The War and Endless Reasoning
A Tolstoyan Reflection
The Ukrainian army is leading a successful counter-attack in the east of the county, having regained several key towns and some 700 square miles of territory (according to the country’s President Volodymyr Zelensky).
It appears that at least one TGS reader and listener had something to do with it. On August 31, we got this letter from Haim Shweky, a military volunteer in Ukraine whose “Dispatches from a Few Rows Back from the Front” we published last month:
That I am writing this letter at all is a very simple fact that I cherish. You’ll have read in the news of a southeastward push by Ukraine towards Kherson. In the first phase of that operation I took modest part, brief though breathy.
A more extensive account of this episode I defer to a hotel room in Warsaw, sometime next week, with the quiet and space and idle time (and stationary) necessary for written reflection.
Briefly, peremptorily: The assault eventually rebuffed the Russian defenses but that initial thrust was sketchy. Immediately we (recon team) reached our position the enemy seemed to know of it. Artillery and machine gun fire kept us head-down knees-up behind a berm. They seemed to have anticipated us and made the appropriate greeting. Friend was wounded by a shell and I medevaced him out. This was early in the fight. Some time elapsed before infantry and tanks arrived to relieve the team. They did so and our forces eventually nudged ahead. This concerns our assigned patch of dirt, near the small town of Pravdino. How the grand offensive turns out is for the news to report in time.
This is only a hurried live broadcast; promptness justifies it, present events dictate it. From here (separate email to follow shortly) I resume the narrative where it left off, chronologically, recounting the pregnant before which gave birth to the now.
Adopting a phrase I hear around the trenchmen, Victory or Valhalla.
I had exchanged emails with Haim back in July. He referenced my conversation with Glenn in which we talk about the war and questions of personal and collective responsibility, in his original email to The Glenn Show:
A few weeks ago I was still in a TLV apt., amid cardboard boxes and plastic bags, packing up necessities, discarding superfluities. An episode of TGS was playing in the background of this playground. It was a fortuitous episode— the topic under discussion and the questions canvassed were exactly the ones naturally occupying my thoughts at this juncture.
Here is what you said to Nikita (I paraphrase) over his Russian dilemma: “I think shame comes from not living in a way that you can find to be dignified in the face of the situation which confronts you. You have an account of the thousands of hours you spend on this planet, and you can at least take a little bit of comfort in that.” In knowing, in other words, that one of those hours was a fine one, a distinguished one; indeed that it was no hour at all, but eternal among the temporal and quotidian rest…
Following that comment, which (though you were only riffing ideas, as is your wont) spoke so directly to my natural feeling on the matter, I was the more fixed in carrying out my resolution. As you said, when the Fascists are in Spain, you go to Spain. Sometimes the true writer must leap over his desk.
I shared with Haim that his letter made me feel strangely conflicted. I hesitated to accept his no doubt courageous decision as laudable, but struggled to articulate why. I still do, but I’m hoping to make some progress by writing this post and exchanging a few public letters with Haim in the coming weeks.
This month I’ve been rereading this note from Leo Tolstoy’s diary, in which he’s writing about the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. Russia’s loss contributed greatly to the success of the First Russian Revolution of 1905 and the two subsequent ones that followed in 1917:
The war, and the endless reasoning about why it is, what it means, what it will lead to, and so forth. Everybody’s in contemplation, from the tsar to the last engine driver. And everybody will have to contemplate, at some point, not only what the war will mean for the world, but also: How should I, I, I relate to this war?
Nobody’s doing that contemplation. They even think that they shouldn’t, that it’s unimportant.
And yet, grab him by the throat and start choking him, and he’ll feel that what’s most important to him is his life, the life of his self.
And if the life of his self is what’s most important, then he is, apart from being a journalist, a tsar, an officer, a soldier, also a human being who came into this world for a short while and who will leave it when He who sent him wills it so.
Is there anything more important to him than understanding what he is to do in this world? It’s obviously more important than all the contemplations about whether the war is necessary and what it will lead to.
And what to do about the war is obvious: Don’t make war, don’t help others make it, if you’re not trying to stop them.
This resonates with me on a personal level. The most practical thing that I’ve been “doing about the war” is sending all the money I make writing my newsletter Psychopolitica to buy humanitarian aid for Ukraine. I made a point of choosing a foundation that does not buy arms.
That said, I can’t agree with Tolstoy that “what to do about the war is obvious.”
First, there is one exception to his “don’t make war” suggestion that I expect most readers would make right away—that of self-defense, which is what the Ukrainian forces are doing today. I can’t imagine myself arguing that a Ukrainian picking up arms to defend his home is “wrong” to do so—perhaps because of the pathos of a defensive war that I have internalized as a child learning about World War II.
But secondly, there are cases like Haim’s, which are just very difficult for me to think about.
Unlike the Ukrainian from my previous example, who is forced to fight to defend himself, his family, and his country, Haim chose to join somebody else’s war. In my mind, such a decision requires a justification.
Haim provided one in his next email:
Nikita, I admire the honesty and self-honesty of your response. There’s a Hebrew saying, a biblical maxim, which translates to “the poor of your city first.” Meaning, in effect, not that we shouldn’t extend aid and succor to distant peoples and places, if we’re able, but that that aid is best and most effective which concerns itself with problems nearest. It also speaks of a certain ethical hierarchy—the old metaphor that between two drowning children, it is natural as well as right to choose to save one’s own.
Your conception of defending your own home when the wolves (or in this case the bears) comes knocking down the door is a valid one. And I’m sure that if your neighbor’s house was aflame you’d show up hose in hand. As well your neighbor’s neighbor. Of course, setting out to defend your neighbor’s neighbor’s neighbor, etc., becomes increasingly less expected, less felt, less immediately important; and there arrives a point at which it is considered less reasonable. It is hardly expected that everyone self-export to some undiscovered bourne to enlist for the local cause.
I believe however this fight for Ukraine is not of less immediate import for ourselves than if it were my neighbor. In this globalist age, where distance is really no distance at all, Ukraine is indeed a neighbor, and in a more important sense than just physically conterminous: We belong to the same community. We can thus extend your definition of home. I’m seeking to preserve the shared “home” of our values, the home of a humanist and liberal tradition, the home of democratic process. Less abstractly, more directly: Safeguarding another country’s sovereignty protects my own, for even if that tyrant is not my tyrant, and that country is not my birth country, it serves all future tyrants a hard example that they can’t so easily usurp the rights and identity of a people without international, in addition to national, impunity. Whatever the ultimate outcome, the more difficult it is for the aggressor to achieve his aim, the more secure the future for weaker, vulnerable states against stronger, covetous neighbors everywhere.
My choice to go to Ukraine you see is not really, then, to go anywhere so foreign. Our Western language is the same, though the tongue which speaks it is different. Our political thought is similar, though the head in which it is held looks different. We share a certain heart, though the blood be different.
In mulling over this response, I have formulated five questions that I want to ask Haim in my next email and that I am also asking—and haven’t yet answered—of myself.
What led to this war? How far back do you trace the causal chains: to 2019, when the Ukrainian Constitution was amended to enshrine the country’s course on joining NATO; to the period between then and 2015, characterized by the failure to implement the Minsk agreements; to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014; to the Maidan Revolution of the same year; to the Orange Revolution of 2005; or all the way back to the fall of the Soviet Union? Perhaps further?
What is it about? What are the questions that are being decided on the battlefield? What is Ukraine fighting for, and what is Russia? What are the goals of the US and the EU in this conflict? What other players are there, and what are they trying to achieve?
What are the probable outcomes? What happens to Ukraine, Russia, and the world order if Russia wins? If Ukraine wins? If the war goes on for years without a resolution? What effects is this war having on the two countries and the world order already?
What are the outcomes you’re hoping for? A restoration of Ukraine’s borders to pre-February 2022? Or pre-2014? What about Russia, its role in the world (including its military interventions), and its regime at home—do you want those to change as a result of this war? How?
How are your actions advancing your preferred outcomes?
I think that anyone who wants to go beyond Tolstoy’s “don’t make war and don’t help others make it” must be able to provide at least preliminary answers to these five questions.
I don’t have them myself yet. But I will formulate what I can in the next installment of this series of posts.
I invite you to share your thoughts as well in the comments.
The rationalizations for Putin’s aggression against a sovereign and peaceful neighbor up to and including concern for the ‘minority’ ethnic Russian speakers of Donbas can easily be compared to Germany post WWI. The odious irony is the claim that the Jewish Zelensky is running a Nazi regime unlike the semi-fascist, newspeak Putin and his band of homophobic kleptocratic oligarchs.
The Putin apologists who have thus far dominated in this comment section with eloquent wormholes of logic and reasoning fail to ask one question of Putin; why doesn’t he also use their learned reasoning to make his case? Instead, he calls his aggression a special military action to liberate his Ukrainian kin from illiberal, non democratic Nazis, (a little projection never hurt anyone, right?) even if liberation means targeted killings of non strategic civilian centers. We will free you with a boot on your head or kill you in the process for your own good in typical Russian/Soviet style.
Of course we should study the myriad cause and effects of what precipitates certain actions but there are also more important transcendental considerations of the human spirit when confronted with what we believe to be right and wrong and willingly risk everything to that end. It’s, after all, the foundational history of America.
It's hard to see how the "What led to..." part can whitewash our role in opposing a Russian-friendly Ukrainian govt some years back. To bury that underneath in a euphemism about revolution seems to purposely miss the point. It may be convenient to simply blame Putin but that's like saying high gas prices are purely his fault, too. It may have an element of truth but it is hardly accurate.
It remains a point of fascination, and some bewilderment, how in an alleged information age in which we're told so many things are nuanced, that this war is reduced to a crude binary. Ukraine may well be the good guy, but Zelensky himself is not. There is no pro-democracy effort afoot when the country benefitting has taken multiple actions that are explicitly anti-democratic.