You Are Not Kilroy: Why Americans Need to Stop Joking About Ukraine

Sophia Lindstrom, Scarlet Staff


Maria Prymachenko, Our Army, Our Protectors (1978)
Maria Prymachenko, Our Army, Our Protectors (1978)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has claimed many casualties; innocent Ukrainians have been killed, driven from their homes, and plagued by the constant threat of shelling and bombing. But there is also another victim of this war, and that is Ukraine’s art. 

According to Sky News, the Les Kurbas Theater in Lviv has become a bomb shelter where rows of seats and empty stages have been replaced with cots and bags of clothing donated by local citizens fleeing the conflict. Performers such as opera singer Natalia Rybka-Parhomenko have become volunteers, serving food and drinks to refugees. While this theater has become a refuge, its performances have been put on hold due to the conflict. 

All of the art in the country has become endangered due to this war. Russian soldiers burned the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum in Ivankiv, which featured works by famous Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko. Ukrainian museum curators, workers, and artists are rushing to get their artwork out of the country and away from dangerous shelling. But, according to MSN News, this can be a challenge as many of these people are enlisting in the Ukrainian army and cannot ensure safe transportation for their often-fragile artwork. 

Amid this scramble to rescue a massive aspect of Ukraine’s culture, art has also become a political statement during this war. The Metropolitan Opera has announced that it will no longer hire or work with anyone who has supported President Vladimir Putin of Russia. They have become the highest cultural institution to do this since the war’s inception. Russia has also been barred from Eurovision and the Venice Biennale; additionally, singers such as Iggy Azalea have canceled all of their shows in Russia. All of these recent developments show just how influential art can be and the lengths that people will go to either preserve or destroy it. 

But these artistic conflicts centered in the heat of the war or high positions of power are degrees removed from the art centered around the conflict that we see daily. Most of us will never need the Metropolitan Opera and the Venice Biennale, and it’s highly unlikely that any of us had booked tickets to see Iggy in Moscow. But all of us have access to the internet, where we have seen firsthand where the line between appreciation and exploitation has become blurred. Yes, I’m talking about memes: videos, comedy sets, cartoons, you name it, have been twisted to joke about the conflict in Ukraine, and while they’re technically all forms of art, they should not be used in this way. 

TikTok and similar social media platforms have become rife with videos and jokes about the war on Ukraine: jokes and comedic sets, cartoons, and the like that do nothing but make the war about themselves. For example, we’ve all seen the “World War Three” jokes in which people will brag that they’re not eligible for the draft. In one video, Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky are edited to “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” from Disney’s Frozen. An image of the Simpsons holding Ukrainian flags has gone viral as well. 

American content creators will likely never see the conflict that Ukrainians are threatened by every day. To quote a viral meme, you and the boys will not be heading to Ukraine to fight in “World War Three”. Fortnite kids won’t have to put their video game skills to the test on a real battlefield, but some people will fight and have been doing so for weeks now. Videos and comedy are forms of art, but should art be used in this way? Where is the line? 

Now, don’t twist my words: making jokes about war through art is nothing new. An example of this is Kilroy Was Here, in which WWII soldiers drew a little figurine with a large, floppy nose looking over a wall. Kilroy became a ubiquitous sign that American soldiers had been in that location and thus kept up morale during long years of fighting. 

In fact, Kilroy was one of the very first memes, a generational joke that almost all American soldiers during the second world war were in on. This joke eventually spread; British soldiers used “Chad was here”, and in Australia, Kilroy evolved into “Foo”. The difference in names did not change the truth, uniting the meaning of the phrase: we were here, and we’ve got something that connects us

It is because of this powerful message that Kilroy survived long past 1945–Clark University has our very own Kilroy on the third floor of Goddard Library. The difference between Kilroy and similar jokes and the TikToks and memes of today is that in WWII, the soldiers were making jokes for one another to get through the violence of war. Nowadays, jokes are being made by those completely removed from conflicts. This is a serious problem because it invalidates the struggles of the Ukrainians living in constant uncertainty. 

How do the actions of the elites and the struggles of those striving to preserve their art in Ukraine connect to us? Well, it is our job to do better and to support those overseas, instead of sending your friend a meme in which Spongebob and Patrick fling a jar of mayonnaise at Russian tanks. The fact that we are so far away from the conflict can make it feel like it’s not real, but it is real for millions of people. So rather than make a war about ourselves, let us instead uplift and raise the voices of artists trapped in Ukraine right now. They are doing everything possible to protect their country from invasion, and sometimes this means sacrificing performance spaces, their lifelong projects, and their passions. Try watching a movie made by a Ukrainian filmmaker or, better yet, donate your time and money to the cause. This war isn’t about us, but we can be a force for change from afar.