Mariupol Theater: An Unpleasant Truth


Of the hundreds of women and children that had taken shelter in Mariupol’s 150-year-old theater, we’re told now that many survived. The shelter in the basement withstood the bombing, and rescue workers are presently engaged in getting people out.

This is the good news.

The bad news is, this isn’t going to be the last such strike on civilians. Unless this war ends, it’s going to get much worse.

Two months ago, Mariupol was a city of half a million and the industrial center of eastern Ukraine. Today, it’s largely rubble. After the repeated failure of evacuation corridors and ceasefires to extract refugees, right now tens of thousands of civilians, mostly women and children, are fleeing east into Russian-occupied territory and an uncertain future.

More are staying.

The Russian invaders hold an overwhelming advantage in terms of equipment; their initial invasion force has ten tanks for every Ukrainian one. But vehicles need roads, and fields of fire, and fuel, and resupply; there’s a city at every major intersection in eastern Ukraine, and the cities are defended.

When this happens in modern warfare, the attacking army can lay siege and bypass the built-up areas, if they have plenty of force at their disposal. Eventually, the defenders will run out of food and ammunition, and they’ll surrender. The alternatives are house-to-house fighting to clear the town — which requires vast superiority in numbers — or to flatten it with artillery. The Russian army is strong on artillery and light on infantry. Thus far they’ve elected to besiege, but that won’t last.

It’s been pointed out that a deliberate assault on a civilian target is a war crime, and so it is — within limits. From a moral sense, it always is; having said that, morally, all war is a crime. This is why we established detailed codes of conduct for armies in the field, such that civilian casualties might be minimized. It is in fact customary to destroy cities that can’t be captured or pacified. All that is normally done, from a standpoint of international law, is to warn civilians in time for them to make their escape.

Students of military history are familiar with other occasions when a town was leveled. At Fredericksburg, the riverfront buildings were filled with Confederate marksmen who could prevent the bridge from being used as a crossing; after a warning, Union artillery destroyed the town (and then snipers resumed fire from the ruins for several hours). When the Germans overran Kiev (now Kyiv) in 1941, much of the city was destroyed by the attackers, after which Soviet radio-bombs were detonated, inflicting massive casualties on invaders and civilians alike. The four succeeding battles of Kharkov (Kharkiv) ended with all the factories gone, houses rubble, and only a few structures around the University more or less intact.

The point I’m trying to make here isn’t that civilian casualties are OK, or reasonable, or to be accepted. Instead, I’m saying that it’s horrific, and it’s to be expected.

Before the Mariupol theater was bombed, it was clearly marked as a shelter for non-combatants; the Russian military had been notified, and in case of miscommunication, the word “KIDS” was painted on the surface of parking lots around the structure. While it’s clear that a bomb from a Russian aircraft struck the roof, there’s no indication whether it was made a deliberate target; given the inaccuracy of such munitions, there’s no particular reason to believe it was.

Mariupol is in a war zone. Civilians, should they choose to remain (or, as in this case, have no ability to evacuate), are very likely to die both as individuals and en masse. Bullets and bombs don’t care who they kill. Morally, this attack was reprehensible; from the standpoint of international law, there’s little chance that it will ever be successfully prosecuted as a war crime.

This was not the first time this sort of thing happened. It won’t be the last.

Mariupol, I greatly fear, is about to be bombarded into oblivion, followed by Kharkiv, Dnipro, and Kyiv. An unbelievably large number of people are about to die. Thanks to the internet and cell phone camera, we’re about to watch it from the front row. Prepare yourselves; this is going to be terrible.

If what you just read pisses you off, that’s not because it’s wrong. People are wrong every day and it doesn’t get to you. If you’re upset by this article, it’s because deep down you’re afraid it’s true.

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PS: I’ve heard it suggested that the theater bombing was a “false flag” engineered by Ukrainian Nazis in order to gain sympathy. The very concept is absurd. Civilian deaths happen in war zones, and don’t need to be manufactured; anyone saying differently is out of touch with reality and rightly deserves our pity. Either that or they’re actually Russian propagandists and rate our contempt. -Editor

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