Hell's Story told from the Third Side
War is hell. It matters who is telling the story of a war, and for the first time Ukraine's civilians get to tell their side in real-time.
I have never been in a war. I do know veterans. My step-father mostly refused to speak about his time serving as a naval officer on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific in World War II. Many Vietnam veterans still hold their experiences locked inside. Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan vets suffer a much higher suicide rate than non-veterans. War is hell.
Many soldiers in Putin’s army didn’t even realize they were fighting an actual war when they crossed into Ukraine. They were told they were on an exercise, or that they were invited into Ukraine as “peacekeepers.” The shock of their baptism of fire (in some cases, literal) must have difficult.
Many American soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan still suffer from PTSD. The generation that fought in Vietnam was dumped on the streets after a one year parade through hell. They carry their grim memories of what’s “normal” in war with them.
I am not expressing support for Putin’s army, so don’t misunderstand me here. I do believe if they knew what they were being sent to do, and do it to whom, many of them may have simply refused to go. Even in Ukraine, there are stories of entire platoon-size units of Russians who surrendered, to stop fighting. If the Russian army decided to stop fighting, the war would end, of course, but it seems a lot of the worst damage to infrastructure and civilians is being launched from outside Ukraine, by ground- and air-launched missiles. Artillery’s job is to cover infantry and “soften” targets; as long as there’s Russian infantry fighting in Ukraine, Putin will have troops willing to load and fire from behind the lines.
Putin is being forced to recruit mercenaries from a Chechen warlord, and has put out the call for thugs worldwide, including outlaw states like Syria. Everyday Russians really aren’t “in” this, even if the big patriotic rally and constant propaganda they’re fed is keeping most from active opposition. At best, Russians shrug, as their military has been fighting this or that war for everyone’s collective memory. In just the last 25 years, Russians have fought wars in Chechnya, Georgia over Abkhazia, Chechnya (again), Moldova over Transnistria (it’s a real place), North Ossetia (again, Georgia), Tajikistan, Chechnya (yes, that’s three), North Caucasus, Syria, and the Central African Republic. Russians in general have always supported their troops in battle as sort of a patriotic duty, like most citizens of most countries.
We Americans seem to forget the power of “support our troops” in battle and how it galvanizes the public. Remember, in war, there’s at least two sides, and always a side that’s caught in the middle: civilian noncombatants who die under the antiseptic label of “collateral damage.” War, whether one of conquest, or liberation, or “the continuation of policy with other means” is always one thing.
War is hell.
The difference in Ukraine is what I call the Zelenskyy* doctrine: “Don’t go to war with a television producer.” The story told in Ukraine is from the point of view of the third side, and it’s a story very well told (not to mention, pretty much true). If all we got from the Ukraine war was reporters embedded with elite Russian units, and dispatches from mobile Ukrainian strike teams, we’d be watching a very different war. The video coming out of Ukraine, both because of the Internet and its organic nature, and the careful, curated use of Russian atrocity by the Ukrainian government, is probably a truer representation of a real-time war as we’ve ever seen. The awfulness of it steals the breath from your body.
That’s not to say that both sides aren’t producing propaganda. It’s hard to separate the Ukrainian propaganda from reality, since the bulk of what we in the West see is plainly true. For example, we all know on February 27, a large apartment building in Kyiv was struck by a missile. Ukrainian authorities say it was a Russian missile, and there’s every reason to believe it. But Russian disinformation sites claim it was a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile that hit the building due to a malfunction. Yet more websites spend time debunking the Russians. It’s hard to know the truth for certain in the fog of war, especially if you’re only being fed one side.
The average Russian is only being fed Putin’s side. It’s only natural the Russians would, if not actively rally around their flag, take great care in opposing their own troops. Beyond the staged stadium rally, the Russian equivalent of “support the troops” the letter “Z” which is turning up all over their nation.
Americans are not immune to this, even when the truth eludes us. As an example of how war is presented at home for us, we need not look further America’s adventures in Iraq.
In the Iraq war, in 2004, American troops were engaged in house-to-house fighting in Fallujah, against fierce opposition. We were there in 2003 ostensibly to liberate Iraq from the tyrant Saddam Hussein, but specifically, to prevent Hussein from using weapons of mass destruction we were told he was stockpiling. Only Saddam wasn’t stockpiling WMD.
Once in the war, American patriotism was expressed through “support the troops.” Thousands of young people enlisted to do their part. Sure, there were notable protests in the streets, and outside the White House, but most people, whether they were “in” for the stated reason for our invasion or not, supported our war because “we” were fighting it.
Bush didn’t have to threaten Russia, or any other nation, if they intervened in our Iraq war, because no other nation would be crazy enough to take on the American (conventional) military. There was no need to escalate with promises of nuclear destruction. We didn’t need to do that. Putin does, because America’s direct military involvement in Ukraine spells certain loss for him. No such threat to Bush’s victory existed in 2004 (other than the will of American citizens to see it through).
In that war, there was “our” side, Saddam’s side (later ISIS), and the third side, which was rarely shown. Brown University’s Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs estimates that between 184,382 and 207,156 civilians died between 2003 and 2019 in that conflict (they caveat that, saying it’s likely even higher). Imagine if instead of Baghdad Bob, Saddam Hussein had the media savvy of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and the Internet skills of a million Iraqis on Twitter. Even with a coalition of friendly governments supporting us (would they have continued to?), it would have been a very different war.
There’s plenty of evidence that President Lyndon Johnson engineered the escalation of the Vietnam War using the debunked account of the Gulf of Tonkin incident with attacks on the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy, inciting Congress to give him authority to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” The American people, once involved in the war, continued to “support the troops” despite a large and well-organized anti-war movement. It took another 10 years to disengage from that war, in disgrace and defeat.
It took 21 years for the U.S. to exit Afghanistan, in a rushed, bungled mess that left such a power vacuum behind that the Taliban will rule for decades. Iraq is split between pleasing the American hand that still feeds it and the political influence of our voracious enemies, mostly Iran. In our years fighting in Afghanistan, 43,074 civilians were killed, along with 42,100 opposition fighters.
Painting the hell of war from the third side, in real-time, is a new development. In World War II, many in the Allied governments and military knew that the Holocaust was being perpetrated by the Nazis. But military assets were not spared to bomb the logistics, camps, and ovens. Some factories manned by slave labor were bombed because they had military value. Granted, we didn’t want to kill those still alive in concentration camps—that’s a valid argument—but if the public had the same awareness of the scale and inhumanity going on, maybe we would have acted differently.
In Putin’s war, he gets to present only his side via state media, and as tyrants are prone to do, he has limited outside media access using a sledgehammer. In Bush’s war, the free press was allowed to do as it pleased—for the most part—but there were notable limitations and efforts to shape coverage. Again, nobody was covering the “third side,” embedded with Iraqi civilians caught in a conflict in which they had no role other than to survive it.
Of course, you say, the U.S. has controls and military rules of engagement to protect civilians. A laminated Rules of Engagement card was issued to every U.S. military member in Iraq, which read:
CFLCC ROE CARD
On order, enemy military and paramilitary forces are declared hostile and may be attacked subject to the following instructions:
a) Positive identification (PID) is required prior to engagement. PID is a reasonable certainty that the proposed target is a legitimate military target. If no PID, contact your next higher commander for decision
b) Do not engage anyone who has surrendered or is out of battle due to sickness or wounds.
c) Do not target or strike any of the following except in self-defense to protect yourself, your unit, friendly forces, and designated persons or property under your control:
Hospitals, mosques, national monuments, and any other historical and cultural sites.
d) Do not fire into civilian populated areas or buildings unless the enemy is using them for military purposes or if necessary for your self-defense. Minimize collateral damage.
e) Do not target enemy infrastructure (public works, commercial communication facilities, dams), Lines of Communication (roads, highways, tunnels, bridges, railways) and Economic Objects (commercial storage facilities, pipelines) unless necessary for self-defense or if ordered by your commander. If you must fire on these objects to engage a hostile force, disable and disrupt but avoid destruction of these objects, if possible.
The use of force, including deadly force, is authorized to protect the following:
Yourself, your unit, and friendly forces
Enemy Prisoners of War
Civilians from crimes that are likely to cause death or serious bodily harm, such as murder or rape
Designated civilians and/or property, such as personnel of the Red Cross/Crescent, UN, and US/UN supported organizations
3. Treat all civilians and their property with respect and dignity. Do not seize civilian property, including vehicles, unless you have the permission of a company level commander and you give a receipt to the property’s owner.
Detain civilians if they interfere with mission accomplishment or if required for self-defense.
CENTCOM General Order No. 1A remains in effect. Looting and the taking of war trophies are prohibited.
Attack enemy forces and military targets.
Spare civilians and civilian property, if possible.
Conduct yourself with dignity and honor.
Comply with the Law of War. If you see a violation, report it.
These ROE will remain in effect until your commander orders you to transition to post-hostilities ROE.
AS OF 311330Z JAN 03
American units had military lawyers attached to advise and inform commanders of potential violations. These lawyers, like David French, interpreted intelligence and orders in real-time, and commanders tended to listen to them. But there wasn’t a lawyer with every squad, spotter, laser target designator, pilot, gunner, sniper, or grunt going building to building in Fallujah. The military objectives, regardless of all the “dignity and honor” talk, were to engage and kill the enemy, take and control their ground, and move on to do it again without dying.
Regardless of whether you think America’s war against Saddam Hussein, and our follow-on fights against ISIS to retain Iraq as an ally of democracy and lawful order, were justified in our national interest, or the lie-encrusted megalomaniacal obsession of George W. Bush to spread democracy like pollen over a corrupted and wilting world, the war at home, in real time, was presented as truth from our side. It was, to the average American, a black and white, good vs. evil story. If you didn’t “support the troops,” you were not a patriot.
EDIT: I have been accused of not liking President George W. Bush. On the contrary, I am a huge “W” supporter. He is one of the most underrated presidents of the last 100 years. However, being an intelligence guy, with an intelligence and defense guy as his VP, Bush trusted the intelligence community far too much. Doing so caused him to act rashly in Iraq. Plus I believe he had a personal agenda too—his dad. Bush spent eight years building a spy’s paradise, with an entire police state apparatus behind it. It is not his best legacy, and neither was the Iraq war, given that the world is better without Saddam gassing his own citizens (but what about Assad?). We can’t right every wrong or remove every dictator. Bush proved it.
We know it was not as cut-and-dried as all that, looking back. We know there was a third side to report, brimming with death and sorrow, but we didn’t get to see it; mainly historians get to tell that story.
In war, there have been other attempts to tell a third-side story but they’ve always been hackneyed, controlled versions, like what you see from Hamas when Israel goes in to Gaza. In that situation, Hamas really does use human shields, and places rocket stockpiles and launchers in schools, mosques, civilian buildings, and its intelligence operations co-located with the AP’s offices. The reporters can’t help but see the violence of war because they’re treated to it, led to it by the nose. In Gaza, the real third side would include Hamas executions of its own citizens, its repression and brutality, and Israel’s incredible care in sparing civilian lives.
What I’m getting at here is intentions. When the U.S. escalated a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Vietnam, we wanted to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese, but those hearts and minds were largely opposed to the corrupt autocrat Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, and sympathetic to the Viet Cong. We came in on the side of repression, and our descent into atrocity was notable. At home, our repression of dissent rivaled our communist opponents at times. Kent State graduate and author William A. Gordon concluded in his book “Four Dead in Ohio: Was There a Conspiracy at Kent State” that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover thought the victims deserved to be shot. It took decades for these facts to come to light.
Since Vietnam, America’s intentions and decision-making process has become more immune to evil intentions, and more resistant to siding with repression and evil dictators. We’re not perfect, obviously (in Barack Obama’s “Arab spring” evil dictators bloomed like death flowers), but objectively speaking, we can more reliably count on the “dignity and honor” of American intentions in war, in no small part due to the universal availability of the Internet and the ability of civilians to tell the third side.
Vladimir Putin is trying to operate under the same veil that Hoover, Johnson, and yes, even Bush, used. But Putin’s intentions are evil. His troops probably don’t carry a Rules of Engagement card. Many didn’t know they were even fighting against civilians, never mind being told to “conduct yourself with dignity and honor.” If his army had achieved its military objectives in the lightning-quick timeline Putin was sold on, it would not have mattered.
But it does matter, and not only because Putin’s military has failed to shut down Ukraine’s cyber-infrastructure, its command and control, and also failed every single milestone for military objectives. It matters because war is hell, and the world—outside Putin’s carefully controlled bubble—can finally see it from the third side in real-time.
I hesitate to even say this, but perhaps one silver lining of this revelation is that future wars can be covered in the same way. A cynic would say that future evil tyrants are learning a different lesson, to be more complete and less delusional in planning for the telling of the third side story.
Only a fool would think that Russia will be able to dam the flood of this truth from its own people for very long. When the dead and captured troops fail to come home, even Babushkas will realize that this is not a limited military special operation. They will know it is war, and like all civilians and military, living and dead, harmed by war, they will know that war is hell.
(*NB: *Volodymyr Zelenskyy prefers the Latin alphabet spelling with two “y”s; it’s what is printed on his passport in non-Cyrillic text. There is no universally accepted transliteration from Cyrillic to Latin, so it’s up to personal preference. Zelenskyy prefers this spelling and that’s what I am going to use from now on.)
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There are not enough Substack hearts to give to this post.
Excellent and informative piece Steve. Well done.