The Mirror of War

The war in Ukraine pits America’s capacity for self-reflection against our love for self-deception.

Hamilton Nolan

As in Irpin, so too in Baghdad. (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)

We’re not an introspective country. Introspection is an invitation to self-criticism, which is counter to the American belief in forging ahead while running over everything in our path. That makes the political moment spawned by the war in Ukraine all the more important. Most people are, for once, more or less united in the belief that a moral crime has been committed by the Russian government. Americans are watching a horrific war of aggression, and they don’t like what they see. This is a time when evolution for the good is possible, if we are able to realize that we are looking into a mirror.

It has been interesting, given our bizarro politics — in which fascism and nationalism and technological utopianism and pseudo-populism have all been forced into a blender and then seasoned with rampant inequality and the determination of grifters to exploit all of the above — to see something as clear-cut as a ruthless war waged by a big nation against a smaller one which brings everyone together. I am not so much talking about the very right or left ends of the spectrum, which both bring to the situation prior theories about why these things happen, but the majority middle, the American-flag-on-the-mailbox types, who in aggregate are the fabric of conventional wisdom. These are the people who are relentlessly acted upon by political forces, and whose response to those forces becomes the default position that all politicians then react to. When America wages war, the belief of these people is the soil in which it grows its support. If our nation’s taste for war itself can become distaste, millions of lives could be saved in crises to come.

The general public’s reaction to what is happening in Ukraine is not based on any knowledge of history or geopolitics. It is based on a basic revulsion towards seeing a stronger power attack a weaker one for no apparent righteous reason. It is based on our universal dislike of bullies. It is based on a simple humanitarian reaction to tragedies that are more likely to be seen now than ever before. (It is surely also, to some extent, based on White Americans identifying more easily with people that look like them than with, say, Middle Easterners who do not.) Events in this case have conspired to allow Americans to see war for the atrocity that it is, free from the typical bombardment of patriotic propaganda for or against. This great national revulsion should be tended like a rare and valuable flower.

The Iraq War was not that long ago. I remember watching America’s initial shock and awe” bombardment of Baghdad, which was carried live on the news channels. It looked identical to footage of the Russian bombardment of Kiev, except worse. Then, middle America was programmed to cheer. Now, without all the prep work, it looks plainly awful. America was to Iraq what Russia is to Ukraine. We were the bad guys. This is not news, and many of us recognized it then. But the pool of people who slosh around on the tail end of the mainstream and who tie yellow ribbons to trees in their yard and hold bake sales for the troops because it seems like the decent thing to do are the same people who are, right now, watching what is happening in Ukraine with horror. It seems unthinkable that this experience will not cause the dots to connect in millions of people’s minds: Here is a war of aggression. It is unjust, outrageous, awful in Ukraine. And it is just as bad when we do it.

Despite the spiritual parallels to the Spanish Civil War, the Americans who have been so moved by the situation that they have picked up and gone to Ukraine to volunteer have not reportedly been staunch leftist idealists. They have been people — often with military training — who see this conflict in straightforward humanitarian terms. They see a needless crime being perpetrated against the Ukrainians and they want to help. This is the lens through which all war should be seen — not as an unfortunate yet necessary product of complex political concerns that we must all reluctantly acquiesce to, but as an assault on decency that we all must reject. The U.S. government usually wants the primary relation that the population has to war to be sympathy for our soldiers who are sent off to fight. The more that this feeling is brought to the forefront, the less space there is to question the underlying purpose of the war itself. The more that citizens are driven by concern for their own soldiers, the less they can be driven by concern for the people that our soldiers are killing.

The war in Ukraine offers us an unusual opportunity to escape the ingrained dynamic of war. Mostly, Americans don’t care about foreign wars, unless we are involved, in which case we root for the Americans, and in the process disregard the possibility that Americans are the bad ones. In Ukraine, though, we have a war in which the right and wrong sides are too obvious to miss; in which the American government, for once, is not the perpetrator of the evil; and in which technology is delivering an unprecedented ability to witness the human tragedies of the war in real time. The natural outpouring of disgust for the unnecessary slaughter happening in Ukraine is a taste of what the normal reaction to our own wars might be if not warped by the unbearable weight of cynical appeals to patriotic unity.

It is inevitable that many Americans will come face to face with the realization that their own country has, many times before, launched wars that are every bit as evil as what Vladimir Putin is doing to Ukraine. A hard look in that mirror of war can lay the foundation for a population more committed to peace. The only way that America can emerge from this experience without a burning desire to rein in our own empire would be with a powerful act of self-deception. Of course — like war — that is one of our greatest skills.

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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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