Hubris consists in believing that a contrived narrative can, in and of itself, bring victory, Alastair Crooke writes.
Hubris consists in believing that a contrived narrative can, in and of itself, bring victory. It is a fantasy that has swept through the West – most emphatically since the 17th century. Recently, the Daily Telegraph published a ridiculous nine minute video purporting to show that ‘narratives win wars’, and that set-backs in the battlespace are incidentals: What matters is to have a thread of unitary narrative articulated, both vertically and horizontally, throughout the spectrum – from the special forces’ soldier in the field through to the pinnacle of the political apex.
The gist of it is that ‘we’ (the West) have compelling a narrative, whilst Russia’s is ‘clunky’ – ‘Us winning therefore, is inevitable’.
It is easy to scoff, but nonetheless we can recognise in it a certain substance (even if that substance is an invention). Narrative is now how western élites imagine the world. Whether it is the pandemic emergency, the climate or Ukraine ‘emergencies’ – all are re-defined as ‘wars’. All are ‘wars’ that are to be fought with a unitary imposed narrative of ‘winning’, against which all contrarian opinion is forbidden.
The obvious flaw to this hubris is that it requires you to be at war with reality. At first, the public are confused, but as the lies proliferate, and lie is layered upon lie, the narrative separates further and further from touched reality, even as mists of dishonesty continue to swathe themselves loosely around it. Public scepticism sets in. Narratives about the ‘why’ of inflation; whether the economy be healthy or not; or why we must go to war with Russia, begin to fray.
Western élites have ‘bet their shirts’ on maximum control of ‘media platforms’, absolute messaging conformity and ruthless repression of protest as their blueprint for a continued hold in power.
Yet, against the odds, the MSM is losing its hold over the U.S. audience. Polls show growing distrust of the U.S. MSM. When Tucker Carlson’s first ‘anti-message’ Twitter show appeared, the noise of tectonic plates grinding against each other was unmissable, as more than 100 million (one in three) Americans listened to iconoclasm.
The weakness to this new ‘liberal’ authoritarianism is that its key narrative myths can get busted. One just has; slowly, people begin to speak reality.
Ukraine: How do you win an unwinnable war? Well, the élite answer has been through narrative. By insisting against reality that Ukraine is winning, and Russia is ‘cracking’. But such hubris eventually is busted by facts on the ground. Even the western ruling classes can see their demand for a successful Ukrainian offensive has flopped. At the end, military facts are more powerful than political waffle: One side is destroyed, its many dead become the tragic ‘agency’ to upending dogma.
“We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met … [however] unless Ukraine wins this war, there’s no membership issue to be discussed at all” – Jens Stoltenberg’s statement at Vilnius. Thus, after urging Kiev to throw more (hundreds of thousands) of its men into the jaws of death to justify NATO membership, the latter turns its back on its protégé. It was, after all, an unwinnable war from the beginning.
The hubris, at one level, lay in NATO’s pitting of its alleged ‘superior’ military doctrine and weapons versus that of a deprecated, Soviet-style, hide-bound, Russian military rigidity – and ‘incompetence’.
But military facts on the ground have exposed the western doctrine as hubris – with Ukrainian forces decimated, and its NATO weaponry lying in smoking ruins. It was NATO that insisted on re-enacting the Battle of 73 Easting (from the Iraqi desert, but now translated into Ukraine).
In Iraq, the ‘armoured fist’ punched easily into Iraqi tank formations: It was indeed a thrusting ‘fist’ that knocked the Iraqi opposition ‘for six’. But, as the U.S. commander at that tank battle (Colonel Macgregor), frankly admits, its outcome against a de-motivated opposition largely was fortuitous.
Nonetheless ‘73 Easting’ is a NATO myth, turned into the general doctrine for the Ukrainian forces – a doctrine structured around Iraq’s unique circumstance.
The hubris – in line with the Daily Telegraph video – however, ascends vertically to impose the unitary narrative of a coming western ‘win’ onto the Russian political sphere too. It is an old, old story that Russia is military weak, politically fragile, and prone to fissure. Conor Gallagher has shown with ample quotes that it was exactly the same story in World War 2, reflecting a similar western underestimation of Russia – combined with a gross overestimation of their own capabilities.
The fundamental problem with ‘delusion’ is that the exit from it (if it occurs at all) moves at a much slower pace than events. The mismatch can define future outcomes.
It may be in the Team Biden interest now to oversee an orderly NATO withdrawal from Ukraine – such that it avoids becoming another Kabul debacle.
For that to happen, Team Biden needs Russia to accept a ceasefire. And here lies the (the largely overlooked) flaw to that strategy: It simply is not in the Russian interest to ‘freeze’ the situation. Again, the assumption that Putin would ‘jump’ at the western offer of a ceasefire is hubristic thinking: The two adversaries are not frozen in the basic meaning of the term – as in a conflict in which neither side has been able to prevail over the other, and are stuck.
Put simply, whereas Ukraine structurally hovers at the brink of implosion, Russia, by contrast, is fully plenipotent: It has large, fresh forces; it dominates the airspace; and has near domination of the electromagnetic airspace. But the more fundamental objection to a ceasefire is that Moscow wants the present Kiev collective gone, and NATO’s weapons off the battle field.
So, here is the rub: Biden has an election, and so it would suit the Democratic campaign needs to have an ‘orderly wind-down’. The Ukraine war has exposed too many wider American logistic deficiencies. But Russia has its’ interests, too.
Europe is the party most trapped by ‘delusion’ – starting from the point at which they threw themselves unreservedly into the Biden ‘camp’. The Ukraine narrative broke at Vilnius. But the amour propre of certain EU leaders puts them at war with reality. They want to continue to feed Ukraine into the grinder – to persist in the fantasy of ‘total win’: “There is no other way than a total win – and to get rid of Putin … We have to take all risks for that. No compromise is possible, no compromise”.
The EU Political Class have made so many disastrous decisions in deference to U.S. strategy – decisions that go directly against Europeans’ own economic and security interests – that they are very afraid.
If the reaction of some of these leaders seems disproportionate and unrealistic (“There is no other way than a total win – and to get rid of Putin”) – it is because this ‘war’ touches on a deeper motivations. It reflects existential fears of an unravelling of the western meta-narrative that will take down both its hegemony, and the western financial structure with it.
The western meta-narrative “from Plato to NATO, is one of superior ideas and practices whose origins lie in ancient Greece, and have since been refined, extended, and transmitted down the ages (through the Renaissance, the scientific revolution and other supposedly uniquely western developments), so that we in the west today are the lucky inheritors of a superior cultural DNA”.
This is what the narrators of the Daily Telegraph video probably had at the back of their minds when they insist that ‘Our narrative wins wars’. Their hubris resides in the implicit presumption: that the West somehow always wins – is destined to prevail – because it is the recipient of this privileged genealogy.
Of course, outside of general understanding, it is accepted that notions of ‘a coherent West’ has been invented, repurposed and put to use in different times and places. In her new book, The West, classical archaeologist Naoíse Mac Sweeney takes issue with the ‘master myth’ by pointing out that it was only “with the expansion of European overseas imperialism over the seventeenth century, that a more coherent idea of the West began to emerge – one being deployed as a conceptual tool to draw the distinction between the type of people who could legitimately be colonised, and those who could legitimately be colonizers”.
With the invention of the West came the invention of Western history – an elevated and exclusive lineage that provided an historical justification for the Western domination. According to the English jurist and philosopher Francis Bacon, there were only three periods of learning and civilization in human history: “one among the Greeks, the second among the Romans, and the last among us, that is to say, the nations of Western Europe”.
The deeper fear of western political leaders therefore – complicit in the knowledge that the ‘Narrative’ is a fiction that we tell ourselves, despite knowing that it is factually false – is that our era has been made increasingly and dangerously contingent on this meta-myth.
They quake, not just at a ‘Russia empowered’, but rather at the prospect the new multi-polar order led by Putin and Xi that is sweeping the globe will tear down the myth of Western Civilisation.
The views of individual contributors do not necessarily represent those of the Strategic Culture Foundation.