a Kind of Refugee / 23.08.2022
Every morning at 9 AM the Ukrainian Internet TV news stream holds a minute of silence. Marked out in solemn beats, it feels long. You can actually do a lot in that time. It is to remember all the Ukrainian soldiers and civilians who have died in the past 6 months of war. Nearly 15,000 by official figures. You understand the number is conservative.
It must be hard for someone who has always lived in the US—a country whose land has never been invaded by a foreign country and that maintains a professional army that engages in combat on other people’s lands—to imagine the situation all Ukrainians find themselves in.
For the past half year everyone in Ukraine has been under constant attack. To say that artists, teachers, engineers, nurses, IT workers, businesspeople, performers, etc. have all made defending their homeland a priority makes it sound like they could have easily made a different choice. I know that many people outside Ukraine think capitulation, ceding territory, or convincing everyone on all sides to peacefully agree to put down their arms is possible. They are blind to what is actually going on in Ukraine.
When the phrase “все буде україна (everything will be Ukraine)” first burst into the air in late February, I protested. Too grandiose and grabby. Aren’t we fighting against the desire to take over the entire world? But as Ukrainian flags have appeared in points around the globe and the Ukrainian national anthem is played at Finnish landmarks popular with Russian tourists, this affirmation is coming to mean something different.
Patriotism is a feeling that binds you to your homeland, no matter where you are in relation to it. This love for your land, culture, people moves you to action. “Ukraine” is coming to represent the courage and will to stand up and fight for what is yours. To give your life to prevent your place in the world from being usurped or destroyed.
Ukraine’s spirited fight to regain full control of all the land within its borders is an antidote to the Soviet Union, whose legacy festers within and without Ukraine to this day. Contemporary Ukraine arose from this boundless totalitarian project, where citizens were the property of the State and subject to a constant campaign of terror by the pervasive secret police (think of russia today). Ukraine’s current resistance is an act of limiting the undead USSR’s expansion in space and in time.
Like the citizens’ militias whose history travels from the ancient Greek city-states to the medieval Swiss Confederacy to the “well-regulated militia” that was the premise for Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms, Ukraine’s military defense is empowered by its closeness to the land (home), the people (citizen cooperation), and the virtue of defending what is yours.
Where have people today gotten the idea that coordinated military action and destruction of the enemy to protect yourself, your land and your people is bad? Even more dangerous is the idea that we can protect ourselves by not even letting our thinking go in that direction. What is the ideological heritage of wishing to delegate the protection of what is one’s own (land, interests, people) to somebody else or expecting the State or army or “peace” to take care of it for you? And whose interests does the avoidance of thinking about and participating in military action serve?
You can understand so much about the Ukrainian army by looking at how they’re dressed. Each person’s uniform is cobbled together from such a variety of sources (brand new gear bought by friends and family, Ukrainian-made and -issued uniforms, US army surplus, German T-shirts adorned with the German flag, etc) that no two are exactly alike.
Until recently, I had imagined that the army, where commands and discipline and routine limit your freedom to do as you like, would stifle the individual or at least make one’s uniqueness less distinct. Perhaps it is that way in longstanding well-organized armies that have developed systems for turning their members into effective elements in a machine. In Ukraine’s armed forces I discovered quite the opposite: when everyone is dressed more or less alike, individual differences—face, manner, posture, movements, voice, temperament—are even more visible.
At the ceremony where new members swore an oath to serve Ukraine last June, I watched dozens of fresh soldiers step out to face the ranks of their brothers- and sisters-in-arms and, reading from a sheet of paper, vow to serve their country. Some read as quickly as possible before practically running back to their place in the ranks; others declaimed expressively, like they were used to addressing an audience, intoning their conviction. In each reading, while accepting the same exact duty to devote one’s life to serving one’s country, the speed and grace or awkwardness with which each person moved and spoke revealed so much about them.
I too wanted to say “I serve the Ukrainian state” out loud, witnessed by ranks of Ukrainian volunteer soldiers. Later the commander of the battalion told me that as an American volunteer I am not allowed to take this oath. I felt disappointment, but also relief.
In the army, no matter what the command or assignment, YOU are the one who is doing it (or not doing it). This too is how citizenship should work. In the constant urgency of war, which demands constant response, you ultimately have only your own wits, intelligence, experience and spirit to rely on. You have power, limited resources, will and desire. What you do with those things will change the course of the entire situation.
From casual conversations with journalists and members of the armed forces I’ve learned that the Ukrainian army has been adopting principles used by NATO armies for coordinating action between individuals and between units in battle. For example, instead of giving commands, superiors express intentions. Units on the ground act according to general, coordinated goals, but have the autonomy to adjust their tactics to respond to the situation unfolding on the ground. This is radically different from the Soviet hierarchical military structure (which russia follows to this day), where commands are passed down a long chain. This makes our job easier, because you can disable an entire battalion by eliminating a high-level commander. Whatever the Ukrainian armed forces are doing and how must be working based on their ongoing successes in battle.
I look toward the Ukrainian army with hope that the experience of individual citizen-soldiers will lead to more general changes in Ukrainian society. Still, as we witness the heroic deeds performed by military service members, we cannot ignore how war damages and changes people. Our servicemen and women are sacrificing something of themselves NOW so that we may all have a country and a land to live in. Those of us without combat duties must keep working in parallel to make our society and political structure worthy of the citizenry who will win this war.
PS My friends around Ukraine are still doing their thing to support our citizens and defenders six months in. Here are some options if you’d like to help:
1) Heroes Ukraine is raising $16,000 for a DJI Matrice 300 RTK drone for aerial reconnaissance on the southern front. Paypal: email@example.com, Note: Matrice
2) Community Self-Help is raising $28,000 for the Borodyanka Medical Center in the town outside Kyiv that was ravaged by the russians in March. Paypal: firstname.lastname@example.org, Note: Borodyanka
3) My friends in Kyiv are raising 25,000 UAH (approx. $625) to buy tourniquets for the 58th brigade on the eastern front. Credit card: https://send.monobank.ua/jar/87tY4cscZR
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Thanks for this entry. Beautiful and true