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Putin and the Force That Gives Us Meaning

Revisiting a 2002 masterpiece, “War is the Force that Gives Us Meaning,” sheds light on the current tragedy out east.

LOS ANGELES—The reporting out of Russia in the New York Times is clear enough: People are surprised.

“I’ve always tried to understand Putin,” Tatiana Stanovaya of the Russian political analysis firm R. Politik, told the grey lady. “But now, she said, the usefulness of logic seemed at a limit. ‘He has become less pragmatic, and more emotional.’” Stanovaya continued, “Putin has brought himself to a place in which he sees it as more important, more interesting, more compelling to fight for restoring historical justice than for Russia’s strategic priorities. … This morning, I realized that a certain shift has taken place.” The Times summarized her view, probably the accurate one: “[Stanovaya] said that by all appearances, the ruling elite around Mr. Putin did not realize that Thursday’s war was coming, and was uncertain about how to respond.”

By sun-up in California, and sun-down in Kaliningrad on Thursday, the world had on its hands its first proper “white war” in a quarter century, that epithet Nicolas Cage’s Yuri Orlov (as it happens, a Ukrainian) in Lord of War (2005) uses to explain why the United States cared enough about the conflict in the Balkans in the Nineties to intervene, but not in Rwanda or much of Africaand other theaters, for that matter. Choice other lines of dialogue stick out. Visiting his uncle in the early ’90s to pillage the former Soviet arsenal, Orlov implores, “Report to who? As of last week, Moscow is in a foreign country. … It’s beautiful. The ones who know don’t care anymore, and the ones who care don’t know.”

Things have changed.

For one, the inspiration for Cage’s performance, former Soviet officer Viktor Bout (a Russian), today sits in prison in Merion, Illinois. And Russian President Vladimir Putin appears well on his way to making the period of Ukrainian independence an epoch, not an eternity. If Putin’s move has surprised even his friends and countrymen, then it has vexed outsiders.

Or as President Joe Biden noted in his hardly soothing presser today in Washington, flexing the Russian bear’s military might didn’t make much financial sense. “We’ve already seen the impact of our actions on the Russian currency — the ruble — which early today hit its weakest level ever. The Russian stock market plunged today,” Biden reiterated on Twitter, as if very arguably the world’s richest man hadn’t taken this into account or didn’t know.

So what gives?

Stanovaya’s analysis above gets at a layer of humanity often lost in panic about portfolios, or worse,  in international relations jargon. The president of a superpower has decided to go to war because it gives him—and he surmises probably a good deal of his citizens—meaning. Such was the novel argument made by former Times Middle East bureau chief Chris Hedges on the George W. Bush’s ultimate rationale for Iraq. “War Is The Force That Gives Us Meaning” was published in 2002, but it was a contentious commencement address at Rockford College the next spring that ultimately culminated in his sacking from the paper of record.

Lines from the book get at the passions Hedges provoked, when he was booed off stage and ushered out of the American mainstream in those heady, violent days after September 11.

“Many of us, restless and unfulfilled, see no supreme worth in our lives. We want more out of life. And war, at least, gives a sense that we can rise above our smallness and divisiveness,” he wrote. “Aristotle said that only two living entities are capable of complete solitude and complete separateness: God and beast. Because of this the most acute form of suffering for human beings is loneliness,” he reported. “’Force,’ Simone Weil wrote, ‘is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates,” he retold.

Abstaining from all bashfulness, Hedges would in later years go onto to assert that the conflict between the West and the Islamic World was essentially memetic. “What were the explosions that hit the World Trade Center, huge explosions and death above a city skyline?” Hedges asked. “It was straight out of Hollywood.”

God surely has a sense of irony because, back then, Hedges assailed America’s War on Terror partnership with Putin and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: “‘We are part now of a dubious troika in the war against terror with Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon, two leaders who do not shrink in Palestine or Chechnya from carrying out acts of gratuitous and senseless acts of violence. We have become the company we keep.”

Though no advocate of the Russian president, today Hedges, of course, hosts a show on RT, Russian television.

It is not a unique observation that Putin could also be embarking on a path of later life hypocrisy: This is a politician, whatever else, who was right on the raw wisdom of the Iraq War. In invading Ukraine, Putin has given himself over to the ultra-nationalists and hardliners in his orbit, who have (yes, any MSNBC viewers reading) their parallels with intellectuals of the Trump movement, but also overlap with rival neoconservatives who hatched Iraq—that is, the belief the country is fit for special, even messianic purpose.

Or Hedges writes, “And this is what war often looks and feels like, at its inception: love. The ancient Greeks understood this strange relationship between love and death in wartime. When Achilles kills Penthesilea, the queen of the Amazons, in the Trojan War, he falls in love with her as she expires on the battlefield. Once she is dead, once love is dead, Achilles is doomed.”

Putin has decided to take that gamble.

about the author

Curt Mills is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, where he previously served as senior reporter. He specializes in foreign policy and campaign coverage and has worked at The National Interest, U.S. News and World Report, Washington Examiner, and the Spectator, and his work has appeared in UnHerd and Newsweek. He was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism fellow.

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