We had only just gotten cable at our home in rural Indiana, and after school, my brother and I would turn on CNN to see the sky over Baghdad filtered through night-vision lenses, bathed in a neon green color reminiscent of the glow sticks we liked to wave at the skating rink.
Soon, our dinnertime conversations were peppered with talk of Scud missiles and General Norman Schwarzkopf (as German Americans, we quickly mastered his name) as we filled our parents in on the dramatic scenes we watched while they worked.
But my dad’s experience was not the norm. For most Americans, war has been a spectator event, watched in crowded theaters and quiet living rooms. The invasion of Ukraine is no different. Even though the media has changed – the current war is unfolding not just on cable news but also on TikTok and Twitter feeds – the act is the same: most of us consume wars rather than experience them.
Watching war on screen is complicated. Viewing war can deepen our empathy, lead to greater aid and philanthropy and encourage pacifism. But it can also be a source of manipulation, misinformation and even inertia. That is why, when we watch another war begin, we should think carefully about how we consume it.
The shift to televised war changed that dynamic. As the war in Vietnam escalated in the 1960s, the scenes played out in people’s homes. This was not the wall-to-wall coverage of modern cable news – scenes from the war were often packaged as part of each night’s news – but the visuals of the fighting became part of the private rhythms of home life, something to be consumed between dinner and episodes of “Gilligan’s Island.”
Cable news made round-the-clock coverage of and information about war possible, and it turned out, US audiences craved exactly that. Though I did not realize it when I was tuning into the war after school, millions of other Americans were doing the same, making CNN a household name and revolutionizing 24-hour news.
As the invasion of Ukraine unfolds, these experiences should inform how we consume this terrible war. First and foremost, we should be assiduously careful with our sources of news; the more shocking the scene, the more thorough we should be about making sure it’s both real and accurate. We should also be thinking about what we’re not seeing: the people, experiences, and events hidden from public view.
Beyond that, we should be tuned into our emotional response to those scenes, and mindful of what the stories we consume ask of us. Scrolling through a flood of heartbreaking images can inspire or dull us, can turn us into saber-rattlers or pacifists. Or it can simply provide a feeling of drama and catharsis, risking blending into all the other media we consume and making war seem like fiction.
As we watch this conflict unfold on screens, Americans must commit to developing our own ethics about war and fostering a deeper knowledge of this region’s geopolitics and its relationship to our own. Otherwise, the emotions raised by watching these images are breeding grounds for manipulation. And that’s why, as scenes from the war wash over us, we should ensure we’re not just consuming the war, but thinking deeply about what it means.