Reflections on the War in Ukraine

by Dr. James Alexander

Mock-up of a pretend Time Magazine cover

I

In order to be sceptical about war we need both philosophy and history. In relation to politics, history is the study of the world in terms of an imperative to recognise fluctuations in power through time, and philosophy is the study of the world in terms of an imperative now to think, speak and act well. Philosophy wants us to be ruled by law, and history suggests that we will always be ruled by power. History indicates to the sceptic, therefore, that war is always with us, while philosophy indicates that it should be with us as little as possible. Peace is an ironic matter for the historian, and an earnest matter for the philosopher.

To be sceptical is to occupy a balanced position between these two extremes. No one should have a policy of eliminating war; for the only way to eliminate it would be by another form of war. There is no such thing as perpetual peace. And yet no one should have a policy of accepting war. There should be no such thing as perpetual war.

What is war? War is a consequence of the desire to solve a problem by dissolving it: that is, specifically, by destroying the people who appear to be responsible for the problem. It divides the world into us (right) and them (wrong). It is politics in black-and-white.

The history of war comes in two stages, morally speaking.

In ancient times – and here I am referring to a history which runs from the Sumerians, through the Athenians in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, to the Mongols who asserted that if God had not wanted them to rule the world they would not have ruled it – war was unobjectionable. Everyone had a right to exert power where they could, and to the death if necessary. This view has never been eliminated though it is now always limited or chastened or challenged by a second view.

In the world which has come round more and more to the position that Karl Jaspers called ‘Axial’ – that is, the world of religions like Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and of course the wisdom of philosophers from Socrates to Confucius – a different attitude to war has emerged. This attitude is not a simple one, not a simple condemnation of war, though it has a simple condemnation of war in it. This is the view that the identification of power and right is unacceptable. Might is not right. Having the power to take something does not mean one has a right to take it. But as an objection to war this is complicated in every instance by the fact that it is quite difficult to say what is right.

In this second stage, what we have to notice is that an objection to war can also be a politics in black-and-white, where we divide the world into the makers of war, them (bad) and the critics of war, us (good). Since Axial religions emphasise ‘sin’ and ‘suffering’ we have come to take the side of the less powerful: the Boers, the Uyghurs, the Ukrainians, since they seem to be less guilty of perpetuating sin and suffering. So we condemn the aggressors. It is not easy to wage war in modernity unless everyone is involved.

II

The war in Ukraine is a strange war, because it is old-fashioned. It is the classic European form of war, whereby one sovereign state clashes with another sovereign state over some disputed territory – as adjusted by the Napoleon-Bismarck-Hitler intensifications whereby a European sovereign state engages totally with its adversaries: now enabled by military technology, on the sudden and sharp side, to engage in blitzkrieg-type assaults at high speed on the central citadel to effect some sort of ‘regime change’, and enabled, on the blunt and brutal side, to wage a complete war grindingly against the entirety of the civilian population.

The reason I say that this war of 2022 is old-fashioned is that since 1945 we in the West have generally fought only colonial or post-colonial wars or pseudo-wars: Korea, Suez, Vietnam, the Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. These have involved extremely distant engagements where there is no risk to European or American civilians. (Even the Second World War, was, by and large, of this nature for Americans.) These wars were not always liked, and were not always successes – consider Suez and Vietnam or, latterly, Afghanistan – but they were, as far as the Western states were concerned, colonial. That is, disengaged, and, for us, completely military.

But even such colonial or post-colonial wars are considered by our elites to be passé. The very latest type of war – the one we prefer, we educated elites in the West – is the war against carbon emissions, the war against COVID-19, the Culture War. In each case, humanity (pronouns we/us) – humanity, I say, has some responsibility for the enemy we are fighting, but the enemy is, emphatically, not composed of any mass of humans as such. The enemy (sometimes a foe, sometimes a fate) is a change in our earthly condition, or a virus and sickness, or prejudice and bias. This is the sort of war we moderns like to fight: with wind turbines, masks and seminars on institutional racism. And we like to fight them to the death: which explains all the talk of ‘zero’. We want to dissolve the enemy, destroy it completely, and we console ourselves that since this enemy is not human, we are justified in this sort of war, if not in any other sort of war.

Let us call the three types of war I have described, first, IMPERIAL WAR, second, COLONIAL WAR, and third, METAPHORICAL WAR. Imperial war is direct, an extension of power across land. Colonial war is indirect and distant. It need never involve civilians. It is bracketed: it is war by report. Metaphorical war brings war back home again, since the war is now fought on our behalf by states and sometimes involves those sacrificing its own citizens as a form of collateral damage, for the greater good.

COVID-19 was the instantiation of this in such a clear form that even the most innocent could see it clearly.

III

What is a sceptical position about the present war?

As a sceptic, and as someone accustomed to thinking about politics in relation to the rule of law, I dislike war. After I abandoned my youthful Augustinianism (which alleged that the whole world was corrupt and unjust, and so peace was not to be expected), I adjusted myself to a higher-educated Cantabrigianism (since, in Cambridge, we believed that the thousand qualifications we made to it could not defeat the truth of the Whiggish precept that the modern state had bracketed war and perhaps even eliminated it: and that even if this proved not to be the case, then it certainly should have been the case): so I began to assume, perhaps without being too conscious of it, that we had reached the end of war.

The end of war is a myth, but one might say it became a necessary myth after the horrors of the First World War, ‘the war to end all wars’. The standard histories of the twentieth century generally claim that the attempts to end all war after the First World War – Versailles, the League of Nations – had flaws and therefore failed (arguable, obviously) – but that the model was perfected by the adjusted remedies which followed the Second World War – Bretton Woods, the Marshall Plan, Nuremberg, the Cold War, the United Nations, the European Economic Community.

One of the reason why the elites in the United Kingdom were so horrified by the vote to leave the European Union was that the Union had been credited with the peace that followed 1945. A vote for ‘Leave’, subconsciously, as far as Remainers were concerned, was therefore a vote for war; while a vote for ‘Remain’, was obviously a vote for peace. (But note: ‘peace’ meant ‘peace in Europe’.)

Carl Schmitt once suggested that every state depends in the first instance, or even at all times, on a claim about who the enemy is. States need enemies; kings need them. Consider the concept of ‘the hereditary enemy’. Consider Scotland’s attitude to England. Consider England’s attitude to France. The point about modern European life is that since 1945 it has been a presupposition that the enemy should not be ‘one of us’: that is, not European, not Christian, not Western, and not anyone else who can be persuaded to wear a tie, shake hands at international conferences, and speak the language of international monopoly capitalism. Again, this is why the present war is a surprise.

The modern enemy, if human, has to be a tinpot dictator or a medieval theocrat: for instance, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, or Colonel Gaddafi. Nowadays, of course, we even feel a bit reluctant to hang, shoot or witness the mutilation of such enemies. We like our enemies to be inhuman, but we love it if they are unhuman. (Inhuman = a human who is somehow, metaphorically, not human. Unhuman = literally, not human.) I have no doubt that those were in favour of COVID-19 restrictions were glad to have a war which was clearly not one of those bloody, bogged-down, body-bagged wars associated in our minds with the Somme or Dresden or All Quiet on the Western Front or Apocalypse Now. There was no human enemy. No deaths needed to cause us any guilt. Every death was collateral damage: it was justified because we were fighting death.

The war in Ukraine is odd, for us, because it is so very old-fashioned. It can be depicted on maps, like the old maraudings of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Attila, Timur, Marlborough, Napoleon and Hitler. Old land empires – of which Russia was the very last to be established (in the eighteenth century) – were push-and-shove entities, trying to expand outwards: not through trade and factory and bribery and slavery and intervention (all those perfidious tricks of Albion), but through simple expansion of borders by force. I suspect that Russia, at some atavistic level, still thinks imperially – in terms of lands adjacent – whereas England, at some atavistic level, still thinks colonially – in terms of lands overseas, that is, very much not adjacent. So even when we British were good imperialists we had a certain disdain for the Roman-Ottoman-Russian trope of land empire. It lacked the sophistication of our imperialism of bank and bond, of insurance and investment and of plantation and protestantism.

Now, if we felt contempt for land empire even a hundred or more years ago, then it is a certainty that now, while we are engaged in cultural harakiri over our former colonial activities, we simply cannot understand why anyone would fight anyone else over some adjacent land. It seems atavistic in the extreme. And, moreover, this should not happen in Europe. Why, has Putin not read the protocols of the elders of Europe, where it is asserted, as clearly as it can be asserted, that European states only engage in violent activity a long way away from their own borders and, certainly, a long way away from Europe?

IV

The Russians do present us with at least the appearance of a dilemma. This is: if we object to the modern sort of war (against carbon, coronavirus and established culture) then, given what might be some sort of inevitable inclination in humans to fight wars, is the only alternative a return to the antique sort of war in which humans all too visibly cause the violent death of other humans?

The antique type of war, the one that Putin is prosecuting, is murderous – actually murderous. We dislike it because the death is too simple: too conscious, almost vulgar. But we sceptics have a duty to remind the enthusiasts, even the enthusiasts for peace in Ukraine, that the war they would prefer to fight, the metaphorical war, is just as murderous. Indeed, it is quite possibly more penetrating, more insinuating, more permanent, and more devilish, than anything going on in Ukraine. This is because everyone knows that what is going on in Ukraine is a war. Whereas it seems to me that, somehow or other, most of the population of the world has refused to consider the possibility that most of the pandemic policies were part of a war carried out by rulers against those they rule. Our very concepts and expectations were twisted through metaphoricity and indirection. That was part of the war. Outwardly, in old-fashioned terms, the world was peaceful during the pandemic; and this has sadly ended with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But I’d say the world was at war, a wholly new type of war, from 2020 to 2022.

The sceptic has to stand apart from both.

Events in 2020 disabused us of any fond views we had of the Chinese state, and now events in 2022 are disabusing us of any fond views we had of the Russian state. We are not exactly back to the twentieth century, but, certainly, we are now less likely to trust Chinese technology or Russian resources: and this, in the latter case, might seem to be the beginning of a way back to the common sense which would make us seek independent sources of energy and therefore abandon the absurd zero carbon policies which have had somewhat unexpected but now fairly clear consequences for our security – and hence civilisation. British politicians are not stupid and seem to have seen this necessity extremely quickly. But more than this is required. The desperate possibility is that the metaphorical and indirect war cannot hold our attention for long, and might even increase the pressures that will unleash more of this old-fashioned form of war on us.

If we can find a way to edge away from the METAPHORICAL WARS against all of the ‘unholy trinity’ of carbon, covid and culture without falling over the edge into a completely Russian politics of renewed IMPERIAL WAR, then that would be a great success. But I wonder whether we can do it: whether we can extirpate the human habit of war. If we cannot, then, given that we all seem to dislike actual war so much, we are doomed to fighting METAPHORICAL WARS for as long as our civilisation can survive.

Dr. James Alexander is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.

November 2022
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