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Ukrainian Sacrifice and the American Glorification of War Death

Original illustration by Noah Bassman

Social media and online news have been flooded with tragic images of carnage, destruction, and human suffering in the short time since Russia invaded Ukraine. While neo-imperialist interventions and unlawful occupations in the 21st century are far from new, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is unique in how publicly visible it has become. In a world where Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram function as key hubs of news and information, viral media from Ukraine has thrived—especially in places like the United States and UK where public opinion seems to fall squarely on the Ukrainian side. The inspiring and heartbreaking stories of various volunteers—an 80-year-old man who showed up to fight, a newly-married couple taking up arms and posing for a photo, an elderly woman being trained to use a rifle by the far-right Azov Battalion—have gone viral on Western media platforms. 

Most striking, however, are depictions of Ukrainian soldiers who have died in combat. Two of these depictions in particular have attracted widespread attention: the death of Vitaly Skakun Volodymyrovych, a young Ukrainian soldier who sacrificed himself to blow up a bridge, and the soldiers of Snake Island, who gained international acclaim for responding to threats from a Russian warship by saying “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.” While these are commendable sacrifices, their seeming sensationalization in the United States illustrates a broader pattern of the US media’s tendency to glorify death during times of war. Veneration of wartime death and sacrifice ultimately distracts from the true brutality of warfare, instead portraying it as heroic and implicitly instilling into American society a strong support for the US military. 

The idea of a “heroic sacrifice” and other similarly glamorized portrayals of death are abundant in American cinema. The trend is visible in war films from both before and after 9/11, so that it is far from a new phenomenon. In the 1998 World War II epic Saving Private Ryan, for example, a group of soldiers the audience has followed throughout the entire film makes a valiant last stand to defend a French town from the encroaching Germans. Although many of the soldiers die, their glorious sacrifice allows for reinforcements to arrive. The 2001 film Black Hawk Down, whose release coincided roughly with 9/11, is full of tragic stories of individual soldiers sacrificing themselves to save their comrades. American Sniper, a 2014 film about the war in Iraq, presents a different kind of depiction of “sacrifice,” telling the story of Chris Kyle, a former Navy SEAL, who was killed while trying to help another veteran who was suffering from PTSD. Also released in 2014, Fury is dedicated almost entirely to the last stand of a World War II tank crew. The American appetite for war films is far from a novel phenomenon; American Sniper is the third-highest grossing R-rated film in US box office history, while Saving Private Ryan, released two decades prior, is the fourteenth. All of these films have the same effect, conveying to the viewer that there is no more glorious or heroic way to die than fighting to protect your country. 

It is in the context of these films and broader ideas of self-sacrifice that stories like that of Volodymyrovych resonate with American audiences. A Facebook post from the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine that commemorated Volodymyrovych received tens of thousands of likes upon it being posted. The story has received widespread circulation in American media, with outlets from the Daily Beast to the New York Post sharing his story. A photo of Volodymyrovych was frequently included, a portrayal of the 25-year old that demonstrates his youth and emphasizes the true tragedy of the situation. Still, Volodymyrovych is far from the only young Ukrainian soldier to have died in the war—exact casualty numbers remain unclear, though they seem to be in the thousands—yet few others have received international recognition by name in the way he has. The amount of loss of life brought about by the war is already devastating, yet Volodymyrovych, who died in an act of self-sacrifice to aid his brothers-in-arms and defend his country, is one of the only casualties to be acknowledged and mourned as an individual. That his story has been so widely circulated demonstrates the power of the idea of “heroic sacrifice” in the contemporary Western military mythos. While especially visible in the United States today, the glorification of death in combat is a worldwide phenomenon, serving as a sobering reminder of how militaristic ideals can still permeate any nation, government, or culture.  

The story of the 13 soldiers of Snake Island has similarly captivated international audiences. Sources initially used Ukrainian government information to report that, after their defiance of the Russian warship, the soldiers were killed. The spread of these stories can be partially attributed to their amplification by the Ukrainian government—a logical attempt by a nation at war to project an image of heroism to sympathetic foreigners—but is still inextricably linked to a collective American fascination with “heroic sacrifice.” Later reports revealed that the soldiers are, in fact, alive. What is not clear is whether or not these soldiers would have garnered such widespread international attention if they were not believed dead. Though impossible to definitively answer, it remains striking that many of the now-widely-known Ukrainian soldiers initially gained recognition for their alleged deaths in visceral acts of defiance against Russian invaders. 

I previously wrote about how the NFL’s connection with the military serves as a form of propaganda through the vehicle of a cultural staple. The case of American war film serves a similar purpose; in both cases, propaganda built to glorify the US military is packaged with popular and widely-consumed entertainment. It is only in this context that stories like those of the Snake Island 13 or Vitaly Skakun Volodymyrovych capture such widespread American attention. Their stories are impactful and almost relatable because they look like the heroic stories portrayed in film. To create such a broad impression of war death as the glorious, commendable, and even desirable act of “ultimate sacrifice” further serves to reinforce the embedded support of the American military and plays into a broader pattern of manufacturing consent in support of American military ventures.