From Manichaeism to Moral Equality: Why Just War Theory should inform Narratives on the Russo-Ukrainian War
By Matthew Oey; Edited by Luc Hillion and Talia Abrahamson
Interspersed between the cat and dog videos that populate my social media feed are drone footage killings of Russian soldiers. I recall one especially brutal video that showed a grenade detonating on a man’s spine. The banality of televised killing is nothing new. However, the comment sections on such videos exhibit a worrying enthusiasm for violence. One user applauded the “awesome combination of music and orc suffering;” another admitted they “almost felt bad” but then “remembered [that he was] Russian.”
Although the invocation of Tolkien’s fantasy villains may seem out of place, it typifies the good-versus-evil dichotomies that have coalesced around popular depictions of the Russo-Ukrainian War. There is, of course, truth to this Manichean narrative: Putin’s war is unjust, his army has committed war crimes, and the people defending Ukraine do deserve veneration. I am not arguing otherwise. However, there is a more nefarious side to how reductionist wartime narratives license excessive violence through dehumanization and “othering.” Just War Theory, particularly the moral equality principle, is meant to check these impulses by separating combatants from their political leaders, thereby offering a position beyond Manichaeism—and for good reason. It is imperative for spectators of the war to understand why.
The Pulitzer Prize laureate John Dower has devoted much of his academic career to historicizing the manifest relationship between wartime stereotypes and the brutality that it materializes. In his authoritative work on the Pacific Theater of WWII, War Without Mercy, he makes the astute observation that the pejoratives used to describe the Japanese—“barbarians, madmen, fanatics”—could be transposed seamlessly onto the 16th-century devastation of indigenous populations in the New World, or any conflict for that matter where the West encountered an enemy deemed “uncivilized.” The point is not merely semantic; it illuminates how centuries of rhetorical caricature and dehumanization justified cruelty against others. While this tendency is not exclusive to the West, the promise of “humane violence” under codified laws of war has been idealized as a distinguishing feature of Western liberal democracy.
Popular portrayals of the Russo-Ukrainian War exhibit modern outgrowths of this time-old correlation between dehumanization and war. Terms such as “orcs” and “rashists” (Russian Fascists) have been institutionalized and then proliferated online. Drone footage killings of Russian soldiers are littered with facetious references to Call of Duty “killstreaks.” Brutal deaths are followed by sneers such as “taunt the injured assholes.” That these epithets go hand in hand with calls for more violence is a case in point. War has a natural tendency to engender us-versus-them divides. However, a line needs to be drawn when excessive violence against Russian soldiers is valorized, encouraged, and celebrated by such black-and-white narratives.
The laws of war offer us a unique position to condemn the injustice of Putin’s regime while still according basic respect to the human lives on both sides. This principle underpins the moral equality of soldiers—that all combatants, including those on the unjust side, deserve equal moral status on the condition that they limit their violence. As the great Just War theorist Michael Walzer argued, the bifurcation of Jus ad Bellum (right to wage war) and Jus in Bello (conduct in war) recognizes that combatants have little say in the political machinations that precede war. This acknowledges that militaries have historically been manned by ordinary, often-disenfranchised people with limited access to an “objective” understanding of the wider conflict—a privilege we possess as distant spectators. Indeed, preliminary studies have found that Putin’s army is disproportionately composed of impoverished, uneducated minorities from Russia’s rural peripheries. There is also a prescriptive logic to moral equality: if soldiers are presumed guilty from the moment of taking up arms, what reason do they have to wage a humane war?
As Dower has shown, the absence of moral equality leads down a dangerous path. If we truly believe the enemy is evil incarnate—if we fail to distinguish people from their political regimes—then the boundary of violence that we can justify becomes limitless. This is illustrated in Stanford political theorist Scott Sagan’s unprecedented study of public attitudes towards the moral equality principle, which found that over a third of American participants supported the execution of unarmed women and children as long as they belonged to the unjust side. History is filled with many more examples.
The laws of war, especially the moral equality principle, are thus important checks on our human proclivity for escalating the violence that fuels conflict. Without these countervailing balances in place, Manichean narratives threaten to turn war into a virtue with no end in sight. Again, this is not to deny the evil of Putin’s regime and his enthusiastic supporters, but that we need to be more judicious about whom we group in with our pejoratives. Moving past a narrative that indiscriminately vilifies the people and conscripts of Russia is, I believe, a first and important step towards long-lasting peace.
Author and Researcher note: The videos that we referenced—and their corresponding comments—were found on Reddit’s “ UkraineWarVideoReport ” page and “Funker530.com.” These sites typify a process that we can only describe as the “social mediatization” of war: live images and bite-sized footage from the conflict are posted daily to these forums for thousands of online spectators to like, comment, and share as you would on Facebook or Instagram. The research process for this article involved scouring hundreds of these forum posts over many months, where we found an alarming pattern of epithets coupled with videos that facetiously glorified brutal depictions of death. Reddit has since been prompted to add a permanent reminder that states, “Please remember the human,” and has also taken down the most egregious comments. These are steps in the right direction. However, the Manichean narratives that drive this culture remain prevalent online.
I would like to thank Luc Hillion for researching and ideating this article with me from the start, and Olivia Grinberg, Justas Pakasius, Talia Abrahamson, and Professor Stuart Gottlieb for their invaluable insights and feedback.