The Real-time Rehabilitation of the Chattering Classes
AUG 10, 2023
On July 6, 2023, Newsweek recently released an article titled, “Why U.S. War Tactics Are Failing in Ukraine.” The article’s central claim was that Ukraine’s “counteroffensive” failed because it lacked the air superiority on which NATO’s land doctrine is predicated. In a glaring omission, the author never asked why such an approach was even considered, much less tried, without this necessary air component.
The article also failed to account for Russia at all, as if war were a one-sided affair. Absent both in letter and in spirit was the common military refrain, “the enemy gets a vote,” or any similar acknowledgement of the interactive nature of war. Missing, too, was any reference to Murphy’s Law. On the contrary, if only Ukraine had air superiority…Russia was irrelevant, it seemed.
The article’s greatest shortcoming was its reliance on the opinions of officials and pundits who have gotten this war wrong from the beginning. The article made no mention of their respective records of failure. Instead, these individuals shared downwardly revised—even wholly different—analyses from those they had previously offered. Disregard their prior forecasts of a tough but successful counteroffensive and accept their current musings about air superiority.
My intent is not to take Newsweek too seriously. After all, this is the same publication that recently asked, “Is Putin Replacing Under-Fire Defense Minister with Steven Seagal?” But a continuing trust in those who have fundamentally misunderstood the war is common across Western media, academia, thinktanks, and so on. In fact, it is a defining feature of the chattering classes.
Six months ago, I wrote a post titled, “Rubble and Rhetoric: Many People Died for Nothing.” This piece covered a lot of ground, including narrative control:
Western media outlets not only obediently parrot the words of US and other NATO security officials, but they also routinely publish articles based on information sourced exclusively to Ukrainian security services. Reporters do this despite knowing, for example, that Kyiv operates a sophisticated propaganda machine. There is no adversarial media, no fourth estate. The press is now largely in the business of promoting establishment goals—Ukraine is merely a current fixation. The politico-cultural monolith of government, big business, news and entertainment media, tech, and academia created and enforced a cartoonish depiction of the war. This Leviathan marginalized and discredited attempts at substantive inquiry, discussion, and debate.
I should have added that the Leviathan engages in an ongoing act of housekeeping, a near real-time effort to rehabilitate the reputations of its functionaries. Such people can be wrong, even disastrously so, and still retain membership in the club as long as they do not question the formal consensus. They continue to receive judgement-free opportunities to adjust their previous assessments until, eventually, it seems as though they never made an error in the first place.
On May 11, 2023, Unherd published an article from famed military and geopolitical thinker, Edward Luttwak. “Ukraine’s path to victory” detailed Luttwak’s fanciful supposition that Ukraine’s “gradual build-up of an increasing large, well-trained, and well-armed operational reserve of combat units” could achieve a breakthrough during the counteroffensive, thereby shifting the war from attrition to maneuver—and all in Ukraine’s favor. He even suggested the operation could, “finally provoke challenges to Putin’s direction of the war, and hence his entire leadership.”
Today—three months later—Unherd published another article from Luttwak, “Why Ukraine’s offensive has stalled.” Here, Luttwak informed readers that maneuver warfare “depends entirely on surprise,” and that modern surveillance capabilities, such as satellites, denied Ukraine any such chance at surprise. This excuse is on par with references to Ukraine’s lack of air superiority. Such mistakes ought to come with a reputational penalty, but rarely do.
Wild misjudgments of the counteroffensive are but the latest example in this long-running con. One could recall stories about a collapsing economy, microchips from washing machines, exhausted missile supplies, and impending regime change, to name a few. No matter. Editors will continue to feature stories that contradict previous ones. Fellow grifters and sycophants will continue to like and share them. The kaleidoscope will continue to turn.
None of this is new or different, of course. Consider the reputations and career trajectories of major media personalities who promoted the Iraq War twenty years ago. David Remnick is still editor of The New Yorker. Thomas Friedman is still a columnist at The New York Times, and even won his third Pulitzer Prize for “his clarity of vision, based on extensive reporting, in commenting on the worldwide impact of the terrorist threat.” Jeffrey Goldberg is not only editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, but also the new moderator of a renamed version of PBS’s Washington Week, the longest-running news and politics program on television.
At this rate, I sometimes wonder if the definitive history of Russia’s victory in Ukraine will come from CNA, the Royal United Services Institute, the Institute for the Study of War, or—dare I say—the Atlantic Council.
I bet David Petraeus and Ben Hodges gets bylines.