That’s how President Biden described his Kremlin counterpart after the grizzly images in Bucha, the latest theater in the Ukraine-Russia war, surfaced.
“This guy is brutal and what’s happening in Bucha is outrageous and everyone’s seen it,” Biden said, using phatic language to describe the kind of barbaric imagery once associated with ghettoized Warsaw, the Securitate, or, more contemporaneously, ISIL killing fields.
Biden brought up the butchering unprompted for reasons only his sluggish grey matter can fathom. But it did seemingly come from nowhere because, let’s be honest, who still thinks about Russia’s ongoing bombardment of Ukraine?
You’d be forgiven for forgetting the war was still happening, what with Will Smith slaps and rabid quadrupeds champing Capitol Hill tourists and the first black female Supreme Court justice (Swoon! *Giddy clapping.* Shrieks of YAAAAS QUEEEN!!) confirmed to the bench.
Oh, and there’s a new variant of a variant of COVID-19 spreading throughout the U.S. It’s called BA.2 and you should be warned that like its predecessor, Omicron, it’s highly contagious but only mildly virulent. Thankfully, reported cases are… oh… am I boring you? Because who gives a toss about COVID anymore? (And why did the donnish Sino-slaves at the WHO use “BA” to label virus sub-iterations when the Greek alphabet was our categorizing vernacular?)
COVID’s fallen off the public-conscious radar because it’s no longer stealing lives away at a fast clip, just as the novelty of the war in Ukraine has worn off, failing to elicit yellow-blue-washed pleas for peace.
The New York Times’s front page still contains news from the front, but its daily e-newsletters are focused on more socially salient topics, such as “The GOP’s Putin wing” and “Culture war, redux,” to name a few recent examples. Other than #Bucha hitting the top trending ten back on April 3rd, Ukraine is no longer a popular Twitter flavor. Besides, how can a war compete with a low-grade Spider-Man movie spin-off featuring a Nosferatuan minor villain and the Daily Quordole? Oh, and did you see Twitter may soon implement an “edit” button, so our social media nightmarescape can be even more disorienting?
To use early internet lingo, the Ukraine war went from hot to not, with the entire flap seeming as distant as Bob Saget’s death.
Awareness-wise, we’re at a perceptive remove from the heated moment Putin pulled the trigger on his irredentist quest. But a country that prides itself on an entrepreneur and innovative spirit diverting its attention span away from foreign conflict shouldn’t come as a surprise. It should be anticipated, as a function of our endlessly caroming American brain cells. But it’s worth trying to recapture that feeling of when Russia first rolled T-14s into the Donbas. We were told history was having its revenge, that our pacific illusions have ended, and that the “time of monsters” is here. President Biden was shipping arms and intel to Kyiv faster than Jeff Bezos Prime-overnighting his divorce papers. The fleet of “unprecedented” (in urgent times, precedents must always be prefixed with “un-”) sanctions were launched on Russia. American troops were sent to symbolically bolster NATO in Poland. And while this was all the sound and fury of an aging empire, signifying no serious attempt at world-war triggering, globe-spanning conflicts have been started over less.
A band of Republicans—seemingly shaken from their alleged America-Firstism–even vocally advocated for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, either ignorant of the risk for or content to have the U.S. blast Su-57s out of the firmament. The calls were mere tough-guy posturing, more pen-rattling than saber, but they were of the spirit of the aghast moralism on heavy display at the war’s outset.
Now all is calm, and all the bright spotlights have moved on to other events. Bi-color social avatars have mostly disappeared. A few popular Twitter accounts still brandish—or forgot leaving up—the Ukrainian flag emoji. Journalists occasionally tweet out war headlines, when they aren’t fulminating against the Florida governor or any of the dreck-spewing MAGA backbenchers in Congress.
But we’re far beyond the talk of an existential struggle between western democracy and eastern authoritarianism. And why not? Our virtue was properly signaled. Songs to freedom were sung. The President condemned with the harshest language his speechwriters could muster. Russian opera singers were given the gate. Everyone shouted BAD PUTIN! BAD WORLD LEADER! on their respective social streams.
Wasn’t that enough?
A couple of illuminating, but embarrassing questions. Please, honest reader, don’t be afraid to answer in the negative. Did you know that Russia set off its full-scale invasion into Ukraine back in February, a month and a half ago? Did you know that Ukraine President Zelensky addressed the Grammys—our little-watched annual music award—and what he said? Do you know around how many casualties both Ukrainian forces and the Russian army have suffered so far?
And, be veridical, did you even know what grisly massacre occurred in Bucha before you read the aforementioned Biden quote?
Do any of those questions even matter, other than for the eventual war historians who write the paperback airport chronicles? They certainly matter to displaced Ukrainians living in bomb shelters. But how can they make an attentional dent when our frontal lobe is constantly assaulted with more pressing events like whether or not J.K. Rowling deserves to make a cent from another Harry Potter prequel.
War isn’t supposed to be a spectral sport, enjoyed vicariously for the adrenaline spike provided by watching mortars crash on a screen.
But two modern factors have made bloody combat seem less bloody, less combative, and less mortal. Our twenty-year misadventure in Mesopotamia has inured Americans to the sacrifice of war. We started off baying for revenge over the Twin Towers crumbling only to spend years occasionally seeing news of a G.I. casualty on our tiny screens. As with everything else, the internet has disembodied the sanguinary nature of being under arms. Facebook briefly allowed calls for deadly retribution toward Russian invaders—in explicit violation of its own no-violence-promotion policy. The allowance had the echo of Big Brother encouraging two minutes of hate toward Putin, whom, naturally, we’ve always been at war with.
The digitization of war, whether it be through following death counts via push notification or the use of unmanned drones to firebomb slews of combatants or the mega-popular video-game simulations, has turned the life-and-death fray into yet another scroll-by event. Matt Purple once wrote an insightful piece on why millennials, despite being a “war generation,” can never claim to have been shaped by the blood shed for their freedom: “The sacrifice was too unevenly spread, the missions too strange and remote, the commitment too impossible.”
An incinerated child was just uncovered in a village in the Ukrainian province of Kharkiv Oblast. The pictures are gruesome and stomach-churning, reflecting the antithesis of Thomas Mann’s praise of war as “a purification, a liberation, an enormous hope.” But, hey, the Emmys ceremony was just announced for September and my fingers are crossed Oscar Issac wins Outstanding Lead Actor In A Limited Or Anthology Series Or Movie. I’ll tweet out my support before mentioning the slaughter in Husarovka.
Such is the privilege of peace—a privilege Americans enjoy immensely with immersion and death an ocean away. But as economists, those steady insisters of iron laws, remind us, when you cheapen something—or subsidize it with costless egging on—you get more of it. We’ll eventually regret treating war like another championship sport match enjoyed from the comforts of our couch. For now you can tweet #prayforUkraine and watch Netflix guilt-free tonight. The marketplace never stops warring for our money.