“The drumbeat of war.” Media outlets all over the world latched onto that phrase, and for weeks, its driving, propulsive beat moved the news of Russia and Ukraine forward. CNN let us hear from Ukrainian business leaders “as drumbeat of war grows louder”; other outlets noted that “Drumbeat of war is already hurting Ukraine economy.” Radio Free Europe had the “drumbeat of war” reverberating on the Romanian-Ukrainian border. ABC reported that “the drumbeat of war is all but unheard in Moscow.” The New York Times mixed things up with “a growing drumbeat of accusations.” The L.A. Times asked if the flurry of talks amplified or softened the drumbeat to war. On Press TV: “Ukraine says soldier killed amid West’s drumbeat of war.” Politico listed its news as “Sunday Crunch: Get well soon, Queen Elizabeth—Drumbeat of war—Partygate season finale?”
“Drumbeat” is a strong word, its evenly divided syllables repeating, boom-boom. Its tone is both ominous and poetic. Its history is long. Ancient drums signaled warfare in West Africa; Islamic soldiers used kettle drums; snare drums rallied the troops during the Crusades. A drumbeat echoes a heartbeat, insistent and powerful; maybe subliminally, it reminds us of the lives that will be lost. The sound of a drum goes beneath words, pulling people into sync. For those who grasped the situation, the drumbeat worked as a soundtrack. For the rest of us, the drumbeat cliché helped trigger apprehension. Why? Because drums rarely just stop. Even if they are not joined by a full orchestra, they build to a frenzied climax. Or they march a parade all the way home.
The prelude was accurate—so why did the phrase annoy me? First, its grabby adoption, repeating in bold headlines, closing news segments, punctuating the chatter of the pundits, rendered it trite. In other situations, it might have seemed a lurid effort at sensationalism, but this time, what was happening deserved the drama. The problem was the opposite one: there is something a bit trivializing in the way we give wars clever names and taglines and design graphics for them, propagandizing their storms and blitzes. (Guerilla warfare, though effective, is seldom as satisfying for mass consumption; it does not gel into a single exciting thing that can be packaged for effect. Could that ridiculous fact have made the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan less exciting to support?)
Slogans and catchphrases are meant to simplify. But the cliché that usually winds up most apt is “the fog of war,” when nobody whose life is in danger knows what is happening at the top. The phrase can be used as an excuse, but it is also an excellent reminder of the vast, slurred distance beneath those in charge, rendering their thinking a game of Telephone.
That has already begun. The commander in chief of Ukraine’s army reported (on Facebook!—who would have thought our frivolous social media would become channels first for presidential revelations and then for serious breaking news?) that a Russian military brigade recon platoon had surrendered. Believing they were there to gather intel, they were appalled to learn that “they were brought to Ukraine to kill Ukrainians,” Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S. later confirmed.
As horrified spectators, we, too, are lost in the fog. I was genuinely startled to read James Wertsch’s explanation of the religious roots of this strike. The David R Francis Distinguished Professor of anthropology at Washington University, Wertsch takes a longer view than most of us are capable of, looking past Russia’s secular history to the days of the czar. Putin was deeply influenced by the writings of the philosopher Ivan Illyin, Wertsch explains, and Illyin saw Russia as “an innocent and pure nation that has repeatedly been victimized by invasions and the infiltration of alien ideas designed to weaken and destroy the nation.” Democracy and the rule of law would threaten not just authoritarian power but Russia’s purity, Wertsch explains. “What’s needed is an indomitable leader, fortified by strong Russian Orthodox spirituality, who is unafraid to take brutal action to repel foreign enemies and root out domestic ones.” Is that just religion as rationale, prettying up a bloody campaign? There are far baser motives in the mix, to be sure. But in the days of the czar, Russia thought of Moscow as “the third Rome,” and Orthodox Christianity—the only true, pure form of Christianity—as the framework for its defense. In other words, we are not looking at a secular grab for power. Depending on whether we gaze backwards or forwards, we are looking at Holy Mother Russia or Christian fascism.
This is not to suggest that Putin is a devout ideologue. One could safely question his loyalty to any ideology—communist or Christian. What we know is that he is loyal to himself, and to the greatness of Russia (that he can reflect onto himself). Truth is not something he allows to trouble him.
Still, knowing this piece of Putin’s motivation helps us predict his ultimate goal—and his next move. It might also help galvanize his own people. But Putin is too arrogant, or cagey, to explain himself completely or truthfully.
The unofficial beginning of the invasion was his “spontaneous,” televised meeting with his security council. That gathering was meant to banish any fog with a display of perfect transparency—yet it was obviously scripted in advance. The participants were nervous. Their leader protested too much: “Every one of you knows, and I especially want to underline it…I did not discuss any of this with you before. I did not ask your opinion before. And this is happening spontaneously because I wanted to hear your opinions without any preliminary preparation.”
Western analysts, watching closely, joked on Twitter that in that case, the defense minister should have removed his watch, which showed a time five hours earlier.
Putin followed those staged assurances of support from his council members with an hour-long diatribe, insisting that Ukraine was not a real state after all, only a place Lenin made up—and foolishly allowed a little too much autonomy. The Columbia Journalism Review summed up the coverage for this package: “Astonished reporters and analysts variously described it as “totally extraordinary and deeply disconcerting” and “truly remarkable and terrifying,” while comparing it, variously, to a Netflix drama, a reality-TV show, King Lear, and James Bond.”
The message—coming from both official channels and the media—was charged with high drama. The trappings were too entertaining to match the bloodshed. Why is it so difficult to speak plainly about important things? At the times we most need to communicate calmly and comprehensively, we blur and obfuscate, posture and lie, or package the news in clichés. That is a telltale sign that the speech serves a private agenda, not the common and urgent need for clarity. Emotion is the currency of war, used to manipulate, shortcut, dominate. But this is a tricky path to power. Tangle words, and diplomacy is useless; soldiers are demoralized; passions are whipped up in a way that can easily collapse or spin out of control; and your opponents dismiss you as demented.
If leaders did speak calmly and fully, though, they might get no support at all. Not to mention the loss of clicks for the media coverage.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.