Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was right.
War is hell.
It’s hard not to go numb watching and listening to the 24/7 media coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
We naturally get war-weary and just reflexively change the channel; I remember doing that more than a few times during the Vietnam War when I was a teenager. And yet Ukraine reminds us that war is the unchanging, inexorable, inescapable condition of humankind. Wherever it occurs, it marks a failure of civilization.
I wrote down all the wars I could think of that have happened in my lifetime. The Korean War just missed my list because a formal cease-fire halted it two years before I was born. (That war never officially ended; thousands of U.S. troops guard the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.)
The list I drew up includes the Vietnam War (1965-1973), the Six-Day War in Israel (1967), the Bosnian War (1992-1995), the Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm, liberating Kuwait in 1990-1991), the U.S. wars in Afghanistan (2001-2021) and Iraq (2003-2011), and bloody civil wars in Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Bosnia and Yemen. I could go on. The casualty count of dead and wounded and the flood of refugees from these wars is incalculable.
If we can ever end the inhumanity of war – and you have logic and history in your corner if you believe that simply will never happen – we must first shake off the numbness, wake up and confront the realities of perpetual conflict.
My thoughts on Ukraine come in three layers.
First, I think about the heroic Ukrainian people. Now that seemingly every citizen of Planet Earth owns a Smartphone and can beam on-the-spot video around the world, we see unarmed Ukrainians, hands in the air, blocking the path of Russian armored units.
We see men, from high school students to retirees, forming long lines at military recruiting stations.
We see women huddled in bomb shelters, telling the “bastard” Vladimir Putin to go away. We hear outgunned Ukrainian sailors, asked to surrender to a Russian warship, tell their enemy to go “f” themselves (no translation necessary).
Awe-inspiring, raw courage.
It leads to my second layer of thinking: Put yourselves in their place. Suppose Illinois and Missouri were countries in conflict and hordes of heavily armed soldiers from the Land of Lincoln came rolling down Jeffco Boulevard in Arnold or Main Street in De Soto or Truman Boulevard in Festus-Crystal City.
Would you hurry out to stand, unarmed, in their way? Would you sign up to be handed a gun and fight?
We are so fortunate here in Fortress America. No foreign invader has dared test us on our own soil since the British in the War of 1812. Fifty years after that, we fought ourselves at the cost of 600,000 dead in the Civil War, proving that under certain conditions geography can’t protect us.
That’s especially true today with cyberattacks (a Russian favorite) and long-range ballistic missiles. Even a tinhorn dictator like Kim Jong-un of North Korea can hurl death from long distance. The North Koreans maintain an aggressive and accelerating missile-testing program, and are estimated to possess up to 40 nuclear weapons with capacity to build more.
Which brings me to my third layer.
Putin has ordered a “full alert” status for Russia’s nuclear arsenal, the largest in the world with 6,000 warheads. That announcement sent shivers down the spines of officials across the globe.
Russia has said it reserves the right to use “tactical” nuclear weapons (smaller scale but still enormously deadly) to prevent any enemy from responding in kind, in the so-called “escalate to de-escalate” strategy.
Any use of nuclear weapons could thrust us to the brink of World War III, an unthinkable prospect. In the fog of war, conflict accelerates when combatants assume the worst and react accordingly.
The experts who warn of a potential nuclear holocaust are not Chicken Little yelling that the sky is falling. Such an ultimate war is still unlikely, but not at all impossible.
The first use of atomic bombs in war should remain the last. I might not be here today if Harry Truman had not made the gut-wrenching decision to turn Hiroshima and Nagasaki into mushroom clouds and hasten the end of World War II. The alternative was a full-scale invasion of Japan that would have dwarfed D-Day in Europe 14 months earlier.
My dad served in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific and would have been part of that invasion force. As it was, he saw Hiroshima from the air and on the ground, after the Japanese surrender, in his duties in aerial reconnaissance. But like so many World War II veterans, he came home and never talked about it.
Because war is hell.
As I write this, the Ukrainian military is losing ground in several major cities as Putin ratchets up the death and destruction inflicted on civilians. He may “win” by brute force, but the coming insurgency and the unfolding economic devastation his country will suffer – the Russian people are victims, too – will make him the loser in the long run.
Ukraine’s national slogan, dating back more than a century, is “Slava Ukraini!” (Glory to Ukraine).
May the war end soon and a free Ukraine stand.