The Media Finds Its War

Image by Ivan Bandura.

On Sunday, October 9, The New York Times published an article entitled “An American in Ukraine Finds the War He’s Been Searching For.” It could just as easily be entitled “The Media Finds the War It’s Been Searching For.” It is, sadly, a story of the corrupting influence war and profits have on everything, including the press, that very institution which is to keep a constant check on our government, particularly in affairs of war.

The article depicts the exploits of a 59-year-old American soldier, retired after 30 years of combat experience, working in the battlegrounds of Ukraine with his own start-up military training company called the Mozart Group, a “saucy response to a Russian mercenary outfit” called the Wagner Group.

The language throughout the article is fawning, unquestioning, repeatedly glamorizing the soldier and his war. It’s Pentagon propaganda. The only question the journalist really raises is whether the soldier and his company can make a difference in helping the Ukrainians.

The invasion of Ukraine by the Russians and the killing of civilians is immoral and illegal. The meddling influence of the U.S. in stirring this long-simmering, highly dangerous pot is inexcusable. Fearless, independent journalism is needed to report on all sides of this horrific, complicated conflict. Unfortunately, this recent article demonstrates all too well how corporate media has lost its way when searching for its bankable war.

The article begins with a quote from the soldier: “Please, come with me,” he says, begging an old woman with “a face etched by countless sorrows” to leave the area before the Russians arrive. The soldier has “black smoke filling his nostrils, staring at the Ukrainian woman he had never met, pleading with her to evacuate.”

Such descriptions as a “saucy response” and “black smoke filling his nostrils” catch the eye when reading what is supposed to be independent, objective journalism. Has the journalist become the soldier in breathing black smoke? Does describing the name of the soldier’s company of mercenaries as “saucy” romanticize the soldier and his actions?

The journalist writes that the soldier is dodging bombs and bullets because this war is, according to the soldier, “absolutely unambiguous.” The soldier then asks the question, “How many wars in modern times are morally unambiguous?” Unfortunately for the reader, the journalist fails to probe the soldier’s vitally important question.

Challenging such statements from the subject of a story, or at the very least placing them in some context, seems the least a journalist should do. That the U.S. is fighting a proxy war against Russia with Ukraine as its latest pawn is never offered as a potential ambiguity invading the clarity of this soldier’s “morally just war,” or for that matter, the clarity of America’s understanding of this war.

The journalist then speaks for “Americans of a certain vintage” in claiming this war “lacks the murkiness of past wars like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.” This war, the journalist seems to say, is at last The Good War. No need to mention American interference in the internal affairs of Ukrainian politics or a nuclear-armed NATO bordering Russia. This war is one big, saucy, unambiguous march against evil.

At one point the soldier confesses he is in Ukraine partly for the adrenalin rush, because soldiers are always “looking for it, right?” They always want to be “where it is.” He also confesses to guilt over his past actions in war as to why he is working in Ukraine now. In fact, the soldier seems more honest about his actions than the enamored journalist.

The story ends with a quote from a Ukrainian mother “clutching two loaves of soft white bread” in a battle-scarred area who sees the soldier and says she recognizes him. “He’s good,” she says, relieved, and the article ends with those adoring words: He’s good. Perhaps he is. But is this story good journalism? Or jingoism?

It comes as no surprise that corporate media likes a good, wholesome war as much as the average American. It sells. Morally ambiguous wars, or worse, peace, do not sell. People lose interest. This NYT article is illustrative of so many articles in corporate media about Ukraine and war.

The real story here, other than corporate media being a megaphone for the Pentagon, is of one man trying to redeem his past acts of violence by committing future acts of violence in yet another proxy war of superpowers. It is a story of a culture of militarism and toxic masculinity perpetuating the idea that if we can just find a good, morally unambiguous war all will be well with our society.

Unfortunately, for readers of The New York Times, and for much of humanity, those stories are rarely told.

Brad Wolf is a former prosecutor, professor, and college dean.  He is the Executive Director of Peace Action Network of Lancaster and writes for numerous publications.