Like you, for the past week I've been watching a war.
For me, this consists of refreshing Telegram and Twitter every few seconds for updates from friends, family, journalists and observers on the ground in Ukraine, and trying to sift through what is real and what is disinformation while desperately searching for any reassurance that my loved ones were not harmed.
I was born in Kyiv, and moved to the United States with my parents when I was a child. But growing up, I spent every other summer holiday with my grandparents in Ukraine. For my parents and me, life has come to a halt as we call and message our friends and family in Ukraine who are hiding in bomb shelters, subway stations and in their basements and pantries as air raid sirens ring out every night.
For those with a connection to the country, the images coming out are deeply personal and unbelievably devastating.
A view from a friend's cottage window on the outskirts of Kyiv, which once looked out on the peaceful countryside, now shows the night sky illuminated with explosions. The streets that my grandfather and I would walk to visit our favorite playground in the Kyiv neighborhood of Obolon are now made infamous from videos of a tank crossing lanes of traffic and driving over a civilian car.
These images are incredibly difficult to reconcile with the memory of the city I knew, and this is likely true for countless others who have called Ukraine home. For many other observers, however, this may be the first time they are paying attention to Ukraine and its people.
One common refrain that has captivated public attention in these early days of the war is the pride and defiance of Ukrainians against the Russian invaders. Viral videos depict a Ukrainian woman confronting enemy soldiers, telling them to put seeds in their pockets so flowers may grow when they die on our soil, a Ukrainian man carrying a land mine with his bare hands, Ukrainian citizens gathering weapons and collecting together outside their apartment buildings to prepare Molotov cocktails to defend their cities.
The President, Volodymyr Zelensky, became a hero and international celebrity overnight for refusing to leave Kyiv and his country, instead rallying morale with a series of self-filmed videos speaking directly to his citizens, to the Russian people and to the world. The fortitude, resilience and spirit of the Ukrainian people are widely being recognized and respected internationally.
With this recognition, however, an unsettling response began to emerge on social media.
As the Ukrainian military held strong against the Russian forces, people online began to draw comparisons of the war to fictional narratives. Most commonly, these involve stories in which a small group of fighters resists a larger, better-equipped opponent despite seemingly insurmountable odds. Think Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Marvel and the like.
In addition to recognizing President Zelensky's bravery and ingenuity, the online discourse swiftly moved to praising his attractiveness and relatability, going so far as to begin fan-casting what actor ought to play him in a hypothetical movie about a crisis that had just begun unfolding. "This just keeps getting better by the second," wrote a user on Twitter. "It seems like something on Netflix."
While it may be tempting to look to fiction for a framework in which to process a real-life war that you have no connection to, there are consequences for doing so that harm the people you are attempting to empathise with.
The Ukrainian story is much more complex than that of a scrappy army of fighters led by their relatable, unflappable leader. While the most popular pieces of media depict the former, Ukraine is a nation of more than 40 million people who are undergoing immense trauma and experiencing the full spectrum of human emotion. "I am afraid" is a message I have received every night from my friends in Kyiv since the war began.
As of March 3, 1 million Ukrainian refugees have left their homes abruptly, many families separating as men remain in the country under martial law in response to a war Ukraine never provoked. These realities are incongruent with the common stereotype ascribed to eastern Europeans: of a hardened, cold people with a proclivity for violence and the capacity to withstand immense hardship.
While there are many moments in Ukraine's history that have forced its people to build resilience, circulating images under this stereotype reinforces the idea of a people built for war. And despite gushing media reports of expats booking plane tickets and signing up to fight, given a choice, most citizens do not want to be soldiers.
Some may argue that Ukraine itself is leaning into this narrative, and there is truth to this. Zelensky's videos, while relatable, are not accidental - he is leveraging his skills to boost the morale of his citizens during war and secure military and humanitarian support for a nation that desperately needs it.
Others may say Ukrainians themselves are mythologising figures in the war - the response of the soldiers on Snake Island to a Russian warship has become an unofficial national battle cry. Propaganda works. It can be helpful for people going through hell to mythologise their situation, and their leaders to help them through it.
But when the world looking on buys into that mythology, it can make it seem like help isn't desperately needed. If you are not experiencing the violence or trauma that Ukrainians and the diaspora community are, please be mindful of the assumptions you are making about the Ukrainian people and of how you are processing this war, especially in public forums such as social media.
Even if not ill-intentioned, comparing an ongoing war to your favorite action movie or TV series implies that you are invested in what's happening insofar as the "story" continues to be one you find entertaining to watch.
But the "characters" in this narrative are not fictional, and the outcome of this war is undetermined.
Choosing to selectively consume the moments of war that depict camaraderie, wit and defiance - the "highlights" - and not the death, trauma, displacement of families, destruction of cities and eradication of culture will isolate you from the people you want to show solidarity with. Ukrainians do not have the luxury of experiencing the war in this way, tuning in and out as they like.
I do believe most people want to express compassion, and are likely using beloved fictional narratives to make sense of what is happening. However, if you are watching this war with no connection to Ukraine or its people, I strongly urge you to be more aware of what media you are consuming.
Is it providing you with accurate information about what is happening to the country and its citizens, or is it turning the violence into a more palatable spectacle? If you can only empathise with or care about Ukrainians as long as they behave like the triumphant characters in your favorite war movie, that is not only dehumanising, but you're also setting yourself up to tune out if the good guys don't keep winning.
You may be reading about and watching videos from the war on the same devices where you've been consuming your entertainment, but the citizens in Ukraine are not performing their acts of resistance for the pleasure of an audience.
Zelensky's now famous quote, "I need ammunition, not a ride," was not a punchline from an action hero - it was an actual request from a President to the world stating what his country requires for survival. While the world may stand with Ukraine, what Ukraine needs in addition to moral support is more tangible: military supplies, humanitarian aid and political pressure.
Rather than being a spectator, you can support Ukrainians in their fight. Resist the temptation to look away as the less glorified parts of the war continue to play out. Regardless of the narrative that may be ascribed to them, Ukrainians will continue to fight. They have no other choice; they are doing so to defend their homes, their country and their independence.
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