If the water catches fire
War in Ukraine
If the water catches fire, how do you put it out? That’s what Abkhazians say about war…
Taken from Svetlana Alexievich, Secondhand time
What to make of what is now unfolding in Ukraine? Like much of the world, this is something I have been wondering over the last week. I must admit, when such major events occur, and so many commentators rush to tell us what it all means, my default position is to step back. The only thing I really feel confident in saying is that this is bad, the world we will inhabit when this is done will most likely be in worse condition. Nonetheless, given that I teach and research on war and peace, I decided to try to sketch out some thoughts about where we find ourselves.
A quote I tend to use when discussing the decision to go to war is to ‘roll the iron dice’, the expression German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg used in reference to WW1. This powerfully captures the weighty part played by chance in shaping how these events unfold. It also forms one component of what is called the ‘Clausewitzian Trinity’, three major elements that shape the dynamic of conflict, taken from Carl von Clausewitz’s On War (1832):
War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical trinity - composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.
The way that emotion, chance and policy interact and combine help to determine how a conflict unfolds. In a prior post, I described the register of contemporary politics as, ‘everything is serious, and nothing matters.’ To this I would add, ‘nothing is clear and everything is certain.’ One should be very cautious of confident judgements about what this all means, and what will follow. Clausewitz famously spoke of the ‘fog of war’, the difficulty of being able to clearly see and understand the conditions of conflict. It is hard to know what is going on, where things are headed, what the consequences of all this could be.
In this context, I worry about the role that social media might play in accelerating the dynamic of this conflict, of pushing actors into actions and positions that significantly raise the stakes, without perhaps necessarily thinking through the full potential ramifications of what might follow. It is profoundly concerning how rapidly the conflict has escalated, especially given that Russia and the United States have the two largest nuclear arsenals. One should not underestimate the possibility for things to get drastically worse in a short space of time, and the potential ramifications of what happens if the major players do not find ways to stop this conflict and de-escalate. The line between the impossible and possible is breached all too frequently.
I want you to know. I’m not frightened of God. It’s man I’m frightened of.
Taken from Svetlana Alexievich, Chernobyl Prayer
One can be impressed by the effort and resolve of the Ukrainians, without romanticising what is happening. This is not a sports match. This is a country being attacked, people being killed, places being destroyed, and a more encompassing conflict being risked. War is brutal and brutalising. Philippe Bourgois observes that, ‘people do not simply “survive” violence as if it somehow remained outside of them, and they are rarely if ever ennobled by it.’ What follows from all of this is destruction. One should not lose sight of what this ultimately means. Lives lost, worlds gone.
“What colour is a scream? What does it taste like? And what colour is blood? In a hospital it’s red; on dry sand it’s grey; on a rock in the evening it’s bright blue, not alive any longer. The blood flows rapidly out of a seriously injured body, like out of a broken glass jar … And the man rots away … he rots away. Only the eyes still gleam right to the end, and they look past you. They look past you stubbornly, at something else.
It’s all been paid for! Everything! In full.”
A military adviser reflecting on the Soviet-Afghan war, taken from Svetlana Alexievich, Boys in Zinc
Where to from here? As confronting as it now feels, this conflict is not the anomaly it might seem like. The post-Cold War era - one of supposed peace and stability - has been marked by violence, it has been there when we choose to look. And for all the talk of this war in the Ukraine now starting, it commenced in 2014, we just all got used to those hostilities in the background.
If I were to chance a guess at where the conflict might be headed, I would suggest looking at the horrendous war that has ripped apart Syria since 2011. A horrible, bloody, inconclusive mess, where nobody wins and everyone loses. Major belligerents fight without clear resolution, external intervention is enough to keep the conflict alive but not enough to prove decisive. Outrage waxes and wanes, but for the most part, the world’s collective attention struggles to stay focused, despite the violence and destruction continuing. In 2016, Stephen O’Brien, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, told the UN Security Council: ‘horror is now usual – it is a level of violence and destruction that the world appears to consider normal for Syria and normal for the Syrian people.’ This should not have been normal for Syria, we must hope it does not become normal for Ukraine.
This war is trite and pedestrian, filled with similes and ornate adjectives, its history is written in the font Comic Sans, violence so limitless the war doesn’t know where to put it, one grave for every thousand corpses, one shadow for every thousand survivors, it’s an indelicate war, barrels vomiting explosives, steel cylinders filled with accessories for washing machines and car parts, the death that disseminates is an earthy death, this war is rightfully ours because in it we have buried all our loved ones.
Jazra Khaleed, ‘The War is Coming’
What do we do with all of this? Admittedly, there is not much most of us can directly do. If wanting to donate money, some organisations are better run than others, and it is worth taking the time to consider which ones to support. CharityWatch and Charity Navigator have compiled lists of charities that they rate highly in terms of efficiency and transparency. Similarly, we can engage in better and worse ways. The passions of the people form one part of the Clausewitzian Trinity.
At war a man is saved by the way his mind becomes distracted and abstracted. But the death around him is ludicrous and gratuitous. Without any higher meanings.
Svetlana Alexievich, Boys in Zinc
War is a destroyer of worlds. Let us treat serious things seriously, and stay with this sense of discomfort and shock.