The buildup of troops on Ukraine’s border only four weeks ago was alarming to everyone but Ukraine. The idea of Russia invading their country in this day and age was unthinkable. People went about their daily business even as their country was surrounded on three sides by 150,000 Russian troops, countless tanks and, artillery. They were told to remain calm. And so, it seemed, much of the population did. I understand…”keep calm and carry on”. It’s now water under the bridge and a war between two countries that share historically close ties rages on. Prepared or unprepared, the Ukrainians have mobilized quickly. They have been amazing; inspiring, courageous, and strong. Former TV comedian, Zelensky has emerged as a war-time leader and powerful orator.
Like so many, my eyes remain glued to CNN for the latest breaking news. As difficult as it is to watch those scenes in which the viewing audience is warned ‘ some scenes may be disturbing’, I feel morally obliged to be acutely aware just how ugly it all is. It strikes me there is a moral imperative to not look away from the darkest side of human behavior. The refusal to look away may do virtually nothing to make things better on the ground, but the outrage and compassion it awakens, should drive a desire to do something. Maybe, if so many didn’t look away while millions were exterminated during the second world war, something might have been done to intervene. What do I do? I support organizations providing relief. I pray for peace. I feel the impact of rising costs, but believe it’s a small price to pay. I am touched by the generosity of neighboring countries who welcome refugees, and open their homes for shelter. This inspires the kind of hope I felt was diminishing after years of “Build the wall! Close the borders.” Still, the impact of my refusal to look away is personally earthshaking but for the Ukrainians…well, weapons and donations may be collectively noticeable even if they fall short of stopping the murder of innocents.
In the end, this war is utterly senseless and immoral. Equally disturbing is the front row seats we have to witness the atrocities of this war, but does not seem to move many to act. To sit before our televisions and watch maternity wards, schools, hospitals, and residential areas are completely demolished by missiles, bombs, and artillery without feeling some call to action is a vouyeristic obscenity. We listen to breaking news reports against the backdrop of the distant thunder of artillery. We are stunned to see a hood thrown over the head of the brave mayor of Melitopol and marched away by Russian soldiers. We cheer on the Ukrainians for their victories and grieve the progress of the invaders. I suppose why the word ‘obscene’ comes to mind is it conjures images of onlookers who watch while victims are physically violated but will not intervene. As the onlooker we condemn it as unfair and not right, but are hesitant to step in somehow fearing the personal consequences. In some ways our role as onlookers of the events in Ukraine conjures the Civil War’s Battle of Bull Run. Civilians brought chairs and even picnics, sat on the sidelines of the battlefield and cheered on the home team. The collective obscenity is manifested in a failure to act.
I appreciate that our country along with others is sending assistance to the Ukrainians, but there is still something obscene about standing just on the other side of a line that separates NATO from the Ukraine; literally an artificial line which determines whether you are safe or a potential victim of genocide. Moral obligations don’t cease to exist at artificial lines. NATO has pledged to defend every inch on their side of the line, but doesn’t dare to step over the line even as a Western Democracy is annihilated. It seems we are reconciled to the notion that many people will die, millions will be displaced, the country will be occupied and the resistance will, at some point in the future, liberate the country once again. Even if you disagree with this trajectory, believing the Ukrainians will prevail, it is remarkable to hear public statements from NATO leadership that Ukraine’s admission to NATO is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. Why we wouldn’t admit a country that is fiercely fighting and dying to defend their fledgling democracy and territorial sovereignty is a puzzle. Why such a theme doesn’t resonate more profoundly with Europe and America whose stories mirror this, is again, a puzzle.
So, I watch this war play out on my television because I can’t not watch it. But I feel ashamed as I watch; as if a spectator at a football game, or more accurately, at a cock fight cheering when my rooster shreds the other. It’s hard to watch and not feel ashamed. Once you know what is happening, you cannot un-know it.
Having said all this, I appreciate my opinion is to a large extent uninformed on whether NATO should intervene. I don’t have any back story, an understanding of the complex variables, the intelligence intercepts that shape decisions, so it’s merely opinion, and opinions are, well, cheap. A college student during the final years of the Viet Nam war, I am now of an age when FDR’s comment: “War is young men dying and old men talking” is especially relevant. During the Vietnam war years, there was a popular aphorism apparently based on FDR’s, “Old men send young men to war”. So, I am mindful of my words and appreciate the caution our leaders feel obliged to exercise; the questions they need to answer with reasonable confidence. Would intervention mark the start of WWIII as has been suggested? Would China come to Putin’s defense? These are frightening prospects, but still can we just park ourselves on the safe side of the line and send helicopters but no fighter jets, send Stingers and Javelins but no Patriot Missile systems? All this while Russia heaves cruise and hypersonic missiles at civilian targets?
Polling suggests that Americans are sick of wars as well as engaging with much of the world beyond our own borders It seems for now, we are content to be spectators on the sidelines as we are very busy accentuating the divisions within our own country. But it’s hard to miss the moral irony in our militant desire to protect the delicate psyches of elementary school children from hearing the word ‘gay’ yet are reluctant to protect the children of Ukraine from the trauma of war.
I am reminded of a Phil Ochs song, Outside of a Small Circle of Friends, published in 1967 with lyrics that might apply.
Look outside the window, there’s a woman being grabbed
They’ve dragged her to the bushes and now she’s being stabbed
Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain
But Monopoly is so much fun, I’d hate to blow the game
And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody
Outside of a small circle of friends.
NATO and the rest of the world will, of course, press on, but if we are content to remain onlookers, we will carry the heavy burden of the passive onlooker’s shame. I thought we said, “never again”.