One More War
The first day of the invasion, we in America sit safe and uncomprehending in front of our screens. It’s hard to believe: war in Europe in 2022. We watch slide shows of people in cars lined up in traffic jams as far as the eye can see, fleeing their homes with their babies and pets, a few possessions crammed in the backseat. By Day Four, they’re running out of gas, running out of cash, running out of food. Many are on foot. By then, Russian tanks are rolling through cities and nearly 400,000 Ukrainians have fled their homes. We’ve seen refugees before, many times, sometimes on our own borders, but every time it feels closer. The world is smaller now, everywhere is close.
Those who stay are ready to fight. Civilians queue up to get guns. Twenty thousand Ukrainians living abroad travel home to defend their country.
Ukrainian civilians queue up to receive small arms
It's war without any unifying cause, except the power grab of one man.
So, we Americans sit in front of our screens watching columns of smoke rise from burning buildings. Explosions dot the night air like fireworks. Talking heads speculate about World War III. We can’t help but think of shock and awe and every war movie we ever saw. We try to feel the horror afresh but it all feels sickeningly familiar.
Maria Primachenko, “May That Nuclear War Be Cursed!,” 1978, gouache on paper. Courtesy of the artist. Works by Prymachenko held by the the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum near Kyiv were burned during the Russian invasion
We can’t know how this will play out, but the suffering is already clear and incalculable. And it will only get much worse. Yet it’s also completely predictable and, whoever “wins,” some outcomes are certain: mounting death tolls, mangled bodies, survivors’ trauma, destroyed cities, hunger, homelessness, countless shattered lives, vast environmental damage if not complete devastation, and the bitter aftermath passed down through generations and lasting centuries, if the human even race survives it.
At the center of this pointless misery stands a small, slighted man, a furious dictator in control of the ninth most populous nation on earth, who feels dissed and has therefore decided to take back what he thinks is his. He threatens to annihilate anyone who opposes him. We’ve seen this before, too.
Meanwhile, another grievance driven man, who also feels wronged and wants to take back what he thinks is his, praises the first slighted man as a genius. It’s not a coincidence; they think alike.
Our demagogue is weaker and softer, but both men are insecure bullies who feel humiliated and are fueled by a wish for cathartic vengeance against a world that doesn’t appreciate them. So, they will make it appreciate them. Many others must suffer and kowtow to make such men feel better.
In December a student at the school where I teach, a Fulbright scholar from Ukraine studying in Chicago, wrote a stunning essay about how it felt to watch from afar as Russian troops gathered on the border of her country. She wrote about how hard it was to concentrate. She wondered when she’d be able to go home and where her parents would go if Russia invaded Kyiv. She worried that she’d never see her cat again.
Wars aren’t “over there” anymore. We’re all citizens of the world now, like it or not. If bombs aren’t falling on our houses and kindergartens yet, they’re falling on our friends’ houses or their parents’. There aren’t borders, really, especially in the environment. Since Day One of the invasion, Putin has been threatening dire consequences to those who come to the aid of Ukraine, and now he’s put his nuclear force on alert. He’s bombed a nuclear waste storage facility. He’s already seized Chernobyl, which is leaking. He’s destroying the very country he wants to reabsorb. He may blow us all up.
And if the Ukrainians succeed in holding their country, what will Putin do to us all then, if he loses?
But these doomsday scenarios numb me. It’s the particulars that tell the story, that add up to the sum of war. What are the things you grab as you flee, and what do you leave behind?
American poet and political activist Muriel Rukeyser (1913 - 1980) at a Poetry Festival held at the Royal Court Theatre, London, UK, July 15th to 20th, 1963. Photo courtesy of Tony Evans/Getty Images
Watching the slide shows of stunned refugees scroll across my screen made me think of “Kathe Kollwitz,” Muriel Rukeyser’s 1960s poem about the German artist who lost a son, then a grandson in two world wars, and who made stark lithographs about grief and war. Rukeyser, writing during the Vietnam War, spoke of “death pouring from the sky:”
… the down-drawn grief
face of our age
Pieta, mother and
between her knees
life as her son in death
pouring from the sky of
one more war
face almost obliterated
hand over the mouth forever
hand over one eye now
the other great eye
Kathe Kollwitz, “Woman with Dead Child,” 1903, etching with chine collé, 16 1/4 x 18 9/16”. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art
One more war. It’s the familiar, near pointlessness of it that galls, the only point being that a dictator has figured out how to leverage an entire nation’s strength to grab more for himself, to feed his addiction to power, to prove to himself that he is big, though he is very small and getting smaller by the day. It’s not about wealth. Putin already has 100 billion dollars and is willing to put up with economic sanctions; wealth of that magnitude, after all, is only a stand-in for power. Putin’s war is a despot’s tantrum, enacted on the world stage by a single furious man surrounded by fearful toadies and enablers. We’ve seen it before.
A person holding a cat sits next to a bus window as people flee to western parts of the country. Courtesy of The Washington Post. Photo: Umit Bektas/Reuters
The only way to comprehend any of this may be to look at those bearing the brunt, one-by-one.
I thought of the piercing particularity of that young woman’s essay as I watched the bombing begin, streaming across my little screen in my safe (for now, at least) American house. Where will her parents go? Will she ever see her cat again? The loop of images played on repeat — the teary woman stuck in traffic trying to leave her country, rising smoke, helicopters dropping bombs, hastily-vacated rooms in blasted-out apartment buildings, people hiding from bombs in subway stations. A nervous cat peers from a carrier piled in the back seat of a car stuck in traffic, one small life someone is determined to save.