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A Watchable War: The Complications of Ukrainian Combat Footage

On the surface, war is a numbers game. According to the think tank CSIS, around seventy thousand Russian soldiers have been killed since Putin invaded Ukraine. As a statistic, this number is much lower than Russian losses in World War II and around twenty times higher than American losses in Iraq. As a tangible measurement of real lives lost, the death toll is completely incomprehensible. We can try to understand it. We can count it on our fingers. We can imagine it in terms of mothers, fathers, or siblings. We can estimate how many tears have been shed over these men, based on standard grieving period length and average sobs per day—adjusted for numbness, fond memories, and not wanting to cry in front of the kids. Or we can watch the moments when some of Russia’s dead died.

In some sense, wars have always been available for viewing. Millenia after ancient Greek tourists picked through the corpse-strewn battlefield of Marathon, Civil War-era socialites picnicked at the 1861 Battle of Bull Run. These days, however, we no longer have to leave the house to watch human beings bleed out and burn. We can just go to the “CombatFootage” SubReddit and become one of the 1.3 million members who follow the violence there. If Reddit isn’t your speed, there’s always Twitter, where a couple of choice follows can yield a near-constant stream of carnage. For an edgier option, the Ukrainian military maintains a collection of enemy bodies on the app Telegram, encouraging Russian families to “Look For Your Own.” No matter where you look, conflict is consumable like never before.

The war in Ukraine seems like a blood sport for many of its online viewers. Viewers on Reddit, Twitter, and Telegram often display a desensitized, dehumanizing glee, cheering on the death of Russian troops like they’re following a football game. From another perspective, however, the blunt presentation of war’s horrors has long been used to advocate against conflict. In this sense, Ukraine’s photos and videos should be able to open our eyes to the true hell of war. Instead of dehumanizing those hundred thousand Russians, combat footage should show us the tragedy of their situations. It should help us see them as people. What does it say about us, as people, if we can’t?

To understand how to view combat footage, we should first discuss what it tends to look like. While soldiers sometimes record with GoPros or iPhones, the war in Ukraine specifically has produced a massive amount of drone footage, due to the technology’s wide availability and the ease of keeping cameras rolling from these platforms. The typical drone video starts around a hundred feet above the battlefield, where Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) whir around like digital-age death gods. We see Russian troops below, sometimes manning their positions, sometimes just relaxing, and sometimes playing dead when they know there’s no escape. At some point in the video, a small bomb spirals down. The men scatter. Some fall. Some fly. Almost in unison, viewers on Reddit and Twitter cheer and laugh. Telegram users react with emojis, the same ones you might put below an NFL highlight.

It’s hard to say why some human beings react this way to the death of others. With drone videos, the physical distance must play some part, making it hard to see faces or hear conversations. Another possible reason is dehumanizing language. On combat footage platforms, Russian soldiers spend their last moments as not people but “invaders,” “orcs,” or “infantry targets.” Once dead, they transform from men into inanimate bodies, and the task of depersonalization becomes easier. One of the most popular Twitter info pages labels these corpses as different types of “boys”—“cold boys” or “barbecue boys”—absorbing itself with the psychotic, Herculean task of collecting and publishing every available image of them. As Simone Weil wrote in Iliad, or The Poem of Force, violence “turns a human being into a thing.”

These deaths are not only commodified but moralized, fitting into a framework of blame and justice that preserves the viewer’s clear conscience. “They shouldn’t have invaded,” the line goes. “This is what they get.” By attributing as much blame as possible to Russia’s dead, we preserve our image of a causal and fair world, maintaining the pseudo-religious belief that people get what they deserve. We are alive, and they are not, and the reason for that is a calculable difference between our souls and theirs. Well, if you’re reading this as a 21-year-old college student, you are the same age as the largest chunk of Russian casualties. You are likely wealthy by global (if not American) standards, but these boys came mostly from poverty, from Buryatia, Dagestan, or Krasnodar, ethnic minority areas in South Russia. They are the people their country loved least, but they gave the most for it. Some of them were criminals, pardoned by Putin for signing their lives away, and some of them became war criminals, like the men who tortured and killed civilians in the Kiev suburb of Bucha. Their life stories contain infinite permutations, countless beginnings and middles, the Cyrillic alphabet’s full range of names. We’ll never know how many of them really deserved to die, but die they all did, reduced to numbers and nothingness at the very moment we met them. Who were they, and who are we to blame them?

Instead of moralizing or dehumanizing, we should fit Ukraine’s combat footage into the pacifist tradition of using war’s imagery against war itself. Ernst Friedrich’s 1924 War Against War published the Great War’s most gruesome photographs as an act of protest, sparking the ire of nationalist governments and an outpouring of left-wing approval. In her 1938 Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf made the same argument, claiming we could prevent war through our universal reaction to images of it, a reaction she characterized as “shock and disgust.”

In addition to its shocking nature, combat footage has anti-war value because of its inherent honesty. Walt Whitman famously wrote that “the real war will never get in the books,” but in the era of helmet GoPros and drone cams, it doesn’t have to. For the first time in history, any of us can directly see war for what it really is, bypassing the adjectives and superlatives attached by governments on both sides. The Internet’s darkest corners may delight in a Russian soldier’s death, but we can instead come away from combat footage with a sense of the similarity between men on both sides, men who speak the same language and breathe the same air, men who were forced into the same hell by Putin’s megalomania. If we can free these images from their all-too-common misuses, they offer us the chance to recognize every infantryman in Ukraine’s trenches as a human being victimized by the evils of war, rather than a broken body to be either celebrated or mourned based on its birthplace.


Dash Barnett is a sophomore in the SFS studying International Politics.


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