Learning to Believe in Ghosts

[Written when I should have been doing my taxes]

In Sapiens, Yuval Harari argues that the ability to conceive of imagined realities has permitted humans to thrive as a species. Supposedly, we are the only creatures that can communicate in the abstract. We have devised belief systems, supranational organizations, proverbial lines that define one nation from another—collective myths that are intangible yet critical to our survival.

When Harari touted this idea in his book, I was shaken and intrigued by the power of fiction. And I think of this often in the Age of Disinformation, especially now with the conflict in Ukraine. Those of us fortunate to be removed from the fight are learning of its development from the news, social media, maybe from friends and family stuck in the fray.

I will not glorify war, but I will marvel at its power to unite a people.

I cannot speak for the veracity of the stories emerging about the ground-level fight in Ukraine. Like the old woman giving sunflower seeds to Russian soldiers—”Put them in your pockets so at least sunflowers will grow when you all die”—or the reports of grandparents making Molotov cocktails to fend off troops in their cities. 

My favorite story has been the Ghost of Kyiv because I cut my teeth in fighter squadrons and devoted too many hours studying aircraft and countermeasures to not be in awe of an aerial dogfight.

On 25 February, stories spread of a mysterious Ukrainian pilot who dismantled six Russian airframes, including two Su-35 Flankers, one Su-27 Flanker, one MiG-29 Fulcrum, and two Su-25 Frogfoots. Social media has claimed this anonymous individual is the first European ace since World War II, the first ace of the twenty-first century, and one of few single-day aces, if the stories are true.

The ace pilot was conceived in World War I to evoke the idea of the modern knight and to enliven war-torn people with heroic propaganda (though attrition was high). Aces earn their status by shooting down five or more enemy aircraft in combat, which was easier then than now as aerial combat is less common than it was (perhaps to dismay of fighter pilots everywhere). And since the world wars, we’ve had handfuls from other major conflicts, some single-day aces, fewer aerial kills overall—which has made the Ghost more appealing to us. The sensational brings us together.

Almost quickly as the story rose in popularity did military aviation experts question its validity. And there are multiple factors we can consider, like the number of sorties required to achieve that many kills—the posts of the Ghost’s overflights show a MiG-29 with tanks, leaving fewer rails for air-to-air missiles. Success is also complicated when both sides are using similar aircraft and similar weapons—meaning similar countertactics—which doesn’t mean a kill isn’t possible, just more difficult to achieve when we consider the fight. There is also a dearth of photographic evidence of these downed jets despite the internet swarming with pictures of Russian helicopters downed on the same day of the war.

All these elements decrease the likelihood of this story, but the truth matters less to me.

I say this as someone who sometimes forgets the power of fiction for hope.

Years ago, I read Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which likens ideas to viruses spreading among us, and while the book was published in 1992, the futurism of it has never been more appropriate. I do not need to tell you we live in an age where we cannot take anything at face value, that we are bombarded by so much information, and so much of it is twisted for specific motives. We live in an era where anything can be proven (see Oreskes and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt), and we humans are rather fickle and easily tricked (see Cialdini’s Influence) when caught off guard. And sometimes this is terrible, yes.

Sometimes not.

Have you ever read a book where you pause and consider how much of what you are reading is fabricated or true—even if you know it isn’t, it still sticks with you? And maybe it’s because you are so drawn to it, or it’s so lovely—so deep—so moving, you want it to be true. 

That is the Ghost of Kyiv for me.

The Ghost evokes stories I heard in the fighter squadrons and the dogfights I experienced while riding backseat: the growing red-outs, the graying, the struggle to breathe while engaged in a max-G maneuver. It is striking and romantic and dangerously gorgeous like the mythos of the Ghost: ethereal, untouchable. I imagine Ukrainians are searching the skies.

In dark times, we look for heroes.

While my rational brain spins in calculating the validity of the propaganda and messaging emerging from this conflict, I have found myself stopping, often in awe, of the stories I stumble over, breathless on the thought. A war hero protecting Ukrainian skies. Thirteen guards telling a Russian warship to f*ck off. A grandmother showing a savagery I aspire to—yes, let my enemies’ corpses feed the soil, and may a symbol of my country rise above them.

And whether these stories are true or not, it doesn’t matter. It’s the hope that keeps us going.

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