Ukraine, and Beyond
The horrific war unfolding in Ukraine deserves the world’s attention for many reasons, starting first and foremost with the human toll. We are witnessing not only the manifestation of “collateral damage,” the euphemism that is employed in military jargon to describe the mangled bodies of dead civilians. We are witnessing also outright war crimes, where women, children, and the elderly, who have no choice but to dart and duck for cover in the middle of a battlefield forced upon them, are being deliberately targeted and killed.
It’s gut-wrenching. It’s infuriating. Every ounce of human empathy should be activated by the pictures and stories we are seeing.
The scale of the refugee crisis — millions fleeing into neighboring countries in just a matter of a few weeks — is the worst the European continent has seen since World War II.
Putin’s unknowable endgame, made all the more uncertain as his forces stall and are even pushed back on the battlefield, heightens the stakes of the entire calamity. To even enter into conversations about the prospects of nuclear weapons, well, it’s not a sentence I wish to bring to conclusion.
All of this is to say that the tenor, nature, and scale of concern and attention the global community is paying to Ukraine is warranted (particularly Europe, which has the bloodshed in its own neighborhood). The world will not be the same when this war ends, however and whenever that may be. Whether we are stronger and safer in its aftermath will be a defining question of this era. But along the way to that hypothetical historical record we are left to wonder how many will die? How many will flee? How many will become orphans? How much will be destroyed? These questions haunt us, and they should.
It takes nothing away from the horrors of Ukraine and the bravery of its citizens, however, to broaden our field of vision and ask ourselves another series of difficult and soul-searching questions. What has this war revealed about the way we look at a wider world in need? What biases has it exposed about whom we judge as victims? About whom we view as heroes? About the need for action? About our responsibilities to provide support?
All war is hell.
All war leaves tragedy in its wake.
And right now there are other wars that are killing and maiming people and forcing them to flee: in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, to name a few.
And it's not only outright war that can destabilize human society; oppression comes in many forms. Lawlessness can lead to indiscriminate killings. Minorities are often targeted and scapegoated. And the climate crisis is only exacerbating levels of global misery and desperation.
Part of what has sparked my ruminations is witnessing some of the coverage around the war in Ukraine that has generated criticism as being biased or even racist. Most of the furor centers on the idea that the invasion of Ukraine is different from other recent wars and refugee crises because it is in Europe.
As the host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah, put it in a segment on the topic: “I don’t know about you, but I was shocked to see how many reporters — around the world, by the way — seem to think that it’s more of a tragedy when white people have to flee their countries. Because, I guess, what? The ‘darkies’ were built for it?”
I do not want to call out individual reporters for the most egregious statements, because these instances reflect a more pervasive mindset. What is more important is the general discussion it should spur, among journalists, policymakers, and the broader public.
In a piece titled “The biases in coverage of the war in Ukraine” in the Columbia Journalism Review, Jon Allsop considers the issue from many vantage points, and includes links to other articles about this issue (it’s a good overview). One of his concluding paragraphs points to a path forward:
The biases that are often present in Western coverage of war and the biases that are making the coverage of this war different both ultimately reflect ingrained assumptions about global power dynamics that are not only morally indefensible, but factually untenable. The war in Ukraine is a tragic opportunity for the Western press to interrogate and shed these assumptions, an act that, done properly, should not distract from the immense suffering of the Ukrainian people but help us see it even more clearly, in a universal context.
We are taught to dehumanize our enemies, to see them as “others.” Doing so has served as a tried-and-true method for those needing to rally nations for the sacrifices of war since probably the beginning of human existence. We can see it now with Putin in Ukraine and his calls for “denazification” — never mind that Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish and had family killed in the Holocaust. Many have noted that one complicating aspect of the war in Ukraine is that millions of Russians have strong cultural and familial ties with millions of Ukrainians, which of course makes the “othering” more difficult. But it’s not impossible. We can look to examples from civil wars for how people living in one place can be taught to hate each other enough to kill. Often these fault lines are around religion, geography, or language and culture.
It is natural to feel more sympathy for people who seem more similar to you, and that extends to war. During World War II the way the Nazis were portrayed in the United States was different from how Imperial Japan was. Both were horrific, murderous regimes, but one was European, and thus didn’t seem as “foreign” to the majority of Americans at the time. Japanese Americans were put in internment camps. German Americans were not. The Japanese army, and the Japanese people, were portrayed with more distinctly racist caricatures than the Germans.
Of course, the differences that separate us from one another in a biological sense are minimal. We are all one species, bound by a common humanity. We can learn to see the world in ways that highlight and build connectivity, at the level of nations and cultures, and with individuals. To do otherwise, to foster animosity or even antipathy, is not only morally wrong — it is a threat to our own personal health and safety.
We can see that the problems of an interconnected world cannot be isolated. The war in Ukraine, and the level of barbarism we are seeing by Putin, can be found rooted in what he did in Chechnya and Syria, when the world let him get away with it. Those conflicts didn’t get nearly the attention they deserved. Those refugees were not met with the same sympathy. Those cancers were allowed to metastasize.
One strategy that can help is if we diversify our newsrooms. We need more perspectives, more people with different backgrounds, more opportunities for us to report on the world with understanding and empathy. Yes, political talk shows seem to do well on cable news, but we also need to have foreign affairs covered more broadly. And when they are, the public needs to support those efforts. Such coverage is not cheap, and those who report in dangerous places often do so at incredible risk.
What is happening in Ukraine is a tragedy of historic proportions. Its people are brave. Their lives matter. Their stories need to be told. It’s not that we need less Ukraine; it’s that we need more of the rest of the world. Perhaps this moment of shock and self-reflection can yield the impetus for change, hope, and a belated recognition of the plights of so many.