It’s safe to say that the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War is the most televised in history.
From day one there have been images of fighting and destruction broadcast all over the world, often live or posted shortly after the fact, across an array of social and mainstream media sites.
Every day we get access to fresh GoPro footage from soldiers. Often, when a missile or drone hits a city, there are videos of the explosions from various angles.
These videos can be analyzed and studied in order to hone defenses or improve fighting capability. Or, they can be gathered and contextualized in order to create a broader narrative, which can then be used to implicate specific units in war crimes.
The New York Times did exactly that in a thorough investigation of which Russian units and their commanders were involved in war crimes perpetrated in the town of Bucha, which is just outside of Kyiv, in early March.
Yet apart from using video footage to ascertain the veracity of an event, many war-watchers – myself included – often spend hours each day sifting through footage of combat and/or popular resistance to get a wider, more complete view of events.
Weary of war porn
There are viral videos – such as one from the first days of the war in which unarmed civilians in Chernihiv Region pushed back a Russian tank trying to enter their village – that inspire resistance.
Then there are other videos: countless images of enemy soldiers seen from a drone’s-eye view getting blasted limbless out of a trench; or a tank’s turret exploding skyward with a vicious spin; or a helicopter getting hit by a missile, then crashing into a field and engulfed by a ball of fire.
Admittedly, these scenes of carnage are often the source of great satisfaction.
There’s something inherently edifying in watching a bully, who is intent on physically harming someone who’s weaker, getting knocked unconscious by his or her victim.
Such images have been a powerful motivator for soldiers and civilians alike since the early days of the war. They have provided proof that the second strongest army in the world is beatable.
Then there are the images of slaughtered innocents: corpses lining the streets of Bucha, mass graves in Mariupol and Izyum. These visuals incite not only horror, but also the desire for revenge.
It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to figure out that watching too much of this – let’s call it "war pornography" – is not good for the psyche.
Some people might be impervious to massive doses of industrialized death seen mediated through GoPro or drone footage from the luxury of a living room armchair or office desk, but I’m not one of them.
These scenes make me furious.
And I know I’m not alone when I say I indulge in them to maintain a healthy level of outrage that will inspire me to fight back in whatever way my capacities allow.
So although I try to mitigate my over-exposure to war porn as best I can, usually by channeling the rage it stirs up into something constructive, I often need help.
Zelensky to the rescue
President Volodymyr Zelensky came to the rescue over the holidays with a prerecorded televised speech to the Ukrainian people, a speech I assume that will be studied for generations to come.
By now, we all know Zelensky is a master of communication. With his combination of earnestness, empathy and relentless pressure, he has managed to seduce his nation and most of the world.
Over the holidays he outdid himself.
In 17 minutes of superb rhetoric, ably supported by a not overly intrusive or sentimental soundtrack and a deft selection of video snippets from social media, he summed up what the past year of resistance has meant for the Ukrainian nation.
"On Feb. 24 we woke up as a different 'we,' a different people, different Ukrainians," he says.
He then covers a litany of cities and their citizens’ specific acts of heroism. He touches heartstrings.
He rises to moments of righteous anger that the entire world can share. His timing is excellent.
He is artful, and the beauty of his gruff rhetoric enables us to contextualize and transfigure so much war porn into fuel for a necessary sense of indignation.
Image-obsessed and questing for the truth
To say that our societies are obsessed with images is not just an understatement, it’s a banal truism.
Go to any tourist attraction and study the narcissism of people posing for selfies. On a kinetic level, observers are often more concerned with the recording of any given event than actually watching it or taking part.
Yet this compulsion to record images and convey them also stems from a natural human desire to know the truth. "I was here," they in effect say. "This actually happened."
Perhaps this is why we place such a premium on the eternity that video footage offers.
It gives us a glimpse of truth that makes verbal eyewitness accounts pale in comparison.
As a product of television culture, Zelensky has managed to parlay his talents first into stardom, then into a significant media enterprise, and now into something much bigger.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I’d say he is very aware that he has become the messenger of a truth the free world has long embraced, but conveniently ignored.
We in Western Europe and North America have ignored the truth of our freedom because we’ve either become too cynical, too lazy to bother sustaining it, or worse, too "sophisticated" to harbor such retrograde notions as universal truth.
And out of nowhere comes a former jester who rises to the occasion with unexpected courage (and, in a sense, almost repudiating his former irreverence, upon which he built a successful career) to remind us of what is important.
Above all – life. A good life. And the freedom that is a prerequisite for a good life.
All abstractions? To some extent, yes. But when Zelensky says it, he says it as if we already know exactly what he means. And we do.
It’s the life that we can live without the likes of Putin and his ilk crashing in with tanks and guns and missiles and atrocities to keep us from pursuing what we deem to be good.
That’s Zelensky’s gift. When he speaks, he speaks as if we know exactly what he means – no matter what he says. It’s a talent very few people possess.
And now we can watch and listen to him every day if we want – to cleanse our palates of all the war porn that risks poisoning us into no longer seeing the point of why we resist.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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