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Thoughts for the Dead

The images of the dead in Ukraine don't tell us who these men and women are, or how they died. What do they mean?
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It is hard to escape the images from Ukraine, but easy not to think about them. So, let’s think about them hard.

The bodies themselves are the only truth; there but for the grace of God goes us and all that. Were they Russian separatists? Ukrainian heroes? People on the way home from work? People far from home or abandoned even by loved ones in their own backyards? How little it matters, when they are placed next to each other on the ground. But politics always makes for stranger bedfellows now and forever.

As we make some deal over their deaths—with war crimes accusations levied by a nation (America) which quit the International Criminal Court in 2002 ahead of the Iraq War and as a see ya for Israel being charged with war crimes in the Strip—what say the shadows, the 460,000 dead in Iraq or the 1,353,000 in Vietnam? (Say that one again, Vietnam, because, yes, it echoes behind each muddy footprint, down the halls of State and Defense, Vietnam, where the most senior generals from many nations learned their craft.)

There is truth to the phrase “never again,” but it is this truth: We will never again (admit it if we) lose another war, which is why more people are going to have to die, because Putin’s win could be seen as, once again, our loss. But these in Ukraine are not American deaths, not really dead because of America, so we can point and declare right from wrong, right? Just as we decry those who judge us, we shall judge trespasses against them.

I saw a little of war, a year in Iraq, a civilian witness—saw more than a lot, saw a lot less than some, but even a little is enough. Because after the first one you can remember bodies become repetitive until all that matters is how many of them there are. They no longer matter individually, only in the collective sense. The standard is six million, anything else is something less, made to matter by evoking the six million as a comparison, or the 500 from My Lai, or 35,000 from Dresden, or the 800,000 from Stalingrad. Stalingrad taught us to think “civilians and soldiers” was a joke left from the 19th century when armies walked to a nearby field, war a ritual.

Karl Doenitz, the head of Germany’s U-Boat program during World War II, stood trial at Nuremberg for war crimes, specifically, unrestricted submarine warfare against civilian shipping. Doenitz, in his defense, raised the fact that the Allies practiced much the same style of war at sea. He even sought testimony from U.S. naval personnel as part of his defense. Doenitz raised broad, almost philosophical questions about commerce warfare, including belligerent conduct by armed merchant ships, contraband hidden aboard “civilian” ships, war at sea as a required evil for a nation under blockade, war zones, commerce control, and non-neutral service.

But it was the non-rescue policy for enemy survivors which most of all brought Doenitz to judgment at Nuremberg. Doenitz in 1940 issued Standing Order 154 to his U-boats, “Do not pick up survivors and take them with you…The enemy began the war in order to destroy us, so nothing else matters.” At his trial he raised the question of why it was allowable to seek to kill people one moment, before their ship sank, but not one moment afterward, when they were in the water. He pointed out weapons were designed not to win wars per se but to destroy people efficiently, as we now know with modern cluster bombs and so-called hyperbaric vacuum bombs in Ukraine.

Doenitz was found guilty but his testimony sharply resonated with other combatants. Over 100 senior Allied officers sent letters conveying their disappointment over the guilty verdict. They understood killing was killing and that rules were for the victors to use, later, as politics required, and never wanted to find themselves so entrapped.

We look at those horrible photos again from Ukraine. Who are the dead? Some are collaborators shot by Ukrainians, some are innocents shot by Russians, some are civilian combatants who took up arms for one side or another. Some may even have been ethnically cleansed—or just fake images, or old photos.

None of that matters. The media tells us to react. All that’s left is for someone to find a way for our computers to deliver a little food pellet along with the ultra-violence. It’s just about the stim, little jolts to the cerebellum, isn’t it? None of us have any idea who the dead bodies represent in Ukraine, and who shot them, and why. We just enjoy the thrill, and the flexibility of creating our own righteous story. We don’t grieve, we politicize.

The truth is much more restrained as we understand it at this point in the war. Human Rights Watch documented Russian military forces committing law-of-war violations against civilians in occupied areas of the Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Kiev regions of Ukraine. These include one case of rape, and two cases of summary execution—one of six men, the other of one man. There were other non-specific instances of unlawful violence and threats against civilians. Soldiers were also implicated in looting civilian property, including food, clothing, and firewood.

That’s the sum of it. One rape, seven executed. No death is to be celebrated or dismissed but a handful of war crimes does not equal a crime against humanity, or whatever Biden and Zelensky are claiming today. Overstating the actual situation will only serve to make the public numb. The Ukrainians are approaching the jump their shark moment, and since we’re talking about propaganda here, not deaths, the phrase is appropriate. Human Rights Watch says the Russians looted firewood! What horrors will follow?! At some point, the louder it all gets the fewer who listen.

But in the end there is always the small story and the big story, often so big it runs over the edges of our monitors, so that because of its size we don’t see it. We talk about peace, but the only place we all seem to live in some sort of harmony is in the land described by the Panama Papers, countries and statelets that pimp out their economies and legal systems to the global rich (oligarchs and entrepreneurs, it’s just the difference in word choice and how many feet of waterline their yachts have) so that sanctions become a poor man’s punishment. What’s gas and meat cost in your neck of the woods?

The cover story never really changed. Our parents were told the raison d’etre was to destroy communism. We were later promised once we achieved nuclear parity with Russia it would all be over, then told once we won the next proxy war (Cuba, Greece, Laos, Vietnam, Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Panama, Haiti, Iran, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Syria, Yemen) things would be right. Then the Soviet Union did collapse and after a brief lull (“the end of history”) we all went right back to the old game.

The bodies, you see, don’t matter. They never really matter.

Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.

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