When words become weapons of war or peace

Happy Spring Equinox! I am writing this on the banks of the River Severn, one of my favourite spots in the world. The sun is shining in a cloudless sky, a breeze is dancing through the long grass. I can hear the outgoing tide making its way back to the sea. Within this natural order and peace, it is almost impossible to imagine the horrors of war.  

Like all of us who are far from the fighting front, I feel the combined rage, helplessness and deep sadness of seeing and hearing the heart-breaking scenes and accounts of the millions of Ukrainians fleeing their homes or defending their country, their freedom and their lives. Words seem to be my only weapon against this appalling aggression. But what words would help? And which ones won’t? There is such a fine line between the impactful bravery of calling something out, of revealing the truth in the face of lies, like the Russian TV employee who ran onto the set of Russia’s main news channel bearing a placard saying ‘Don’t believe the propaganda, they’re lying to you here’ while shouting ‘Stop the war. No to war,’ and the potentially catastrophic naming, shaming and blaming of an individual.  

Russian TV journalist, Marina Ovsyannikova, protesting on a live Russian news broadcast

I know that I want to use my words to help bring about peace. Which is why I choose not to use those that I feel add both to the divisiveness that lies behind all wars and to the ‘othering’ of the enemy, which in turn nurtures the erroneous belief that violence and force are the only ways to achieve aims and justify actions. It’s also why listening to Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour on Thursday 17th March left me unsettled. 

I am not usually one to come down on the side of politicians’ typically evasive methods of answering a question. But in this case, I was behind the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, in her response to presenter Emma Barnett’s questioning. It went something like this: 

Barnett: ‘Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal Foreign Secretary?’ 

Truss: ‘I think there’s very, very strong evidence that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine and that he is instrumental to those war crimes taking place.’ 

Barnett: ‘Is that a yes?’

Then, citing USA’s President Biden’s recent declaration that ‘he is a war criminal,’ she continued to push Truss. ‘Why don’t you want to cross that line? That line has been crossed by America and I am wondering why we’re not.’ 

Truss then repeated her noncommittal answer. 

And I was glad she did. I didn’t think that style of political grilling was appropriate here.

Some might see Truss’s line as weak. Maybe you do too? I actually don’t. For what, other than an escalation of diplomatic tensions and danger, is to be gained by shoving Putin into the ‘war criminal’ category, even if he is one? By branding him with what is potentially the worst label there is, do we not put him on the defensive rather than encourage constructive conversation? Hitler was a war criminal. And Putin is a million miles away from allowing himself to be equated with him. 

A Kremlin representative’s inevitable response was to call out Biden’s statement as ‘unacceptable and unforgivable rhetoric on the part of the head of state whose bombs have killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world.’ Of course we all know he has a point when you look back at certain episodes of American history. And that is my point. Such statements do nothing other than to add fuel to an already raging fire. 

None of this is to say I don’t abhor what Putin is doing as much as anybody. I am just aware that words are absolutely crucial in the dealing with a person whose psychological makeup is so volatile, so proud, so convinced, so terrifyingly dangerous. Because while our acts may be indisputably heinous, we human beings, in all our complexity and contradictions, are never just one thing. So to stick a supremely negative label onto someone – even if they have qualified for it a thousand times over – is in my view counter-productive, especially when, however mad it seems to us, they see themselves in a very different, invariably more heroic light.

While working in prisons, I saw the negative dynamics of labelling people ‘murderer,’ ‘terrorist,’ ‘child abuser’ – even when they were guilty of these crimes. Like the locked door of their tiny cells, there was no way out of that ‘bad’ box. Impotent, ostracised and with no obvious path leading back into the world of ‘good,’ many gave up trying. Some killed themselves. Some continued to numb the shame and sense of separation with drugs or self-harm. Others turned to violence in a futile attempt to punch their way back to the acceptability and respect that ironically often lay behind the motivation to commit their original crime. Shame has a hideous way of making people infinitely more dangerous.

We only have to look at the Germany of the 1920s, 30s and 40s to see what grew out of the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty and above all the ‘war guilt’ clause, which forced Germany to accept all blame for World War One. Or to be reminded, as I was on a recent trip to Hamburg and the blackened ruins of the St. Nicholai church that had so fascinated me as a child, that every nation and each of us are capable of descending into horrific violence, even potential war crimes.

St Nikolai Church, Hamburg

If we are to believe that conflicts begin in the hearts and minds of individuals, then it follows that peace does too. Of course I don’t know for sure, but my feeling, at least from a psychological point of view, is that at this incredibly precarious and dangerous moment in time where the course of the war in Ukraine could escalate in so many directions, we should be doing everything to enable Putin to withdraw, retreat or feel sufficiently victorious to end his war with at least a perception that enough of his dignity and integrity are intact.

I totally understand both the temptation and justification of condemning Putin and his actions as outright evil. But the stakes are currently too high to play the ‘we’re right, you’re wrong’ game. For to do so is to accuse and other the perpetrator in the same way they have accused and othered their foe. Like negotiators communicating with hostage-takers, albeit on an infinitely larger scale, maybe we need to keep in our view the man behind the monster. As many in the west are now admitting, this is possibly what we have neglected to do in the past. And he who feels unheard, unseen, disrespected often feels impelled to stamp louder, punch harder to get themselves noticed. 

I think our personal choice of words is one of few things that each of us have as a tool to diffuse rather than escalate a situation. I just hope we can all find the right ones.

On another note, exactly this time last year, I was giving my Tedx talk. You can watch it here… again or for the first time if you haven’t seen it already.

And yesterday I received the printed proofs of my book In My Grandfather’s Shadow. Still not the final product, but another exciting step towards publication in July. You can pre-order on Amazon here or wait until July to buy in a bookshop.

Related Links

Woman’s Hour Interview with Liz Truss – start at 13.30 mins

This total tragedy and injustice cannot be the start of the Third World War

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.

Still from the film ‘Flee’

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. 

Related links:

BBC series Rise of the Nazis: Dictators at War 

Trailer for ‘Flee’