War as Spectacle

In every battle the eyes are the first to be conquered.

— Tacitus, Germania


The expression “fog of war” has been thrown around with great ease to describe the difficulty of understanding what is unfolding upon the scorched battlefields of Ukraine. Borrowed from Carl von Clausewitz, the expression (a paraphrase, actually) gestures towards a broader argument concerning the chaos that surrounds military operations: “War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.”1

Erudite as it may sound, it is very doubtful whether this notion is adequate to describe what has been happening in Ukraine. As any reader of Clausewitz will point out, the uncertainty to which he was referring concerned military officers forced to make decisions based on the more-than-imperfect information they had at their disposal. This was a decisive factor at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, when it was possible to defeat a large army simply by outmaneuvering it, as the French did to the Austrians in the battle of Ulm, surprising them through the speed of their pace and the choice of an unexpected route. Other examples abound throughout military history, from classical antiquity all the way to the Second World War.

Modern warfare, however, with radio communication and satellite images at the disposal of military planners, along with drone and aviation footage, has rendered outmaneuvering of the above-mentioned type rather more difficult. Ruses are certainly common at a tactical level, just as it is possible to hide movement of troops and material from the enemy, up to a certain point. But large scale maneuvers, capable of deciding upon the outcome of a conflict, can no longer be kept entirely in the dark. As such, while uncertainty still plays an important role, the combination between effective logistics and what is usually called “morale” has become the decisive factor in a war between two well-matched fighting forces. From an inherent feature of the battlefield, the fog of war has become a human-made smokescreen, a floating surface upon which it is possible to project whatever images are required to shape the perception of events and either augment or diminish the resolve of combatants and non-combatants alike.

It comes as little surprise that terms like “psyop,” or its Russian equivalent, маскировка, have become ubiquitous in military parlance. “Propaganda,” “disinformation,” and “counterintelligence” are now, for all practical purposes, interchangeable terms, as the goal of maintaining a solid home front, while disrupting that of the enemy, takes precedence over most other considerations. Control over the narrative is part of the broader effort to shape the battlefield, not the least because, as Clausewitz also cared to point out, in addition to being a physical struggle, war is also a mental contest between conflicting wills.


None of this is, of course, entirely new. One needs only to recall the propaganda disseminated by the British War Office during the First World War, when countless reports of massacres, atrocities, rapes, and pillages conducted by the German imperial army were deliberately exaggerated, if not entirely made up, in order to stir the indignation of the public and solidify its belligerent mood.2 Demonizing the enemy has long been associated with the conduct of war, not least because it is easier to kill someone deemed to be unhuman. There are, however, specific features of our time that render this practice far more dangerous and problematic than in the past. While these have been the subject of numerous theoretical analyses, it might be useful to point out their role in the context of this war.

For one, the growing screenization of our personal and collective life has rendered images considerably more powerful, and the technical resources required to cut, edit, and manipulate footage of any kind, along with the channels available to diffuse a given “evidence” or an “indisputable fact,” have significantly increased. On the other hand, the distinction between entertainment, opinion and reporting has become more tenuous, forcing us to constantly filter and interpret what is presented as reliable and verified information. In this regard, the nightmarish symphony of deeds producing reports and reports causing deeds has only enhanced its volume since the First World War.

Additional elements contribute to make the boundaries between fiction and reality increasingly volatile. Unedited footage of combat captured by helmet cameras, for example, has become almost indistinguishable from the first-person shooter format of videogames like Call of Duty. Indeed, what for a few months were believed to be images of air combat, between a Ukrainian top gun (dubbed the “Ghost of Kyiv”) and numerous Russian fighters, was later revealed to have been taken from the 2013 pc game, Digital Combat Simulator: World. And the fact that Ukraine’s President, Vladimir Zelensky, was once the main protagonist of a television series in which he played the role of Ukraine’s President only adds to the feeling of having become immersed in a reality show. It would certainly be a far stretch to claim that the war in Ukraine is not taking place, but, as Paul Patton pointed out, something entirely novel has emerged in the last few decades:

Just as it marked a new level of military control over the public representation of combat operations, so the Gulf War displayed a new level of military deployment of simulation technology. Technological simulacra neither displace nor deter the violent reality of war, they have become an integral part of its Operational procedures. […] The Gulf war thus witnessed the birth of a new kind of military-apparatus which incorporates the power to control the production and circulation of images, as well as the power to direct the actions of bodies and machines. It involved a new kind of event and a new kind of power, which is at once both real and simulacra.3

Since media coverage has become the continuation of war through other means, public opinion was sucked into the battlefield, suffering a perpetual barrage of information, that has only increased with each new military conflict. One must therefore be particularly careful when handling the flow of news that arrives from Ukraine, combining a high degree of skepticism with a fine-grained assessment of whatever information is available. This applies to the civil war that rages in the Donbass since 2014, but also to the Russian occupation of Crime and later invasion of other parts of Ukraine, as well as to the conduct of both the Russian and the Ukrainian military, along with the role of foreign combatants, far-right organizations, private contractors and nato officials.

News that a hospital was attacked by artillery, that a nuclear power plant was bombed, or that a train station was hit by a missile, certainly tell us all that we need to know about the destructiveness of modern warfare and the unbearable suffering it causes. But identifying those responsible for each of those war crimes is an infinitely more complex task, unless we simply adhere to the notion that one side of the conflict is inherently inhuman and the other is not. The fact that we have been deprived of the instruments that would enable us to understand how this war is being lived and perceived inside Russia, but also in Donetsk and Luhansk, certainly contributes to reinforce that notion. The problem is not so much that the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Guardian invite their readers to believe that the single decent position to take is to stand with Ukraine against Putin’s aggression. It is rather that, by reducing the war to a struggle between good and evil, they cast a blind eye in the direction of the former, whose eventual abuses against prisoners of war, or “collaborators,” can be dismissed as “Russian propaganda,” without ever taking the trouble of investigating them. The same applies to the missiles that periodically fall on Donetsk, with a heavy toll on its civilian population. This tendency to infantilize the public drastically impoverishes the interpretation of events (namely their causes), as pointed out by Susan Sontag on the wake of 9/11:

The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy. Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy—which entails disagreement, which promotes candor—has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen.4

In short, wars being the messy and chaotic business that they are, we must not forget that we stand at the receiving end of media circuits through which the raw avalanche of events is perpetually syphoned, converting the rugged complexity of reality into a set of simple, plain facts, carefully selected in obedience to a previously written script. Taking the information that arrives from the battlefield with a pinch of salt is the only way to avoid being pulled in by the centrifugal force of the powerful narratives at play.


Taking a clearcut position on the conflict becomes even more difficult when we look at the political composition of either side. Rallied to defend Ukrainian national sovereignty, anarchists and social-democrats now stand shoulder to shoulder with a large cohort of nato-sponsored journalists, neoliberal think-tanks, European Union officials, neo-Nazis, and cia operatives. They face an equally exotic coalition of Russian monarchists, pan-Slavic fascists, Eurasian pagan cultists, Red Army larpers, Western Dengists, Third-Worldists, anti-vaxxers, and fundamentalist Orthodox Christians. The fact that people on either side are prone to point out the unsavory character of their antagonists, while at the same time keeping silent about their own strange bedfellows, is quite revealing. While historical analogies have been thrown around in all directions, they are generally of little use, since we have never faced a situation in which a nation-state holding the world’s largest nuclear arsenal invaded a nation-state that was backed by other nation-states holding large nuclear arsenals. Likewise, even though both sides can mobilize the memory of past events—be it the great Ukrainian famine of 1932–1933, the Spanish Civil War, the partition of Poland under the Molotov–Von Ribbentrop Pact, the invasion of the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa or the death camps of the ss—to assert the nobility of their cause, such claims remain extremely fragile when subjected to rigorous historical scrutiny. Our time has generated its own type of monstrosities.

What, then, makes this conflict so different from countless others that swarm across the globe and rarely, if ever, are subject to such intense media coverage and public outcry? Why is it so easy to present the invasion of Ukraine by Russia as an existential threat to freedom and democracy on the global stage? Why are we being constantly urged to stand firmly behind the war effort and never, for a minute, question the idea that our security is at stake? How is it that we find ourselves debating whether reading the works of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, or Tolstoy makes us complicit with the invasion of Ukraine? The answer to all these questions seems to lie somewhere within Russia.

Much has been written about the “political technology” employed by Putin’s master of propaganda, Vladislav Surkov, credited with having transformed Russia into a “postmodernist theater” where anything seems possible and, therefore, nothing can be entirely true. But it remains extremely doubtful whether the manipulation and disinformation carried out at the behest of the Kremlin is remarkably different from what is common practice around the Western hemisphere. Surkov has, at best, skillfully learned how to handle the old playbook on how to best manage a political regime that must appear to be nominally democratic, while keeping all important decisions away from democratic deliberation, that which Guy Debord called the “integrated spectacle.”5 The same goes for Russia’s geopolitical ambitions, namely the creation of an undisputed sphere of influence, covering most of what used to be the Soviet Union. Cynical as it may be, that is the game usually played by superpowers, as we have recently been reminded by a cynical (or, as the official label goes, “realist”) analyst of international relations. One needs not to sympathize with the logic behind John Mearsheimer’s reasoning to acknowledge the sad truth behind it: in international affairs, might makes right.

Although the evidence piles up that the Russian government behaves much in the same fashion, or according to the same logic, as any other government capable of mobilizing vast resources to accomplish its goals, we are repeatedly invited to look at it as if it were a dangerous outlier, the epitome of evil, when not the living image of Mordor, populated by a horde of orcs under the iron hand of Vladimir Sauron. When we look at the plans laid out by the Ukrainian government to achieve victory in this war, or at the strikingly unrealistic claims of some on the Ukrainian left, we constantly stumble upon different versions of this children’s tale. While there is little doubt that Putin governs Russia with an iron hand and does not shy away from military aggression to pursue its foreign policy agenda, it is rather more doubtful that he does so without any kind of strategic reasoning or that he is unaware that executing civilians, hitting power plants and bombing hospitals makes the achievement of his goals infinitely more difficult. As for the breach of international law that this invasion so blatantly constitutes, it can hardly be said that it stands out amidst the chaotic scenario of the now twenty-years-long war on terror. For one to believe that a Russian military defeat would bring us closer to a rules-based international order, it would be necessary to forget all that has happened since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The propensity to depict Russia through a set of Orientalist tropes fulfills an obvious purpose. By portraying it as an evil empire driven by genocidal intentions, rather than a capitalist social formation driven by the pursuit of profit and accumulation, it becomes possible to downplay the complex contradictions that cut across it, depriving us of the ability to understand both the motivations of its ruling class and the practical problems it is faced with. The discussion then becomes inevitably limited to moral and ethical imperatives, by which the collective responsibilities of a phantasmagorical “West” take precedence over any other consideration. That is why the rigorous historical analysis offered by scholars who are familiar with the recent history of both Ukraine and Russia, sound so outlandish when read against the backdrop of the dominant narrative. Bringing into the fore notions such as “the post-Soviet crisis of hegemony” or pointing out that “double standards have become a part of the structure of international politics since 1989,” would probably make people question the merits of sending ever larger amounts of money and advanced weapons to Ukraine. Likewise, going in too deep into the internal structure of power of Putin’s regime or analyzing Russia’s military-industrial complex, would reveal the extent to which it resembles those of its counterparts in the “West.” Nothing is more evident in this regard than the wide abuse to which the term “whataboutism” has been subjected, as if drawing comparisons and keeping in mind the historical record had become synonymous of complicity. Asking any number of obvious questions would, of course, make us pause to think whether the invasion of Ukraine is more criminal than any of those conducted by the Pentagon in the short course of this century. And that is precisely why it has become so important to ensure a relentless flow of unassailable facts that all point in the same direction, depriving us of detail or context, all the better to offer us the moral solace of being on the right side of history.


Numerous reports of atrocities committed by Russian military personnel have emerged ever since the war began, to which pro-Russian channels on Telegram (and, one might imagine, Russian media outlets to which we do not have access) have responded by denouncing atrocities committed by Ukrainian military personnel against both civilians in the Donbass region and Russian prisoners of war. Sadly executions, rapes, torture, pillage, and wanton destruction are common occurrences in war settings, and the historical record is laden with examples of savagery and inhumane treatment, regardless of the rules of engagement adopted by any given army. The fact that a civil war has been raging since 2014—with militias, volunteers, mercenaries, and regular army units all confronting each other on the battlefield—makes it even more likely that atrocities were indeed committed during this conflict. Old feuds tend to be bitter and bloody.

The challenge, when it comes to the war in Ukraine, is to assert whether the atrocities that have been reported are: 1) a direct consequence of orders handed out by the upper echelons, if not a deliberate strategy to undermine the morale of the opponent; 2) the result of individual actions undertaken in the heat of battle; 3) manifestations of an ideologically driven inclination to ignore the humanity of those on the other side. In short, we are confronted with the difficult task of asserting causality and establishing responsibility for the actions that led to the death of unarmed civilians.

This is a rather delicate exercise that demands a careful handling of the available data and the admission that, even after all of it has been processed, it is still possible that a solid conclusion is beyond our reach. Establishing the truth about what happened in Bucha, for instance, is no easy task. The same goes for the missile that hit the train station at Kramatorsk, killing 60 civilians, or for the bombardment of the nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia. Forensic evidence, video and satellite footage, testimonies of witnesses, but also recordings of mobile communication, arms inventories, complex calculations of flight trajectories, are often required in order to establish the who, how and why of many of these killings. This demands the mobilization of vast resources and the conduct of minute investigation by independent parties, which have all been lacking, leaving us with the choice to believe in either one of the belligerent sides.

The difficulty of establishing the truth about such deaths has not prevented the Ukrainian government from speaking of “Russian atrocities” as a matter of fact, nor has it discouraged many of its supporters to smear those who call for additional investigation as “Putinists.” But the stakes in this war are simply too high for anyone to jump into conclusions without very hard facts to support them. This is all the more difficult as there is a well-documented tendency to present the actions of the Russian military as disproportionately destructive when compared with those of their Western counterparts:

Two very timely examples of such biased reporting were the battles for Aleppo in Syria (2012–2016) and for Mosul in Iraq (2016–2017), which were both characterized by extreme brutality on all sides and mass casualties among the civilian populations. A major difference, however, lay in the actors involved in the conflict: in one case, the West was fighting a terrorist group, in the other case, enemies of the West were fighting armed groups, many of which themselves constitute, or are linked to, terrorist groups. The reporting of the two events varied greatly.[…] The narrative of the “liberation” of Mosul—that came at approximately the same human cost as the “fall” of Aleppo—was widely embraced because the enemy, isis, was clearly identifiable as a brutal villain. On the other hand, the “rebels” of Aleppo—who were primarily responsible for the news framing of the battle—had the advantage that they were initially supported by the West and their internal makeup was so complex that many reporters homogenized them into one coherent group fighting a dictator and ignored the very real and influential presence of Islamist and even terrorist elements, an admission that might have thrown some doubt on the neutrality and truth value of their reports. No one would have conceived the idea of letting isis frame the battle for Mosul; yet the very same privilege was awarded to al-Nusra and other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Aleppo. Quite clearly, in both Aleppo and Mosul, the media chose to adopt one side of the narrative while flatly dismissing the other.6

Of course, the main problem with this kind of media coverage is that it provokes an avalanche effect. The more often we are told that Russians are devoid of any kind of ethical or moral standards, the more inclined we are to accept at face value any accusation that is laid at their feet. Is it possible that Russian soldiers are being offered Viagra to ensure they rape as many Ukrainian women as possible? Yes, it is possible. But it also sounds as something taken out of a psyops manual and thrown at a particularly gullible un official, getting to the frontpage without anyone taking the trouble to check it. As it just so happens, we already heard the same story in 2011, regarding the supporters of Ghaddafi in Libya, without ever seeing it confirmed.

Reports of atrocities have long been a catalyst for military intervention, at least since the Cold War ended. The fact that there are still passionate debates surrounding both what happened in Srebrenica and at the Trnopolje camp where the picture of Fikret Alic was taken, testifies to the difficulty of establishing the truth in that regard. But it is clear enough that such news bare consequences, and those consequences almost invariably lead to some kind of “military intervention” (or, if you prefer, “special military operation”) for which detailed plans seem to have long been drafted. Once the word spread that newborn Kuwaiti babies were being taken from incubators by Iraqi soldiers and left to die, or that the Serbians in Bosnia were massing up Muslim civilians to exterminate them, not only did the bombing of Iraq and Serbia appear morally justified, as any other kind of response would have seemed to be unacceptable. And even though it remains very hard to demonstrate that the bombing campaigns carried out by nato have ever saved any lives, the fact that they caused the death of numerous civilian innocents is more than documented. In fact, as news traveled across the world that more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys had been executed by Serbian paramilitary in Srebrenica, a massacre of Serbs was being carried out by Croatian forces in Krajina, amidst generalized international silence. Like so many other things, the truth concerning atrocities seems to only take its flight when the shades of night are gathering. It is perhaps appropriate to recall what the head of the United Nations delegation in Bosnia wrote in the preface to a carefully documented book:

Post-mortem studies of events in the former Yugoslavia, including those by the United Nations, have cited the international community’s inability to recognize “evil” as the main reason for its inability to end the wars of the 1990s in the Balkans. If such self-delusion were not so tragic, it would be comic. Wars have never been fought to destroy evil, no matter what religious zealots may assert. Wars have been fought for economic, political, strategic, and social reasons. The wars of the 1990s in the Balkans were no different. It was geopolitics, not original sin, that drove nato’s ambitions. […] To pretend that the events in Srebrenica were a microcosm of any sort is to take an oversimplified, fast-food view of history. One isolated event does not explain a process as complicated as war. History is not a collection of sound bites.7

Ever since nations warred, they have sought to embezzle their actions, making them appear justified by some kind of noble purpose, or, at the very least, an acceptable justification. In his great History of the Peloponnesian War, the Greek author Thucydides described the attempt of the Athenians to present their hegemony over other city-states as πρόσχημα [proschema, literally meaning “screen”]. What separates our time from that of Thucydides is that the manipulation of the collective perception of events has become a highly specialized craft, that some people have become extremely apt at, while others, who have much to gain from the results of said manipulation, dispose of a vast array of instruments to ensure that this goes unnoticed.

In an age in which the superiority of the West is no longer capable of rallying the support of the home front for overseas adventures nor colonial expansion, it is only fitting that a moral argument jumps in, to ensure the public that bombing is carried out to attain peace and destruction is required to make the world safer. For this to work, it is crucial that we pretend to ignore that actions undertaken with the purported aim of stopping the death of innocent people have ended up causing the death of equally innocent people. That is why recalling what happened to civilians in Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria has been so vehemently labeled as “whataboutism” by those who aspire to promote a regime change in Russia. Such an inconvenient truth needs to be obliterated if the war for freedom and democracy is to proceed. Ask not how it will end but be ready to watch the clocks stop at 1:17.

  1. Carl Von Clausewitz, On War (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 101.↩︎
  2. Arthur Ponsonby, Falsehood in War-Time: Containing an Assortment of Lies Circulated Throughout the Nations During the Great War (London: Garland Publishing Company, 1928).↩︎
  3. Paul Patton, “Introduction” in Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), pp. 4–6.↩︎
  4. Susan Sontag, excerpt from Tuesday and After, The New Yorker (September 24, 2001).↩︎
  5. Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (London: Verso, 2010).↩︎
  6. Johannes Scherling, “A Tale of Two Cities: A Comparative Study of Media Narratives of the Battles for Aleppo and Mosul,” Media, War & Conflict, 14:2 (2021), p. 192.↩︎
  7. Phillip Corwin, “Foreward” to Edward S. Herman (Ed.), The Srebrenica Massacre: Evidence, Context, Politics (Chicago: Alphabet soup, 2011), p. 11.↩︎

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