War As A Spectator Sport

“Look at a map! Russia definitely invaded!”
“But Ukraine has Nazis!”

– from a Twitter conversation

The first lesson a sane human might draw from witnessing the above exchange might be: Don’t go on Twitter. That’s a perfectly reasonable solution, and further observation will confirm that, yes, Twitter is full of terrible people taking out their bad days on one another. So far so good.

And yet, much the same exchange has taken place (albeit at much greater length) between otherwise seemingly intelligent people on news shows across the world. Bear in mind that these were people that news networks paid to share their opinions, so presumably there’s something to them. Right?

Well… no, not really.

Yes, there are neo-Nazis in Ukraine. But let’s keep that in perspective, shall we? There are neo-Nazis in Russia, Finland, Argentina, Italy, and, yes, Germany. That’s not all; the Aryan Nation is the largest prison gang in the United States, a country which voluntarily imprisons 1% of its adult populace. If you’re looking for neo-Nazis, you’re going to find them.

It’s also true that certain military units fighting for Ukraine use symbols once sported on badges issued by the German SS — but again, that’s only the surface truth. The Nazis didn’t invent the Wulfsangel, for example; it’s a picture of a particularly nasty wolf trap from the middle ages, a hook inserted in bait meat so that marauding wolves would rip their guts out. In the 1500s it became the symbol of dozens of populist uprisings, and to this day it’s on the coats of arms of families, towns, and regions across eastern Europe. The SS stole its imagery from traditions across Europe, much as the Catholics stole pagan holidays and turned them into Easter, Christmas, and All Saint’s Day — and Rodnovery is a modern pagan revival religion widely practiced in eastern Ukraine.

So, yes, the Nazis used Totenkopf badges. It literally means “death’s head”, refers to a skull-and-crossbones, and was on a badge issued to all armored units in the German Army. The only reason one SS unit used it was that they were allowed to drive tanks in between their service time as prison guards at extermination camps. Pirates also used a skull-and-crossbones motif; we don’t call them Nazis. They weren’t necessarily kind and generous souls out to improve the world, but they were definitely a step above the people who were enforcing the Holocaust. It may not be the imagery you’d want for your next babysitter, but for combat soldiers it’s not at all inappropriate.

Yes, Russia invaded Ukraine without provocation. Again, however, there’s nuance that must be reckoned with. Before the initial 2014 hostilities, over 90% of the populace resident in the contested Donbas region identified themselves as Russian, spoke the Russian language, and so on. Formal polling showed that, if offered the chance, most of the citizenry would have preferred to be governed from Moscow. There are similar enclaves on the other end of the country near Moldova that are almost entirely populated by ethnic Russians.

On the other hand, it’s not as though there was a history of mistreatment; until hostilities began, Ukrainians and Russians thought of each other as all but the same people — cousins, and no more different than that. In point of fact, all of what was then Russia was ruled from Kyiv until the Golden Horde swept across Asia and into Europe. So it’s not as though Russia was liberating a captured people; instead, they invaded a formerly friendly ally — rather like if Canada were to annex Alaska.

That’s not to say that there were no reasons; there were several, many of them economic and others geopolitical — not the least among which is Russia’s desperate need for a reliable warm-water port. Moreover, the rise of the present government of Ukraine followed the collapse of a kleptocracy that existed within Putin’s direct influence, much as does Belarus — and that revolution, while populist, was encouraged by many countries in the E.U. Historical parallels exist in the American response to the rise of communist Cuba and American trade restrictions leading Japan to attack Pearl Harbor.

To most Americans, it’s simple: War is the fault of the aggressor. Those who view the truth in this way conveniently gloss over the invasions perpetrated by the United States: Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Panama, Grenada, and so on — and that’s just in the past few decades. Morally, things are never that simple. There’s always context; there’s always a history.

Having observed that, however, it remains nevertheless clear that Russia is actively hostile toward us, and supports other governments that work to cause us harm. If there’s a side to any war in the world that we ought to be supporting, Russia is almost definitely not on it. Our self-interest, it would seem, marches alongside that of Ukraine in this conflict.

But all of that ignores the one fact that is and remains simple: All war is evil; all war is a crime. The victims are not nations and states but rather the soldiers on each side who are forced to fight and die — forced, whether by conscription or invasion. The citizens of the cities under bombardment did not choose to have artillery rain steel on their heads; the widows and orphans on both sides did not choose their lamentable state. So, yes, I’m heartened by the news that the Russians are retreating, but more than that, I mourn the fallen on both sides.

It is war, and in wars, those who die are very rarely those responsible for the fighting.

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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