Recent events in Ukraine have made one thing abundantly obvious, if it had not already been so since the dawn of human conflict: When your people are facing an existential threat there is only one thing more important than the truth, and that is clarity. The clarity comes in the form of a simple and forceful message that unites the people in their resolve to resist the godless hordes at their gate. The truth may or may not sit comfortably within the necessary narrative, and so an alternative ‘truth’ may be required, constructed purely for the purposes of clarification. As Dean Acheson put it in the depths of the Cold War, sometimes the people need to hear something ‘clearer than the truth’. It is a clarity that transcends mere facts; it is a clarity that has no need of reliable data. It is a clarity that only the righteous can recognize.
It is in this context of a nation searching for resolve that we must examine the various claims and counterclaims that are emerging from the carnage and rubble that was once the parks, the shopping centres, the schools and the hospitals of Ukraine. However, we needn’t pick amongst that hellish terrain to distil truth from clarity. To see how an inspirational ‘truth’ may emerge victorious from the ruins and chaos of a brutal confrontation one should look to the skies, since it is in that pristine domain that we have seen the emergence of perhaps the clearest, most potent and least truthful meme of the war so far – the Ghost of Kyiv.
A symbol of defiance
It didn’t take long for the Ukrainian propaganda machine to take up arms, and by the end of the second day of the conflict stories were beginning to emerge of a MiG-29 fighter pilot who, whilst defending the skies over Kyiv, managed to destroy no less than six Russian aircraft – all within the space of just 30 hours. It is entirely plausible that such a number had been shot down by the Ukrainian defence forces as a whole, but such statistics do not carry much punch when seen as a collective effort, particularly in the context of the overwhelming strength of the Russian forces. To make the required impact it was necessary to attribute the kills to a single avenger, who was immediately dubbed ‘The Ghost of Kyiv’. The story was quickly endorsed by the former Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and the Ukrainian armed forces obligingly posted a photograph of the pilot on Facebook with the caption ‘Hello, occupier, I’m coming for your soul!’ And with that a myth was born.
But just how plausible is such a feat? Not very, in the view of Squadron Leader Fahad Ibne Massood, a former Pakistani Air Force Mirage fighter pilot. He quite rightly points out that the kill ratios of the missiles that arm the MiG-29 (the short range R-73 and the beyond visual range (BVR) R-27) are not particularly good, and that most dogfights in the jet era are short, perfunctory encounters in which two kills is the limit that even the luckiest and most skillful pilot can expect. A total of six kills in 30 hours implies either an unprecedented missile effectiveness or a number of sorties of which a complex jet such as the MiG-29 would be incapable, given the turnaround time for re-armament, etc. It’s not impossible, but there is nothing in the history of modern jet combat that comes anywhere near the same level of air-to-air prowess. Even more damning, however, is the total lack of evidence offered. There is no gun camera footage, no wreckage on offer, and no corroborating eye witnesses. Instead, all we are offered is a smiling portrait of a pilot who could be anyone, together with a few obviously faked montages taken from video games. Consequently, Fahad Massood drew the following conclusion:
“In short, the Ghost is more a symbol. A symbol of hope. And a spark of hope is imperative in the circumstances of a state where there is despair and destruction all around. The ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ may be a spectre of fancy, a figment of imagination, fabricated into existence from few incoherent tweets and an Internet meme, but it doesn’t matter to the people of Ukraine who stand defiant against sure devastation. Perhaps, in that sense, the Ghost of Kyiv is as real as it gets — at least for now.”
The fact is that the Ghost of Kyiv is a latter day Angel of Mons. So yes, in that sense, it is as real as it gets. But it is a sense that cannot be allowed to rewrite history.
When doubt is the enemy
The purpose of propaganda is not only to convince the people of their destiny, it can also play a vital role in mobilizing the people to take up arms against a threat that may or may not actually exist. It is in such circumstances, where the truth fails to oblige, that extra clarity can be so important. The trick is not to make stuff up so much as to play upon people’s fears and prejudices and thereby render plausible and dangerous that which might otherwise be dismissed. Or to put it in the language of the IPCC, take the average person’s cognitive biases, and repurpose them in order to overcome the individual’s complacency. The IPCC is impressed by psychologists, such as Daniel Kahneman, who say that the human mind is simply not equipped to think rationally about risks such as those posed by global warming. It falls, therefore, to the good folk at the IPCC to nudge the rest of the world in the right direction; to convince them that the threat is real and that action is required. It needs the IPCC to create clarity.
So instead of talking about whether global warming may cause a problem for future generations, the IPCC now encourages consideration of the problems already besetting the nations of the Earth – in the process attributing extreme weather events unequivocally to greenhouse gas effects. The truth is that only a statistical attribution is possible, using causal analysis concepts that are too subtle for the average person to take on board. So the clearer message is simply to point to footage of floods, droughts and forest fires and say, ‘look, this is caused by global warming – period’. Even worse, there is no truth that global warming threatens mankind’s very existence on Earth; the truth is a lot messier than that. The clearer message, therefore, is to say, ‘look children, you are not even going to see adulthood unless things change drastically.’
There is only a ghost of truth in weather event attributions, but a spectre is all that is required to put the fear of God in the masses. There isn’t even the ghost when it comes to predictions of imminent extinction. But action requires clarity, not truth. It needs symbols of hope and fear. It needs a morality play in which bad guys conspire to obstruct those who wish to do what is necessary. It needs pleas for social justice, Dantean wildfires, persecuted scientists, those who deny the faith, and polar bears teetering on ice floes. What it doesn’t need is nuance, qualification, balance or — God forbid — doubt.
What the Ukrainian people needed more than anything in their moment of existential crisis was the clarity that the Ghost of Kyiv gives them – the threat is real, the fight is just, and the victory is assured. The same goes for those who argue for the imperative of Net Zero. For these people too, clarity must triumph over truth. So look out everyone, Net Zero is coming for your soul.
Nicely done, John. Your penultimate paragraph is very powerful.
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The psychologists are surely right. And the editors of mainstream media are surely right in assuming that the human mind will react strongly (though not necessarily rationally) to images of soldiers rescuing the kittens of refugee children. With war, we’re back in the realm of what works, psychologically.
To paraphrase your last paragraph:
Except that the floe is taking several decades to melt, and who gives a toss about a mangy bear when my heating prices are going up?
The greens are on the warpath. Anti- nuclear power, but on the fence when it comes to nuclear war. If we’re all going to die from global heating, why not risk a global fry up?
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The ghosts are legion, and given time they spawn the progeny of ghosts, and then the progeny of the progeny of ghosts, ad infinitum, whose influence combines. There is eventually not conscious control of the overall process, and reaction will rarely be rational if the ghosts have been haunting for long. Indeed the effect is emotive conviction not understanding, for the Angel of Mons just as for climate catastrophe (and simultaneous emotive rejection too, for weightier cases such as the latter). When the emotively convinced themselves, especially leaders, influencers and the media, amplify the narrative they believe in, a legion of ghosts is inevitable.
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It’s possibly worth pointing out that even if the Ghost of Kyiv is a myth, the Ukrainian Air Force still has plenty of real-life heroes available to them to create their tales of legendary bravery. Take, for example, the ‘Grey Wolf’, aka Colonel Oleksandr Oksanchenko. He has been posthumously awarded the title of ‘Hero of the Ukraine’. According to the citation he died whilst acting as a decoy luring fighters away from Ukrainian forces. He leaves behind two daughters. Here is a fitting tribute:
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Well, the BBC has finally decided to acknowledge how myth can become mainstream:
If they are not careful, they will start to wonder just how much of the mainstream lends itself to myth.
Thanks for the BBC link above John – liked this quote at the end –
Justin Crump of the security consultancy Sybilline says the Ghost of Kyiv legend is important because in our social media age “people need myths, heroes and legends, to provide cohesion and meaning”.
Yes, that’s a quote that ties in nicely with my article, ‘The Narrative is All’.