Kyiv is gray. Still Sunday strollers are out in the neighborhood. Earlier this week Sasha asked, “Have you noticed there are less people around?”
Yes, I had. Two weekday evenings in a row. The metro entrance in the center was nearly deserted. The street I cross to go to my dance class, usually busy during rush hour, practically free of traffic. And there was a young man with an automatic rifle patrolling the grassy hill I use as a shortcut.
I wonder, Where did all these people go? I don’t speculate as to why.
2015. Summer. Over a year since russia invaded Ukraine, sending “little green men” into Crimea and then annexing the peninsula after a sham referendum. Most of the activists who had camped out for months on Maidan in the center of Ukraine’s capital are now in the east — an improvised army equipped by volunteers — defending the country from russia’s proxy separatist movements.
Walking around Kyiv that summer, I occasionally come upon people lying on the ground, drunk. Rather than step over the body of a man who is lying across my path — it feels disrespectful — I bend down and ask him something. Another pedestrian comes up and together we assist the drunk man to a grassy patch closer to the road. Returning to my path I watch with horror from the corner of my eye as he stumbles into the street, cars swerving to avoid him.
What are the limits of my responsibility? You can’t know until after the fact. They are, of course, variable and depend on the situation. Could I have done more? Should I have done less? I live between these questions, sometimes approaching narcissistic dimensions.
The constant stress and urgency of war forces you to pull yourself together, to think and move and not wallow in anything that is not relevant to the challenge at hand. When it eases and you begin to relax, that’s when bad things start to happen. Petty arguments and serious ones. Things fall apart. People fall apart.
The woman with the same last name as my mother’s was soft-spoken and brave. She spent the winter of 2013–14 on Maidan, throwing molotov cocktails at the riot police stationed in front of the National Art Museum. She got lost in the years following and died of pneumonia at age 40. The contemporary art curator from Odesa, quietly inspiring, whose heart stopped at 45. My warm-hearted and profoundly accepting masseuse succumbed to cancer at the same age.
When you survive it only gets harder.
The horror. These are the last words of Apocalypse Now, Coppola’s atmospheric Vietnam War epic. The chaos is horrifying. Nerves frayed and people die. One person is telling another what to do and he’s not listening and someone gets a spear through the chest. Rounds of senseless machine-gun fire.
I think escalation stems from indecision, when you abandon your principles and ability to see what is really happening to something else: whether emotion or ego or fear.
In one scene a group of American soldiers is heading upriver in a small boat. Captain Willard is on a secret mission and the boat crew has been assigned to take him upriver without knowing either the details of the mission or their final destination.
They see a Vietnamese boat approaching and the boat captain Chief slows to inspect it. Willard says, let it go. Chief disagrees.
–They’re running supplies downstream; I’m going to look.
–My mission’s got priority here.
–Until we reach your destination, Captain, you’re just on for the ride.
Chief orders a crew member to board the Vietnamese boat and search it. The Vietnamese are visibly flustered; they’ve got ducks on board, a goat, mangoes and rice. The officer on board can’t find anything suspicious and Chief keeps insisting that he keep looking. Tensions are climbing, and when a Vietnamese woman gets up from inside the boat, a US soldier on the patrol boat opens fire from a machine gun. The soldier on board is dodging bullets and meekly opening containers, the Vietnamese are killed, and Chief says, Open that can! The yellow can she was sitting on! Inside the canister they find… a small, ideal puppy.
The Vietnamese woman is not dead but severely wounded. Now Chief wants to take her onboard his boat and to a hospital. This is thick jungle way up the Mekong River and his desire to now save this woman who was wounded as a result of his orders is ridiculous. One bullet from Willard’s gun finishes her off.
What just happened here? Hysteria, confusion, fear, suspicion. Chief had to choose: between his mission to take Willard upriver and his sense of duty to patrol the river and inspect boats. It’s as if clinging to his official duty offered him some sense of control and of his own importance while performing a mission whose end he does not know. Here he can only assert his power by commanding his subordinates while contradicting the priority of ferrying Willard, a suspicious task, which he was powerless to refuse. He creates a mess, shoots some people, and now he wants to save the woman wounded as a result …to feel like he’s done a good deed? …to make amends for the trouble he caused? …in an attempt to recover something of what he himself destroyed?
It makes me think of the Germans who for decades funneled money into russia and are now so willing to help suffering Ukrainians while refusing to send battle tanks.
I think US support for Ukraine as it defends itself from russian invasion is different from previous wars the US has waged on foreign soil. In 1994, the US signed the Budapest Memorandum—together with the UK and russia, which obliged the signatories to refrain from threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine. In fact the US pressed Ukraine to give up the nuclear arms it inherited after the fall of the USSR — to Russia! US support for Ukraine while the Ukrainian army defends its own land from brazen foreign attack is a matter of principle—the principle of keeping your word, of the right to self-government, of the inviolability of international borders.
Decisiveness is about not standing down from your words and commitments exactly at those moments when things get difficult, when you hit upon a conflict of interest, when you’re tired and confused, when emotions rise up. This is where you reveal who you really are. Commanding orders can change, new interests can emerge, but your principles bring you back to what you really stand on.
Ukraine is learning through great loss what it stands on. Remember, the US (like the rest of the world) was ready to watch Ukraine fall in 3 days. Principles come into being and are affirmed through action. Ukrainians have demonstrated the will and capacity for self-rule; this is no longer wishful thinking but a palpable fact. Ukraine’s spirited resistance is instructive. It proves that it is still possible today to act on principle, and that in your principles lies your power.
PS Don’t think that Ukrainians are simply waiting for Western military aid. They are also speedily improving their own technological fighting capabilities. The Angry Birds is a DIY drone-building team that I know personally and have been helping fundraise since last summer. They’ve created a few models of unmanned aircraft that put readily available materials and munitions to good use. Right now they’re raising $20,000 for the production of a new series of combat drones.
You can help via paypal: firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Angry Birds (and other ways to donate): https://heroesukraine.org/en/supporting-ukraine-s-counteroffensive-with-technological-innovation/
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Hooray for the Angry Birds! I hope they enjoy great success.
You put me there, right where you are, thanks for that. About hindering or endangering when you think you're helping: The Buddhists call it Idiot Compassion.