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Force in Ukraine
'Bitterness that proceeds from tenderness'
I’ve largely avoided writing directly about the war in the Ukraine. My note from the start of March still conveys much of my thinking on it, with the relevance of the Clausewitzian Trinity only becoming more pronounced. The interplay of these three factors - (1) passion and violence, (2) chance and probability, (3) rationality and policy - continue to shape the conflict in powerful and unexpected ways.
Given that the war is being communicated and understood in a wider context that Jon Askonas has described as ‘the breakup of consensus reality’, it is easy to lose sight that what it is ultimately about is people, places, patterns of life, all being ripped up and blown apart. It might sound like a trite observation, but the more that I have studied and taught about war, the more conscious I have become of the destruction it entails. Most of the time, we are fortunate to learn about war at a distance, and as it is recounted it is abstracted and ordered, it is given greater meaning and coherence than it deserves. This process makes war appear easier to comprehend, it obscures its brutal arbitrariness, the violence and harm that defines it.
James Boyd White captures how loss radiates from the individual to the group:
whenever anyone dies … a world of possibility dies with him or her, a web of relationships of caring and concern. A part of the fabric of humanity and human community has been torn to bits.
This is taken from his book, Living Speech: Resisting the Empire of Force, which was inspired by a line from Simone Weil’s interpretation of The Iliad, ‘no one can love and be just who does not understand the empire of force and know how not to respect it.’ This is the challenge both Weil and White pose to all of us: how to recognise the empire of force, to see its presence, and how not to respect it.
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What does such a responsibility look like in the context of the Ukrainian war? How can we see the empire of force ? How do we learn how not to respect it? This appears all the more challenging in an increasingly unmoored and mediated world, one where the real and the represented are constantly blurred.
Weil’s justly celebrated essay, written in 1939, powerfully captures the challenge of holding onto the enduring values of our humanity, and doing so when facing the brutality of force and fortune. She highlighted a measured tone of ‘bitterness that proceeds from tenderness’ found in the poem, and recognised that, ‘moments of grace are rare in the Iliad, but they are enough to make us feel with sharp regret what it is that violence has killed and will kill again.’ This sense of regret comes to the surface when reckoning with what force actually means for individuals and for communities; harming and impairing, destroying and reducing.
Konstantin Olmezov was a 26 year old Ukrainian who had been pursuing graduate studies in mathematics in Moscow. On 20 March 2022, he ended his life after being detained, reaching the brutal conclusion that: ‘I don’t see a way to continue to live decently.’ His final words are worth reading in full; capturing the way war entails not simply physical destruction, it also degrades our capacity to make sense of our world:
…now, I think exactly this: “The world owes me and the world has not lived up to my expectations.”
The world should strive to correct errors. And it doesn’t. The world should be comprised of thinking, empathetic, and responsible people. And it isn’t. The world should permit creative freedom and freedom of choice. And it constantly takes them away. The world should consider these demands normal. And it considers them excessive.
Struggling to comprehend such wanton acts of violence is common in those trying to recount what has happened. The Ukrainian writer, Artem Chekh, asks:
How to prepare yourself for the thought that the mother of two children who hid in a basement for a month slowly died before their eyes? How to accept the death of a 6-year-old girl who died of dehydration under the ruins of her house? How should we react to the fact that some people in the country, as in occupied Mariupol, are forced to eat pigeons and drink water from puddles at the risk of catching cholera?
This sentiment is echoed by Svetlana Alexievich, the great historian of the ‘red idea’, and one of the most important guides for the present moment:
I think about what must have happened to this person, so that he would just destroy Kharkiv, completely wipe it off the face of the earth. This beautiful city I loved to visit. ... How could you destroy it, wipe it from the face of the earth? How could you try to demolish this other world, this civilization? All of Ukrainian civilization, the Ukrainian world. How can you deny its right to exist? Why?
Zooming in on an acute case of loss, the war correspondent Janine Di Giovanni writes:
Tata, like me, is a mother. But my son is alive. Her son, Andrij, 36, disappeared shortly after Russian troops came to Bucha and was later found dead. I heard about Tata’s son from people who live on the other side of her garden. “A boy disappeared,” one neighbor told me. “The soldiers had done terrible things.”
The photo of Andrij after the soldiers took him showed more than terrible things. I have sorted through hundreds of photos of Syrians tortured during the ongoing war there. Still, I could not look at Andrij’s photo without gagging. His eyes were gouged out, his teeth were knocked clean from his jaw. A metal skewer inserted through his right eye had pushed through to the other side of his left ear.
“Why?” Tata asked. But of course, there is no answer, no words of consolation for this kind of cruelty. Later, I found a photo of a younger Andrij stuck in the corner of a mirror: He once was a handsome man with an open, clean face; blondish curls.
To return to Weil, her essay conveys how fragile and temporary the division is between those exercising violence and those experiencing it : ‘force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates.’ It is vitally important to appreciate this deep ambivalence, especially at a time when moral certitude is so widespread, and force tends to be venerated when claimed to be used justly. Yet time and time again, what we see is how difficult it is to contain the consequences of force, its ramifications echo and reverberate in ways that we cannot easily see or comprehend. Much easier to predict are the presence of those sentiments that Weil emphasised: bitterness and regret. Being less confident in what coercion can achieve and more aware of the harm it brings, shunning simple judgements and staying with ambiguity; these are perhaps some of the ways we can learn not to respect the empire of force.
Stay at home. Tend to your garden. Nothing good can come of going off somewhere to kill people, no matter who they are.
A man from Dagestan, the region in Russia with the largest war dead