Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of articles on the war in Ukraine. One purpose of this series is to remind our readers that, even though the war has begun to recede from the headlines, it continues with no end in sight, with devastating consequences and catastrophic risks. Another purpose is to represent a wide range of views about U.S. involvement in the war at a moment when there is too little debate about this in Washington or in the press.
Intentional slaughter is something we humans are good at. We like it, do a lot of it, devote considerable effort to increasing our effectiveness at it, and celebrate our successes. The current slaughter in Ukraine is nothing new and nothing surprising: it’s one more instance of something as common as birth, or tears, or a night’s sleep. It’s a simple and ordinary aspect of human social life. Lamentable and horrible, of course, but commonplace.
This past century or so, the tract of land now called Ukraine has soaked up a good deal of blood. I was reminded of this during Holy Week this year when I read the notebooks Ludwig Wittgenstein kept during the First World War. He was, in 1915, fighting unenthusiastically (he would have preferred to be working on the foundations of logic) for the Austro-Hungarian Empire against the Russian Empire near Lemberg, which is now called Lviv. A lot of blood was shed then, to little discernible good effect and for no discernible good purpose. A lot is being shed now, to uncertain effect and for uncertain purposes. Thousands were then cut apart by machine guns, burned alive, gassed, and left to die in the mud. As also now.
Precise figures are hard to come by and disputed on all sides, but it is likely that deaths directly caused by violence in Ukraine since the opening of hostilities toward the end of February now exceed 40,000, and that probably more of the dead are combatants than noncombatants. The UN keeps a tally of civilian deaths, which on May 29 stood at 4,074, but it acknowledges that the likely total is much higher; and while reliable estimates of Ukrainian and Russian combatant deaths are even harder to come by (each side minimizes its own casualties and inflates the other’s, as always in war), intelligence provided by the British Defense Secretary at the end of April suggests that upwards of 15,000 Russian troops had already died in Ukraine. That was more than a month ago.
A lot of death, then, and much of it agonizing: incinerations by anti-tank weapons, dismemberments by bombs and missiles, bullets to the head, and so on. What for? There are various rationales. Putin has his: demilitarize Ukraine and re-enfold it into the bosom of Mother Russia, to which, in his view, it has always properly belonged; and, in doing those things, restrict the imperialism of the Western democracies, which are bent on destroying Russia. The Ukrainians have theirs: preserve national sovereignty against Russian aggression, democracy against totalitarianism, and Ukrainian language and culture against Russification. We Americans have our own rationale: defend innocent Ukrainians against Russia’s indefensible revanchist aggression, and in doing so make the world safer for democracy. Underlying these ideological justifications are broader and more complicated geopolitical and economic interests on each side: oil, gas, trade, the reach of NATO and the European Union, the proper boundaries of the Russian Federation, the placement of U.S. troops and missiles on the European continent, and so on.
There appears to be no imminent end to the conflict. Pundits say it will be a long war. Pundits are usually wrong. Almost all predictions about this war—whether it would happen, how long it would last if it did, what the strategic and tactical approaches would be on each side—have so far turned out to be wrong, and perhaps this one will too. I hope so. But one thing does seem clear: without arms from the United States, this war would very likely be over already. We are by far the largest supplier of arms to Ukraine, and although what we have provided so far is from President Zelenskyy’s viewpoint not enough, our arms have done more damage and slaughtered more people than those provided by any state other than the Russian Federation itself. The hands of every American taxpayer are now dripping with blood, and there seems no likely end to the flow of our weapons to Ukraine.
A remarkable feature of our aid to Ukraine is that, since the conflict began, we have devoted more than twice as much money to the provision of weapons as we have to the provision of humanitarian support. That is a graphic illustration of our priorities. This situation is also commonplace. The United States, against its own better nature, is the principal purveyor of violent death to the world. We sell and provide weapons almost everywhere, to almost everyone, in much greater quantities than any other nation; and, since the end of the Soviet Empire, we have invaded, laid waste to, and otherwise damaged more sovereign states than the Russian Federation, and with a complete disregard for international law and national sovereignty.
We share with the Russian Federation two other distinctions: we neither recognize nor participate in the work of the International Criminal Court, largely because we know that many of our own actions are criminal by the standards of that Court; and we practice extra-territorial assassination, of both our own citizens and those of other sovereign states, again often in contravention of international law.
We also supply humanitarian aid and support on a large scale in much of the world—larger than that provided by any other sovereign state. But we prefer death to life: our spending on direct military interventions, and on indirect supply of weapons, intelligence, and military training to one side or another in conflicts in which we take no direct part, exceeds our humanitarian aid by a factor of at least five-to-one in any given year.
We have no ground, then, for arguing against the Russian invasion of Ukraine from a position of injured innocence or moral superiority, though it would be impossible to guess this from the rhetoric of President Biden. We have, of course, strategic and tactical interests, that do make it reasonable, if not defensible, for us to supply weapons used to kill Russians. But interests of that kind, if we are frank about them, place us on a level with the Russian Federation: we want more of a presence in Eastern Europe than they want us to have; they want more of a buffer between them and the European Union and NATO than we want them to have. They want what they want, and kill for it, combatants and non-combatants both; we want what we want, and kill for it, combatants and non-combatants both. That is what all sovereign states do when they can; it is the burden and outflow of the libido dominandi under which all of them, including the United States, struggle and sink. It would be better to look this in the eye than to trick it out with moral glosses it cannot bear.
Suppose, then, that we ask something different about our supply of arms to Ukraine, something not about moral justification (we’re doing it because it's the right thing to do), ideological justification (we’re doing it to make the world safe for democracy), or strategic justification (we’re doing it prevent Russian expansion in eastern Europe). Suppose we bring the thing itself before our gaze and ask ourselves what it is that we have done and are doing. What we see then is this. First, the weapons we’ve supplied have, since late February, been used to kill thousands young men and women, most of them Russian, most of them painfully and horribly. The weapons we are supplying now and are planning to supply in the future seem set to do more of the same. Second: our weapons have extended a conflict that would likely have already ended without them, and which will certainly be lengthened by our continued supply of them. Third: when our president, our elected representatives, and most of the press defend and explain our supply of arms to Ukraine, they do so in a way that systematically, and perhaps intentionally, obscures from us the state of things just mentioned. Those defenses and explanations show (and exploit) Ukrainian suffering, while either ignoring Russian suffering or relishing it; they use moral and ideological language to justify, and to veil, the particular kinds of death the weapons we’re supplying cause; and they are, to put it kindly, coy about American strategic and tactical interests in the region. They are, finally, typically mendacious in contrasting American righteousness with Russian perfidy—as mendacious as those who defend the Russian federation.
One cannot see these things clearly without asking whether we should continue to arm Ukraine. It seems to me clear that we should not, though I can see, and sometimes entertain, arguments to the contrary. I think we should not because slaughtering people, or providing others with the means to slaughter people, in the service or defense of democracy, sovereignty, or temporary strategic geopolitical interests, is a game never worth the candle, a game that has been played too long. Recall Wittgenstein, dragged into that very game one hundred and seven years ago, and in the same place. The game shows no sign of ending, and that is because libido dominandi is not exhaustible by killing—not, anyway, until there is no one left to kill.
Ceasing to arm Ukraine need not mean doing nothing to help those now being subjected to violence by Russian aggression. We could renounce arming Ukrainians in favor of offering humanitarian aid on an unprecedented scale. This aid could, and should, include offering any Ukrainians who want it immediate and permanent residence in the United States, as well as extensive and generous support of resettlement efforts within Europe. This would not prevent the Russian Federation from continuing to expand into Ukraine; it would likely not prevent, and might hasten, the end of the Ukrainian state as an independent entity; it might encourage efforts at expansion by the Russian Federation elsewhere in Europe. These would all be regrettable outcomes. But to think them more regrettable than funding large-scale violent death is puzzling and counterintuitive; it suggests a depth of false consciousness that is hard to credit, and which may be among the most characteristic deformities of the American body politic.