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Circumstance in World Politics

Soviet soldier waving a red flag at a building off the central square in Stalingrad, Russia, Jan-Feb 1943
Stalingrad, Russia, 1943

The two expressions in the title, circumstance and politics, are essential in estimating the current (and historic) public acceptance of war vs. peace in the American political culture. The word “circumstance” is formally defined as “state of affairs” or “sum of essential and environmental factors,” while politics is associated with the art of “governing” as to “actions, policies, guidance, influence.”

Both terms, by very definition, are equally temporary, illusory, fluctuating, and often opposing expressions of group opinion. Nevertheless, together, they combine to represent the main streams of how the public and media examine and judge behavior, at least on the stage of “world politics.”

This may be necessary for public consumption, judgment, and media ratings, but together they place a false and temporal “image” on the subject. Instead of appreciating the role of geopolitics, sociology, nationalism, and national interest on subjects involving life and death, they create “images” of good vs. bad behavior as if world politics were “morality plays” or, in the vernacular, “soap operas” of Mutual Assured Destruction (“MAD”).

Instead of appreciating the underlying currents that comprise the subject “politics among nations,” they substitute “images,” defined variously as “likeness, picture, impression, concept.”

These distinctions came to me recently as I was reflecting on the differences between the public and media reviews of the dual “images” of how Putin’s Russia has been portrayed versus the “people” of Ukraine and, secondly, their president, Zelensky. To me, it seemed as if only one side was waging “war,” while the other was doing something “else.”

From the beginning, there have been deliberate distinctions in the priorities used. With Russia, the near-universal image in the West is singular: on Putin as the leader and as the mass of his citizenry (150 million) as both unable to challenge orders or simply complicit in his invasion plans. They are portrayed as either indifferent or compliant against his iron will, able to commit atrocities without remorse or reflection.

That, at least, is the “image.”

With Ukraine, the image is plural. The dominant picture presented here lies within the concept of “people” (40 million) as heroic and defiant, able to suffer tragedy, destruction, and death on behalf of patriotism, with Zelensky as more “cheerleader” than “quarterback.”

Is this image accurate, or does it disguise hidden realities? How do we find out? But one thing is certain: the image portrayed certainly conforms very closely to the popular image of “fight” in domestic culture, where one always roots for the little guy against the “bully.” It also conforms to domestic culture regarding who is at fault, who “started” it.

Of these in Ukraine, there is no doubt, but are these distinctions consistent with history in general, or are they fleeting “images,” convenient for the consumption of public morality?

Take U.S. history. The United States has just recently spent decades waging “endless wars” throughout the Middle East and Afghanistan in response to the events of 9/11/01. Historically, this country intervened in neighboring Mexico (three times), where in 1848 we absorbed half that country, including Texas, the southwest, and California. In Central America, we occupied Nicaragua for twenty years, Haiti for nineteen, and The Dominican Republic for eight. After the defeat of Spain in 1898, we absorbed The Philippines in the distant Pacific Ocean until 1946.

What was the “circumstance” here? Putin invaded a neighbor. The U.S. invaded half the world. A list of U.S. overseas interventions from the beginning will tabulate over 400 such “events,” excluding domestic riots, Indian Wars, and home revolts.

Similarly, where was the “bully” analogy in the Vietnam War, with an American “superpower” armed with thousands of nuclear weapons, advanced technology, millions of soldiers, the world’s greatest Air Force, and coming over ten thousand miles to fight in the jungles of a primitive place the size of New Jersey?

One gets the impression that “image” is not only “circumstantial” in concept and belief but an enemy of wisdom, reflection, or thought in any critical way. In short, it is a “deception.” A more sophisticated word is “propaganda.”

Consider another historic “circumstance.” In World War II, Russia (the Soviet Union) was an American ally against Nazi Germany which had invaded it in 1941, causing some 20 million casualties among the Russian people.

In 1942, Stalin was an American ally. In that year, the U.S. government commissioned famed Hollywood director Frank Capra to produce Why We Fight, a seven-part movie documentary shown in all U.S. theaters and to all military personnel. The purpose was to inflate American morale by demonstrating the war aims of the country against Germany and Japan, i.e., creating an image.

Part Five, “Russia,” began with these attributes of what the government wanted the public to believe:

“I know of no greater display of courage than that of the people of Soviet Russia.”
– Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War

“We and our allies owe and acknowledge an everlasting debt of gratitude to the armies and people of the Soviet Union.”
– Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy

“The scale and grandeur of the Russian effort is the greatest military achievement in all history.”
– General Douglas MacArthur, Commander in Chief, Pacific Theater

“The gallant and aggressive fighting spirit of the Russian soldier commands the American army’s attention.”
General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army

“I join in admiration for the Soviet Union’s heroic and historic defense.” – Ernest King, Commander of the Fleet.

In the circumstances of Ukraine today, the message is exactly the opposite, with the universal “shoe” now on the “other foot.” But circumstances constantly change, while “people” remain constant.

This “condition” is timeless.

What was the German “image” in 1914? 1939, 1945? What is it now, 75 years as an American ally?

Do the same for Japan. Do the same for anything, anywhere, anytime.

It’s all “circumstantial,” meant for the moment, divorced from history and sociology but embraced by politics. Temporal but, by political standards, necessary.

Also enduring.

In the final analysis, “circumstance” is close to “advertising.”