As we are now entering the second week of conflict between Russia and Ukraine, we are witnessing a phenomenon that has now become the norm in modern warfare. It is a conflict that is being waged not just with soldiers and weapons, but as psychologist and author Daniel H. Abbot has noted, with “information and perception.” It is in fact a perfect example of what has been termed 4th and 5th generational warfare.
The concept of wars having “generations” was thought up by conservative writer William S. Lind in 1989, with the first through third generations covering warfare of massed armies engaging with one another on a specific battlefield, to the rise of nation states and their armies, and eventuality the strategic total war efforts of both World Wars and the proxy wars of the Cold War. According to Lind, fourth generational warfare is characterized by a "post-modern return to decentralized forms of warfare, blurring of the lines between war and politics, combatants, and civilians due to nation states’ loss of their near-monopoly on combat forces, returning to modes of conflict common in pre-modern times.”
By contrast, fifth generational warfare is a newer term first coined in 2003 and loosely refers to warfare that is “conducted primarily through non-kinetic military action, such as social engineering, misinformation, cyberattacks, along with emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, and fully autonomous systems.” In short, it represents the concept that the mustering and maneuvering of a nation’s “unarmed” forces to engage in conflict with enemy forces in the media or on the internet, is just as crucial as its armed forces engaging in combat on the battlefield. Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that we are witnessing a “world war” (if not the first stirrings of an actual third one), with the smallest portion of it being waged on the ground in Ukraine, but the largest part being wage in the media and on the internet.
The Fog of War in the Modern Age
The term the fog of war was meant to describe the confusion and uncertainty that happened on the battlefield when officers and their troops were limited in their ability to analyze the situation around them. However, ever since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which started in the wake of the events of 9/11, the allowing of journalists to be embedded with troops and the widespread use of drones, has allowed data to be collected, transmitted, and analyzed in real-time. This data can then be disseminated (or leaked) so that the entire world can see the grim reality of modern war in vivid infrared grey scale.
However, when it comes to the conflict in Ukraine, we are talking about a modern nation where, much like the U.S., security cameras are everywhere and just about everyone has a cellphone. This why we have been able to see heart-wrenching videos of the Ukrainian men saying good-bye to their families as they stay behind to fight, or the shocking video of a Russian tank in Kyiv crushing a car (and its occupants) on the street.
However, as previously mentioned, this is 5th generational warfare and thus the same internet that brings us the on-the-ground realities of the conflict, is also being used to weaponize the reporting on the conflict. Thus, the deaths of the thirteen Ukrainian defenders of Snake Island who told a Russian warship in no uncertain terms what they could do with themselves and then died defending the island, turns out to have been greatly exaggerated.
Or the account of the Ghost of Kyiv, a fighter jet ace who shot down 6 Russian jets, turned out to be untrue with some of the combat footage coming from a digital combat simulator game. Even the inspiring videos of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who as a former actor and comedian has been an absolute master of 5thgenerational warfare, have been shown to be staged and were filmed before the invasion.
Thus, whereas the fog of war once was caused by the smoke of battle and an inability to get a birds-eye view of the battlefield, today’s fog of war is caused by the algorithmically created and ideologically driven narrative framing click bait reporting that we have all grown accustomed to in the age of social media. Moreover, news censoring or narrative-framing was and still is done by official government agencies and their willing accomplices in the legacy media. Today though, we must contend with a plethora of private companies and individuals acting on their own and reporting or propagating news about the conflict for their own purposes. This is especially true when it comes to “fact-checkers”, most of whom have been “Snoped”, i.e. they frame content or create straw-man arguments in order to address the facts surrounding an issue or event without compromising their pre-existing prejudices.
The Truth was Dead Before it Arrived
The rise of independent media and private individuals doing their own reporting (the good, the bad, and the sensational) has been an important and much needed development in breaking the information monopoly the legacy media once had (cf. Bernard Goldberg’s book Bias). This was particularly important when it came to the informational and emotional pressure that was put on Americans by government agents and media personalities to drum up support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11. To say nothing of the wars we were enticed but didn’t get into, such as Obama’s red-line debacle in Syria or Hilary Clinton pushing for a no-fly-zone over there as well. Yet the fact remains that we have been barraged with all manner of enticements to go to or remain at war for the last two decades, based on information that was later shown not to be true.
Add to all of this, the misinformation, news censoring and the accompanying gaslighting over the last two years when it came to our nation’s WuFlu woes if you questioned those “official” facts. Or the curious (in a pathetic sort of way) fact that Alex Jones was actually right and predicted Russia’s invasion of Ukraine over a year ago. Even if it’s a coincidence or there is more to what he meant, it generates confusion and doubt about any pretense that we can separate the facts from the truth and reinforces the unspoken reality that truth is now tribal.
Hence, all things considered, with trust in our government or legacy media at an all-time low and our culture’s contentment with a superficial knowledge of world events, when it comes to the information we are seeing, reading, or hearing about the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the truth was dead on arrival. There has simply been too much manufacturing and manipulating of the truth for the last two decades for us to think that anyone can all of sudden turn off their biases because the stakes are growing higher by the day.
This is in no way meant to dismiss the suffering and the horror of the war going on, nor its larger geopolitical implications and the threat of a larger (and possibly nuclear) escalation. However, we are rapidly approaching the end of an era and are falling into Thucydides Trap where all of the animosities and unfinished or unrealized ambitions of the last remaining superpowers are vying for one last show of force as they view one another as weak and decadent. But the notion that we are getting a full or accurate picture of this conflict is just not plausible at this point.
For instance, take the portrayal of Vladimir Putin as some simplistic and comic book-like villain. To be sure, Putin is a dangerous and murderous relic from a bygone era, but the idea that he is mad or that he is only out for power for its own sake is yet another factual manipulation that is being used to sedate your rational thought centers. He is a product of a Eurasian mindset and a hard man from a hard culture that has different priorities than the material comforts that the West pursues.
So the idea that he has not thought through this invasion and its contingencies is the kind of idea held by some one who is in the habit of misreading people or underestimating their competition. Yes Putin’s actions are a gamble, but to think that only Putin and the Russians are the bad guys and that Zelenskyy and the Ukrainians are the good guys, is part of the con. There is more to the situation than such a Twitter-length assessment, and it is dangerous to fall into such thinking.
For in the end, this is not call for nihilism or relativism but simply for prudence, diligence, and caution in how you perceive the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The truth matters and it should be sought out and propagated as much as any other news item- even more so- for it is the only way to make informed decisions about the future and the lives of those that will inhabit it.
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