“Every war is different. Every war is the same.” Those words, written by Anthony Swofford in “Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles,” hold true when comparing the war in Ukraine to other conflicts around the world.
However, reporting on wars is greatly different, varying dramatically from one conflict to another.
There's no question some media reports and comments from political leaders have been highly objectionable. They have implied that the atrocities in Ukraine are somehow worse because, as one Ukrainian official said, the victims are “European people with blue eyes and blond hair” (more on that below).
However, even well-intentioned people concerned about the suffering in Ukraine are becoming victims of sanctimonious and unwarranted attacks.
I saw one example on my Facebook feed. My old friend, neurologist Dr. Sean Kenniff (whom you may know from the original “Survivor” or his years as a TV and radio medical correspondent) posted the following meme on his Facebook page, adding that he was “praying for peace in Ukraine.”
He was immediately slammed by an internet “troll” or “sock puppet” who accused him of caring for Ukrainians but not for the victims of other wars. The comments, which have since been deleted, accused Sean of being racially biased, ignoring suffering in other places, and giving disproportionate importance to the Ukraine war.
I have no way of knowing if the attacker was part of a Russian operation, but Russian troll farms have a long history of using propaganda and other tools to further Kremlin policies. Reports indicate that Russian trolls reached 140 million Facebook users per month in 2020, leading up to the U.S. presidential election. Now, Cyabra, an Israeli tech company that monitors disinformation, has found a huge surge in suspicious accounts spreading anti-Ukrainian content. According to Forbes, Cyabra’s analysts found that on Valentine’s Day alone, anti-Ukrainian posts on Twitter soared by 11,000% compared to previous days.
I use the terms “troll” and “sock puppet” advisedly in the case of the attack against Sean because it comes from an account that is obviously being used for the purposes of deception. The profile has no friends, no posts, and no identifying information other than what are almost surely a fake name and picture.
Attacks like these could be part of Russia’s disinformation playbook, distracting from the gravity of the invasion of a sovereign country, and from what Vice President Kamala Harris has called Russia’s “atrocities” in Ukraine.
These attacks also try to make people feel guilty for caring about Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. And they obfuscate a crucial point that has nothing to do with race, ethnicity, or location: The Ukraine war is different in very consequential ways.
Why the Ukraine War Deserves Disproportionate Attention
Before getting to the reasons why the Ukraine war is different, especially from the perspective of the U.S., I must say that the need for sympathy and concern for the victims of any conflict can’t be emphasized enough.
For decades now, I have given speeches, delivered TV commentaries, and written articles bemoaning the lack of interest in international news that exists in U.S. media and the American public in general. Most recently, I addressed the crisis in Eastern Europe in a column about why Americans should care about Ukraine and another about how we are returning to the bad old days of the USSR. I have often said that we ignore the world at our own peril.
But we do. This Washington Post piece illustrates our disconnect from many parts of the globe. Gallup’s February, 2022 survey of the most important problems facing the U.S., taken before the Ukraine invasion, also proves the point. The poll shows that international issues as a whole were of relatively minimal concern to most Americans. Only 3% of those surveyed cited the situation with Russia, foreign policy, national security, or foreign trade.
So, it’s probably fair to say that most people in the U.S. don’t know about wars in Yemen, Myanmar, Syria, Ethiopia’s Tigray region, and other parts of Africa.
Double standards do exist when it comes to what grabs American attention. Still, there are plenty of reasons why Ukraine deserves the greater coverage it is getting. To put it bluntly, this war is far more meaningful to the U.S. and the world than the others. Here are just some of those reasons:
1. No current war carries the threat of nuclear warfare, with Russia putting its nuclear forces on a “special regime of combat duty.”
2. No current war carries the threat of cyberwarfare that could seriously disrupt life in the United States.
3. No current war (or recent war, for that matter) threatens to end the era of Pax Americana, the relative peace and security in the Western Hemisphere and much of the world that has existed since World War II, with the rise of the U.S. as the world’s dominant economic and military superpower.
6. No current war is causing a refugee crisis of this magnitude in a matter of weeks. The United Nations estimates that 2.5 million Ukrainians have already crossed international borders escaping the war, and that another 1.5 million could flee if the emergency situation continues. The UN also projects that another 6.7 million could be internally displaced. Other ongoing world crises, most notably in Syria and Venezuela, have triggered comparable or larger displacements, but over a much longer time period.
7. Russian expansionism threatens European and global stability in a way that other current conflicts do not.
10. Putin is plunging Russia, the world’s largest country and ninth most populous, into what the Committee to Protect Journalists calls “an information Dark Age.” A new law can land anyone in prison for simply referring to what’s happening in Ukraine as a war or an invasion. The moves by the Kremlin to crack down on freedom of expression and criminalize independent journalism have forced multinational internet companies to cease operations in Russia. That has effectively erected a “digital barricade” that’s further isolating the country from the global community. It is also limiting the world’s ability to understand what’s going on inside Russia, as major American and international news organizations have stopped broadcasting or publishing from Russia in fear of Putin’s retribution under the new criminal law.
11. For various practical reasons, the documentation of the horrors of the Ukraine war is simpler than others. That doesn’t excuse ignoring other conflicts, but it’s important context. News operations are businesses that have a decision-making process to determine the allocation of assets and the airtime or print space stories receive.
First, while still very dangerous, as the reported killing by Russian forces American journalist Brent Renaud proves, this war is safer to cover for western media than the fighting in Yemen or Tigray.
Second, Ukraine’s level of development allows for fairly uncomplicated access to internet and phone connections, plenty of video shot by mobile devices, and lots of English-speaking victims. That all makes the coverage more compelling and simpler to produce and access. In one example, correspondent Clarissa Ward broadcast live for CNN from a Kharkiv, Ukraine, subway station using a mobile phone and AirPods. Sadly, none of this is likely to happen in a Rohingya detention camp in Myanmar or the deserts of Yemen. That’s not a value judgment, it’s just reality.
12. The sharp surge in oil and natural gas prices exacerbated by the Ukraine crisis is pouring billions of dollars into the coffers Iran, Venezuela, and other oil producers who are bad actors on the world stage.
But Are Biases Involved in the Attention Ukraine Gets?
Undoubtedly, racial and geographic biases are at play, as I mentioned above in the case of the Ukrainian official who implied that this war mattered more because it involved European people. Vice President Harris stepped into the trap herself, when she attended the Munich Security Conference in mid-February. "I mean, listen guys, we are talking about the potential for war in Europe," Harris said.
Other politicians, news correspondents and pundits have joined the chorus, as documented by Al Jazeera and The Washington Post. Referring to Kyiv, CBS correspondent Charlie D’Agata said, “This is a relatively civilized, relatively European … city.” Al Jazeera presenter Peter Dobbie described Ukrainians as “prosperous, middle-class people,” contrasting them to people in the Middle East and Africa, and saying “They look like any European family that you would live next door to.”
Foreign policy analyst and author Rula Jebreal is right to call out what she says is the “racist subtext,” that deems those who are not of European descent as “inferior” or “uncivilized.” That must be avoided.
Even so, this war is different, no matter who the victims are. Shame on those who attack people who care about the suffering and simply want to help.
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Cover photo: People hold placards during a rally in support of Ukraine, in near Downing Street on Whitehall in central London on Sunday, March 13, 2022, following the invasion of the country by Russia. Stung by criticism of its approach to refugees fleeing Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the United Kingdom on Sunday unveiled a new scheme to allow them to stay with Britons for up to three years. (Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty Images)