The way armed conflicts have been represented in fiction for decades could explain the racism that has been revealed in Western media coverage of the war in Ukraine compared to multiple conflicts over the years in Africa.
Double standards. That is what is striking when we compare the political and media treatment of the war in Ukraine — and the massive exodus this conflict is creating — to the treatment (or non-treatment) of the multiple crises that have similarly affected African countries in recent decades.
For example, think back to CBS News special correspondent Charlie D’Agata’s statement on Feb. 25: ”This is not a place […] like Iraq or Afghanistan […]. Kyiv is a relatively civilized city,” he said to underline what he found particularly shocking about the images shot in Ukraine.
The war would therefore be "abnormal" in the West and "normal" elsewhere.
No music on the battlefield
Let’s take a step back. How could the representation of the war have led the imagination to the point of saying something so astonishing?
In real life, no music accompanies bombings or the exodus of civilians
During Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech in front of the U.S. Congress on March 16, I was shocked to hear the music that accompanied the images of the destroyed city of Kharkiv to illustrate what Ukrainian civilians were going through on a daily basis.
As if we needed to use codes of fiction (sound and music) to see reality (the horrors of war). As if we were incapable of understanding what war really is when what we perceive in reality does not resemble enough the image that we have forged through fiction.
In real life, no music accompanies bombings or the exodus of civilians. However, the images of war seem more realistic and more touching when they resemble those we see at the cinema or on television, music included.
It was a strange turning point that underlines the complexity of the articulation between fiction and reality, as well as its importance in our perception of events.
Yemeni government army are seen in Harad District, Hajjah Province, northwestern Yemen
Different movie portrayals
Not only do westerners not see, or do not want to see, the images of the war on the African continent, what they do see is often through the lens of fiction — often big, American productions. In these representations, war “over there” is essentially depicted as savage, barbaric, uncivilized, to the point where it will drive the participating Western soldier crazy.
Fiction revisits dominant stereotypes in reality — in this case, racist ones
He will often come back shattered, unable to readapt to society or a “civilized” life. The Russian enemy is often characterized by his intelligence, which he is associated with evil (this was the case recently in Black Widow or in the last James Bond movie).
Meanwhile, for the African man, evil is manifested through barbarism — for example in Beast of No Nation or in Black Hawk Down.
When war is shown on the European continent, it is another image that takes shape, that of the “before,” that of the previous century or centuries. Westerners, therefore, have not built an image of war that is compatible with their current so-called “civilized” societies (that is another debate).
So there is a vicious cycle between reality and fiction. Fiction revisits dominant stereotypes in reality — in this case, racist ones. In so doing, it acts on our perception of reality versus what really happens (here, the mobilization of Westerners in the face of war tragedy). Africans are the ones paying the price for these types of games.
*Aïda N'Diaye is a writer, teacher and philosopher
**This article was translated with permission from its author