Michael Brenner says the frenzy engendered by the Ukraine conflict reinforces a herd mentality that cries out for critical thinking.
Accurate perception, precise language and objectivity are the first victims of war and conflict. For good reason. Emotion eclipses reason. The “we/they” prism refracts and distorts our thoughts. The individual is swept up into the mass mood. Frenzy roils just below the surface.
Experiences of war and conflict, though, are not uniform. They vary. Whose blood is being shed, in what quantities? Are we the direct protagonist or just the empathetic supporters of certain combatants? How closely and why do we identify with one side? How much do we hate the other side? Is our collective self vulnerable or confident? What is the pre-existing anxiety level?
Consequently, each situation is peculiar. A country’s subjective response and attendant behavior, therefore, can be highly revealing.
Unfortunately, observation is blurred and selective. We are poor witnesses to ourselves. Sometimes, we never do gain the perspective needed for a clear rendering of what happened, how we felt and what we did. Oddly, the more peculiar the experience, the less the inclination and ability to reflect on it.
Such is the case in regard to the current Ukraine affair. That singular feature is itself noteworthy. For that is not due to indifference – quite the opposite. Washington is the producer and would-be director of the drama as well as the co-star.
The feature that cries out for our critical attention is the frenzy that the Ukraine conflict has engendered. This despite the absence of an American military presence, no obvious national interest of the first order at stake, and it’s erupting at a time when one would have thought the country’s appetite for this sort of thing satiated by two decades of endless, failed wars in nearly every part of the world.
My principal concern here is not to answer the question of “why?” I have tried to address that in previous commentaries here and here. Instead, the aim is to highlight those characteristics of America’s collective national persona brought into stark relief by our reaction to events.
The air is rank with it. The overwrought emotional response to events, concentrated in D.C., spreads across the land – from sea to shining sea. As per usual, it is the MSM and the politicos who take the lead and set the tone.
Sympathy for human suffering is admirable when genuine and the expression of sensitive, empathetic concern; when we are moved by the occasion and not just the ritual. Honoring the victims of mass shootings, hate bombings and natural disasters is moving and in a sense reassuring.
Today, we are seeing an outpouring of sentiment over the plight of Ukrainians. Most striking is the upwelling of vigils, prayer sessions and protests at universities. Demonstrative displays of feelings that are of this scope should set us to reflect on their full meaning. Here are a few things to consider.
Civilian casualties in Ukraine are relatively few. Despite the strenuous efforts to find then, actual numbers of dead appear to be in the order of 300-400, according to a U.N. count.
For good reasons, Russian forces are calculatingly trying to avoid attacks on urban centers. After all, 40 percent of the population is Russian and concentrated in the regions where the fighting is taking place. Moreover, Moscow says it has no interest in subjugating the country to its rule.
In comparison, the Ukrainian army has been shelling the city centers of Lugansk and Donetsk, producing casualties estimated by a U.N. agency at 440 casualties (77 killed and 363 injured) since the start of Russia’s military intervention. Also, the water system has been destroyed. Since 2014, as many as 7,000 civilians have been killed in Donbass. Yet, these facts are unreported and unnoticed in the total absence of media presence in an area they have erased from their reportorial map.
A broader perspective is instructive. During the week of combat in Ukraine, a larger number of innocent civilians in other places have died from American actions.
In Yemen, the unrelenting Saudi bombing and strangulation of the Houthi regions continues to take a heavy toll: from weapons, from starvation, from disease. This carnage could not have occurred without direct involvement by the U.S. military.
Although the American contribution has diminished over the past year or so, the U.S. continues to play a considerable role in the Saudi onslaught. U.S. officers have sat in Air Force command posts in Saudi Arabia pinpointing targets, U.S. planes have done the refueling of Saudi aircraft which, otherwise, could not have reached their targets, they have supplied the weapons and ammunition marked “Made In U.S.A.”
The U.S. has also participated in the embargo that has prevented food and medicines from getting to the needy. Famine has added immeasurably to the casualties. Over the past six years, tens of thousands have been killed, maimed or invalided by illness.
The carnage in Yemen to which the U.S. is an accomplice is not collateral to the defense of any American national interest or the suppression of any threat. Its only rationalization is a dubious calculation that putting our arms around the shoulders of the psychopathic butcher Mohammed bin-Salman in Riyadh is worth the massive suffering of Yemeni innocents.
That decision was made by President Barack Obama and his Vice-President Joe Biden, reaffirmed by President Donald Trump. It continues to this day under President Biden – the great humanitarian who has shed copious crocodile tears for Ukraine.
Yet, one can search high-and-low for a vigil, a wake, a memorial service to honor the victims of the U.S. government’s callous disrespect for human life in Yemen. Certainly there are no apologies to orphans, widows and invalids. The blood on U.S. hands is invisible, the blood on Russian hands undergoes microscopic examination. Hypocrisy in caps.
Let us look at the wider record to see what it says about the American attitude toward law, a “rules-based international order” and criminal acts. The United States invaded and occupied the sovereign state of Iraq with no legal mandate whatsoever, no legitimate claim – however stretched – of self-defense, and with no expression of approval from the Iraq people.
The results: tens of thousands killed directly by the U.S. military and their mercenaries; hundreds of thousands killed in the ensuing violence, untold wounded. Settlements were razed into moonscapes: Falluja (twice), Mosul, Raqqa, sections of Baghdad and numerous smaller towns.
The U.S. Marines alone fired 20,000+ artillery shells into densely populated Mosul – separate from weeks of aerial bombing. Empathy? The U.S. government waited three years before making the reluctant “admission” of 483 civilians dying in Mosul. By the standards applied to Ukraine, that last figure would be publicized as a million or so. In fact, the true figure has been estimated at between 9,000 to 11,000 civilians killed.
Then, there is ISIS. The U.S. is responsible for its very existence and, therefore, its grisly deeds. Its birthing was in the prison (Camp Bucca), set up by General Stanley McCrystal, where many thousands were swept up indiscriminately and cooped together. The grim conditions were the breeding grounds for its leadership and their recruiting ground.
In Afghanistan, the thirst for revenge for 9/11 drove us to spend 20 years generating violent chaos – 19 of them directed at the Taliban, not Al-Qaeda. To this day, there are no reports of the Taliban killing a single American outside of Afghanistan.
The U.S. has killed tens of thousands and inflicted suffering on many more. Now, in the wake of the shameful U.S. flight, the country is starving. Desperate women are selling their kidneys to organ traffickers in order to feed their kids.
A decent society, with a person of integrity at its head, would invite one of those women to attend the president’s State of the Union address as an honored guest – perhaps seated next to First Lady Jill Biden along with the Ukrainian ambassador. Such a symbolic gesture would do more to advance America’s reputation and influence around the world than all the hollow posturing by Biden’s bunch of bumbling amateur foreign policy makers.
We have responded to those dire conditions by imposing economic sanctions. In a move that should be inscribed in its own page of infamy, humanitarian Joe Biden literally stole $7 billion of Afghan money held in U.S. based banks and the Federal Reserve. That is not Taliban money, and it is not just the state’s money either. Most belongs to small merchants and individuals whose deposits were transferred to the Afghan central bank for safe-keeping. That is as close as you can get to actually taking bread out of a baby’s mouth. Willi Sutton never had it so good – nor was he so morally crass as to boast of his humanitarian instincts.
Finally, let us not forget America’s full, unwavering endorsement of Israel’s repeated bloody campaigns to “mow the lawn” in the illegally occupied Palestinian territories. There, each “mowing” causes thousands of casualties. There, schools, hospitals and the offices of disobedient journalists are indeed targeted.
The bill of indictment is a long one. We haven’t even touched on the torture regime that the U.S. organized on a global basis – in explicit violation of international law, treaties and American statutes, too. A “rules-based international order,” indeed.
All of the peoples victimized, neglected and forgotten who are noted above share one common trait. I’ll leave its identity to your imagination. A hint: throw into the mix the Bosniaks?
Lying is the handmaiden to hypocrisy.
We Americans gradually have become used to lying and deceit from our leaders – whether in government or other big, powerful institutions. We call it disinformation because “lie” strikes many as too blunt for our sensitive eyes and ears. The New York Times has a strict rule, in fact, not to use the word “lie.” Not even Donald Trump has ever “lied” insofar as its editors are concerned. In a sense, we have become inured to lying since it is so commonplace. Only the incurable innocents believe what is told them by political candidates or purveyors of electronic gizmos.
Moreover, the line between truth and fiction has become so blurred that reality has lost much of its previous claim to preeminence. Everything, we are advised, is subjective; whatever you want to believe is the truth. So, despite the record of massive mendacity chalked up by the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department and White House spokespersons over the years, the MSM swallow whole whatever is being sold and then they repackage it as reporting and sell it to us word-for-word.
Here’s a stark example. On March 2 Biden was asked whether Russian forces are deliberately targeting civilian areas in Ukraine, the president says, “It’s clear they are.” An outright lie – picked up and transmitted without comment. The wrinkle in this instance is that this is the same lie that the MSM had been disseminating for days. Two-way mendacity between the chief executive and the so-called Fourth Estate. Cozy. Those who know better will be kept at bay – non-persons.
So, we read in the august New York Times that Russia launches missile attacks on Ukrainian cities, while civilian casualties mount and the Russian offensive on Kharkiv stalls.
All nonsense, all lies. Never corrected. They are just sub-heads in a fictional story designed to mythologize, to entertain, and to control thought. Straight out of 1984; who needs censorship?
A body politique incapable of enunciating and observing reasonable ethical standards of behavior should still find it within itself to engage in an honest discussion and debate on matters of supposed national consequence. Ukraine has shown, once again, that the U.S. is not so capable.
Why does a president so casually lie in public? Well, for one thing, long experience tells him that he could get away with it. After all, most Americans still take at face value whatever they are told about the international scene despite their being lied to and deceived by their leaders.
They lied about WMD in Iraq; they lied about the reception to be expected from the Iraq people, they lied repeatedly about the insurrection, they lied repeatedly about torture, they lied about General David Petraeus’ magnificent Iraqi national army that fled before Mosul.
They lied for 20 years straight about progress in Afghanistan; they lied about our underhanded dealings with Al-Qaeda and associated jihadist groups in Syria, they lied about the critical support given ISIS by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. They also lied in denying the comprehensive electronic surveillance of Americans’ communications. So why should we take their word for what they say about events in Ukraine? Yet we do – for several reasons.
Why Are They Are Believed?
One, Americans have become a gullible people. Two, they hold a picture of reality that has been shaped by the MSM which does not prize accuracy. Three, Americans are not terribly interested in the truth. What they want is conformity to the story line that has been laid out for them that compliments the United States, which they have been conditioned to believe, and that doesn’t either strain their mental faculties or challenge their beliefs.
Biden knows all of that. Does he also know that American credibility suffers as a consequence among other governments, which he has to deal with? To paraphrase that master diplomat Victoria Nuland: “Fuck the Russians! Fuck the Chinese! Fuck the Indians!” And don’t even bother to fuck our European allies since they already have fucked themselves.
The current passion and range of reaction in the West calls for close examination. Here, we are in the realm of social psychology and mass behavior — hysteria, at times, in its extreme expressions. Bicocca University in Milan almost canceled a course on Fyodor Dostoevsky taught by an Italian professor. The Munich Philharmonic has fired its acclaimed Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, because he refuses a diktat that he criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Ukraine invasion. They are seconded by orchestras in Rotterdam, New York, Vienna and la Scala which have canceled all his engagements. Silence is not tolerated.
Equally outrageous, the famed soprano, Anna Netrebko, has been forced to drop appearances at the Zurich Opera House because she is deemed irredeemably tainted by having received an award for artistic achievement from Putin personally and having voted for him in a past election.
Long resident in Vienna, married to a Uruguayan baritone, she in fact has issued a statement condemning the war as senseless “aggression” and calls on “Russia to end it right now.” Even that cut no ice with the Inquisition. The general manager of the New York Met, Peter Gelb, who has assumed the authority of New York’s Gauleiter for cultural purity, declared that “denouncing the war is not enough.”
Presumably, he wants Netrebko to arm herself with Madame Butterfly’s knife, clamber over the Kremlin walls and eviscerate Putin in his pajamas. The threat to cancel her spring appearances makes as much sense as cancelling performances by Itzhak Perlman at Carnegie Hall because he has dined with Bibi Netanyahu at a time of a Gaza ravaging, and there shook the hand of racist Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman whose advocated solution to the Palestinian problem is to expel all Arabs from the Holy Land into the desert, i.e. the Armenian solution.
If Netrebko’s long-time colleagues in the music world had any principles or guts, they’d issue an ultimatum: quit her persecution or we’ll all boycott the Met’s entire season. Of course, that never will happen – these days, all spheres of Western society are pervaded with cowardice.
These distinguished personages thereby join the ranks of the know-nothings like the restaurant owners who are renaming Russian dressing as Ukrainian dressing and Beef Stroganoff as Beef Zelensky. There is precedent, the solons of the U.S. Congress back in 2001 changed their menu to substitute Freedom Fries for the unspeakable French Fries because French President Jacques Chirac did not think that an invasion of Iraq was a great idea. And in WW I, sauerkraut became Liberty Cabbage. Children will be children.
Then there is the Czech government issuing a decree that declares expressing a favorable opinion about the Russian intervention a crime that will make you liable to prosecution and imprisonment. Even the Prague regime is overmatched by this blow struck for peace and freedom: the International Federation of Felines (FIFe) on Tuesday ordered a ban on the importation of Russian-bred cats, presumably anywhere in the world. “No cat bred in Russia may be imported and registered in any FIFe pedigree book outside Russia, regardless of, which organization issued its pedigree,” the FIFe board said in a statement.
To search for an explanation of this behavior, one would have to dive into the turbid depths of the human mind. That is beyond the scope of this essay. But a couple of thoughts do come to mind.
One is that this overreaction may be propelled in part by hidden feelings of guilt about the West’s irresponsible abstention in doing next to nothing to prevent or even mitigate the atrocities in Bosnia and Rwanda. Silence, then, was golden.
Perhaps, those feelings were strengthened by the excesses of the American “War On Terror” in which the Europeans were accomplices in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. In addition to the provision of tangible aid, every NATO government was an accomplice in the rendition program, in one way or another – with the sole exception of France.
A second, related point of conjecture is that these people have lived “non-moral” lives in an ethically sterile environment. That is to say that they never were placed in or sought circumstances where they faced difficult moral choices – where they had to affirm through action the ideals and virtues to which they nominally adhere.
At some level, certain of these well-educated enlightened elites felt that void to varying degrees. Suddenly, out of the blue comes a golden opportunity to do so. To do so without pain or serious cost, with the mutual support of a large consort of cosmopolitan fellows.
There may be unwelcome consequences, but in the moment of exhilaration they are sublimated. The one negative that may enter the margins of consciousness is that people will freeze or sweat in the dark. Even then, well-heeled elites find ways to avoid freezing or sweating.
As so often is the case in present times, the ‘problem’ lies not out there but rather in ourselves.
Americans pride themselves on their independence, individualism, and autonomy as citizens. “Don’t tread on me! Don’t mess with Texas! I’m from Missouri! Prove it!” Once upon a time, there may have been a semblance of truth to this. There no longer is.
The U.S. has long ago achieved a herd mentality. Skepticism and applying elementary, common logic has become nothing but faded memory and legend. Commercial advertising, TV, and the dumbing down of education have done its work. Public discussion on matters of public interest is shallow and is dropping steadily year by year. Our leaders are at once an effect and a reinforcing cause of this phenomenon.
It is far easier, far more comfortable and more convenient to inhabit a collective world of fable and fantasy. This is most strikingly true in regard to national identity and America’s dealings with the world.
As the gap between fantasy world and actual world widens, the need for reinforcement through consensus grows stronger, and with it, the intolerance of dissent. It’s been that way in the War on Terror and now in regard to Russia and China.
An illustrative anecdote: Some of my recent commentaries have evoked an unusually large number of replies. A couple received last week are worth noting. They are both from retired ambassadors with whom I had had friendly exchanges previously, one of whom bears a name that many of you would recognize for notable accomplishments in the past. He writes undiplomatically:
“How much were you paid to write this? You are going to lose what little standing you have left as a serious academic.”
The other retired diplomat wrote this:
“Forgive me, but you’re sounding like a number of old FSO’s, so-called strategic foreign policy ‘Russian experts’ with whom I’ve lost patience. We are NOT still in the 20th c., generations and history and modernity have moved forward ….It is NoT humiliated, historic Russia in the abstract that is choosing to invade Ukraine now; it is Vladimir PUTIN in particular….. It is about the man, more than the country or its interests and government. The main problem is that both our law and international law and order have never been able to deal with damaged, insecure and delusional Aging leaders a priori!! “
So it goes. Enough said.
Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. [email protected]
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.