Ukraine armoured personnel carrier
Armoured personnel carrier (APC) of the 92nd separate mechanised brigade of Ukrainian Armed Forces move to park in their base near Klugino-Bashkirivka village, in the Kharkiv region Image Credit: AFP

The crisis in Ukraine deepens per day, per hour and at times it seems as if per minute.

Earlier this week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared that Feb. 24, 2022, the day the war in Ukraine broke out, “marks a historic turning point in the history of the continent”, as the West slammed Russia with a broadside of severe sanctions intended to make the Russian economy suffer, a situation sure to herald a period of isolation for the country.

And Russia, while its troops moved deeper into Ukraine on three fronts and by Monday its military convoys reached the outskirts of Kyiv, responded by putting its nuclear forces on alert.

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A historic turning point indeed. Though we do not yet know how the European world will turn with it, we do know that its leaders will not arm themselves with “the guns of August” described in Barbara Tuchman’s 1962 classic about how the “Great Powers” lurched into the First World War, where they so unnecessarily, so foolishly and indeed so murderously lunged at each other in what arguably became the deadliest military confrontation in human history. Or do we?

This putative turning point should concern all of us because its ripple effects are sure to upend the geopolitics of the continent and in time trickle down to every other corner of this now globalised world of ours.

Destruction on our acre

War, we never tire of saying to ourselves and to each other, is hell — hell if only for the human costs it exacts on our lives and the material destruction it wreaks on our acre. Yet men — and it is almost always men — have always waged war against each other ever since they acquired a consciousness that enabled them to ask themselves who they were.

They waged all manner of war — world war, civil war, religious war, tribal war, economic war, cold war and more recently cyber war, along with other types of war, including “war to end war”, as the 1914-1918 Great War came to be known, albeit cynically, after the fact.

We decry war because we know in our hearts that at its terminus there are no winners, just losers. That this truth is, as we say, self-evident is echoed in the observation proffered by the celebrated French belle-lettrist Michel del Castillo (b. 1933), who as a child was interned in a concentration camp with his mother during the Second World War and who, like Ann Frank, was witness to harrowing historical events that he poignantly described in his work.

“Dans une guerre il n’ya ni vanquer ni vaincan”, he wrote. “Rien que victimes”. (In a war, there’s neither victor nor vanquished, just victims.) And surely, no one sane human being would want to bicker over this deceptively simple but deeply mournful comment on the futility of war, irrespective of the casus belli that justified it.

Yes, we all, ordinary folks around the world, decry war. And in the Euramerican world, war is not decried more than in its literature, in particular the “war novel”, a genre of creative writing that strives to illustrate the follies of war and war’s impact of the collective conscious of societies that engage in it.

The war in literature

And this is evident in novels that stretch back all the way from Stephen Crane’s grim portrayal of the American civil war in the Red Badge of Courage (1895) to Eric Maria Remark’s despairing portrayal of the Great War in All Is Quiet on the Western Front (1929), and from Graham Green’s cynical portrayal of the first Indochina war in the Quiet American (1955) to Joseph Heller’s satirical (yes you can satirise, albeit bitterly, a war) Catch-22 (1961).

We often wonder why humans decry then go on to engage in war. Evolutionary psychologists say that men have waged war against each other since prehistoric times, when they were hunters-gatherers, and will continue to do in our own, propelled, as they are, by the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection, where the “fittest” will prevail.

I say, humbug! We have — or should have — come a long way since then. We should surely be at a juncture in our evolutionally continuum, socially if not biologically, where we’ve already jettisoned what there was in us of beast and discovered what there is of man. Civilised man.

In short, we not only possess the will to do-something but the will-to-meaning. And there is no meaning in our human being when do not yet recognise the plus-minus dichotomy that exist in war and peace.

— Fawaz Turki is a noted thinker, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile