A War with No Name

Chapter Six

Words of Warcraft: Manufacturing Dissent in Russia and Ukraine

While it would be difficult to decide which of the many statements made by the brilliant French theorist Jean Baudrillard is the most profound, there is little question as to which is the most obnoxious:  look no further than the title of his 1991 collection, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.

Baudrillard’s point was not to dispute the human cost of what sadly came to be called the First Gulf War; quite to the contrary, he argued that the extensive media manipulation and stylized propaganda characterizing the war’s presentation to Western citizens rendered a bloodbath available as a simulacrum while simultaneously reinforcing a postmodern model of the citizenry as the state’s audience.  As the US military moved from “Operation Desert Shield” to “Operation Desert Storm,” the American public was treated to a carefully stage-managed presentation of an otherwise incomprehensible war (starting with falsified atrocity propaganda in congressional testimony about Iraqi soldiers tearing Kuwaiti babies from their incubators and culminating in the repeated images of the same American “smart bomb” destroying the same Iraqi target).  

In a similar vein, the war in Ukraine is a highly mediated phenomenon, a conflict  that most people in Russian and Ukraine are fortunate enough to experience only as audience.  It is this virtual war that serves as my subject, a war that shares as much with fiction as it does with fact. But if I approach the conflict in Ukraine in terms of fantasy and representation, it is not to cast doubt on the suffering of the dead and displaced citizens of Eastern Ukraine.  Reliable statistics are difficult to obtain, but according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the death toll verged on 10,000 by March 2015 (including the 304 passengers of Malaysian Flight MH-17); to these appalling figures we must add a refugee crisis, with 1.5 million people displaced by the fighting.  

But the exploitation of this human misery for propaganda value itself operates as a kind of displacement of real pain into the realm of the political and the national.  The bodies of the actors and acted upon are all too real, but their experience has been hijacked from what Lacan would call the Real with a capital “R" (pre-linguistic, pre-Symbolic bodily experience that defies the power of language) and transfigured into the realm of the Imaginary (stock representations that short-circuit complex, discursive thought more often than they aid it).  

The complexities extend to basic questions of language, indeed, of simple naming.  Unlike the First Gulf War, which was branded and trademarked before it actually began (“Desert Storm”), the past few years’ on-again, off-again fighting defies nomenclature.  I find myself resorting to a mealymouthed, anodyne locution: “the conflict in Ukraine,” a bloodless and bureaucratic phrase with echoes of the “Korean Conflict” of the 1950s. To call it a civil war would be to downplay the role of Russia’s military (a role that the Russian government manages to confirm and deny almost in the same breath); to call it an invasion would ignore the internal dynamics of a long-troubled Ukrainian state while inflaming the rhetoric about an alleged Russian threat to world peace.

The framework for discussing the Ukrainian conflict is just as disputed in the West as it is in former USSR:  was the Euromaidan protest movement the expression of popular desire for “European values” and American-style democracy (“Truth, Justice, and the Ukrainian Way”), in opposition to crypto-communists and would-be USSR revivalists, or was it yet another example of the fallout from America’s overseas hegemonic blundering in general and failed Russia policy in particular (heedless NATO expansion, quasi-imperialist encouragement of “color revolutions,” and a conditioned reflex to see in Vladimir Putin the second coming of Joseph Stalin)? 

The lack of a conventional name for this particular war is offset by the plethora of new and revived toponyms for the area in which it is fought:  “Donbass,” itself a customary abbreviate based on the name of a Don River tributary, has yielded to the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk (or, if you’re a Russian speaker, Lugansk) People’s Republic (LPR), all subsumed into the fantasy known as “Novorossiya.”  To those in the separatist East, their enemies are not simply “Ukrainians,” but “Banderites,” “fascists”, and “Galicians,” while the Russian Federation forces whose presence was intermittently acknowledged by Putin’s government, were put forward as simply “polite people” and “little green men.”  Once again, a Real military conflict approaches the world of high fantasy, populated by fantastic creatures (some of whom, we recall, are even fighting against a Russian “Mordor”). But the same dynamics that threaten to turn real events into a fantastic story are also behind the insistence on interpreting them as plot, both in a literary and conspiratorial sense.  The violence in Ukraine, continually posed as a proxy war, would then be the work of malign forces pulling strings offstage (the State Department, Putin, NATO).  

Next: A Bewitched Place