Tractors, Tanks, and Propaganda

With a tractor-obsessed two-year-old, tractors have become a big part of our lives. We’re surrounded by tractor toys of all scales and we watch a lot of tractor videos on YouTube (sugar beet harvester videos are a personal favourite). Every time farm traffic goes past our house, we stop what we’re doing and look to see what kind of tractor it is and what they’re hauling. With all of this tractor talk, our family enjoyed the recent viral video of a Ukrainian farmer towing a Russian tank with a tractor. There have been a few similar videos, racking up millions of views across all of the major social media platforms.

The video got me thinking about propaganda and psy ops, and my former mentor Phil Taylor’s book Munitions of the Mind–it’s also the title of a blog belonging to his colleagues at University of Kent’s Centre for The History of War, Media and Society. On the blog, I came across this piece. Mark Connelly does a great job of concisely explaining the symbolic value of tanks. They are a symbol of war and power, of military might and threat. He cites the examples of the iconic protestor vs. tank moment in Tiananmen Square, or the tanks on the Champs Élysées as the image of Paris under Nazi occupation.

These Ukranian tractor vs. Russian tank videos represent a new twist on the tank’s symbolism: a David and Goliath message of underdog resistance and victory. That narrative explains why they’ve gone viral. In a conflict that defies so many of our established ideas of what’s right or fair, there’s something amusing and even encouraging about seeing the people get their own back.

The videos also evoke messages of peace, “swords into ploughshares”, with the visual juxtaposition of weapons and farming equipment. Tractors represent a significant feature of peace-time Ukrainian life, as agriculture is Ukraine’s largest export industry and 70% of the country’s land is agricultural. Likewise, it could be argued that the tank represents the current state of Russia under Putin’s leadership. Showy display of military might on the outside, but complicated and fragile on the inside.

The whole war can be summed up in the image of tank vs. tractor, as things currently stand. Putin surely did not expect the Ukrainian resistance that they’ve encountered, nor the surrender of Russian troops and abandonment of tanks resulting from insufficient supplies and low morale. The phenomenon of the videos going viral is also a good summary of the world’s reaction to the war–people are closely watching the conflict, cheering on the underdog, and they can’t help laughing when the aggressor’s tank breaks down. It’s a brilliant form of pro-Ukrainian propaganda, made and distributed by the people.

Let’s hope the war ends soon and the tractors can get back to their spring planting.

These refugees, not those refugees

(Disclaimer: This is not my post to write. I’m white and privileged, I’m not an authority on race or refugees. But that never stops other people from sharing their views, so I should speak up…I’m an authority on media, and this is a media bias issue)

I haven’t said anything about Ukraine on the blog because there’s so much to say that it’s hard to know where to start. I’m also reluctant to say anything because the sheer amount of attention that it’s been getting is also upsetting, in and of itself.

The other day I heard on the radio that the UK Government was paying people who would take in Ukrainian refugees, and that there’s been an unprecedented amount of support for them, with people offering to open up their homes. On the one hand, this is absolutely lovely and right and good, and I don’t want to detract from what is a wonderful humanitarian effort. On the other hand, why is this unprecedented? Why haven’t other groups of refugees received this much attention and support? Why didn’t the UK Government pay people to take in Afghans or Syrians?

Why do these refugees get an unprecedented outpouring of love and those refugees don’t?

One of my favourite writers/thinkers/people, Ijeoma Oluo talked about this at the start of the Ukraine invasion. Of course it’s right that people are upset about Ukraine and want to help the Ukrainians–but where is this empathy and love and support for refugees outside of Europe?

Trevor Noah also confronted some of these ideas on The Daily Show.

In this piece in the Independent, Nadine White does a brilliant job of discussing the racial bias in media coverage of the Ukraine crisis. She cites many examples of journalists commenting on how shocking it is to see this happen in Europe, how they “look like us”.

Peter Dobbie on Al Jazeera English was quoted as saying “What’s compelling is looking at them, the way they are dressed. These are prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from the Middle East […] or North Africa. They look like any European family that you’d live next door to.”

“On Friday, Sky News broadcast a clip of people making Molotov cocktails – effectively bombs – explaining in intricate detail how to make these devices as effective as possible. Can you imagine if these were Syrians or Palestinians? They’d quickly be branded as terrorists.”

Nadine White, 28 February 2022, The Independent

What are we supposed to do with this information?

-Hold people accountable when they make comments about these refugees being “like us” (because all refugees are like us, actually)

-Urge your political leaders to support all refugees and to aim for peaceful, diplomatic methods of conflict resolution

-Donate money to organisations that help on a global scale (IRC, Unicef, Doctors Without Borders, etc.)