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The immense panorama of futility: War, Media, History, and Us

by Beatrix Stark In a televised speech broadcast on Monday, Feb. 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin invoked – and rewrote- history in order to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The once-glorified Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin were recast as figures of failure who betrayed the Russian nation by surrendering the territory which now […]

by Beatrix Stark

In a televised speech broadcast on Monday, Feb. 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin invoked – and rewrote- history in order to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The once-glorified Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin were recast as figures of failure who betrayed the Russian nation by surrendering the territory which now forms modern day Ukraine. We witnessed Putin transform a complex into a romanticist national myth harkening back to the Romanov dynasty, with its legacy of unshakeable autocracy and programme of “Russification”.  

History students will have heard the famous George Orwell quote, “who controls the past controls the future” bandied about so frequently that it appears to have lost all meaning. There is little real interrogation into how we can use the past in order to prevent the same mistakes occurring in the future, or if it is even possible to prevent history when you are living through it.  

By watching the war between Russia and Ukraine unfold in real time, we are confronted by the futility of trying to separate ourselves from the inexorable wheels of history. It is naïve to suggest that we have the power to avert future atrocities by merely taking a glance through a history book. The ceaseless evolution of context means that history never repeats itself in exactly the same way twice; echoes of the past may warn us about the future but they cannot save us from the present.

In many ways, the historian is at his or her most powerful – and powerless – when assessing the present. It is perhaps helpful to envision the historian as a figure on the hill overlooking a battle. The high-ground allows them to perceive the army emerging from the horizon, the fighting below, and the losers retreating into the distance.

However, this kind of omnipresent vision is unachievable in real life, where it seems almost impossible for the individual to resist being consumed by the tumult of the present. The feeling of being overwhelmed by the futility of contemporary war is a symptom of mass media. The immediacy of the war in Ukraine is mediated through our computer screens, evoking a sense that we are both close to and distant from the conflict. Our sense of futility stems from the fact that we are able to witness war, but in many cases unable to act in a way which will make any material difference to the situation. As a result, we  feel complicit in the destruction. 

There is something incredibly disturbing about watching war through a livestream video. We live in an age where we feel perversely reassured by the constant metaphorical bombardment of information. Digital imagery and news feeds offer us a sense of false security, by suggesting that we possess an element of control over the chaos. 

The battle in Ukraine is taking place on TikTok and in Kiev’s streets alike 

On the flipside, social media is being utilized in a positive way to expose the human rights violations which are currently taking place on the ground in Ukraine. International lawyer Phillipe Sands has suggested that there is a potential for heads of state to be tried in an international court for committing crimes against humanity (although this would be politically and militarily unlikely). There is a sense that every video, photograph, and interview taken in Ukraine is contributing to the compilation of evidence which will be used for a future reckoning.

However, it is important to remember that the images which we encounter through news channels, and social media platforms do not communicate the true trauma of reality. Over the past decade, mass media has allowed us to watch conflicts across the world at the cost of desensitizing the modern generation to graphic violence; we have learned to watch war play out in the almost metaphysical realm of social media.

In the last few days, we have seen how social media can be used to blur the line between truth and lies so that they become almost indistinguishable. The Kremlin propaganda machine has displayed its propensity for inverting the truth via state TV, which alleges peaceful Kiev is undergoing “liberation”.

The weaponization of media for propaganda purposes is incredibly dangerous because it also possesses the potential to influence realpolitik. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook and 24-hour news channels accelerate real life events to such a pace that would have been almost unthinkable even a decade ago. The speed of communication has reached such a fever pitch that there is the real threat that the inflamed rhetoric of a rash tweet could become conflated with real action.

This is epitomized by Putin’s declaration that he has raised the Russian nuclear alert level in a response to Western aggression. The use of such volatile rhetoric on the global stage threatens to escalate the war to terrifying extremes. It serves as a chilling reminder that nuclear weapons are now used tactically and are not left dormant to fulfill the principle of mutually assured destruction . 

The individual’s increasing sense of disconnection from reality can be summed up in T.S. Eliot’s assertion, delivered after the First World War, that contemporary history is defined by an ‘immense panorama of futility and anarchy’.History still wields immense power in our contemporary world, and established historical authorities have always been and will continue to be manipulated in order to legitimize unjustifiable acts of violence. History is being used as a wasteland, a place to dump blame and accountability at the feet of long-deceased historical relics. Beyond the incoherent rhetoric where war is presented as liberation, and history as a tool of destruction, it is imperative to remember the harrowing reality that Ukrainian civilians have lost everything overnight.

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