‘Z’: War-by-Logo in Ukraine

Richard Stengel, writing in Time magazine in 2001, stated that “every conflict has its signature medium”, by which he meant that war and communications technology go hand-in-hand.  From the legend of Philippides running 25 miles non-stop from Marathon to Athens in 490 BC, to the subject of Stengel’s piece that the War on Terror was the first internet war, getting the message to the people has always been by the best means available.  Stengel also claims that the American Civil War “gave birth to war photography”, but in that he is mistaken.  The first war to be extensively photographed was in Crimea (1853-56), largely the work of Roger Fenton.  A selection of his prints can be found here.  However, the published work in both the American conflict and Crimea tended to be sanitized and often reduced to portraiture.  The grislier aspects were considered too strong for general consumption and may well have damaged public support, but some photographers in America did capture scenes of horror that emerged after the conflict ended.

As technology advanced into the twentieth century, motion photography became the cutting edge.  Both the Second Boer War (1899-1902) and the Great War (1914-18) were captured on film.  Footage of the Boer War was grainy, spotty and suffered from accelerated frame-rate.  Many scenes were staged in Britain and nothing came from the front line, although many still photographs caused shock in political circles.  Most images were of various dignitaries and dashing cavalrymen, but some footage survived and can be seen here

It was the Great War that changed everything, at least temporarily.  The British government commissioned a full-scale documentary entitled The Battle of the Somme in 1916 at a time when the war on the Western Front was going badly for the Entente Powers.  Intended to be a morale-boosting depiction of the realities of war, the film showed scenes of fatalities and stretcher-bearers bringing the wounded away from the front line.  Soldiers were easily recognisable, much to the horror of some of the 20 million people who saw it in the cinemas, some of whom fainted with shock.  The net effect was to harden attitudes either in favour of the war or against it.  Frances Stevenson (the then mistress and later wife of the future prime minister, David Lloyd George) summarized the feelings of many when she wrote in her diary that “I am glad I have seen the sort of things our men have to go through.”  She saw the film at a private viewing on August 2nd 1916.  It was released to the general public on August 21st, and it caused a sensation according to a Manchester Guardian review at the time.  Stevenson recorded in her diary that she had acquired some idea of what her late brother Paul had endured in France: “I have often tried to imagine what he went through, but now I know: and I shall never forget.” The entire documentary can be viewed here.

But if the Somme film marked a turning point in war presentation, it did not start a trend for honesty.  The British government was alarmed at the impact of the film, especially as the volunteer lines were dwindling and conscription was on the horizon.  When the next great conflict emerged, the Second World War, governments across the world tended to focus more on radio reports than visual records, and those that did emerge in the cinemas veered more towards propaganda than objective documentation.

For a long time, the Vietnam War was regarded as the first televised war, but this is accurate only insofar as the scale and ferocity of the footage which aired almost nightly on American television screens from 1965.  However, the television audience in the United States first encountered the Korean War (1950-53), although in smaller digestible chunks, through the location broadcasts of Ed Murrow and his colleagues.  In late December 1952, Murrow’s Emmy Award-winning See It Now news magazine broadcast a largely sanitised edition devoted to the American experience in Korea.  One of the few surviving clips can be seen here.  Even so, the programme contained an original soundtrack and it attracted considerable praise for bringing this remote conflict to the attention of those Americans who could afford a television set, roughly 34% of households at that time.

But it was the Vietnam War a little over a decade later that reached a far greater audience, more than 92% of households, and this is why it had such a significant impact on the American national psyche.  The pictures were more graphic; embedded journalists broadcast from the front line within the sound (and range) of the gunfire; the atrocities captured on film were limited only by what the censors would tolerate.  The coverage caused an outcry of public opinion against the war, a fact recognised by President Johnson when he announced he would not seek re-election in 1968.

Bungie’s original game cover

The first Gulf War (1990-91) has sometimes been called The Video Game War, or the Arcade War.  Nightly news broadcasts often contained footage captured by the weapons themselves, particularly armoured vehicles and bombers.  Many of the pilots had been trained on computer combat simulators, and several remarked how accurate those simulations had been when they flew real-time missions.  In one sense, then, they were actually flying in a video game, and all the while the on-board cameras photographed the scenery and the explosions that many of those pilots unleashed. This imagery of war closely resembled the ‘heads-up’ displays that players experienced in the early video games, and the circle was complete when Bungie Inc published Operation: Desert Storm in October 1991 for Macintosh complete with realistic maps of the Kuwaiti theatre of operations.

But Richard Stengel was correct when he labelled the War on Terror as the first internet war.  As he put it, “it is the first war you can access from your desk.”  No longer was an interested party restricted to the television, radio or the press for information; now any amount of material, including footage from all sides, could be retrieved from a wealth of websites that were growing exponentially after the 2001 attacks in the United States.  As Stengel recalled, President George W. Bush called the War on Terror “a war without borders”, and in that it was admirably suited to “the first medium without borders.”

Which brings us to the present conflict in Ukraine, now approaching its first anniversary.  The entire range of communication technology is now employed in the coverage of this conflict, but it is arguable that this is the first social media war.  Both sides are liberally utilising the power of social media to present their ‘truth’, to raise and retain support, and to attack their adversaries.  What makes this war different is that for the first time it has a recognisable logo devised by the Russians – the ‘Z’ symbol.  Of course, one could argue that galvanizing symbols have been present in conflicts stretching back centuries, but these have tended to be national or party flags, or the cyphers of royal houses.  Even Churchill’s famous ‘V for Victory’ sign was a personal affectation – extremely effective in itself, but not officially sanctioned by government.

From the Russian Ministry of Defence Instagram account.

By contrast, Russia’s adoption of alphabetic logos (the letters O, A, X and V have also been spotted, but ‘Z’ is by far the most common) has taken the form of an official branding exercise, much as the bitten apple, the golden arches and the swoosh are instantly recognisable as representations of commercial enterprises.  Furthermore, the Russian government has incorporated the symbol into its social media accounts, as this Instagram snip from the Ministry of Defence demonstrates.  The symbol, at least to the Russian people, needs no explanation or clarification.

As always with any form of semiotics, there is a desperate search for ‘meaning’.  Military experts at the start of the war opined that the letters stood for the direction of the military units.  ‘Z’ might stand for запад (zapad), the word for ‘west’.  Others have suggested that it is short for za pobedu – “for victory”.  These are reasonable guesses, but there’s a problem in that the letter ‘Z’ itself does not appear in the Cyrillic alphabet.  The ‘Z’ sound is made by the letter ‘З’ (Ze), though of course that would be easily confused with the Arabic numeral.  Presumably someone pointed out that to have the number 3 plastered across everything might lead westerners to think that the war was sponsored by a telecommunications company.  What is certain is that the logo has been adopted as a symbol of support.  It appears on clothing, billboards, politicians, buildings, vehicles, advertisements of all kinds, newspaper banners, graffiti; in fact, everywhere including athletes such as Ivan Kuliak which led to a one-year ban from international competition.

The Russian government promotes the idea that the symbols are short-hand for Russian militarist phrases, but that surely is to create a plausible back story for what is, essentially, the first ‘branded’ war.  The letter need not mean anything at all, for like all successful branding exercises, it has taken on a meaning of its own.  It fits perfectly with a global economy dedicated to excessive consumption where marketing by symbol is the norm.  It is a hideous extension of the principle that what is being sold here is misery, death and destruction: war-by-logo.

By Alan Brown

See also: The Great War: Cinema, Propaganda, and The Emancipation of Film Language:  Christina Stojanova: Acta Univ. Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies, 14 (2017) 131–156

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