Enjoying your Russian civil war
"How does Putin expect to win a media war, when his tanks aren’t taking video?"
Some commentators claim that America’s new civil war in the Ukraine has already generated the best war footage ever. So far as I can tell, this is a mad overstatement.
Of course, the war isn’t over yet. We can’t be too quick to yawn. But as a reviewer, where I have to be right now is: y’all started a civil war in a nuclear power—for this?
Well! I’m sure hardly anyone else shares this perspective. Let’s unpack it.
True: cameras are always improving. But unless you are either a resolution queen or into heavy gore, the Moscow-Kiev conflict has nothing on our late, lamented Syrian civil war. Every T-72 in Syria seemed to be tricked out with a GoPro, and every jihadi with a Javelin missile (lovingly wired by union electricians in San Diego) had a cousin filming the shot with an iPhone. Allahu akbar! Even the editing was ambitious—once (back when any Kremlin-backed den of misinformation could just post this kind of hardcore war porn on YouTube, like if America was still a free country or something), I saw this epic ANNA News POV clip of armored war in a dead city. Your tank would back up, swivel the gun, roll over a pile of bricks, and blast some faraway structure—then a haji takes you out with an RPG from behind—and ANNA cuts to the jihadi POV. Incredibly based journalism! And it was magic hour in the Holy Land… For all the tax dollars that go into producing these wars, this is the content Americans deserve—and what are we getting? Some blurry vertical videos from a 5-year-old Korean phone of a faraway MLRS strike? Yet another still of a couple of burned-out BMPs in the snow? I mean: how does Putin expect to win a media war, when his tanks aren’t taking video? What? What? Sometimes I think I’m the only sane person left on earth…
But, dear reader—I suspect you find this perspective a little cold. Psychopathic, even?
No—this is not how I actually think about this war. But what I want to do is show you how—at least if you are a normal American consumer of broadcast and social media—your perspective on the conflict in the Ukraine is even colder and more psychopathic. If you adopted this attitude of the unabashed, deranged, bloodthirsty war-porn coomer, you would totally be upgrading your karma.
Destroy this mad brute
Here is one simple way to think about a distant war:
So, Ukraine is a country in Europe. It exists next to another country called Russia. Russia is a bigger country. Russia is a powerful country. Russia decided to invade a smaller country called Ukraine. So, basically, that’s wrong, and it goes against everything that we stand for.
If you are a normal American, red or blue, Republican or Democrat, you more or less agree with Vice President Harris’s ELI5 explanation of what “we stand for.” So you are not entitled to mock it.
Indeed I find it a lovely summary of the conventional perspective at an elementary-school level. It reminds me of the glorious simplicity of classic WWI war propaganda. Kids, I give you democracy in action—here is how the long suicide of Europe began:
Do you really think the same exact thing isn’t happening right now? Or couldn’t?
In fact, it may well be possible that the only thing between you, me and nuclear war is… the notorious “Deep State,” which still holds some ancient 20th-century “realist” silverbacks who on Tuesdays know a hawk from a handsaw. If US foreign policy was set by Twitter poll, as one day it surely will be, the ICBMs would probably already be flying. Wilsonian liberalism is a weapon of media war far older than anyone alive, but it was then guided by canny, pragmatic statesmen—not demented Internet egregores.
So, I’m sorry to say this, kids, but it might not be too early to stock up on canned food. Of course, I said the same thing about covid. But of course, I was right. (Kind of.)
In any case, dear reader, you and I have two ways to go here. Either you are interested in finding another way to think about this and other wars at a level deeper and more subtle than “DESTROY THIS MAD BRUTE,” or you aren’t. If you aren’t—well, I’m sorry someone sent you this link. Just text him back and say you weren’t super into it.
Another way to think about a distant war
Let’s start by assuming that Putin, this mad brute—whom some are already calling “Putler”—is entirely responsible for all the bloodshed and violence of this war. This is surely the position of our Vice-President and her many Twitter fans. Putler is guilty! We must hang this Putler, and the evil imperial henchmen of his evil Putler empire.
Now, let’s suppose someone replaces Putin with a robot. This machine looks exactly like Putin and behaves exactly like Putin, and has exactly Putin’s job. However, being a machine and not a person, it cannot be guilty of anything. Possibly the person who installed it is bad—but we have no idea who that is. In any case, this Putinbot, this evil AI, is the absolute ruler of Russia and makes all its political decisions.
Under this identical but oddly different scenario, what is the morally proper way for the American people, in our collective democratic capacity as the State Department of our democratically elected, or at least democratically validated, government “USG,” to conduct our foreign policy toward Russia?
See, we are not allowed to ask what the Putinbot should do; it cannot be swayed; it is a robot, a machine, a force of nature. Its acts are acts of God, against which we can only guard ourselves as best we can. As Genghis Khan used to say when he besieged a city: “If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me.” The aggressor is a non-player character; you cannot play him, you cannot blame him. Playing only one player is a basic principle of the statesmanship game.
The purpose of this thought-experiment is to force your mind into the actual position of a statesman, not a six-year-old playing kickball. You are not a statesman, of course. Maybe you vote. Maybe you are some asshole on Twitter. Maybe you’re at the NSC. In your job or your life, wherever it sits in our oligarchic democracy, there is no call for the skills of a statesman. This is a problem. It is not a problem you or I can solve. Yet rowing is also fun and good exercise, though Athens today has not one trireme left.
This experiment in statesmanship does not define the goal of your plan. Traditionally the statesman was only concerned with the interests of his country and its citizens—a bit hardcore for our weepy 21st century, if actually ideal from a systemic perspective. But we’ll handle this old angle briefly before returning to classic American altruism.
The realist goal
A foreign policy conducted solely in the interest of Americans would not involve intervening in a civil war against a nuclear power on the banks of the Dnieper, for the reason that there is absolutely no resource of interest to Americans, on the banks of the Dnieper, which could outweigh the risk of a global thermonuclear war.
For instance, suppose we needed amber to power our fusion reactors, and amber was only found on the Dnieper. Then, NATO control of Ukraine’s rich amber mines would be of course imperative. But this is not the case. Can we find another realist motive?
One reasonable-sounding suggestion is that once the Monster of Moscow takes Kiev, this conquest will only whet his foul appetite. He must eventually want Kuwait, like Saddam; and still later, Kansas. Better to fight on the Dnieper than the Mississippi! The free world is not safe from these vile monsters until, everywhere on the planet, freedom’s peaceful, defensive armies have slain autocracy’s violent, aggressive armies. After all, Hitler. Ergo, we must support the Ukrainian regime, not at all because we care about the Ukrainians, but to use them as cannon-meat in our own self-defense. Now this is the realism we need!
I have heard this line from many of the smartest people in the world. It reminds me that, deep in our hearts, we are all six-year-olds. Imagine the gall of some Saddam, fighting off Patrick Swayze and his friends in Lincoln, Nebraska, while explaining that his Revolutionary Guards are in the Midwest to keep the peace and defend Basra. You would think there was nothing Saddam could say to defend the proposition that his only way to defend himself is to conquer America. And yet, it seems, there is.
This dazzling stroke of imagination is not even new. Paul Johnson remembers:
On 10 January 1946 the Tory MP and diarist ‘Chips’ Channon attended a society wedding in London and remarked to another guest, Lady Cunard, “how quickly normal life had been resumed. After all,” I said, pointing to the crowded room, “this is what we have been fighting for. “What,” said Lady Cunard, “are they all Poles?”
They weren’t—nor were they Jews. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
The altruist goal
But of course, America has already conquered the world. We are all Americans now. A different-colored passport is a technicality, a legacy, of no moral relevance at all. Thus, the USG, though funded only by passport-Americans and constituted to protect only them, has become the de facto government of the globe and is duty-bound to police it.
As John Quincy Adams wrote 200 years ago:
And now, friends and countrymen, if the wise and learned philosophers of the elder world, the first observers of nutation and aberration, the discoverers of maddening ether and invisible planets, the inventors of Congreve rockets and Shrapnel shells, should find their hearts disposed to enquire, what has America done for the benefit of mankind?
Let our answer be this: America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government.
She has uniformly spoken among the nations, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights. She has, in the lapse of nearly two centuries, without a single exception, disdained the independence of other nations, while asserting and maintaining her own.
She has plunged into interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for no principle to which she clings. She has seen that probably for centuries to come, all the contests of the European world will be contests of inveterate power, and emerging right. She goes abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.
She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, even the banners of foreign independence, she has involved herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy have insensibly changed from liberty to force.... She has become the dictatress of the world.
I have modified and cut this text, of course, to make it say the opposite of the original. History can always be improved. My spell-checker complains that “dictatress” is maybe not a word, but I will trust President Adams on this one. (And I do feel that history has more to hear from Vice-President Harris.)
However, given that our world conquest actually kind of, like, happened, it is the reality we live in. Therefore, our moral minds must inhabit it without compunction—and it is indeed the USG’s responsibility to protect Ukrainians. Or whatever they are calling themselves this week.
An inverted-altruist policy
Given that our existing six-year-old playground statesmanship has the same goal, we cannot look directly at it. The best way to design our optimal, altruistic USG policy on the Ukraine is to design its opposite: a pessimal, psychopathic policy, crafted to inflict as much suffering as possible for no conceivable rational reason.
Yes, this will involve plenty of war porn. But we are not just voyeurs. We are not even nihilists. Our hearts are full of hate. We (secretly) despise the Ukraine and its people. Perhaps our motivations are dark, tribal, unknowable—perhaps we are… Poles. Our goal is to get revenge for the Ukrainian massacres and ethnic cleansing of Volhynia—happening, as it did, in the lives of those now living. Blood will pay for blood! Blood for blood! Blood for blood! That’s the spirit, kids.
Unfortunately, Genghis Khan is not available. Or at least his people never rang back. But Putler is ready and willing. With his aid and God’s, we will visit the Ukrainian people with the only suitable punishment for the bloody crimes of their forefathers—we will harrow them, long and lovingly, with the hard hand of war. Justice will be done! Blood, paid back in blood! Blood for blood!
The most satanic and delicious part of our vengeance, though, is that we will make the Ukrainians do it to themselves. How? Easy—our operators will drug their water supply with a new, oxytocin-releasing nerve agent, Militol. Better living through chemistry!
Militol, designed in our BSL-5 psylab as a spinoff from gain-of-function research on racism, has the same effect on the natural human fear of war that toxoplasmosis has on the natural murine fear of cats. The infected rodent will walk straight up to a cat and basically give it a kiss. The infected human:
There’s the man who stood in front of a Russian tank, pushing against it to stop it from advancing. And the man who picked up an unexploded mine from the road with his bare hands and carried it deep into a forest, with a cigarette in his mouth.
There’s the woman who walked up to a Russian soldier and told him to put sunflower seeds in his pockets. That way when he dies on Ukrainian land, she explained, flowers will grow.
Some stories, like that of 8-year-old Alisa Zhuk from Kyiv, are especially touching. The little girl is selling her drawings for $20 and up, donating all proceeds to the army.
Children may be immune to covid. But little Alisa from “Kyiv” is not immune to war. Go, Alisa! And let’s see you come home beaming with an “A” in Molotov bartending. Little girls may be too small to throw a cocktail—but any child can mix a drink, right?
Make your parents proud, Alisa. Make America proud, Alisa! After all, your name has already been in the New York Times. If you weren’t American in spirit, you are now. You may have to wait till you’re 40 for a visa, assuming you can’t die heroically and in great pain for your country—but out here, behind our HDR WQHD displays, we’re thinking of you, Alisa. Send pics mayb? [Sotto voce: blood for blood.]
Starting your war
Of course, it takes two sides to make a war. And because we hate the Ukrainians, we not only need to make sure they get their war—we need to make sure they lose it. How can we get this party kicked off?
Let us transform the problem, for freshness. It is 2042, and we replace Ukraine with Canada, Putin with Drumpf, and the US with China.
From the Chinese and Canadian perspective, the US dictator, Drumpf, is threatening to thrust north and restore British America. He is even suspected of designs on the UK and the entire “Commonwealth.” Canada is the bulwark between Drumpf and his psychotic fever-dream of world conquest. The free world can defend itself here and now, in Canada! O, Canada!
From the US perspective, China, a technically superior power with a bigger economy, would be happy to see the US accept its inevitable state of Chinese suzerainty, much as Greece accepted the authority of Rome. To bully the US into knuckling under, they are arming Canada, a small neighboring country hostile to the US and its hero-leader, President-for-life Drumpf, with advanced nanotech Chinese weapons.
They may also promise to protect Canada with their hypersonic nuclear arsenal—meaning that Canada can do anything it wants, and the US can do nothing about it. And quite a lot of mischief can be done across any direct border.
However, besides subjugating the US (their main goal), the Chinese have a secondary goal. Their generalissimo, Duke Bong, as a long-ago exchange student in Vancouver, was brutally assaulted there—from the rear—by a whole hockey team. Therefore he wishes Canada and everyone in it to be harrowed by the hard hand of war, etc. And since he’s kind of a dictator himself now, that’s just how it’s going to have to go down.
Moreover, the king of Canada—Michel III—and his citizens are under the total psychic domination of Chinese intelligence. They all have been sprayed with Militol. These pitiful “leafs,” from the king on down, will do whatever Duke Bong wants—no matter how awful, how predictable, the consequences.
Also, the national language of Canada is French—the “Canadian” language is simply French. True, there is a large English-speaking minority, especially in the east, south, and west of the country. True, Michel III was born “Mike Zelensky” and does not speak fluent French, I mean, Canadian. But Canada is not dead yet! O Canada!
Duke Bong starts the wargame with three choices. He can arm the Canadians, and shield them under his nuclear umbrella. He can arm the Canadians, but not promise to protect them. He can neither arm nor protect them.
Clearly, if he wants a war, Duke Bong should choose the middle option. To start a war, King Mike has to have enough Chinese support that he is threatening to President Drumpf, but not so much Chinese support that President Drumpf is afraid to take him on. How often is finding the middle way the true task of the statesman!
Also, of course, King Mike must not receive so many weapons that he can actually beat President Drumpf. War sucks. But winning a war is still kind of cool. There is nothing at all cool about losing a war—the fate that Duke Bong has decreed for Canada.
Keeping the party going
Moreover, there’s losing and there’s losing. The great American historian Charles Francis Adams Jr., of the famous Adams family, a Union brigadier in the Civil War, wrote forty years later that Robert E. Lee deserved a statue for his decision to just lose—surrendering the whole Confederate military with his army at Appomattox, rather than reverting to guerrilla warfare as, well, pretty much everyone else expected:
Would the strife end then and there? Would it die in a death grapple, only to reappear in that chronic form of a vanquished but indomitable people writhing and struggling the grasp of an insatiate but only nominal victor? Such a struggle as all European authorities united in confidently predicting?
I sent this passage to Duke Bong of China. Bong, a man of few words, texted back:
Like the “writhing and struggling.” Go for it. Also v bad for US ofc
The plucky heroes of Canada cannot possibly win their war. However, they certainly cannot be allowed to lose it. The hard hand of war cannot be left idle. Its shadow must pass over every Canadian roof, from Vancouver to Newfoundland, plucking up sons here and daughters there, leaving rubble here and tears there. Don’t worry, Canadians! Your punishment will never be sufficient for what you did to young Duke Bong.
Status of the plan
The Chinese plan to devastate Canada is working perfectly, so far. Two days ago, we read in the Beijing Post:
The Canadian military has mounted an unexpectedly fierce defense against invading American forces, which have been dogged by logistical problems and flagging morale. But the war is barely two weeks old, and in Beijing and Asian capitals, officials anticipate that the American military will reverse its early losses, setting the stage for a long, bloody insurgency.
A long, bloody insurgency! Duke Bong—always a bloodthirsty fellow—is thrilled. If Canada had not committed great sins, would God have sent a punishment like him?
Officials have been reluctant to discuss detailed plans, since they’re premised on an American military victory that, however likely, hasn’t happened yet. But as a first step, Canada’s allies are planning how to help establish and support a government-in-exile, which could direct guerrilla operations against American occupiers, according to several Chinese and Asian officials.
I doubt very much that the Canadians will not continue an underground resistance campaign even after the Americans establish control,” said a senior Chinese intelligence official.
Washington has “grossly underestimated Canada’s ability to resist,” the official said. “I’m reminded, especially by my eastern colleagues, about Canadians themselves. Canadians were some of the fiercest fighters... for the Allies during World War II.” He predicted that a resistance would continue for months and possibly years.
Here Duke Bong feels a bit of unease. The plan, perhaps, is not quite baked. Because… months and possibly years? Months? Possibly years? No, no, no. This is all wrong. Send it back to the kitchen.
The Canadians are losing way too fast under this plan. There is nowhere near enough “writhing and struggling.” Anything worth doing is worth doing well. If the Canadians are to be harrowed by Drumpf’s hard and horny hand—why stop?
What about certainly years? What about another forever war? The Chinese just spent twenty years trying to conquer Papua New Guinea. Surely the Canadians could get the same treatment? But this plan lets them lose far too quickly. Months? Wow, just wow. It’s like someone has never even heard of sweet, slow divine vengeance.
The paradox of US foreign policy
Let’s unwind these codenames so we know where we are.
The paradox of US foreign policy, it seems, is that US foreign policy in the Ukraine is governed neither by the interests of the Americans, the Russians, or the Ukrainians.
To American citizens, our civil war is a small cost and a stimulus program. To the Russian regime, our civil war is an existential threat. To Ukrainian citizens and the Ukrainian regime, our civil war is the unquenchable divine vengeance of God for, uh, for something they probably did wrong. And to Germans, our civil war is the reason they have to hook their tailpipes to the stove to brew a cup of tea.
Sucks to be you, Ukes. To paraphrase Eric Clapton, “Militol” is a hell of a drug. Maybe you should try, like, not taking it. I know that’s insanely difficult when the entire world is egging you on—the Tsar Bomba of peer pressure. But let me ask the basic question of self-help: how well is what you’re doing working for you now?
The paradox of US foreign policy is that US foreign policy is best modeled as if it was made first, for the benefit of the US foreign-policy establishment; second, for the entertainment of the US media audience; third, for the benefit of foreigners; and fourth, for the benefit of Americans. Once we see that anything that benefits the establishment and delights the viewers will happen, a key has turned in a lock.
Enough trash has been talked about the foreign-policy establishment. It is important to note that the structure of things ties its hands. Some of them, I assume, are good people—most of them are, in fact. Let’s just emphasize this.
This thread is a list of super-mainstream foreign-policy sages telling us for the last 30 years that US policy in the Ukraine was causing a war. It includes George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, John Mearsheimer, Jack Matlock, William Perry, Noam Chomsky, Pat Buchanan, Stephen Cohen, Jeffrey Sachs, William Burns and Robert Gates.
No one in the establishment has any business in, or excuse for, ignoring all of these people. And if they do, they have a responsibility for knowing what they are doing.
The cruelty of the audience
But ultimately, the machine it cannot operate without its customers—the audience.
Enough trash has been talked about the foreign-policy establishment. And ultimately, perhaps, it cannot operate without its customers—the audience. The mind of the audience is the ultimate cause of the story; let us pursue it.
We started with a strawman hypothesis: that the ultimate cause of the war in the Ukraine is the audience’s desire for combat footage, aka, war porn.
This is wrong. We knew it was wrong. Sorry. But the truth approaches it. But the truth is worse.
While the pornography of suffering is bad, there is a kind of honesty to pornography. It does not pretend to be other than what it is. If the American establishment and its audience had started this war out of conscious, vicarious cruelty, while brainwashing the Ukrainians into it with heavy drugs, we would at least know what we were doing and why. Knowing that it was evil, we could see ourselves renouncing this evil. And in fact, it would never happen in the first place, because no one can build a coalition of power around naked, self-conscious.
Instead we are doing something completely different with exactly the same effect. Our influence is social instead of chemical; our pornography is political, not visual. But it is worse—because, when you use pornography, you feel bad. But this stuff feels good.
Putting the Ukrainian colors in your Twitter handle, or whatever else you do (usually symbolic, but I think they have a Bitcoin address) to “support” the noble rebels of “Kyiv,” gives you a rush of power. You feel that you have done something good with your time on earth. You have made an impact. You are, in fact, changing the world.
In all theories of classical political science, power is held by the state. The state is defined by its monopoly of power. Politics is the contest to control the state; justice is the legal force of the state. The situation in which not all power flows through a single legitimate state is known, and deprecated. It is the condition of anarchy, even of war.
In democratic and still more in Marxist theories of political science, it is taken for granted that politics cannot be contained with the state. Power is a field that extends across everyone; everyone has power; everyone can act politically. The term “social justice” is apt; social justice is to legal justice, as social media to broadcast media. The cell membrane of the state is pierced; the cytoplasm of power flows out everywhere.
Everyone’s duty is to act with force, to use power directly and personally rather than delegating it through indirect political mechanisms. Everyone is their own judge, jury, and executioner. Everyone is on the jury that convicts Putler of war crimes; everyone is standing on the scaffold as he takes the drop. Even lynching is social justice—just not the kind most people like. You are doing your best to lynch Putler, right now. No one is making you participate; you are doing it of your own free will; you can just stop.
The key to ceasing this awful, destructive behavior is understanding that it is not about them. It is about you. In fact, you do not know them at all. You know no more than a few kindergarten facts about these faraway people whom you love so much that you consider it your moral responsibility to goad them, at no cost or risk to yourself, into the terrordome of war, for their heroism to excite them. If you loved them more, you would think harder about whether or not you were doing them a favor.
Your “support” for the Kiev regime is about one thing: love. It is about your love for yourself. Its pathological nature reveals a deeper truth: an unfilled need for love and purpose, for a public and collective life which is not a pornographic charnel-house. It is sad, not just in what it does to the Ukraine, but in what it does to you, me, we, us. So, like… please consider the possibility of changing the way you look at this.