By Rick Staggenborg, MD
The antiwar community has fractured at a time when it most needs to speak with one voice to end the war in Ukraine. About all we can agree on is that the war is a terrible thing that needs to be stopped. Beyond that, reasonable people disagree about messaging, and unreasonable people demonize those who disagree. The result is that average Americans who don’t usually follow politics, let alone international affairs, form opinions based on emotional responses to what they hear in mainstream media rather than what may be most likely to promote peace. This is true despite the fact that most would say that peace is what they want.
The ability to influence American thinking through emotional appeals is what those with the power to manipulate the media count on to serve imperialism’s aims. If we can at least agree that how we frame our response is important, people who sincerely want to do something to end the war might be able to agree on what message would most effectively sway public opinion in a way that might influence our government to act in the interest of peace.
The most fundamental disagreement is over whether it’s necessary to call Russia out as solely or even primarily at fault for the war, or whether it is important to provide the context needed to understand the US role in creating the conditions that led it to decide that it had no choice but to respond to Ukrainian actions in Donbass with military force.
Given that our goal is to influence public opinion, it’s understandable that most peace groups have opted to follow the lead of politicians and mainstream commentators and preface every statement with a condemnation of Russia. After all, since they believe these accusations are justified, they fear being seen as supportive of Russia if they only focus on what the US has done that promotes war and what it hasn’t done that might have prevented it. Some peace groups go so far as to ignore clear US provocations as unimportant. Since it was Russia that invaded, they believe that their proper job is to wave Ukrainian flags and protest Russia’s actions, despite the reality that this will have no beneficial effect on the course of the war.
Other peace activists feel that either approach absolves the US of responsibility for creating conditions that led to the conflict. Believing the US actually initiated the conflict, they argue that dating its onset as February 24 is not only misleading, but false. They see the conflict as having started long before the Russian invasion and argue that knowing what choices Putin had is relevant to assigning blame.
The truth is that we don’t have to agree on who is at fault if we don’t make that an issue. As a psychotherapist with training in family therapy, I know from experience that focusing on who is responsible for a problem almost never leads to a satisfactory solution. And from a practical standpoint, placing sole blame on Russia is counterproductive not only because it splits the antiwar movement, but because to much of the public it provides a justification for an aggressive US response. Avoiding a conflict over whether Russia should be characterized as the sole aggressor is why many want to limit the message to demanding that the US
1) stop arming Ukraine, 2) declare it will never support Ukraine joining NATO, and 3) push Ukraine to negotiate without preconditions.
From a family therapy perspective, trying to keep the discussion focused on a solution would certainly be the approach to take if the US actually wanted to end the conflict. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The effect of sending increasingly lethal weapons and imposing sanctions that primarily harm civilians is to prolong the war and increase casualties of both soldiers and civilians on both sides.
Recent reports indicate that the effort to help a depleted Ukrainian military drive Russia out of Donbass is futile. However, this approach is very profitable for a weapons industry that generously funds the elections of members of Congress willing to serve its interests, which is no doubt why any debate about how the US should proceed assumes that it will involve continuing a strategy that has proven to result in arming extremists when used in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. And yes, there are extremists with significant influence in Ukraine despite media denials.
Clearly, the focus on providing weapons has redirected the public’s attention from the question of how to end the war to how best to punish Russia, regardless of how US strategy affect Ukrainian civilians. This is not by accident, but by design. That’s why it is necessary to challenge the distortions, omissions and outright lies that are used to influence public opinion to conform with the goals of American imperialism. Unfortunately, the inability to agree on the facts is what has led to the stark divisions among those wanting to do something to make the war to end. That is we have to put aside our pride and listen to each other to understand why a minority firmly believes that the consensus opinion of the majority is based on misplaced trust in mainstream media.
Most Americans think they are informed if they read mainstream media and watch a variety of TV news sources. Antiwar activists know differently, because we know we have been lied into war repeatedly, at least from Vietnam through Syria. Unfortunately, like the general public, many peace proponents have no idea how information that challenges the government’s narrative is being systematically suppressed in unprecedented ways.
It’s always been true that truth is the first casualty of war. In today’s hybrid warfare, it is more critical than ever to control the information domain. The way news is presented by government officials and approved media frames the way most people think about US foreign policy. This is why the idea of sending ever more powerful weapons to prolong a military conflict that cannot be won is never challenged. While the ultimate outcome of Russia’s invasion cannot be predicted with certainty, the one thing we know for sure is that providing increasingly lethal weaponry will lead to more death on both sides and do nothing to promote stability in the region.
Of course, there is much more that could be said about the tremendous amount of disinformation in the mainstream media regarding Ukraine. While much of it is relevant to understanding the situation, it is far beyond the scope of this essay. I can only recommend that those who are inclined to believe what they read or hear in government-approved media look at any of the credible alternative sources that present evidence of critical facts that are being withheld from them.
A good way to find them is to look at the list of websites that Prop or Not, a shadowy group that claims to be the arbiter of “reliable sources,” claims should not be trusted. Interspersed among many dubious websites listed are some of the most informative sources of information contradicting the mainstream narrative. These are sites with authors that include prominent investigative journalists and veterans of the CIA, NSA, State Department, high ranking White House positions and military intelligence. They cite their sources, which gives their articles far more credibility than the mostly anonymous sources favored by the New York Times and Washington Post when reporting on many of the same stories.
I urge anyone interested in finding a common message to present to the public to read the statement released by the US Peace Council.