Breaking the social rules of war
A meditation on resisting feeling-led views on the invasion of Ukraine
I can't remember what I thought when 'we' invaded Iraq. This seems strange to me now, but it seems that I'm not alone. It turns out that we are likely to misremember our views at that time, in light of it turning out to have been a shitshow, justified by lies, that made most of us here less safe than we were before it and killed nearly half a million people somewhere else.
A few years later the Syria conflict erupted and something different happened. Reflexively I was 'against' Assad and 'for' the uprising against him. But I paid closer attention this time and that simple certainty evaporated as I poked around different information holes.
'We' in the west were talking a lot about arming the rebels and it was easy to think that this seemed like the right thing to do in response to the news pictures we were seeing. But I'd become a diverse news source junkie at this point, curious to monitor more perspectives. And I was also on Twitter. Watching a civil war unfold on social media was weird because suddenly the information I was receiving wasn't entirely mediated by just one interested party.
When 'we' went into Iraq I was effectively seeing and hearing what the British and American governments wanted me to see and hear. When the Syrian civil war got under way I was seeing and hearing what all the participants were doing and saying. It was jarring at first. You had Assad's air force dropping barrel bombs on hospitals and residential areas. Then (if you were paying attention) you had rebel commanders brandishing the severed heads of captured Syrian soldiers.
Via Channel 4 News I discovered an articulate Syrian film maker who opposed Assad and supported the aim of a democratic Syria but was dead against arming the rebels, because many of them were effectively the same people 'we' had gone into Iraq to root out.1 This was an entirely missing perspective in every mainstream news outlet I consulted at the time.
For the first time I realised that wars aren't usually cut and dried good vs evil confrontations (although Syria ended up looking to me a fairly cut and dried evil vs evil situation).
But it meant that I had no moral investment in picking a side there.
Everything I have learned about that conflict since suggests that this was a reasonably wise state to maintain. If this newsletter was about actual politics, as opposed to not being misled or jerked around by ill-founded confidence, I'd bang on about the minutiae of it as a cynical proxy war between geopolitical competitors each led by spectacularly bad faith actors. But Rarely Certain is what it is and it isn't that.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine the other week and suddenly we were all tapped instantly into a war fought inside a broadband-equipped country. If I'm not mistaken, this is a first.
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