Wars and Rumors of Wars

Viktor Vasnetsov, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Public Domain)

There’s something memorable about the phrase, “wars and rumors of wars.” It certainly occurs in the scriptures often enough. Two prominent examples are in Nephi’s vision of the future of his people (and his brothers’) on the American continents (1 Nephi 12:21, 1 Nephi 14:16) and the Savior’s own discussion of the end (Mark 13:7 and Mattew 24:6). The latter usage–echoed as well by Moroni (Mormon 8:30)–always struck me as anachronistic.

These were opinions I formed as a kid, back when we all watched the First Gulf War on television. War was a different thing, then. The whole world was on our side, we were rescuing a small country from a larger one led by an evil dictator, and of course nobody could mount a credible resistance to the military might of the United States. Most importantly, however, we could watch the war on our televisions, as reported by correspondents on the ground who were connected almost in real time via satellite communications. In a world like this, how could there be rumors of war? Surely we’d know, wouldn’t we?

As the years rolled by, this ability to know seemed more and more self-evident, to the point where the inability to hide seemed like the real issue. From spy satellites to computer viruses, lack of information seemed like a remnant of a past already fading into dim memories. This was, after all, the Information Age. Knowing is kind of what we do. Isn’t it?

The inability to have unconfirmed rumors of war without immediate verification one way or the other (complete with video clips for prime time news) actually bothered me a little bit, in the sense of wondering: how could that particular prophecy come true? At a minimum, it seemed like something that would have to wait until fairly late in the end game, when some kind of other disruption had eroded our vast, global communications network to the point where we had lost this amazing ability to know everything everywhere all the time.

This, at least, is how things looked in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s. At that time, we seemed to have just enough information for maximum overconfidence.

Since then, of course, things have changed dramatically. The biggest change has been the rise of social media and the corresponding collapse of the mainstream media. Newspapers around the country are struggling to remain solvent and relevant while insurgent outlets–first blogs and then later new media outlets like the Daily Kos or Breitbart–traded sensationalism and reassuring moral outrage for ad revenue at an ever increasing clip. Facebook and Twitter are addicted to the same drug (which is to say: outrage) and rely on this steady stream of increasingly disreputable “news” both via paid advertisements and simply to maintain user “engagement.”

And so now, surveying the landscape in 2017, my optimistic assessment of our ability to know what is going on anywhere, anytime seems pathetically quaint. The problem, as it turns out, isn’t an inability to move information around. It’s the opposite: the flow is just too darn fast. And the incentives to sell people what they want to hear are just too strong.

America’s addiction to outrage is a lot like our addiction to calories. In centuries gone by, hunger was an omnipresent danger at the societal and individual level. Today, in the United States in particular, obesity kills us instead. We’re drowning in calories, and most of it isn’t real food. We’re drowning in information, and most of it isn’t real information.

It’s not hard for me to imagine now that we could have both wars and rumors of wars in the 21st century. I can already imagine the headlines. Some would call it a police action. Others would speak of terrorism. Maybe it’s an annexation. Maybe it’s an invasion. The death toll could be in the hundreds or it could be zero, and all the body count and the photos are stage. I’m not imagining any particular conflict at any particular place; simply imagining how different groups with different agendas could muddy the waters sufficiently even around fairly large conflicts that we, far away, would really have no idea what was going on.

The problem won’t be a lack of knowledge, or even–in and of itself–a superabundance. It won’t even be fake news. No, the problem will be that we’re just too eager to hear what we want to hear, and so we won’t be able to trust anything we don’t see with our own eyes.

12 comments for “Wars and Rumors of Wars

  1. That’s a fantastic point, Nathaniel, although I think you can use the present tense throughout. In the current wars in the Middle East, for example, local reporters were some of the first targets, which left only competing versions of propaganda for outsiders trying to figure out what was going on. And if you’re relying on Western news outlets, it takes a long time to figure out the difference between experts, bloviators, and shills. Clearly there are wars going on, with hundreds of thousands of victims, but “wars and rumors of wars” is quite a good way to describe the situation.

  2. That’s a good point, Jonathan, and I can imagine situations like that growing even worse in the years to come. By which I simply mean that at least we have some awareness (meaning: news-conscious Americans) that there’s an awful civil war in Syria, even if we have plenty of rumor when it comes to the exact participants and other details.

    I can imagine both scenarios where there are deadly, armed conflicts and we have no awareness and also where there is no major conflict, but we believe there is.

  3. Great post. Not just wars proper but violence in general. By most accounts we’re at the most peaceful period in world history. Yet public perception of violence and conflict are completely out of whack with that. Most people think there’s more going on than at any prior period. Same with terrorism. Even with Al Queda and ISIS terrorism is a pale shade of what it was when I was young. There were regular bombings in the US in the 70’s. One terrorist outfit, the Weather Underground, was responsible for between 25 and 40 bombings in 1975 in the US alone. There were over 100 plane hijackings in the 70’s. And crime was skyrocketing in that era peaking in the early 90’s then dropping quickly since. (Despite an uptick the last year partially due to unrest over police tactics)

  4. I smile at the irony of this at the time when President Trump has so confidently drawn our attention to an atrocity that did not occur in Sweden last Friday.

  5. These are some great observations, thank you.

    A way that I have always interpreted the phrase is to mean “wars and rumors of [impending] wars”. There have been many times when the speculation and “drumbeat” that war is about to erupt has been overwhelming. Think of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Think of the mood in America about a week after 9/11. News media generally call these situations “tensions”; I always thought “rumor of war” would also fit the bill.

  6. I have always assumed Steve’s interpretation as the primary explanation of this phrase. There are plenty of conflicts that do not show up much on US TV, but that does not mean that I am not aware of them or do not acknowledge them.
    The level of TV coverage should not be used as a metric for the intensity of the conflict. The first Gulf war was mostly bombing, some good maneuvering and a bunch of Iraqis surrendering.
    For another example, the worst genocide of my lifetime took place within 500 miles of lots of TV cameras and reporters yet got almost zero live coverage. The Cambodian killing fields were fairly remote and did not fit the dominant press narrative, so they got almost no coverage. Jonathan’s point is also highly relevant to that episode.

  7. Rwanda and Serbia show up partially on American’s radar but not as much as the relatively small 9/11 attack. Somewhat understandable but still when gauging the world a big confirmation bias. Other wars like in Ethiopia, Somalia or Sudan rarely show up at all. Neither does conflicts in Congo or the like. So we are as a people biased. In both directions. We don’t notice the wars but neither do we notice the massive improvement in the human condition world wide. Effectively we are a very provincial people who tend to judge the world in terms of the fears of middle class America.

  8. Good post. I think that the rumors of wars can be used throughout history. Before mass communication, governments and military outfits relied on weeks-old information about trouble afoot in distant lands, which sometimes wasn’t even occurring. Speaking of the Middle East, the 1967 War between Israel and Egypt plus Arab allies was largely the result of an escalation of tensions caused by misleading Soviet intelligence that Israel was planning an attack on Syria (https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/the-soviet-union-and-the-six-day-war-revelations-the-polish-archives). As for the 1991 Gulf War, not everyone was on the side of the US. Many in the Arab world at the time were holding onto the ideal of a larger unity among Arab countries and favored Saddam’s annexation of Kuwait as a starting point of a new Arab unity, one that Gamal Abd al-Nasser of Egypt had failed to achieve in the 1960s. Even if many governments of Arab countries were against Saddam’s actions, they stood on the side of Iraq as a gesture of solidarity with public opinion in their countries and because they thought that US interference would only make things worse. Algeria, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories are prime examples of this.

  9. Dan-

    As for the 1991 Gulf War, not everyone was on the side of the US…

    I’m sure you’re right about that, but what I was just trying to convey were my impressions at the time, when I was 10 years old. And back then it really did seem like everyone was on our side, to me at least.

    (And yes, I had concrete–albeit naive–opinions about world events at that age. I was absolutely full of sadness and anger as I described the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests to my younger brother and fantasized about sending American fighter jets to blow up the tanks and save the students. It was right around the time I turned 8. I was a weird kid.)

  10. I always interpreted Rumors of Wars as being Saber Rattling; not war itself, but something which still causes provocation amongst large groups of people.

  11. By most accounts we’re at the most peaceful period in world history. Yet public perception of violence and conflict are completely out of whack with that. Most people think there’s more going on than at any prior period.

    I don’t think that most people think that there’s more going on than before. I think that there’s just enough people in lesser populated states, who like to rebel against scientists, knowledge, and the educated. So when they see official reports that we’re actually had a very peaceful time, they feel a need to rebel against that. If they didn’t, then those attacking their religion would win.

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