Between 1914 and 1918, half a generation of British, French, Germans, as well as countless others including Australians, went to their deaths as a result of the Great War. Not every one of them was a willing combatant, many were conscripts or went under threat of conscription and countless others felt the duress of "patriotic" efforts such as the White Feather campaigns.
But the hastily constructed imperial-industrial-military killing machines of the first world war would not have been possible without the enthusiastic participation of a huge section of the population. In capitals around Europe, crowds celebrated the outbreak of war. Spurred on by what might have been the first global mass media propaganda campaigns, the ranks of national armies swelled with willing volunteers. In the first six months of the war (and prior to conscription), the number of new enlistments in Britain alone was close to a million.
The generation who vocally backed the war in 1914 had no experience of war on foreign soil. Prior to August 1914, the last major conflict on European soil was the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and in an era where the average person lived to about 55, this was well beyond living memory.
Like the generation of 1914, today’s Facebook twentysomethings live in a world where war happens elsewhere. Foreign conflicts have value for as long as their shape and momentum makes them attractive to the Western eye. Crises such as Libya (Gaddafi v The People) or Egypt (Mubarak v Facebook) capture the public imagination as long as they retain a sense of spectacle and a crowd pleasing narrative.
Meanwhile, drawn out disputes which don’t provide for exciting new footage and complex ones which defy the 30-second news grab go largely ignored in the collective Western consciousness.
In raising awareness of the conflict in Uganda, the makers of the Kony 2012 video have succeeded where others have failed through their willingness to disregard the facts. In their version the tribal, religious and economic motivations of the LRA are glossed over in favour of simply blaming Kony for the entire conflict.
In their version, Kony (one of the world’s most wanted men) has escaped justice not despite the efforts of the international community but because he is "not famous enough". In their version, the Ugandan Government, reviled by human rights activists around the world, is the antidote to the current humanitarian crisis. In their version, most disturbingly, direct military intervention is the answer.
There is a name for communication aimed at influencing people towards military action: War propaganda. The Kony video is nothing more than war propaganda interspersed with enough pop-sociological drivel and slick production techniques to make it palatable to current viewing tastes. Its style is the social-media-savvy political communication style of the Arab Spring, but its content is cynical militarist propaganda in its purest form. An invocation of the glories of foreign war for the internet generation Imperialism for the hipster.
The Kony 2012 "cause" isn’t likely to last any longer than the last fad, and between the new crisis in Afghanistan, ongoing instability in Iraq and Iran and Israel staring each other down over nuclear weapons, the United States is unlikely to get involved in another foreign war, even in an election year.
Meanwhile, though, Invisible Children’s gleeful propaganda has taught us a lot more about ourselves than it has about East Africa. Like the children of Europe 1914, a not insignificant portion of Facebook users seem to regard war as something to be celebrated, barracked for and "liked".
It has been 40 years since Australia last suffered large-scale losses as the result of a foreign war, about the same as in Europe 1914. People live longer, now, but maybe our historical memories are much shorter. Nonetheless, the ease by which millions can be so easily manipulated towards picking a side in matters of life and death asks real questions about the cruelty, or at least the credulity, of our age.
Ten years from now, it is probable that the only tangible result of the Kony 2012 campaign will be the swelling of a few American trust funds. But the whole sick fiasco has demonstrated that it’s not just the oppressed and the downtrodden who are learning the lessons of Tahrir Square. The dictators, warmongers and profiteers are learning them too.
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