Impossibilities, Probabilities, Atrocities, Humanity: Responding to the War in Ukraine
We mostly live as if the "impossible" can't happen, at least not to us. A persistent denial that buoys us up over our usually small indignities and troubles by insisting that for the most part all will be well enough. But isn't it more true that the real impossibility is that we will continue on, unscathed, untouched by pain, violence, war, sorrow? All lives, of course, are tragedies (ending in death), even if their first, second, and third acts are comedies (sometimes ending in marriages, which themselves often founder). Yet there is much joy, pleasure, happiness, along the way. If we are fortunate. And "fortunate" of course is different things to different people. It could be argued that the people who have survived horrors know more than anyone else how lucky they are. Or maybe not.
My generation of North Americans, although children perhaps (like myself) of immigrants and survivors who themselves suffered through World War II, the Holocaust, Stalin's Purges, or the Armenian Genocide, or of people who lived through the Great Depression or who went to fight in Europe and came back emotionally or physically scarred or in boxes, have ourselves lived through what turns out to be an exceptional half century of relative peace and plenty. Of course younger people who have come to this country from war-torn regions outside of Europe have seen plenty of horrors, have watched their parents killed, their mothers and sisters raped, their towns burned down, have themselves personally experienced man's inhumanity to man, as have the many soldiers who faced terrors and themselves killed and terrorized others in other countries. But I only really know my own experience. Which is a mixture of inherited hauntings and relative innocence. Not that my life has always been a garden of roses, but these last years sometimes feel a bit like a fall from paradise into at least a greater realization of the reality of hell on earth.
In the past few years, the plague seemed like the puncturing of this bubble of innocence. What seemed impossible was now possible. And now, Covid seems much less terrible (at least it was probably not made by humans to intentionally terrorize us) when compared to this war in Ukraine--an utterly unprovoked attack orchestrated by a madman who rivals Hitler, Stalin, or Mao in his monomaniacal delusions and cruelty, wherein already atrocities seem to exceed our imaginations or pierce through our collective amnesia. But why are we so shocked? Even if we collectively, delusively, put the horrors of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the far distant past, we still have our contemporary horrors in Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, rape gangs in the Congo, conflicts in Ethiopia, and more; one should name all the names and enumerate all the atrocities. (And I haven't even mentioned climate change mainly because, even though we caused it, we didn't precisely do it out of evil, but mostly out of ignorance, bravado, greed and indifference, which is different somehow.) But I would be lying if I pretended that these enumerated horrors touched me as much as the current war in Ukraine does. Because it is so close to the region where "my people" come from? Well, I don't know. "My" people came from the Middle East originally, so one could suppose I might be more engaged there, but they moved through central Europe, through Europe, where my heart lies. My bias. My myopia. And it all is so eerily reminiscent of the last age of Totalitarianism. And we are talking about the possibility, probability, inevitability (?) of nuclear annihilation here. As it looks very much like this could become World War III and the destruction of the whole entire world? But why should I be surprised that we have reached this point? Did I think that evil only existed in the past or in far-off places? That we were done with it? That we had outgrown it as a species?
Perhaps such delusions are necessary. Without them, we could not get through the day. Without them we could not love each other, could not do all the good things we do. It would all seem in vain. But in the meantime, does our delusion allow us to unwittingly destroy the world or to look on helplessly while others do so?
Reading Elizabeth Kolbert's book, The Sixth Extinction, years ago, I was paradoxically inspired about human kind. For one thing, some former extinctions happened because of no human fault. Somehow, imagining being destroyed by a meteor is much better than being destroyed by our own human stupidity and greed. Even if there were no one left to tell the story, it would be better to think human agency wasn't involved. But more importantly, while enumerating all the things we do to destroy species and ecosystems, Kolbert also described all the things we do to save them. In one chapter, she wrote of a scientist who was studying what he called the "madness gene,"--the gene that Homo Sapiens have but Neanderthals didn't. It apparently makes us curious and inventive. It is the gene that makes someone think of building a boat to sail across the water, enabling conquest and colonization, but also exploration and research. The same traits that make us invent bombs may make us create symphonies and cures for cancer. We can't help but invent, investigate, explore, tinker, fiddle, experiment, even to our own detriment. Musil distinguished between what his character Ulrich called appetitive and non-appetitive states, noting that "what I call the appetitive urges toward action, toward movement, toward enjoyment... [I]t is the appetitive form of feeling, of our animalistic tendency...that the world has to thank for all works and all beauty; but also all unrest and all deceit...". So we do well not to fully negate the human energies that are behind such ambiguous results. But there is appetitive and then there is voracious. And cruelty is not something most of us, unless we are sadists or sociopaths, are hungry for.
Once, while in France, I engaged in a debate with a man named Horst, whose father had been a member of the Nazi party. Horst maintained that there was more evil in the world than good. And I, a daughter and granddaughter of holocaust survivors, argued for the other side. My grandfather always liked to tell stories about all the people who helped them survive, too. My argument thus consisted in proportions--a sort of ethical mathematics. Basically, I do think that life contains more good than evil, but that a little drop of evil can poison a great mass of fresh water. One cruel act can do an inordinate amount of damage, one bomb, one match can destroy a whole city. So even if there is more good than bad, bad may seem to do more harm more quickly than good can repair. Or maybe that's not true either. I don't know. Somehow I need the belief, even if it be a delusion, that the world is justified, even if only as an aesthetic phenomenon, if only because it is beautiful, if only because we have colors. But really because most of us have beautiful humanity and humaneness inside of us too. Because most of us are not sadists, but rather love the fractured and imperfect world and our fractured and imperfect fellow human beings with a deep and enduring, if sometimes challenged and ambivalent, love that ultimately transcends the cruelty of those proportionately fewer maniacs who cannot love. I will not be the first to say that is our very humaneness that makes it practically unbearable to witness the atrocities such madmen unleash--each one of which is too many.
Let us continue, if we can, to embrace the world and to love it as it is. Even when, especially when, it is most difficult. There is so much beauty and so much goodness. So much love and so much curiosity. So much heroism. It is only because it is so beautiful that we despair that it will necessarily end someday for all of us individually. It is only because it is so beautiful that we despair that it may end sooner than later altogether at the behest of a madman. We do not really know what is impossible or possible or even probable. But we do know that people sometimes surprise us (albeit sometimes in bad ways), and sometimes succeed in vanquishing evil against enormous odds. May this be one of those times.
Evacuation of Kharkiv, March, 2022