How to Lie with Memes

Memes are an incredible tool of information exchange; unfortunately they are just as often a fount of misinformation.

We’ve seen lying with statistics. We’ve seen lying with maps. Now, in the heat of the most serious nation-on-nation conflict in decades, we’re seeing lying with memes.

The meme above, although not new, has been rocketing around social media over the past few days in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It pops up almost any time someone criticizes the invasion for its brutality or advocates for a strong Western response. The accounts posting it – mainly the useful idiot crew – are garnering thousands of positive responses, all decrying the United States for imperialism, militarism, and atrocious human rights abuses, if not outright war crimes. If you took these folks at face value, you would think that the US was, in the words of one prominent progressive commentator, “the greatest source for evil and destruction since the fall of the Third Reich.” This sort of moral relativism is nothing new; authoritarian flunkies and anti-American stooges – see one Noam Chomsky – have been pushing these inane ideas for decades. Now these tactics have been updated for the 21st century, where memes are the ideological currency of the day. And although the rhetorical technology has changed, the inaccuracy and misinformation has not. The “USA Bombing List” meme is a case in point.

There are several major reasons why this meme is wrong, all of which can apply more broadly to this entire genre of anti-American propaganda. The first issue with the “USA Bombing List” meme – besides terrible graphic design – is its purpose: to excuse the actions of repressive foreign regimes by pointing at the US instead. This sort of ‘whataboutism’ rears its ugly head anytime a foreign group aligned against the US engages in human rights abuses or military atrocities. In the past few years, these sorts of spurious attacks have been used to justify the horrific actions of terror groups like Hamas in Gaza or the Houthis in Yemen, the Chinese Communist Party, the Iranians, and, most recently, Russia. There is a technical name for this sort of rhetorical trick: the tu quoque fallacy. This is essentially the adult’s version of a classic childhood gambit, where the boy who made the mess blames his brother for an unrelated problem in an attempt to dodge blame. And just as the boy’s mother fails to fall for this trick, so should we. Blaming America for events which happened in wars of the past when the subject is an ongoing atrocity – be it the Russian attack on Ukraine or China’s Uighur genocide – is a lame attempt at misdirection. Changing the subject or making accusations of hypocrisy is not persuasive, and it isn’t even much of an argument.

Another issue with the “USA Bombing List” is that it flattens a whole variety of military operations into a simplistic paradigm of “bombing”, destroying nuance and misleading the reader. Some of these operations were minor, involving limited engagements in both time and scope, while others were full-blown wars. It is meaningless to lump together the long-term, large-scale strategic bombing used in the Vietnam War and the one-off, retaliatory cruise missile strikes conducted by the Clinton administration in the 1990s against terror targets in Sudan and Afghanistan. The munitions, tactics, strategies, rationales, partners (most of the events on the list were not unilateral American actions), and targets vary widely; the only things that unite the disparate events referenced in the meme are the involvement of the United States and the fact that something dropped from the sky. Not even all of the instances listed involved American air power, as some were carried out via naval assets and ship-launched cruise missiles. This flattening is intentionally meant to confuse and mislead readers who may not grasp the nuance of these kinetic actions, a fact which is made crystal clear by the pictorial depiction of bombing included at the top of the meme. The image is of an older WWII-era plane (the lack of color is one tell) dropping a large number of non-guided munitions in a saturation bombing style that was rarely used by the US after 1945. Such bombing did often involve far higher civilian casualties than does modern air assault, as munitions were not guided and were dropped in large numbers to inflict the required damage. The choice of this older aircraft, instead of something like a modern stealth bomber, is meant to anchor one’s mind to the idea of brutal saturation bombing of civilian targets. The vast majority of post-WWII aerial strategists have rejected this tactic as counterproductive, costly, and politically unpalatable, a well-known fact that is purposely left out in order to deceive the reader. Along with the flattening inherent in such a list, choosing the outdated aircraft photo is meant to embed the worst possible image of American air power in the minds of readers. Of course, this is not truthful; most of the events listed occurred in the 1980s or after, when precision guided munitions – and thus more limited operations – became commonplace.

Finally, and most importantly, this list is entirely devoid of context. This was a conscious choice on the part of its creator, as they hope that the viewer of the meme sees the text naming places the US has “bombed” and reacts to it without taking the time to actually look more deeply at the instances listed. Of the 33 cases included in the meme, very few would be considered by any reasonable observer to be unjustified or carried out in an overly brutal manner, and some are downright absurd. Almost all of these examples were multilateral and involved international cooperation, whether that be through NATO, other allied partners, or even at the invitation of a host government. All of this plays into the key issue here, which is the deliberate ignorance of intent or justification on the part of the United States. Going through a few of the most egregious entries on the “USA Bombing List” is eye-opening.

The aftermath of the American airstrike which killed Iranian General and terror leader Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. Note the lack of damage to surrounding areas and precision accuracy needed to hit a moving target.

The meme starts off with a perfect microcosm of the whole: the Korean War. This war was started by the North Koreans (with the backing of the Soviet Union and Mao’s China) when they invaded South Korea and took nearly the whole of the Korean Peninsula before being repulsed by American-led UN forces. North Korea was (and still is) a totalitarian communist state that oppressed its people and committed horrific atrocities, and it was backed by two of the most murderous regimes of the 20th century. Americans fought and died for the freedom of South Korea – today a vibrant & prosperous democracy – and were involved in the war at the behest of that nation’s government. In no way was the United States the ‘bad guy’ in the Korean War. My guess is that the only reason they added this conflict to the list was to be able to claim that the countries in the meme “represent roughly one-third of the people on earth”; most of that number comes from one country, China, which was an instigator of the conflict in the first place!

Another absolutely ridiculous example of a ‘bad’ American intervention is the Persian Gulf War, as well as the subsequent operations in the 1990s against Saddam Hussein. Not only was the First Gulf War an internationally-approved operation, it was undertaken as a response to an unprovoked expansionist invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. The attacks undertaken by the US were against Saddam’s invading forces and were requested by the leadership of Kuwait, the target of Iraqi aggression. Incredibly, the creator of the “USA Bombing List” includes Kuwait on the list of countries bombed, even though American forces were working at the behest of Kuwait to destroy forces threatening that country’s existence. The “1991-2003 Iraq” case is just as preposterous, as those operations were limited strikes meant to prevent Saddam Hussein from using chemical weapons against Kurdish minorities in the north of Iraq. The Bosnia and Yugoslavia examples are similarly farcical, as NATO only intervened in those civil wars to prevent or respond to genocide and massacres by the Serbian government, most notoriously at Srebrenica, where thousands of civilians were slaughtered. The perpetrators of these attacks – and the targets of American missiles – have been charged with and convicted of crimes against humanity. Finally, many of the most recent additions to the “USA Bombing List” have been operations against terrorist targets like al Qaeda and ISIS in places like Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria. In several of these cases, the strikes were carried out with the full knowledge and consent of the government in charge.

In none of these cases was the US intervening with malign motives or desire for carnage and imperial expansion. And that is the most profound problem with this meme and others like it; they choose to lambast the United States for its supposed crimes without any consideration of intent or good faith, all in the service of defending actual atrocities by bad actors with evil motives. The same people who craft and promote these fallacious and ahistorical memes also complain about the US ‘not caring’ about suffering peoples around the world; nothing America does (or does not do) will be enough for them. These apologists for our authoritarian foes have no principles save one – a deep hatred for the idea of America and its moral force in the world. I am more than happy to proclaim it from the rooftops: the United States is an exceptional nation that does more good in the world than nearly any other and is the most important beacon of freedom and for human rights that currently exists on this planet. The fact that memes made by those who wish to indict the United States are so replete with factual errors, intentional misinformation, and outright absurdities only bolsters this case. When those memes are used in the defense of events as abhorrent as the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia, they should be directly debunked and their promoters treated with the disdain and scorn they so richly deserve.

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