How to Think About War

For me, it is impossible to understand the distant situation between Russia and the Ukraine. The best I can manage is understanding my own mind as it reacts to news out of eastern Europe. I have certain tendencies that mirror what I have seen online from other people and organizations. I am not sure my inclinations are always worthwhile, but they can at least serve as a starting point for thinking more deeply about war in general and the war in Ukraine in particular. The first tendency that I have noticed is the tendency to pick a side.

In this case picking a side seems reasonable. Russia is executing an unprovoked attack on a much smaller country. My first instinct is to internally cheer every Ukrainian success and every Russian failure. As someone born during the cold war, this seems quite natural. Upon further reflection, however, I have to admit that I don’t really know the history of these two countries. I don’t know how the Ukraine has treated their people. I don’t know if the Donbas region has legitimate gripes or if they have been played by Russia.

I do know that that picking a side has consequences for my psychology. I start viewing Zelenskyy as a hero, fighting for the liberty of his country and people. I see Putin as an unhinged propagandist and perpetrator. Other nations sanctioning Russian and sending weapons to the Ukraine appears only right and just. But then I remember just how many despots started as populist heroes fighting for their county and I have to remind myself to be careful. War is a detestable thing. It cannot be won only survived. Does sending weapons to the Ukraine protect life or destroy it? It isn’t so easy. If the Ukraine can protect their borders, perhaps life will be preserved by helping them. If they cannot, then prolonging the conflict just creates more death and destruction.

The worst consequence, of picking a side, on my psychology is that I stop seeing individuals. This is particularly true of the Russian soldiers sent into the Ukraine. Upon hearing of long convoys headed to Kiev I immediately begin thinking of defense strategies to disable or remove the threat. Road blocks, mines, air-strikes, and ambushes spring to mind before I can catch myself and remember to put myself in that convoy. How would I react as a young man driving an armored personnel transport somewhere in that long line of military vehicles? Ahead is something I really don’t want to be a part of but the thought of betraying my fellows, betraying my country, plus fear of reprisal would probably keep me driving; shaking with fear and hoping that it would all just go away before I am ordered to fire on innocents.

Those soldiers are the ones who most need my support. They have the most to lose. Ukrainians may lose their homes, their families, and their lives, but those Russian soldiers are being asked to lose their souls. My heart aches for the Ukrainian people, for all the unnecessary loss and pain, but it also aches for those soldiers who are being given a nearly impossible choice. That choice can only be made by choosing a side that defies simply looking at the borders. If they are to choose a side on which to fight and an enemy to face it can’t be Russia vs Ukraine. It has to be life vs death, courage vs fear, truth vs lies, and love vs hate.

In order to steel myself against choices that seem impossible in my own future, I need to align myself according to those ideals rather than with a group, and I need to do it today rather than waiting till the gun is in my hands and the choice has been made for me. If I could make a proposal it would be to view war, not as the struggle for nations, but as the struggle for lives against the agents of death.

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