It is impossible to be a student of history without being a student of war, and this is what I have learned so far, after 45 years of studying both.
War starts on impulse; the outcome can never be predicted and the aftermath never understood.
War is what happens when all diplomatic means are exhausted. War is what happens when the ability to communicate and find common ground is broken apart.
War is what happens when equations of power get so out of control that talk ends and guns start.
War is what happens when a powerful nation asserts its power.
War is what happens when the forces of the oppressed rise up against the forces of the oppressor.
War is what happens when humans are forced by systems and equations of power to kill each other and live like animals, for purposes that often are distant from them or even forgotten.
In war, people die in dreadful ways — soldiers and citizens alike. Bodies are destroyed and burnt.
War is an intrinsic element of what it means to be human, but that does not make it a good thing. It is a sign of how insane our species still is, how far we are from our angelic nature.
War is evil. War is hell.
There has never been a year in my lifetime without war.
* * *
Because of experiences when I was a young journalist in the 1980s, I have some small sense of what it means to willingly die for one’s country.
I have told some of those stories elsewhere, and I think of them as I read in the press how Ukrainians in Kyiv and other cities are queued up to arm themselves, preparing for an existential battle.
It is a national battle — a battle for the self-determination of a sovereign nation. But it is also an existential moment for anyone who picks up a weapon.
I read about the dead and the carnage on the street. I read about the bravery of the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has refused evacuation so far.
I see photos of leaders and ordinary citizens — the former mayor of Kyiv brandishing a weapon on a city street; a lovely newlywed couple in an image like a Glamour cover shot but they are holding their AK-47s and ready to die; an old woman offering seeds to Russian soldiers “so they will sprout from your pockets when you die.”
I wonder if I could ever be that brave. I wonder what it would be like to believe in my own nation that much.
I think of the Cold Civil War in our own nation, our class war, our race war, our war about people’s right to their own bodies and to be who they are. What if that was a real war?
I think about how quickly the world can change, and I think of whether the world will ever change.
I think of how a friend said, “Once the dogs of war are loosed, no one will know what can happen.”
* * *
War might benefit the United States in some economic and geopolitical respects. But there is another way of looking at things, which is through the human capacity for altruism, empathy, and — yes, I will use the word — love.
From that perspective, this war is a terrible human tragedy.
Imagine being a mother on the outskirts with two kids and her husband out on the front lines. How would you be feeling? What would you do?
Imagine being a father who waits to pick up a weapon that he barely knows how to use and gets sent back to the city’s front lines with it. Maybe his wife is making Molotov cocktails. Maybe the children are weeping and trembling, or maybe they are hanging tough.
Maybe the grandmother is holding a rifle in an upper window.
* * *
We know about street wars and what they are like — let’s say Hue, 1968, or Hungary, 1956. And one must know the history of the Ukraine — the breadbasket of Europe — to have any sense of the deep human meanings of this war.
One must know that several million people died of famine in the Ukraine in 1932 and 1933 because of agricultural policies that Stalin had imposed.
One must know that Kyiv was a beautiful medieval city before Moscow was more than a backwater.
And — this is the hard one for me — one must know what it means to put your life on the line for what you believe in.
* * *
No one knows how this will play out. The dogs of war have been unleashed. The spectrum of potential outcomes extends from a negotiated withdrawal of Russian troops to a nuclear holocaust unleashed by a man who has his finger on the bombs in Russia and does not care who dies with him.
This is a real war. Maybe it will just go away, in the way that history is continually erased, but it will last at least a few weeks — or maybe for decades, as in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq.
As a student of history who knows dates like July 28, 1914 (the start of World War I), Sept. 1, 1939 (the outbreak of World War II), and Aug. 7, 1964 (when the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed, authorizing the escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam), I feel confident and incredibly sad that a new war, one that will change our history, began on Feb. 23, 2022. We will remember that date.
The world has changed now. And it may be comforting for people who have money to talk about the ways in which they may be able to take advantage of fluctuations in world markets.
For a lot of us, here in the U.S., it will be a matter of higher gas and energy prices along with the inflation already on hand. Things are rough economically now, and they will be rougher.
But for me the real deal is that people are dying on the streets and bridges of Ukraine fighting off a foreign invader.
It has nothing to do with cost-benefit analysis.
It is pure human tragedy.
I know the analysis — I read the fucking business news. I know as much as anyone can know about this huge scar in the global fabric, this crime of oppression and greed, and all I can say is: Which side are you on?
Human compassion and empathy may sometimes seem weak to fight the machines of power, but they are not. They don’t need to fight — not in that way. They just need to exist. Like Hope escaping from Pandora’s box filled with demons and the world’s woe or the mustard seed that splits the rock in the Christian parable, the good never dies.
No one has answers right now. I sure don’t. I do know that freedom and self-determination are worth fighting for. My soul in writing this is with the citizens of Ukraine.
I have experienced a lot of history. One thing I do know is that war is not the answer.