This last week brought us nearer something that many of us thought belonged to the past: war in Europe. A war near enough, its victims familiar enough, its burden close enough to feel.
Wars have always raged, but given our luck—of geography mostly—Americans, historically, have been at least one continent away from the day-to-day ravage of war. Of course, some Americans have been more affected than others in recent years: soldiers, social workers or aid workers who live it daily, but most of the time, war happens so far from our daily lives that it doesn’t fully impact us the way it should. It takes something out of the ordinary, like this current war, to remind us of all its hazards.
Yesterday, my partner and I were listening to a podcast from Germany. A reporter in Berlin was interviewing people who still remember the last time the Russians came with war. It was 1945, as the Third Reich was in its final days and Hitler already dead, with the Allies streaming into Germany from all sides and the Allied Russians closing in on Berlin from the East. Perhaps it was the Russians’ lived experience of the brutalities of Leningrad, where German troops encircled the city for three years and starved its population to death; or maybe it was the non-aggression pact signed between the two countries that Germany ignored as soon as Hitler wanted more living space; perhaps it was Stalin’s own scorched earth policy used by the Russians as a deterrent to oncoming German forces; but it was probably a mix of all that and four excruciatingly deadly years of war that pushed the Russians over the edge on their return to German soil. Whatever trauma they had learned from the Germans, the Russians were keen to pay it back, ten-fold. In the podcast, we heard older German women say they wouldn’t live through that again. They’d ask their children for cyanide, as death at their own hands would be easier to face than Russian troops. This was yesterday, by the way, not seventy-odd years ago.
Yesterday, in Berlin. The lifelong trauma of war.
In my normal, everyday life, I have a hard time with war. I don’t like war films anymore. I hate the sound of guns. When I first came home from South Sudan, I got nervous every time a plane or helicopter flew overhead.
There is something about the experience of war that thrills people who have never experienced it. Maybe because we’re told so many stories in movies and lore. It’s a life or death question in a world where we don’t face that option very often, and I can see its appeal—the rush of adrenaline, the heroics that inevitably rise to the surface—and for some in it, it’s surely energizing, adventurous, “bringing out their best.” But for many more, I would guess, war is the thing they’ll spend the rest of their lives recovering from.
What stories can’t convey of war are this: the smells, the annihilation, the exhaustion. The cynicism that hardens the longer the fighting goes on. The understanding that even if there are Good Guys and Bad Guys—and maybe even a God—there is no chance that the innocent won’t be ruined. There is certainty—a learned and definite certainty—that rules will be broken; rules written in normal life to bring order and justice and calm. There is also the inevitability that in all wars, stupidity or ignorance or big egos or the wrong person in charge at an important moment will mean unnecessary death and preventable violence, either by accident or design—but serially—and usually with massive moral and existential costs. Even while responsible people look on in impotence and frustration and anger.
There is a constant uncertainty, too, within the certainty of war, that resolves itself into a general mistrust—of anyone, or anything, or if up is still up, or if life is worth living. The cost of that uncertainty is mind-bending and mind-breaking and comes within a chaos that births a new understanding. The knowledge of seeing and experiencing the absolute worst things that humans can do to each another.
Although most people who live outside warzones never have to know all the ways that one person can starve, wound, maim, kill, dismember, and terrorize another human being, that confrontation—and realization—is unmistakable in war. Whether experienced as a victim, a perpetrator or a witness, that knowledge creates a new understanding of humans that is, in itself, inhuman. It resets the most basic expectation of life: that killing is wrong.
Luckily, most humans never need to learn this horror personally, because that experience is psyche-breaking. And once known or lived, it can’t be unknown. Unlived.
When I think of all the brave Ukrainians joining to defend their cities, I am inspired and impressed like everyone else, but I am also gutted to know they will never be the same whole humans they were before this. The tech guy who left his computer to grab a gun handed out at the library; the student from Germany who returned to take up arms; they will learn—more quickly than other soldiers in more tidy wars—the true extent of evil that humans can perpetrate. They will realize, too, the evil they, themselves, are capable of, in a moment of instinct or power or fear.
That is the piece they are most likely never to recover from.
This war will be over at some point. It may be weeks or months or years. By the time I left South Sudan, in the tenth year of the second iteration of a war that looked never ending, I was less human myself. More cynical, more hate-filled, more caustic and angry than I’ve ever been before or since. And yet, fifteen years after I left, South Sudan gained its independence. I was shocked, amazed, having given up hope of peace in all my cynicism. And then, only two years later, my cynicism was rewarded and civil war broke out again. War is too good for too many people. Not the ones on the ground. Not the ones losing their souls and lives fighting. War is good for the people sitting in their cozy offices, getting rich and powerful and making the decisions. Planning their next attack, which is also their next success, paid for by the lives of others.
In our hospitals and clinics, we treated mostly women and children while the soldiers fighting for them, protecting them, supposedly giving their lives for them, stole our medicines and food stocks for themselves. The civilians often said they didn’t mind—because without the soldiers, what did they have? Even less, I guess, although I was never sure and grew to believe the longer I stayed that the relief we tried to bring might only have prolonged the fighting.
War is never simple enough for a right or wrong answer.
Europe speaks now of a seventy-year peace broken, but if we consider the Cold War; the Soviet takeovers of Hungary and Czechoslovakia; the Croatian, Bosnian, and Kosovan wars; Russia’s takeover of Crimea just a few years ago, peace on that continent hasn’t been so trustworthy. It’s just that most of those wars happened away from our attention. There is a complaint of racism in the coverage of this war. The argument that Western journalists are identifying more with these people than others—from Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kherson. But I think it’s human nature, something built into our brains. “These people look just like us,” we think, watching women in their winter jackets and knit beanies; their kids holding the same teddy bears our children clutch; their teenagers scrolling cold fingers across their phones; the Nigerian medical student trekking to Lviv who speaks with the accent of a dear friend; the Indian students standing at the border, twinned by a couple I pass on my daily jog in Ithaca.
It is all too familiar. These people could be us; we could be them. We aren’t in their situation, of course, but it’s our ability to think we could be that also reminds me of another piece of humanity. The better one. The trait that might be the one thing that saves us in the end.
I would like to think that I’d be one of the people today, standing at the main train station in Berlin, holding up a welcome sign. I’d like to think that when I send my donation to IRC or CARE that it will be funding the kind of essential work I used to do in another war for other people. I’d like to believe that there are enough good folks who will open their homes and wallets and minds to the current refugees because all these things tell me that I am still human.
One of the heroes in my life has always been Mr. Rogers. When asked what to do in the face of fear, he once told children, “Find the helpers.” I don’t think that’s dated or childish advice. I think it’s very current. Because someone has to do the hard work of taking care, of making repairs, fixing broken laws and abandoned ideals. Someone has to mend the minds and souls and bodies of those affected by war.
Because they could be any of us.