People on the internet have a lot of ideas for how to manage Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Some of them want a no-fly zone, despite the very real possibility that it will lead to apocalyptic nuclear war. Some of them think that regular Ukrainian civilians could disable Russian tanks with paintball guns. And yet others have extremely detailed tips for urban warfare.
“Stairways are another good killing zone,” ShitstachMcGee, a user who claims to be a former U.S. Marine, wrote on Reddit. “Block stairways with any obstacles you can to slow down invaders. If you throw a grenade downstairs, have your magazine fully topped off and ready. The invaders will most likely run up the stairs to run past the grenade blast.”
I don’t know if ShitstachMcGee is recalling actual military training here or if he’s describing something he recently did in Call of Duty: Warzone, but his 2 cents are weaved into the internet’s information stream seamlessly, which makes it that much harder to parse in this moment of crisis.
Should Ukrainians ambush Russian troops in stairways with grenades? Should NATO impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine? Is the Russian military about to encircle Kyiv, or is it actually running out of fuel and heading for retreat? Will sending MiGs to Ukraine help defend its citizens, or will it escalate the war and lead to many more deaths? I don’t know the answer for sure, but there’s an army of armchair generals online who think they do.
There have always been people that sit at home during a war and think they know more than the people on the ground fighting it, but social media has given them a huge platform from which to proclaim their terrible opinions, and generally muddy the waters of a serious subject.
There’s more information, both good and bad, than ever before. But the onus to sort through it is on the viewer. This becomes extremely hard during a war. The stakes are literally life and death, and all sides are willing to lie to score propaganda victories. In the unsorted mess of the Twitter timeline, a reply about mud from a guy cosplaying as Eisenhower online can move to the top of your feed as easily as a serious OSINT analyst who spent hours verifying the movements of tank columns in the country using satellite imagery.
The first round of mind numbing armchair general bullshit I saw started a few days after the war began, when ShitstachMcGee offered the people of Ukraine tips on urban warfare in /r/ukraine. Reddit removed the post, but it filtered to Twitter and exploded there.
Over the next few days, threads sprouted online detailing all the different ways Ukranians should defend themselves from Russian aggression in an urban environment. Some seemed helpful, some was complete bullshit, and it was all condescending. Every anonymous account that claimed to be part of a military had something to share.
Most of the people chiming in at this point were your classic armchair generals: guys who read a lot of history books, former or current military who thought they could help, and extremely online nerds shitposting strange advice. But in the coming days and weeks, the professionals got into the armchair general trade and things became truly dire.
One particularly bizarre piece of advice that keeps recurring is that the civilians of Kyiv use paint guns and water balloons filled with paint to blind the optics of oncoming tanks. It’s advice that completely misunderstood how tanks work and that real life tank operators decried as ludicrous and dangerous.
As I see it, there are three major categories of armchair generals: the Think Tank Wonk Who Has Been Waiting Their Entire Lives for This, the OpEd Writer Shifting Their Beat to Cover War, and the Extremely Online Shitposting Anon. There are subgroups, variations, and anomalies to be sure, but I believe these three categories cover the bulk of what I’ve seen online since the war started.
The first is the most toxic and destructive. Think Tanks predated World War II, but their modern incarnations began with the Rand Corporation gaming out nuclear war against Russia. In Washington D.C., short nondescript office buildings leer out at passersby on Massachusetts Ave. Behind the glass and stone are men and women who spend their days Think Tanking. These are academics who politicians and journalists call to get opinions and knowledge.
Within the world of think tanks there are literally people who have spent their entire careers studying the possibility of a land war in Europe fought against Russia. For these people, the invasion is the culmination of their life’s work. These are often the folks publicly calling for a no-fly zone or limited no-fly zone and earnestly telling people it won’t be a step into a larger conflict.
According to Emerson T. Brooking, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s (a think tank) Digital Forensics Research Lab, he’s seen what he calls a war fever grow in his fellow think tankers.
“There is a push for aggressive policies like a no-fly zone, but they’re choosing not to represent the full breadth to the public of what those policies entail … they’re swept up in a kind of war fever,” he told me. “Ideas that would once be debated by weighing the pros and cons and trying to get to the heart of the matter are instead thrown out into public spaces, seemingly with the intention of getting as many retweets as possible and what may begin as a proposal for a no-fly zone, pretty soon sees someone minimizing the risk of a nuclear exchange.”
But Brooking also thinks it’s unfair to say that all of the bad posts are clout chasing. “It’s a reaction to the horror and powerlessness that they feel as western observers and wanting to do something,” he said.
According to Brooking, one of the reasons people from think tanks are so loud online right now is because something typically dry and academic has suddenly become very real and visceral. “There is a difference between debating at a think tank roundtable about nuclear arms policy while eating cardboard sandwiches and seeing the murders of thousands of people in real time and wanting to use all the instruments of American power to try to save lives,” he said. “I think that’s a noble goal, but it creates a real tension when some of the people calling for drastic intervention are the same people who are charged with contextualizing and explaining public policy to the American people.”
The next type of armchair general is the pundit turned war blogger. These are the journalists who typically write about the economy, technology, or cultural issues who have pivoted to covering the war in Ukraine because it’s a trending topic. It’s this desire to chase traffic and be part of the discourse that leads people like Bloomberg opinion writer and economics expert to write sentences that start “Nuclear winter would be very bad, but…”
“You have all these people picking up a new vocabulary, which at first glance, makes it seem like they’re experts, but they’re basically emulating and copying people whose full time job is following a particular event,” Brooking said. “There is a creep of the language of expertise. You saw this exhaustively during COVID-19.”
The third tier is the anonymous shitposter, the extremely online dad-type who is just trying to keep up with the flood of information and inform his 500 followers about tank movements near Kharkiv. What do they know? Not much, but they’re going to post about it.
Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear policy and nonproliferation expert, professor at Middlebury Institute, and prolific shitposter, has also noticed an uptick in armchair generals online. Because nukes are his focus, he’s seen a lot of people he feels should know better advocating for nuclear war.
For Lewis, he thinks the behavior comes down to three things. “I am really shocked by how little people seem to know about the past,” he said. For some, the stark realities of a nuclear exchange are new information. But millions of people lived through close calls and scares of the past 75 years. There are people in power right now who grew up learning to duck and cover under their school desk as a guard against Armageddon. “There’s a lot of selectivity in what we choose to learn and remember and what lessons we apply.”
Lewis also blamed aspects of the internet. He noted that it’s incredibly easy to build an information bubble around yourself that reinforces your preexisting beliefs. He also said that, in the past, a person with mildly contrarian beliefs could share them in public and it was hard to determine their veracity.
“Now, there’s plenty of information and so when you interact with these people and they refuse to accept the enormous amount of information easily available at their fingertips, they cease being charming contrarians and start to seem like destructive trolls,” he said. “And I think that’s changed how we look at those people in our community. It’s hard to even believe this person is engaging in good faith because 10 minutes on Wikipedia would solve this problem.”
If you’re reading stuff like this from people like Rod Dreher and it’s making you nervous, just don’t engage. There’s a million clowns on the internet right now posting through a land war in Europe. The scary truth is that, despite a wealth of satellite imagery and constant feedback from the front, it can be hard to tell what’s going on and impossible to know how things will turn out. Pay attention to the journalists on the ground and the people living in the war zone.
Everything else is just posting.