Discover more from The Floutist
"The casualties of empire."
Americans are high among them.
A necessary intervention.
A few words about a few words.
12 MARCH—The following commentary, which first appeared in Consortium News, concerns primarily what we Americans have done to ourselves as we have allowed propagandists in the administration, the national-security state, and the press to turn our discourse into a froth of hysteria about matters most of us know little to nothing of. I am not alone in remarking I have seen nothing like this collective derangement in my lifetime—in my case a lifetime spanning many dreadful years of the Cold War decades.
In the course of writing this piece I described what Russia calls its “special operation” in Ukraine. I termed it an intervention and judged it “regrettable but necessary.” These terms turned the heads of various readers. Here I will explain my choice of words.
“Not short of taking sides,” a reader named Nom wrote, “you keep referring to a Russian intervention. You stated it at least 3 or 4 times. Try telling that to the 2 million refugees headed our direction and the dead amongst them.”
TonyR offered: “I was right on with this article until the next to last paragraph when he writes, ‘Between Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, which I count regrettable but necessary, ...’ This is a pretty sugarcoated discounting description of a war where innocent people appear to be getting killed by indiscriminate Russian bombing.” A reader named Mike Strong seconded TonyR’s point. C Ronk courteously took the time to write directly via my website. “Regrettable but necessary?” he asked. “Speak to this more please. This is a conclusion I'd expect to be defended, especially in the current climate (which you just wrote about here).”
I shall speak and defend as you ask, C Ronk.
I wrote as I did with care. As I have asserted severally in recent columns, it is only when we name things properly that we can understand them and judge them for what they are.
The first of these matters, Nom’s, is easily addressed. “War” is a term with specific meanings and is not to be used indiscriminately. It connotes a totalized outcome: There are the victor and the vanquished. Among its implications is an intent to conquer. This does not appear to be the Russian Federation’s objective. Defeating Ukraine, subjecting Ukrainians, and asserting sovereignty over Ukrainian land do not seem at all the point. As Russia has not declared war in Ukraine, the term is not available to us, profligate as our press is in using it.
It is the objections to my description of the Russian intervention that concern me more. I continue to find it regrettable but necessary. Why? What lies behind these three words? Those readers who have raised the matter have prompted many thoughts, useful thoughts, and I am grateful to them for this.
Do I deplore and condemn all wars, in this case an intervention? Am I “antiwar” straight across the board? The answers here are not simple.
All wars are disastrous to the extent they cause human suffering, and I have not heard of one that hasn’t. The misery, hardship, anguish, and humiliation of Ukrainian people cannot be overstated and must be acknowledged without reservation. Along with many, many others, I hope the community of nations is working toward a global order that rests on our common humanity and mutual respect—an order wherein there will be, at last, no more need for armed conflicts. In this sense I join all others in embracing the antiwar position.
We have not yet achieved the world order I describe. We do not live in such a circumstance. This leaves us in a different place, a place we wish we had by now left behind. We have, in consequence, judgments to make that we sometimes would rather not make.
Are all wars bad, wrong? Are there just and unjust wars? The theory of just war extends back to the Romans. It holds that wars are justified under certain conditions but that they ought to be circumscribed as they are waged. Cicero discoursed on the question of just wars. Augustine and later Aquinas are among the Christian thinkers who elaborated the thought that there are just wars.
There are, of course, the followers of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Does the principle of nonviolence figure as we make up our minds about war? The resort to violence is always wrong? No circumstances justify it? Aquinas and Augustine lost their ways?
I am not a Gandhian, much as I admire the man and all he stood for. The events of my lifetime have forced me to draw this conclusion. It is my objecting readers who push me into this recognition. Nonviolence ranks among the highest of all human principles so far as I see it. But it applies only in certain contexts.
Most of the wars fought in our lifetimes, perfectly fair to say, have been American wars of aggression. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen by way of the Saudis. These are all wrong, of course. “Antiwar” came easily to our tongues during the Vietnam war. Was this the right term back in the 1960s and ’70s ?Is it the right term now?
Should the Vietnamese have proclaimed themselves Mahatma’s devotees as the Americans burst violently upon them? Were the Vietnamese wrong to intervene in Cambodia in late 1978 to rid its people of the Khmer Rouge? No and no, although some may differ in the latter case. The Vietnamese waged an anti-imperialist war against a neocolonial invader until they rid themselves of the Americans in April 1975. By the time they entered Cambodia on Christmas Day three years later, they were heartily sick of deadly Khmer Rouge incursions across their borders and determined to stop the Cambodian bloodbath we all know of now.
These two occasions were just wars. It is not hard to see this if we consider them from the Vietnamese point of view.
Many of us calling ourselves “antiwar” are not accustomed to the kind of judgments our time calls upon us to make. Now, as the world turns in new directions, we have to begin making more sophisticated judgments in matters of war and peace.
This leads me to my point as regards “regrettable but necessary.”
As I just attempted to demonstrate, understanding the Vietnam war and judging it a just war required us to name its antagonists carefully and accurately. The Vietnamese were an anti-imperialist people waging a just war against an imperial power.
Nomenclature, terminology: We have to take care about these things to develop a clear picture of events.
It is a matter of record that Americans have been intervening in Ukraine since at least the turn of our century. This intervention—again, we can’t call it a war—has been indisputably aggressive, with the ultimate intent to destabilize Russia via its southwestern border. But it has also been invisible to many Americans, possibly most, because it has been hidden from all of us but for those who make an effort to look closely.
When we do, things are again clear. The same nation that behaved as an imperial aggressor in Vietnam and every other conflict it has since started has been behaving as an imperial aggressor in Ukraine. It has simply done so by other means, many of them covert, others misleadingly named—”democracy promotion” and so on down the list of euphemisms. This is certainly the case, and more evidently so, since the coup the Obama administration managed in Kiev eight years ago.
In turn, we have to see the Russian position from two different perspectives. And to make sure our eyes are clear, we have to set aside everything we may not like about what goes on in Russia and the nature of its leadership. None of this is pertinent, and we ought not be deceived by those who insist the nature of Russian politics and society bears on the Ukraine question.
Most immediately, Moscow has interpreted escalating American and European support for the viciously anti–Russian regime in Kiev as a threat to its existence. I, along with others, take this as an accurate assessment. I am also in agreement with those who think the U.S. gave Russia no choice but to intervene in Ukraine. To my mind, this was Washington’s intent. It thwarted years of diplomatic efforts on Moscow’s part—and indicates no desire for diplomatic contacts now. If you want to blast into Moscow for its course in Ukraine, you ought to explain what alternatives were open to it.
To look at this another way, whatever the Soviet Union’s imperial ambitions or pretensions, the Russian Federation has not inherited them. At its very inception it contracted radically. Russia as we have it is demonstrably not an imperial power. Anyone who thinks otherwise has been reading The New York Times and The Guardian without the proper wariness.
In the Ukraine case, Russia is acting against an imperial power in defense of its own future. This is not to condone the conduct of Russian forces now active in Ukraine. I can neither condone nor condemn it because I know too little about it. Certainly it is irresponsible for anyone to take official Ukrainian accounts of Russian atrocities at face value—never mind that The Times reports these accounts as if there is no reason to question them.
Setting aside the considerable question of scale, is there a comparison to be made between the Russian intervention and Vietnam’s into Cambodia all those years ago? Given the deadly force the Kiev regime has leveled against the eastern provinces for the past eight years, where ethnic Russians are concentrated, there may be something instructive in this.
Turning the page, we have to consider the Ukraine crisis as a subset of much larger developments—from an arc-of-history perspective, this is to say. The joint statement Presidents Putin and Xi issued on 4 February, which I’ve considered at length in these pages, makes it clear that they see our time as the beginning of a new world order of the very kind I noted above.
As it turns out, such an order has been on Putin’s mind for many years. His thoughts on what he calls a new global paradigm, one that moves us all beyond the hegemonic post–Cold War order toward genuine multipolarity and parity among nations, dates at least to his noted speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. That was 15 years ago. He has spent the intervening years trying to open a dialogue with the West on the multipolarity question, to no avail.
In Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century, I forecast that Americans had 25 years from the attacks of September 11, 2001, to come to terms with what the new century has in store for us, most specifically the end of U.S. primacy. We Americans could manage this imaginatively, with grace, understanding, wisdom, and courage, or we would manage it violently. This was my argument.
Our leaders have chosen the latter course, to state the perfectly obvious. Ukraine and the utterly uncalled-for expansion of NATO eastward to Russia’s borders are a case in point. In this larger context, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, setting aside Russia’s immediate anxieties, is in the name of a new world order we must all continue to hope we are on the way to building.
Turns of great magnitude in the human story sometimes come peaceably but more often by way of chaos, conflict, and violence. We have to accept this as our fate in consequences of the choices America’s policy cliques have made, notably but not only since 2001. Discriminating between just and unjust wars, just and unjust interventions, is something we must learn to do.
Regrettable, a regrettable intervention in Ukraine? Of course, this is always so when troops, artillery, and planes threaten civilian populations. If anything my term is not strong enough. Necessary? I think so, because I see in that long-troubled nation the cynical intrusion of an empire that has made it plain it will not stop in pursuit of global domination until it is forced to stop.
I offer these comments in reply to those who took the time to write in response to the following column and to shed further light on my thoughts therein.
The news reports come in daily from Moscow, Kiev and the Western capitals: how many dead since Russia began its intervention in Ukraine on Feb. 24, how many injured, how many hungry or cold, how many displaced. We do not know the true count of casualties and the extent of the suffering and ought not pretend we do: This is the reality of war, each side having its version of unfolding events.
My inclination is to add the deaths in Ukraine these past two weeks to the 14,000 dead and the 1.5 million displaced since 2014, when the regime in Kiev began shelling its own citizens in the eastern provinces — this because the people of Donetsk and Lugansk rejected the U.S.–cultivated coup that deposed their elected president. This simple math gives us a better idea of how many Ukrainians are worthy of our mourning.
As we mourn, it is time to consider the wider consequences of this conflict, for Ukrainians are not alone among its victims. Who else has suffered? What else has been damaged? This war is of a kind humanity has never before known. What are its costs?
Among paying-attention people it is increasingly plain that Washington’s intent in provoking Moscow’s intervention is, and probably has been from the first, to instigate a long-running conflict that bogs down Russian forces and leaves Ukrainians to wage an insurgency that cannot possibly succeed.
Is there another way to explain the many billions of dollars’ worth of weapons and matériel the U.S. and its European allies now pour into Ukraine? If the Ukrainians cannot win — a universally acknowledged reality — what is the purpose here?
Whether this strategy goes as Washington wants, or if Russian forces get their work done and withdraw to avoid a classic quagmire, remains to be seen. But as Dave DeCamp noted in Antiwar.com last Friday, there is no sign whatsoever that the Biden administration plans any further diplomatic contacts with the Kremlin.
The implication here should be evident. The U.S. strategy effectively requires the destruction of Ukraine in the service of America’s imperial ambitions. If this thought seems extreme, brief reference to the fates of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria will provide all the compelling context one may need.
To an extent I find surprising given its calamitous consequences, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s plan in 1979 to arm the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets remains the more or less unaltered template.
President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser saw nothing wrong with getting into bed with what became Al–Qaeda. Now it is the Nazis militias that infest Ukraine’s National Guard that the U.S. arms and trains.
If the record is anything to go by, this conflict could well destroy what remains of Ukraine as a nation. In the worst outcome, little will remain of its social fabric, its public spaces, its roads, bridges, schools, municipal institutions. This destruction has already begun.
Here is what I do not want Americans to miss: We are destroying ourselves and what hope we may have to restore ourselves to decency as we watch the regime governing us destroy another nation in our name. This destruction, too, has already begun.
Many people of many different ages have remarked in recent days that they cannot recall in their lifetimes a more pervasive, suffocating barrage of propaganda than what has engulfed us since the months that preceded Russia’s intervention. In my case it has come to supersede the worst of what I remember from the Cold War decades.
In January 2021, NATO published the final draft of a lengthy study it called Cognitive Warfare. Its intent is to explore the potential for manipulating minds—those of others, our own—beyond anything heretofore even attempted. “The brain will be the battlefield of the 21st century,” the document asserts. “Humans are the contested domain. Cognitive warfare’s objective is to make everyone a weapon.”
In a subsection headed “The vulnerabilities of the human brain,” the report has this to say:
In particular, the brain:
is unable to distinct [sic] whether information is right or wrong:
is led to believe statements or messages it has already heard as true, even though these may be false;
accepts statements as true, if backed by evidence, with no regards to [sic] the authenticity of that evidence.
And this, which I find especially fiendish:
At the political and strategic level, it would be wrong to underestimate the impact of emotions…. Emotions—hope, fear, humiliation—shape the world and international relations with the echo-chamber effect of social media.
No, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Cognitive Warfare is a window onto diabolic methods of propaganda and perception management that have no precedent. This is war waged in a new way — against domestic populations as well as those declared as enemies.
And we have just had a taste of what it will be like as these techniques, well-grounded in cutting-edge science, are elaborated. Yet more disturbing to me than the cold prose of the report is the astonishing extent to which it proves out. Cognitive warfare, whether or not the NATO report is now the propagandists’ handbook, works, and it is working now on most Americans.
This is what I mean when I say we, too, are the victims of this war.
Last week the conductor of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, was sacked for refusing to condemn Vladimir Putin. The same thing then happened to Anna Netrebko. The Metropolitan Opera in New York fired its star soprano for the same reason: She preferred to say nothing about the Russian president.
There is no bottom to this. Last Friday Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Senator, openly called for Putin’s assassination. Michael McFaul, briefly Barack Obama’s ambassador to Russia and the king of nitwittery, asserts that all Russians who don’t openly protest Russia’s intervention in Ukraine are to be punished for it. In the idiotic file, the International Federation of Felines has barred imports of Russian cats.
Here is the entry on this list of preposterous assertions that got me out of my chair in a rage last Thursday: The International Paralympic Committee banned Russian and Belarusian athletes—why the Belarusians, for heaven’s sake?—from the winter Paralympics that commenced the following day in Beijing. We’re now down to persecuting people whose hearts and souls are abler than their limbs?
The committee made it plain it acted in response to international pressure. I wonder whose that might be.
Look at what has become of us. Most Americans seem to approve of these things, or at least are unstirred to object. We have lost all sense of decency, of ordinary morality, of proportion. Can anyone listen to the din of the past couple of weeks without wondering if we have made of ourselves a nation of grotesques?
It is common to observe that in war the enemy is always dehumanized. We are now face to face with another reality: Those who dehumanize others dehumanize themselves more profoundly.
“Rational argument can be conducted with some prospect of success only so long as the emotionality of a given situation does not exceed a certain critical degree. If the affective temperature rises above this level, the possibility of reason’s having any effect ceases and its place is taken by slogans and chimerical wish fantasies. That is to say, a sort of collective possession results which rapidly develops into a psychic epidemic.”
That is a snippet from a book by C.G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self, that a friend just sent. When our feelings get the better of us, we can no longer think or talk usefully to one another: This is the Swiss psychoanalyst’s point in simple terms.
The other day PBS Newshour ran an interview with one Artem Semenikhin, in which the small-town mayor was lionized for standing up to Russian soldiers. In the background, as the ever-alert Alan MacLeod points out, was a portrait of Stepan Bandera, the savage Russophobe, anti–Semite, and leader of Ukrainian Nazis.
What did PBS do about this careless oversight? It blurred the Bandera portrait and broadcast the interview with its Ukrainian hero. American journalism at its zenith.
It strikes me as the perfect metaphor for what has happened to our reasoning faculties — or, better put, what we have allowed to be done to them. Factual realities that lie beyond dispute, if inconvenient, are blurred out of the movie we think we’re watching.
It is the same with any genuine understanding of the Russian intervention. I have four words for what we need to read this crisis: history, chronology, context, and responsibility. Since none of these serves our cognitive warriors’ purpose, we are invited to blot them out. And once again: With dreadful fidelity to those actively manipulating our perceptions, we do so.
Context, the worst of us assert, is some idea those awful Russians came up with. We take no interest whatsoever in how the world may look from anyone else’s perspective. Who in hell, please tell me, thinks this is a good way to live?
I have rendered a pencil-sketch of a nation falling apart as it takes another one apart. A nation this far into one of Jung’s “collective possessions” cannot possibly do well. As is always the case (a thought that came to me as I studied the Japanese nationalists of the 1930s), the victimizers are victims, too.
If we are to find our way out of this funhouse, we will have to do one thing before any other: We will have to learn to speak in a clear, new language so that we can name things as they are instead of blurring them as PBS did that Bandera portrait.
And we must start with one word. Unless we can learn to call America an empire, we will stumble in the funhouse dark until it becomes so unfun we can no longer bear our own self-deceptions.
I see a virtue in this large, complicated moment. Between Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, which I count regrettable but necessary, and the joint statement Putin made with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Feb. 4, we are all called upon either to recognize the United States for what it has become, an empire violently defending itself against history itself, or accept our fate among the victims of this empire.
Clarity: It is always a fine thing, whatever the difficulties it brings.
Courtesy of Consortium News.
The Scrum is a reader-supported publication. Please consider becoming a paid subscriber.