People Just Want to Feel Good About War Again
you can support a war while thinking critically about its public perception
Noam Chomsky did an interview about Ukraine with Current Affairs lately, and the response was swift and enraged.
The meltdown over Chomsky’s innocuous comments is an indication of a broader, profoundly creepy culture of enforced consensus on this issue. There’s immense bipartisan agreement in favor of helping Ukraine resist the Russian advance, both among politicians and within the media, and yet even this near-unanimity is not enough for many people, who seemingly want literal unanimity. Nonpartisan media is festooned with pro-Ukraine coverage, and yet the rare bit of skepticism that squeaks through provokes outrage. On social media, dissenters are regularly called traitors and fifth columnists. “You’re either with us or you’re with the enemy” is the dominant creed, right now. I haven’t seen an insistence on groupthink like this since the post-9/11 world. And what’s particularly dark for me is that people who define themselves by championing dissent and free speech - this whole constellation of anti-social-justice-hegemony dissident opinion publications and personalities - have been no less likely to demand that everyone get onboard with the dominant narrative. (And a lot of people who regularly mock Instagram-bio politics have put up Ukrainian flags in theirs.)
Here’s what I want to suggest to my readers, many of whom have proven to share the same sensitivities about this conflict. I want to suggest that you can think that Russia is clearly acting in an unjustifiably aggressive manner and that Ukraine has a right to defend itself, as I do; you can support sending further American arms and money to the Ukrainian government; you can think that NATO and EU behavior have nothing whatsoever to do with Russia’s actions; you can think that Russia’s motivations are pure mustache-twirling evil with no justifications in national security or realpolitik; you can pray for a swift and decisive Ukrainian victory; you can even argue that the United States should send troops and get into a hot war with Russia on Ukraine’s behalf - you can believe all of those things and still find the current state of the discourse to be disordered and unhealthy. You can believe all of that stuff and still argue that the intense social mandate against dissent and hard questions is ugly and unhelpful.
A specific complaint against Chomsky is that his focus on the potential for American action to start a regional conflagration somehow makes him guilty of American chauvinism, that he’s denying the agency and self-determination to Ukrainian people. I think that this complaint makes no sense, if you think for a moment. Look at Noah Smith for a good example of the basic incoherence I’m talking about. Echoing a common criticism, Smith claims that American leftists in general and Chomsky in particular are demonstrating an American-centric worldview, insisting that
The arrogance of this kind of armchair quarterbacking is breathtaking — an American public intellectual dictating territorial and diplomatic concessions to Ukraine. Chomsky uses the word “we” to describe the parties that he imagines will make these concessions to Russia, but the first person pronoun is totally unwarranted — it is 100% Ukraine’s decision how much of their territory and their people to surrender to an invader who is engaging in mass murder, mass rape, and mass removal to concentration camps in the areas it has conquered. It is 0% Noam Chomsky’s decision.
And yet a few paragraphs later, Smith says of US support that “without which [Ukraine] would probably have fallen.” So, to follow along, Americans focusing on America’s role in the world are guilty of insularity and self-obsession, but also only America stands in the way of victory for Putin. Does this make a lick of sense to you? You can’t simultaneously say that Americans are being self-obsessive when they discuss Ukraine while you demand that America do more and more for Ukraine. Calls for the United States to deepen its involvement in this conflict are definitionally the business of each and every American, including Chomsky, other left critics of prolonging the war, and me. It is nonsensical to claim that an American has no right to an opinion on conduct by America’s government. Smith’s bizarre assertion that Chomsky is “armchair quarterbacking” while Smith is not has no possible justification; Smith has no personal stake in Ukraine that Chomsky does not. But he imagines that he does because, like the vast majority of people who engage on this topic, Smith has developed a profoundly unhealthy level of emotional investment in the issue. And that’s how Ukraine functions in the discourse right now, not as a rational political matter but as an emotional one.
It’s also worth saying that it is of course not 100% Ukraine’s decision how much of their territory and their people to surrender to Russia because that’s not how the world works. Russia has had and will continue to have something to say about how much territory Ukraine keeps and how many people it loses. Is that fair? No. But that’s life. Russia possesses a large and advanced military, as well as the world’s largest nuclear armament. Those facts have consequences, no matter what American pundits think is fair. Sometimes the world is like that. I thought the fact that bad actors sometimes do bad things, and that our efforts to change this will often simply make things worse, was a shared lesson of recent history. I think that living as part of the hegemon has led many Americans to chafe at the idea that there are any obstacles to implementing their will at all, that the world is an entirely pliable entity that will bend to our preferences if we just want it enough. But there has never been a time in post-agrarian history when there was not some sort of conflict between peoples or powers, and the ongoing devastation in Yemen demonstrates that bad things are happening in the world all the time. Whether they’re seen as major challenges to international norms is a matter of publicity.
I suspect that Chomsky’s deeper sin, in that interview, was to make the sensible observation that you shouldn’t think of foreign policy in the exact same moral terms that you think of the behavior of individuals. Foreign policy and warmaking are not easily mappable onto the ordinary moral intuitions that we apply to day-to-day life and the people around us. Chomsky is asking us to think less about simplistic considerations of good and bad and to instead practice some hardheaded cost-benefit analysis. Specifically, he’s suggesting that perpetuating the conflict by enabling short-term Ukrainian victories will ultimately only increase the risk of a truly ruinous war between NATO and Russia and result in greater destruction to Ukraine, without much changing the eventual outcome. Could he be wrong? Absolutely. Is he so wrong that he deserves days of bipartisan rage? I don’t think so. And I also don’t think that rage can be explained in rational terms. I think it speaks to the emotional miasma that has developed regarding this issue.
I think supporting Ukraine in 2022 has become like supporting the troops in 2002 because people are desperate for a morally simplistic contest in which the Goodies will nobly defeat the dastardly Baddies. Americans grow up surrounded by World War II nostalgia and feel denied their birthright of ethically uncomplicated and heroic wars. There’s also a deeper desperation to be positively inspired. I think most people in 2022 are profoundly disillusioned, in politics yes but also in a broader overriding sense, and feel beset by convincing critiques of every idea, party, movement, and institution in American life. In recent decades it’s felt like everything has been undermined and nothing has been built. We churn out college graduates who can critique everything yet create nothing. Even the most dedicated partisans seem to have a jaundiced view of their own side, saving all of their passion and energy for excoriating the other. You look at the discursive inroads the socialist left has made in the last decade in this country, and it’s the perfect example: we’ve achieved no power and little representation, but the leftist critique of conventional liberalism has infected liberals, they’re stung by it, they preemptively work to address it, they feel exhausted by it. I find it very difficult to locate genuine, uncomplicated, positive feelings about the broad left-of-center project anywhere. The migration of political discussion to social media has helped extinguish optimism as a factor in political life. Briefly with Ukraine it seemed that there was finally consensus on a major political issue, and broad American ignorance about foreign policy facilitates superficial unanimity. But the cost of enforced consensus is too high; the stakes here are life and death, and in such a context the need for robust and unrestrained argument is greater than ever.
I will repeat myself: what I am saying here can be entirely correct even if you take the dominant position on Ukraine, which is that Ukraine is a blameless victim and Russia an evil aggressor, that nothing other powers have done does anything to explain Russia’s behavior, let alone excuse it, and that NATO and the United States must take extraordinary measures to support Ukraine in this conflict. None of that is incompatible with the observation I’m making.
Perhaps the Ukrainians actually will nobly resist and push Russians all the way out of their territory. Perhaps the notorious corruption and fragile federal government in Ukraine will not prove to be a problem, even with vast troves of weapons having been recently imported. Perhaps the Azov battalion and the prevalence of the ultra-nationalist far-right are problems that will just go away. I’d be happy with those outcomes. But I suspect that, instead, in a year or two those who are celebrating the Ukraine-Russia conflict as a good war will not have such rosy feelings anymore. I suspect that the war will grind on, Russia will fail to capture the country but Ukraine will be unable to retake what they’ve lost, and a brutal, ugly stalemate will ensue. Many American observers will grow frustrated with the lack of progress and will find their attention pulled elsewhere, eventually quietly scrubbing the Ukrainian flag from their social media bios for fear of appearing behind the times. The fickle American imagination will turn to other things. And the future of Ukraine, even in an optimistic vision where they resist any substantial permanent capture of land by the Russians, will still be unsettled, still saddled with a weak central government, endemic corruption, a virulent strain of ultra-nationalist far-right sentiment, and the consequences of now being stuffed full of foreign arms and ordnance.
I don’t think this will stay a feel-good story for long. I do hope I’m wrong.