Tomgram: Nan Levinson, The Enticements of War (and Peace)

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These days, whenever you check out the news, it seems to be war, war, war — a focus today for TomDispatch regular Nan Levinson, author of a notable antiwar book, War Is Not a Game: The New Antiwar Soldiers and the Movement They Built. I mean, I just randomly looked at the Washington Post homepage and the top headline of that second was: “More than 100 killed in Gaza City, officials say; Israel cites stampede at aid drop.” However tomorrow’s news may explain those grim deaths, before they’re swept away by yet more of the same, they only add to the 30,000 or more Palestinians already slaughtered (a figure that itself is undoubtedly a significant underestimate). Similarly, the 700-odd Gazans reportedly wounded in that incident only add to another nightmarish, if largely unknown total. And within just a few days, that death and destruction will undoubtedly have been shoved aside by whatever comes next, instantly becoming yesterday’s news about Israel’s devastation of Gaza.

Oh, and on that same Post page of headlines, if you skip the ones about the Biden/Trump trips — oops, “dueling visits”! — to our increasingly militarized southern border, the next in line might, in a sense, be far more disheartening: “Putin threatens nuclear response to NATO troops if they go to Ukraine.” I mean, 78 years after those two atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, imagine that the possibility of nuclear war has now become an everyday matter for the president of Russia, “threatening retaliatory strikes against the West in the event of attacks on Russian territory” and adding that his country’s “strategic nuclear forces are in a state of full readiness.”

Ho-hum, what’s new? Slaughter, nukes, horrors galore, and it doesn’t seem to stop anymore, does it? Ever. And all of this, mind you, is just sweeping into the distant past, the staggering casualties my own country inflicted on this planet in this century with its never-ending “war on terror.” And yes, all of it keeps us in a distinctly human version of hell, but as Levinson suggests today, a kind of reportorial heaven. Tom

Is There a Journalism That Doesn’t Love a War?
Covering Two Too-Long Wars

War, what is it good for? Well, the media for starters.

Shortly after the Biden administration responded to the killing of three American soldiers in a drone attack on a base in Jordan by bombing 85 Iran-connected targets in Iraq and Syria, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) asked in a headline: “Is the press dragging America to war again?”

Again? I thought. Shouldn’t that be “still”?

That headline was on a recent Media Today newsletter by Jon Allsop who regularly covers what could be considered the favorite topic of journalists: themselves. He was mulling over media criticism of how the government had (or hadn’t) disclosed information about that just-launched bombing campaign, as well as its goals, while considering the accusation that some news platforms were rooting for a wider regional war. CJR is a fair-minded publication, so Allsop warned against generalizing (as I’m about to do), pointing out that “asking questions about planned strikes isn’t the same as advocating them.” Yes, I thought, but when you focus your questions on that subject, as so many media reports did after those American deaths and before the Biden administration launched its attacks, not surprisingly it can have that effect.

As the death toll in Gaza passed 30,000, on-the-ground reporting on the increasingly impossible living conditions there was making Israel’s belligerence seem ever less defensible. Little wonder coverage in the American media focused ever more on prospects for a cease-fire. And seemingly in tandem with that possibility, coverage of anxiety over the course of the war in Ukraine returned to the digital equivalent of the front page, making me wonder whether the media requires at least one war to cheerlead for or fret about at any given time.

The situations in Ukraine and Gaza are anything but the same militarily, strategically, politically, morally, or journalistically, and there are timely reasons for focusing once again on Ukraine. It was, after all, the second anniversary of Russia’s February 24, 2022, invasion. Cue up the requisite assessments of the situation, with predictions about Ukraine’s military prospects ranging from grim to dire, and photos showing the hard, inglorious miseries of war. The U.N. verified that at least 10,582 Ukrainian civilians had been killed by late February, while estimates — assumed to be wild undercounts — put soldiers’ deaths at more than 45,000 for Russia and 31,000 for Ukraine, with tens of thousands more wounded on both sides.

Add to the list of news pegs Donald Trump’s extortionate claim that, were he to win the presidency again, he would encourage Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to any NATO country that doesn’t ramp up its military funding to his standards; the opportunely revealed threat that Russia might put a nuclear weapon into orbit; and the suspicious death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and you’ve certainly got the attention of American news consumers. Meanwhile, funding for U.S. military aid to Ukraine has become a political football in Congress, whose dysfunction, while hardly new, was still headline-making.

So, war in Ukraine certainly counted as newsworthy, but beyond that there does seem to be something about war that journalists can’t resist and blind spots they can’t overcome.

The Wages of Fear

It’s an open debate whether the press, the mainstream media, the legacy media, whatever you want to call it, leads or follows public opinion. Polls show Americans increasingly go to social media and podcasts for their news. Only 5% of adults now prefer to get it from print publications and no one seems to trust any news outlet other than the Weather Channel very much. Yet, like it or not (and usually we don’t), the news media continue to influence what we know and how we think about world events, as they set the priorities, language, framework for, and spectrum of public discussion.

Even at a time when a scoop, or exclusive, seldom lasts more than a couple of minutes and news sources from around the world offer alternative reporting and viewpoints, it’s still the newsrooms of a handful of newspapers, magazines, and broadcast and cable channels that generate much of the news we consume on our various devices and apps. That’s especially true for international issues and even truer for the wars the U.S. gets itself involved in, distant as they are.

It’s not that journalists are a particularly callous or bloodthirsty lot. It’s that war makes good copy. Accounts like former war correspondent Chris Hedges’s anguished War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning attest to its seductions. As he wrote, “War is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.” That “us” includes politicians whom war spurs to soaring pledges of fealty to principles and journalists who thrive on quoting them.

“In the battle between democracy and autocracies, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security,” President Biden said of the just-begun Ukraine war in his 2022 State of the Union address. Never mind that his version of peace and security would be propped up by more than $44 billion in military assistance by the time he delivered his 2023 State of the Union address. The president, of course, reaffirmed then that, when tested, America would stand up for democracy. “For such defense matters to us because it keeps peace.” (I don’t quite get how war keeps peace, but we’re undoubtedly not supposed to probe such rhetoric too deeply.)

Not only was democracy imperiled, we were told, but so, too, were neighboring NATO countries. In March 2023, exercising his skill at engaging allies, Ukrainian President Zelensky said, “If we are no more, then, God forbid, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia will be next.” Eleven months later at the Munich Security Conference, Vice President Kamala Harris amplified the threat: “If we stand by while an aggressor invades its neighbor with impunity, they will keep going — and in the case of Putin, that means all of Europe would be threatened.” And, predictably, such war rhetoric reminded us again and again and again that history, that relentless scold, is watching.

Politicians say such things and journalists, of course, report them. Moreover, journalism’s portfolio isn’t history, but what’s happening now, giving us an eternal snapshot of an evanescent present. Not surprisingly, then, a complicated situation can quickly be reduced to a few catchphrases and, repeated often enough, such phrases become our only reality. (Just ask Donald Trump how that works, if you don’t believe me.) In the process, it can become an underlying and unchallenged assumption that the pathway to future security and peace is ineluctably through war. And when, according to your government and the media, you have democracy and history on your side, it’s hard to imagine an alternative like negotiating with the enemy as anything less than craven betrayal.

I don’t question that Ukraine’s sovereignty is in danger; or that a country under attack has a right to defend itself; or that Russian President Vladimir Putin will continue to live up to his reputation for provocation and brutality, offing his opponents by defenestration, poison, or means yet to be revealed. The Western commentariat has been fooled before and even Putin may not know what he’s going to do next. Still, there are knowledgeable sources who think that, even with a victory in Ukraine, he would leave NATO alone, at least for the foreseeable future. However, you’d have to read deep into most recent U.S. news stories on the topic to find that side of the argument.

Who Benefits?

On the New York Times podcast “The Daily,” diplomatic correspondent Steven Erlanger observed of European countries now increasing their military spending, “I mean, there’s nothing like scaring people to get them to do things.” And who benefits from a fearful political class and citizenry anywhere? How about the news media?

Reporting doesn’t necessarily intend to make us uneasy, alarmed, or generally bummed out, but that’s often its result. Such results are baked into our idea of news, which, to be news, must be ever-evolving. If you turn away, however anxious you may feel, the implication is that you’ll miss it. What that it you’ll miss is may not always be clear, but social media and its attendant technologies have trained us to thirst for a bottomless tumbler of “content” replenishing itself in lickety-split time.

Fear is profitable not only for the media, but also, of course, for defense contractors. It may be a flaw in our natures or an instinctual reflex, but Americans respond to national anxieties, real or imagined, by arming themselves to the teeth, both personally and nationally, and their allies, too. In 2022, a typical year, this country spent more on “defense” than the next 10 countries combined and, in the two years since Russia invaded Ukraine, it has sent $46.3 billion in military assistance to that country alone (and that’s not even counting other spending related to that war).

And still, if you’re to believe the media, it’s not been faintly enough. Current reporting from Ukraine seldom fails to stress its army’s desperate need for more weapons, equipment, and ammunition. One opinion piece, headlined “This is no time to give up on Ukraine,” even resurrected the tired trope that the Ukrainians are being forced to fight with one arm tied behind their back. And assuming Congress finally passes the necessary appropriation bill, who must step up and produce that weaponry, equipment, and ammunition? Why, the giant American weapons manufacturers of the military-industrial-congressional complex, of course, and if they make a bundle in the process, that’s the definition of good business, right?

It isn’t all a one-way deal, you’ll be relieved to know. The U.S. military, having completed a classified year-long study, is using the Ukraine war to rethink its playbook. And not surprisingly, that war coincides all too well with American economic interests. Speaking at the U.N. Security Council’s 11th meeting on arms transfers to Ukraine last December, Ann Wright, a retired Army colonel, retired State Department official, and peace activist, quoted Secretary of State Antony Blinken as saying that 90% of what this country invested in Ukraine’s defense was spent in the United States, making it a boon for the American economy. “So this has also been a win-win that we need to continue,” he added all too tellingly.

“The ‘win-win’ is not for civilians in conflict areas,” Wright observed. “The win-win is for the military-industrial complex and the politicians and retired government officials who receive senior positions in the weapons industry after their retirements.”

But Enough About Ukraine, What About the U.S.?

By the way, that U.N. meeting wasn’t covered in the media. Why would you report on the 11th meeting of anything? But the Ukraine war remained a lead domestic story before its anniversary in part because of Congress’s deadlock over that supplemental aid package and the way support for and opposition to it tended to break down along ever fiercer and more Trumpian party lines. As a result, the media gets to treat the situation in Ukraine as another American political horserace to hell and back.

After Senate Republicans insisted that funding for Ukraine be tied to Mexican border-security changes and then killed an aid package that did just that, a number of them finally agreed to join Democrats in giving bipartisan approval to a stand-alone military aid bill that included $60.1 billion for Ukraine. That package passed the Senate with the support of 22 Republicans, six military veterans among them. But House Speaker Mike Johnson declined to bring the package to the floor, where it would undoubtedly pass, and instead sent everyone home for two weeks.

“The Republican-led House will not be jammed or forced into passing a foreign aid bill that was opposed by most Republican senators and does nothing to secure our own border,” Johnson said on Valentine’s Day. “The weight of history is on [Mike Johnson’s] shoulders,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer responded not long after, while on a visit to Ukraine.

And all of a sudden, with Republicans stalling and Trump bad-mouthing NATO, the media are talking about American isolationism, a wildly Trumpian America First phenomenon that hasn’t been truly fashionable here since 1941, when the attack on Pearl Harbor shifted the support of the American public — and the American press — toward internationalism. Of course, today’s “isolationists” are anything but doves. They want lots of money for weapons, too, but they want to put a lot of those weapons to use right here at home by militarizing the Texas border, big-time.

This may all seem topsy-turvy — once upon a time, Democrats talked peace dividends used for civic programs — until you recall that defense spending has long had bipartisan support in Congress, thanks to giant weapons makers who spread their largesse to politicians of every stripe in a staggering fashion.

Amid all of this, the American public seems to be rethinking its support for Ukraine. A healthy majority supported funding for the war there from the start, but over the last year that support has been weakening (as, far more quickly, has support for the war in Gaza). An October 2023 poll found that, for the first time, a plurality of those asked, 41%, thought the U.S. was doing too much to help Ukraine, while about two-thirds thought neither side was winning there. A poll from early February found, surprisingly enough, that 69% of respondents wanted the U.S. to urge Ukraine to negotiate with Russia as quickly as possible.

Polls, like journalism, show a single moment and can tell us only so much, but public sentiment and news coverage do interact, and, over time, both can influence public policy. No one other than a coalition of stalwart antiwar groups is yet truly beating the drums of peace, but there are reasons why both Ukraine and Russia could benefit from talking to each other now, not the least of which should be the recognition that this devastating war, like most wars, has gone on too long. So, in a roundabout and unintended way, it may end up that a group of American politicians who don’t give a damn about the wellbeing of Ukraine, following a man who gives a damn only about himself, could be the impetus for negotiations toward peace to begin.

Now, wouldn’t that be something worth reporting?

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