Cracking one-liners as we watch our world tear itself to pieces, bit by tiny bit

The face of war is rapidly changing, but some parts of the Russia/Ukraine conflict are stranger than fiction, writes Rebecca Levingston

Feb 01, 2023, updated Feb 01, 2023
Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy was a shock guest on former Late Show host Dave Letterman's interview program. (Photo: Netflix)

Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy was a shock guest on former Late Show host Dave Letterman's interview program. (Photo: Netflix)

How wickedly weird is it to watch a war?

Stranger still to stream an interview between David Letterman and Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

In the middle of a warzone they trade jokes and truth bombs. The world watches. A Netflix special.

Is it entertainment or essential viewing? Some kind of bizarre genre bending content that weaves between tragedy and comedy. I won’t lie, I was glued to the latest Letterman show. I watched it while I was on Summer holidays. What a totally normal way to spend some couch time. I guess millions of people all over the world did the same. Catastrophic, captivating content, so why do I feel conflicted about it?

David Letterman was a Late Night US talk show host, whose brilliant dry wit made him famous. Now he’s retired with a white beard and gentler comedic style as he interviews the world’s biggest stars. Kim Kardashian, Will Smith, Malala Yousafzai, George Clooney, Ellen Degeneres and Barack Obama. A long list of global superstars roll up for a show called “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction” in a sleek, safe studio setting.

Why not a comedian turned president counting the dead bodies of his countrymen?

The Ukrainian leader presented a unique production challenge.

Incredible to think of the logistics of Letterman flying into the capital Kyiv and his team organising a train station location for a sit-down interview sporadically interrupted by air raid sirens. A bunker with microphones, translators, cameras, lights and a live “studio” audience.

Dangerously brave that such an interview could even occur. It’s been streaming all over the world for the last month. But last week when I woke up to news of a helicopter crashing into a kindergarten in Ukraine killing and injuring children, I felt sick.

How does the world switch on and switch off a war so effortlessly?

We know so much. We see so much. You can check the daily death toll. Hear the anguish. At what point do you become desensitised to blanket coverage of distress. I fear apathetic acceptance or even worse a dark punchline.

“Putin. I liked him better shirtless on a horse.”

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

You’ll be bombarded with media specials featuring timelines and disturbing detail. Montages of heart breaking, gut wrenching death, bravery and bewilderment. Clicks and eyeballs and attention.

To what end? It’s sickening global reality television and the world is the audience. Evil, endless violence that dominates our news, power prices, food bills, fuel pumps and foreseeable future.

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Last month Australia sent troops to the UK to train Ukrainian soldiers. Farewelled from Darwin with sombre salutes. We send more tanks. More troops. More Ukranians die. This week we proudly promise to fill French artillery shells with Australian gunpowder. It feels like a slow motion procession towards more inevitable sadness. Another chapter of trauma and another reason for our country to stay glued to the coverage.

“Diggers to the Rescue” shouted the newspaper headline. More weapons. More war.
“The Gunpowder Pact” sounds like a movie doesn’t it? Our own heroes will emerge. Like new characters with starring roles.

Remember the Ukrainian woman who gave sunflowers to Russian soldiers last year?

“What the f*ck are you doing here” she asked, marching towards the camouflaged men in her city.

“What the f*ck are you doing on our land with all these guns?

“Take these seeds and put them in your pockets, so at least sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here.”

She was hailed a hero. Standing up to fascists. She’ll be in the movie made about this conflict. I wonder if she’s still alive. Sunflowers in her hands.

So how does it end? Letterman asked Zelenskyy…

“What would happen if Putin fell out of a window and suddenly died?”
The Ukrainian president responded calmly.
“There would be no more war.”

I want it to end. I want the world to stop watching.

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