The first week of the war between Russia and Ukraine has presented to Americans something they have never seen before. It is not, as Thomas Friedman—that vaunted Sage of War who dispenses wisdom from the pages of the New York Times—has argued, the first time the “wired, globalized world” has seen war crimes covered on TikTok video and cellphones. This war is different for the United States because it is the first time that Americans and their NATO allies have been put in a position in which they identify with the little guy. Ukraine has, relatively speaking, a tiny military and a shoestring war chest; it has to make do and make the best of things.
This is not a matter of course for Americans. The first Bush administration brayed about “the liberation of Kuwait” in the first Gulf War thirty-one years ago, but everyone knew the United States was maneuvering against the power of Iraq. In the largest conflicts the world has seen in the 2000s, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, America has been the aggressor, the side that drones and bombs and kills. In those wars, its “embedded” and garishly nationalistic reporters presented idealized visions of the conflict to gullible audiences back home. In the case of Afghanistan, the war the United States wrapped up less than a year ago, the moral narrative was all about saving Afghan women, who (white American feminists from Hillary Clinton to Madeleine Albright insisted) had to be saved from the barbarity and brutality of Afghan men. As in the colonizing narratives of old, the invasion was presented as necessary, not connected to any strategic interests of the United States, but of a larger benevolent project (“Operation Iraqi Freedom” in the second Gulf War) of bringing freedom and democracy to foreign lands. In the American imagination, they were not really aggressors, bombing another sovereign nation into the stone age, but magnanimous do-gooders trying to rid another diseased foreign land from its affliction.
Now the hegemon is Russia. It does not occur to any American pundit dissecting the Russian assault on Ukraine that those American actions appeared just as cruel and even befuddling as Russian actions seem today. Why would the Russians bomb a kindergarten, someone on Twitter asked the other day? Well, why did the American military bomb innocent civilians, including seven children, on the outskirts of Kabul just a few months ago? Just as Americans eagerly gobbled up the fictions of their own benevolent intentions, so, too, must Russians believe the line that is told to them. Theirs is a “peacekeeping” mission in Ukraine, one that is geared toward preventing the genocide of ethnic Russians in the Donbas and Luhansk region. Putin’s propaganda isn’t close to reality because the war propaganda of a hegemon never is.
Beyond the Western media bubble, the Muslim world that identified with Afghanistan and Iraq saw very different wars. When local Shia militias holed up in Fallujah in 2004 or Sadr City in 2008 and tried to fight using improvised explosive devices (IEDs), they were wholly renounced as extremists caught in the wrenches of political Islamism. The fact that they may have just been people who did not want their city and their country occupied by the United States was not an explanation you’d find in the mainstream media. Now, Ukrainians are engaged in a similar quest, arming themselves with whatever they can find and making scores of Molotov cocktails to throw at invading Russians. Pictures of Ukrainians towing captured Russian tanks with tractors to hand off to the Ukrainian military are going viral. Suddenly, the defense of a homeland from a hegemon is noble and worthy—because the hegemon is the enemy of the United States. It is not that the Ukrainian efforts are not heroic and courageous, it is just that the Afghan efforts were similarly valiant—in fact, they were seen as valiant when they were fighting the USSR in the 1980s, but less so when resisting American domination.
In order to get all the help that they can get, the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has set up an international “legion” which will welcome any foreigner who wishes to fight for Ukraine. British media reported on at least one man who was eagerly signing up, despite the fact that he seemingly had no connection to the country whatsoever. The impetus was simply the desire to fight the good fight, to help the little guy. If anyone from the Muslim world tried to go and fight in Afghanistan, he was automatically deemed a terrorist interested not in any sort of anti-occupation struggle but in putting together another 9/11. That the 9/11 hijackers were not Afghan and there were no actual weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were details shelved away, just as the complete lack of provocation by Ukrainians likely escapes Russian minds with similar alacrity.
The migrant crisis caused by the Afghan war has already been forgotten. In contrast, Americans’ ardent lobbying of their political leaders to provide greater assistance for Ukrainians has led to a grant of TPS, “temporary protected status,” which allows those already here to stay without immigration penalties. No one really bothers to ask after the Afghans who had to flee mere months ago. Afghans—because they are Brown and Muslim and suspect—were never granted TPS. Even the limited programs created to admit Afghans who quite literally helped the American military effort have been duly criticized by the American right. Perhaps that is how the Russians will treat Ukrainian translators that they will employ once they are done with the invasion and have moved on to the occupation.
Human connection, care, and concern are wonderful feelings which sustain humanity. Ukraine deserves all the empathy we can provide, but empathy is not a zero-sum game, and the lessons of the present can and should change American interpretations of the past. For decades, some Europeans imagined that they had evolved beyond war, that their evolved humanity had arrived at an epoch where the garishness of armed conflict was simply impossible. As Afghans and Iraqis could have told anyone who cared to ask, there has been no giant leap in human evolution; war is still grisly, bombs still kill, and babies are born nevertheless in subway stations in Kyiv and tiny village hovels in Helmand.
Americans were taught not to care and Russians are likely receiving a similar education. To allow its drones to kill anyone America deemed threatening, officials made the case that drone operators could distinguish between “enemy combatants” and civilians. Millions of suspect Iraqis, Afghans, and others were suddenly fair targets for the American war machine. Hegemons create such absolutions, and they can be applied to Ukrainian or Iraqis or Afghans alike. When baffled Americans consider the inhumanity of Russian actions, they must remember this and say to themselves we, too, did this; we, too, were cruel; we, too, didn’t care.
We are at a place in world history where a fascist Russia led by a megalomaniacal dictator is threatening a non-aggressing country—as well as, through his threats to use nuclear weapons, the world population near and far. We need the international order, the UN, the International Criminal Court. The United States and Russia cannot be compared: one is a constitutional liberal democracy and the other a cruel dictatorship where dissenters are jailed, poisoned, or killed. Bringing up American sins in Afghanistan and Iraq highlights how the world’s only superpower violated and weakened the very international order that we need to save us from nuclear cataclysm.
One small way to amend the harms of the past is to acknowledge them, to push the United States to immediately become a signatory to the International Criminal Court, to assist Ukrainians in any way that is possible. We have not done what we should have to promote international law and peace, but we do not have to be prisoners of the past. We can move beyond that and do better now.