nearby woods by the Ukrainians, who were inspecting them and driving them off to undisclosed locations — presumably to repurpose them for attacking the Russians themselves.

The assault vehicles had been part of the huge, ponderous column of purportedly mobile weaponry the Russian army launched from Belarus to capture the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. That terrestrial Armada was stopped in its tracks (literally, its tank tracks) northwest of the city, due both to the ineptness of its organizers and commanders and the attacks of lightly-armed Ukrainian forces that ran a successful hit-and-run campaign with glorified bazookas, picking off the vehicles while they slogged along in single file. One overhead video surfaced of several tanks exploding at once, ambushed from side streets as they lumbered along the main road through a small village.

“Good,” I thought. These tanks would never get into position to shell innocent civilians in the city, and in fact would be used to prevent other tanks and weaponry from doing the same. It suddenly seemed likely that the Russian advance on Kyiv would fail. If it did, there was also a chance that the Russian army could lose the war entirely, being pushed back from all of its positions due to the same dynamics of institutional incompetence and low morale versus Ukrainian adroitness, valor and determination. Assuming some of the early nightmares such as Russia using nuclear, chemical or biological warfare proved to be just that, terrifying imaginings that never materialized, Ukraine, with adequate help from the West, might actually be able to prevail and boot the invaders out of their country.

I was cheering for the Ukrainians, of course, and wanted to see Putin and the Russians get their collective asses kicked. Everything about Russia’s unprovoked, illegal and immoral invasion, including the bullying of a smallish nation of peaceful people striving for a democratic future by a large, militaristic, and corrupt autocratic power pushed my fairness and decency buttons. Everything I had been taught since childhood about fighting injustice, protecting and assisting the weak against the strong and basic right versus wrong was under assault, just as were the Ukrainian people. (I was not alone, of course. Most of the world, and especially the Western alliance responded to Russia’s attack with horror and revulsion, imposing sanctions and sending material and arms support for Ukraine.) Not since Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland on a trumped-up pretext of Polish aggression, it seems, has the world seen such a clear case of the good guys (Ukrainians) versus the bad guys (Russians).

I had some sympathy for the Russian soldiers, largely conscripts, we are told, and the “Russian people,” who were to be distinguished from the “Russian regime.” The misled masses — how can they be blamed for the actions of their rulers? And the soldiers, of course, are just following orders — we are told. Still, I wanted Russia to lose, which meant I wanted to see their tanks destroyed or captured their planes shot down, their army crumpled.

I watched a couple more videos of Ukrainians poking about in the woods and examining abandoned vehicles. Then there was one of a clearing, shot on a bright, sunny afternoon. Strewn on the ground next to an armored personnel carrier, lying almost in a heap, were the bodies of half a dozen Russian soldiers. Their heads, arms and legs pointed in different directions, as if they were frozen in the middle of a macabre dance. Their fatigues appeared clean — none seemed to be drenched in blood, and none of the bodies appeared charred or mutilated. There were no close-ups. But from the distance the video was taken, the soldiers appeared young — probably a group of the Russian recruits often mentioned in the Western media.

What had they been doing a few yards from their vehicle? If they’d been in it during an attack, the vehicle itself likely would have been destroyed, or at least visibly damaged in a firefight. Had they stepped out for a cigarette or lunch break, and been ambushed? Had they surrendered, come out of the vehicle with their hands up, just to be murdered on the spot rather than taken prisoner? (This seemed unlikely — something the Ukrainian “good guys” wouldn’t do.) We’ll never know. It’s quite possible the soldier taking the short video didn’t know — he just recorded the dead as he found them, scattered motionless on the ground.

I’d seen a few images of individual Russian bodies, of course. A soldier lying on his back by the roadside covered with snow. Another on his stomach in a ditch, blackened from burning or dirt. Both straight, stiff. But the random, twisted torsos of the boys in the sunny field seemed almost animated.

Then, for the first time, the real meaning of the images of ambushed Russian tanks bursting into flames and billowing smoke sunk it. It was no longer like seeing a Star Wars movie, where “bad-guy” spacecraft exploded in the distant sky like so many fireworks. It wasn’t even like one of those images we’ve been shown on the nightly news of the inside of a burned-out tank where any human remains are so badly charred that they are unrecognizable, indistinguishable from the rest of the vehicle’s blackened interior.

I’d known since the beginning of the war that each time I saw a news clip of an exploding Russian tank, there were people inside it and that they died in ball of fire — with luck before they knew what hit them. But that was knowledge, not experience. Of course, they were in there there; of course, they died. Buy I didn’t see it. Or imagine it. I was one step removed from it.

All I saw was the burning tank or downed helicopter. And each time I saw that, it was like clicking the button and getting a hit in video game — my “SCORE!” sensations were triggered. I was cheering for the hit, dissociating it from the destroyed lives it represented, just as I dissociate a piece of shrink-wrapped chicken from the living bird it once was. It’s what makes me able to eat chicken. It’s what makes me able to watch war news.

It was easy to see the inside of a burned-out tank, all black and charred; and easy to forget that some of the men within that tank might have lingered between life and death for hours, their backs and buttocks and arms melted to their seats, unable to crawl out or to reach for a pistol to shoot themselves.

I was desensitized to the reality of the war I was watching on TV, and to that extent I was dehumanized. Could my dehumanization be compared to that of the Russian soldiers raping Ukraine? Was the difference between my perceptions and that of a man who shoots a child only a matter of degree? Or was there more than a mere quantitative difference between those men and me? Now that I had “experienced” the bodies of the Russian boys lying in the field — seen them as real dead people, not crisis actors or Hollywood bad guys who had it coming, was I somehow more human than those who shut off such sentiments and commit atrocities? 

(Note: This is Part 1 of an ongoing series. Read Part 2: I was only following orders, here.)

Also of interest: In this time of war, I propose we give up God, by Liana Fink, New York Times

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