On Wednesday I was writing about ‘feeling the bass beat of impending war… The jungle drums of chest-beating bullies rutting for power, control, land… The thumping of panicked hearts packing, fleeing…’ By Thursday, as the thud of bombs landing on Ukraine came through our radios with shocking reality, such poetic imagery felt utterly misplaced. Now, as the horrors of Putin’s unprovoked advance to Kyiv to ‘de-Nazify’ and ‘decapitate’ the democratic Ukrainian government begin to unfold, the shattering idea that we could be witnessing the beginning of World War III has been gaining momentum.
This is heart-breaking. So awful. So wrong. So utterly terrifying. My thoughts and heart are with the people of Ukraine.
Outwardly, in our own tiny orbits, life continues. Just like it did for Franz Kafka when he noted in his diary on the outbreak of the First World War:
‘August 2, 1914: Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming in the afternoon.’
Inwardly I feel sheer dread.
Having immersed myself for so many years in the past darkness of the Second World War, trying to understand despots, trying to learn the lessons of history, I suddenly find myself emerging into a present filled with similar appalling scenes. And I feel utterly impotent. I think we probably all do. How are we meant to act? What does ‘reacting well’ to this situation look like, both in terms of our leaders and us as individuals?
I don’t know.
The instinct is to rush to Ukraine’s defence, which, to some degree, various countries have. But for Ukrainians, it is clearly too little too late. Yet to use force risks the unimaginable outcome of a full-on war with Russia. That just cannot happen. I have lived vicariously through a war with Russia in my German grandfather’s letters from the 1941-2 Eastern Front. It is hell on earth. Nothing, surely, can justify risking a return to that. It is reassuring to hear the defence secretary and military authorities now warning the chamber of the extreme danger of putting British boots on the ground; of declaring war on Russia. Please Boris Johnson, don’t see this as an opportune moment to fulfil your wannabe Winston Churchill ambitions. The responsibility on leaders is huge and deadly serious. They need to tread carefully and with emotional maturity. The language is critical. Confronting a ruthless maniac takes skill.
‘It is more important to understand the butcher than the victim.’ Javier Cercas
I don’t know how it’s done.
All I do know from a multitude of life’s lessons, is that all sides involved will be feeling they are right. Just like back in the thirties, we in the West see ourselves to be indisputably on the side of good. We are protecting democracy. Our ways of life are the right ways. But while that all may be true, if I have learnt anything about the psychology of conflict and dictators, I feel pretty sure that that is precisely what Putin is also feeling. Because wars and violence are ultimately created out of a sense of threat to one’s position, values, people and way of life. Out of a fear of loss. Power-hungry dictators, such as Hitler and Stalin, were blind to the suffering caused in their pursuit of visions of a world that in their eyes was ‘good’. Same for criminals. With both sides believing they are right, nothing will persuade or force them to think otherwise.
‘No one who either knows or believes that there is another course of action better than the one he is following will ever continue on his present course when he might choose the better.‘ Plato
It would be counter-productive to shame Putin into believing there is no way back without losing face.
To do nothing would be an unforgivable betrayal of the Ukrainian people.
To meet Russian aggression with further aggression would quite possibly provoke a Third World War.
That cannot happen.
For those who have never experienced war first-hand or occupied themselves with the World Wars, it is almost impossible to imagine their sheer horror. For those with eyes trained on a victorious outcome, it can be easy to overlook the devastating impact on individuals. And not only the inevitable loss of life. What we have been witnessing in Ukraine – civilians signing up or arming themselves with guns and Molotov cocktails, getting stuck in traffic jams, huddling in makeshift bomb shelters – are the fight, flight, freeze responses of trauma. The terror of impending mass destruction, injury, homelessness, hunger and life-long psychological damage for generations to come. Just watch ‘Flee’, the brilliant new Danish animation that is well positioned to clean up at the Oscars, to witness the appalling cost of war on one child, one family. One among millions of others forced to flee their homes.
Is Margaret MacMillan right when she said in her 2019 Reith Lecture:
“We like to think of war as an aberration, as the breakdown of the normal state of peace. This is comforting but wrong. War is deeply woven into the history of human society. Wherever we look in the past, no matter where or how far back we go, groups of people have organized themselves to protect their own territory or ways of life and, often, to attack those of others. Over the centuries we have deplored the results and struggled to tame war, even abolish it, while we have also venerated the warrior and talked of the nobility and grandeur of war. We all, as human beings, have something to say about war.”
If we accept, just for a moment that war is an inevitable part of our world and as integral to being human as, say, creating art, how should we react to it?
I just can’t believe we are here… again.
How do you reason with a man like Putin, who genuinely believes his demands and actions are reasonable? How do we prevent this conflict from escalating into another deadly world war? How can we prevent our own rage and sense of injustice spilling over into a call for retaliation?
For now, I will attempt to keep my heart filled with love and courage to send to the people of Ukraine and those in Russia who do not want this war. To those fighting, resisting, defending. I pray that the whole world finds its way through this crisis to peace.
BBC series Rise of the Nazis: Dictators at War
Trailer for ‘Flee’