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.