Every day, The Guardian runs a small feature on their website titled “Russia-Ukraine war: What we know”. The headline always continues with the number of days the conflict has been going on, meaning that I’ve been able to slowly watch the number tick up—first to double digits, then to a month, and now to 100 days.
That number has taken on a strange significance to me: It is the closest thing to a monument of the conflict, increasing each day, and becoming more unfathomable as it grows.
Like most of us, the invasion had caught me by surprise—or rather pulled out the rug from under me, as all the certainties I took for granted suddenly got called into question. Everybody remembers where they were on 9/11, but in retrospect, the Russian invasion of Ukraine feels similar in my memory; with that sudden shock of realization that we were living through history as it unfolded. I spent the following days glued to my screen, watching the war unfold like a slow-motion car crash. I would cycle to work with news coverage on headphones, and just a few days after the war broke out, I stood at a traffic light and noticed the car in front of me had a Ukrainian license plate. It felt like the news was materializing before my very eyes.
At 100 days, the invasion has become a fixture: Still ever-present, still gut-wrenching, but increasingly normalized. Of course there’s war in Ukraine, of course there’s one more horrible war crime revealed each day, and of course we’re powerless to do anything about it.
I’ve previously written about our struggle to deal with long-tail problems—such as climate change or the pandemic—and how they can turn from something concrete to something abstract before they slowly fade from the collective consciousness. It’s a pattern that repeats itself.
A few days ago, the United States saw another mass shooting—one on a sickening row of shootings just this year. My Instagram was promptly flooded with stories full of viral tweets expressing the powerlessness that people felt in the face of the horror and the government’s response, which wasn’t just inadequate, but fully absent. But just a few days later, the media attention had died down, as the story had become yet another tale in a long string of horror stories.
How do you stop a story, any story, from becoming normalized? In a way, moving on and accepting an unresolved situation is a built-in feature of the news cycle. Just a month into the invasion, I read somewhere that news outlets were shifting to other topics, as the click-through rates of stories about Ukraine were waning. 1 Ironically, headlines and images don’t seem to break the pattern or normalization. We get used to anything: Even the daily speeches by the Ukrainian president reminding the world of the lunacy that’s happening in his country.
I’m starting to think that the only solution is having those small monuments and reminders, whatever they might be. I still notice the Ukrainian flags on the walls in Berlin: As spring is turning into summer, the flags are beginning to lose their colors, effectively capturing the time that has passed since the invasion began. And then there’s The Guardian’s daily number. “This isn’t normal”, it seems to say, especially as it ticks up to 100.
In his book “The Nineties”, Chuck Klostermann explores this effect in relation to the first Gulf War, which was the first military action to be broadcast live on television: “We tend to assume that seeing an event ‘live’ deepens its imprint on the mind. It should, in theory, make the experience more intense, and the associated emotions should be more ingrained. But the prolonged liveness of the Gulf War produced the opposite effect. Like a CGI action movie with no character development, the plot vaporized as it combusted.”↩︎