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On War and Forgetting
It’s only human to recoil from the horrors of war. But Ukraine needs our help.
The Val d’Orcia, in Central Italy, is one of those charmed places which God has seemingly bestowed with too many gifts. With its rolling hills topped by medieval towns and its verdant vineyards alternating with earthen fields of wheat, it is easy to fancy that the happy few who get to live there have never seen the worst of which humanity is capable.
The truth is very different. At the height of World War II, the Nazis occupied the region. When partisans fought back, staging courageous attacks from nearby mountains, the SS exacted bloody retribution by executing scores of civilians. At one of my favorite outlooks, an inconspicuous plaque reminds visitors of this somber history: “You who pass and ponder this peaceful valley,” it reads, “stay awhile and remember those who have perished here.”
In times of peace, it is always impossible to imagine—I mean really, truly, vividly imagine—war. When you look upon the hills of Tuscany today, you cannot conjure the horrors its residents once witnessed. When you walk through the streets of a bustling city like Taipei—as I have been doing for the last few days—it is impossible to grasp, at more than an abstract level, that one man’s decision could soon turn it into a bloody battlefield. And for all of these reasons, most people failed to imagine what it would mean if Russia launched a full-scale invasion of a country with which it shared so much culture and history—or the extent to which this strangely 19th century war was to be filled with 20th century horrors.
In the first weeks after February 24th 2022, the shock of a war in the (nearly) here and (very much) now commanded the undivided attention of the Western world. Ukraine dominated the front pages of every newspaper. Thousands of buildings and social media accounts were adorned with Ukrainian flags. A good many people, at least at first, followed every twist and turn of the war with rapt attention.
But the human mind not only boggles at the thought that a place like Kyiv or Taipei or the Val d’Orcia can from one day to the next turn into a battlefield; unless the conflict dominates your everyday life, it also struggles to keep that thought in focus. And so the attention which much of the world once paid to the conflict in Ukraine has gradually receded. The war no longer dominates the front pages of American newspapers. The marketing departments of major corporations came up with plans for removing Ukrainian flags from their office buildings and social media accounts as inconspicuously as possible, often by temporarily replacing them with a symbol of support for some other worthy cause.
The discomfiting truth of the matter is that war, if it does not threaten your immediate survival, is both scary and fundamentally boring, making it tempting and easy to look away. When it seemed as though Russian tanks were about to roll down the streets of Kyiv, the world was riveted with suspense. When the first reports of terrible war crimes emanated from Bucha, the sheer horror of it all was enough to command attention. But the longer a war drags on and the more the corpses pile up, the less one day’s news seems to differ from another’s.
On some days one army advances by a few miles, on other days another army does. On some days the residents of this faraway village are massacred, on another day civilians in that faraway town get bombed. At some point even those of us who have deep compassion for the suffering of innocent victims cannot help but notice that, from a purely narrative point of view, wars are less compelling than the average soccer game.
Also read: “Winter in Kyiv,” by Kateryna Kibarova.
At the height of the collective outpouring of concern about Ukraine, some American commentators insinuated that there was something racist about the widespread solidarity for the Ukrainian cause. The bloody civil war in Syria, they pointed out, faded out of view; if we are paying attention to Ukraine, it must be because we have a greater concern for white lives. (When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail—and in America, a particular kind of hammer has of late been produced en masse.)
But as I feared at the time, it turns out that this charge was based on an erroneous premise. Today, on the first anniversary of Russia’s renewed assault on Ukraine, the human desire to look away from the everyday horror of war is already reasserting itself. If this terrible war should still be raging on its second or third anniversary, it will likely have fallen out of focus just as much as the terrible conflict in Syria eventually did.
The temptation to look away is as human as is the capacity to murder people in the name of national pride or ideological purity. But as philosophers remind us, a behavior can be natural without being right or acceptable. And so we must struggle, against our deep-seated instincts, to keep enough of a focus on the conflict in Ukraine to make sure that our governments do the right thing.
It makes no direct difference to Ukrainian civilians and soldiers whether we tune into the horror they live every day. But it makes every difference whether civilians have enough money to heat their homes and whether soldiers have sufficient weapons to expel a brutal invader from their country. Though we may find it increasingly difficult to pay attention, we must at least ensure that our governments do what they can to support a righteous cause.
Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers continue to risk their lives in defense of their freedoms. Their success will determine whether 44 million of their compatriots will, for the foreseeable future, suffer under neocolonial domination. It may also determine whether the residents of Central and Western Europe can continue to enjoy a fragile peace they long took for granted. It might even determine whether the people of Russia will someday get another chance at governing their own fate.
Anybody who knows anything about the nature of war must hope that the fields of wheat in Ukraine will soon look as peaceful as the fields of wheat in the Val d’Orcia. On the first anniversary of the war, my deepest hope is that there shall not be a second. But the peace, when it comes, must be just and durable. Back in the middle of the twentieth century, the peace-loving partisans of the Val d’Orcia were right to take the fight to the Nazis. Today, the peace-loving people of Ukraine are right to resist the tanks that are trying to annex their country. The least we can do is to help them in the concrete ways that matter most.
Yascha Mounk is the founder and editor-in-chief of Persuasion.
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