07 April 2022

The fog of war, part two: face to face with the curse

Screenshot from source.  

Caption in red box: "The mayor of Bucha: Almost 90% of those killed in the city were shot." Kyiv Region. Caption, white letters in black box: "In Hostomel, over 400 people are listed as missing."
The source is currenttime.tv, a Web site and online video channel of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in cooperation with the Voice of America. Both organizations are funded by the U.S. government.

In The fog of war, part one, I asked what we knew with reasonable certainty about Russia's war on Ukraine. This question has taken on even more urgency with the war crimes and wanton cruelties that are being revealed as Ukrainian authorities re-establish control of towns evacuated by Russian troops. These revelations have provoked world-wide revulsion along with concrete political reactions, such as additional sanctions, on the part of Ukraine's allies. Today, by vote of the United Nations General Assembly, Russia's membership of the UN's Human Rights Council was suspended.

Spokespeople for the Russian Federation, including Dmitri Peskov as Vladimir Putin's press secretary, claimed that the photos and videos of these victims are fake. Some of their analyses are posted on the waronfakes.com Web site. (More about this site and its cousins.) In addition, some Western media have published accounts of Ukrainian abuse of Russian prisoners of war -- here's one horrifying example from earlier today.

What do we know with reasonable certainty? Violent deaths have occurred in the places in Ukraine that have been under Russian soldiers' occupation. The bodies display marks of individual, intimate cruelty that can be distinguished from the arguably accidental and random deaths (as terrible as they also are) that are happening in places damaged or destroyed by artillery and air strikes. Viewing the evidence, we come face to face with evil, whoever committed these crimes.

Almost as certainly true: these individual deaths are distinguishable from urban warfare conducted between soldiers fighting each other. Conventional battles between soldiers have also occurred, but any theory that Bucha-like evidence of deliberate killing of civilians has been staged by taking soldiers' corpses' uniforms off and dressing them in civilian clothes, and making the resulting scene convincing to investigators and journalists alike, is incredibly far-fetched. 


Other improbable theories: Ukrainian operatives took bodies from morgues or burial places and distributed them in Bucha, Borodyanka, and other sites for the sake of generating propaganda. Or perhaps the Ukrainians (the Ukrainian Nazis?) themselves killed their fellow citizens for the sake of staging these scandals, either during or immediately after the Russian soldiers' occupation of these towns. We are to believe that the logistical requirements of such elaborate fakes could be carried out without detection by outsiders and with the collusion of any local people who might have seen the deceptions being arranged. Those weeping relatives we have seen in photos and videos are in on the conspiracy, or they are just lying when they report witnessing the acts of Russian soldiers.

Furthermore, if such theories are to be believed, we must assume that the Ukrainians involved are incredibly wicked while Russian soldiers, in contrast, have behaved in all of these locations with discipline and restraint, despite an avalanche of evidence to the contrary. In any case, we are in the presence of extraordinary evil. We know that soldiers come in all degrees of ethical sensitivity and a great variety of responses to the chaos of war. Right now I'm remembering Scott Peck's case study of My Lai, Viet Nam, in People of the Lie and Alice Lynd's work on moral injury in combat. Can Russian spokespeople assert with a straight face that they already know that discipline never broke down with fatal consequences in these Ukrainian locations?

What can we say about the motivations behind all these reports? We are not surprised to hear that Ukrainians and their allies are working all-out to get these scandals widely reported. Obviously they hope it draws the world's sympathy and strengthens commitments to assist Ukraine's defenders. Ukraine's government claims to want a thorough and transparent investigation of these apparent war crimes, which is what we would expect them to say whether or not all of the crimes are 100% verified in due time. 

They have not waited, however, for such investigations to analyze and assess guilt for what they have already found, and they have not prevented independent journalists from publishing their own shocking interviews and photos. To me, this eagerness to get words and images out to the world is not an argument against the likelihood that something awful actually happened that would not have happened if Russian forces had not invaded. Nor does it require us to suspend our grief and shock. It simply requires us to be hesitant to draw all the conclusions now that would be more appropriate after those investigations are complete.

Are Russian journalists and investigators on the scene, helping uncover facts? If not, why not? This is not a rhetorical question -- it is possible that a Russian citizen with honest intentions and genuine Russian credentials would find it difficult to conduct journalism or investigations on the spot. What we do know is that he or she would not be allowed to publish any report in Russian media that would "discredit" the Russian army. Presumably this would include reports that the Russian army in fact discredited itself by its own actions.

Is there a "Christian" way to look at this situation? I believe there is, and I summarize it as "shocked, but not surprised."

First of all, sad to say, there is nothing new about wanton cruelty and systematic cruelty in wartime. Degrees may vary from country to country, from army to army, but have we ever witnessed a war between 100% angels on one side and 100% demon-possessed soldiers on the other?

Alexander Solzhenitsyn (from Thomas P. Whitney's translation of The Gulag Archipelago, pronouns in original):

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn't change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.

The Bible is blunt: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9; context.) "As it is written: 'There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.'" (Romans 3:10-12; see footnotes.) "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (Ephesians 6:12.)

The Bible does not leave us without hope! "For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ." (2 Corinthians 4:6, my italics.)

Sidebar: Early Quakers were utterly realistic about the universal human capacity for evil. However, they rebelled against any abstract doctrine of total depravity. Robert Barclay carefully describes the implications of "the fall" in his Apology, Proposition IV, Section II. All of us are direct descendants of Adam and Eve, thus we are like them in our natural propensity to disobey and our inability, in ourselves, to overcome this propensity. However, Adam and Eve sinned in committing their disobedient acts, not by simply existing, and the same is true of their descendants: We may be weak and subject to temptation, but we are not sinful until we actually sin. In Barclay’s words, “... This seed [of disobedience, sown by the Serpent] is not imputed to infants, until by transgression they actually join themselves therewith....”

Among the implications for Quakers and others today:

  • Refuse to close your eyes to the crimes of anyone, whether or not they are in your community or make a prior claim on your loyalty.
  • Refuse to generalize about a whole community or country based on the crimes of a minority, but be willing to examine systemic causes embedded within their/our situation.
  • Seek to direct anyone, guilty or innocent, to their own inner witness to the love of their Creator, Who has the power to free them from bondage to violence and temptation.

This blunt biblical description of the human condition is why I say "shocked but not surprised." I was shocked but not surprised by the Salvadoran death squads, by the violence in Sudan and Yemen, by the 52 millions killed by Hitler's war, by all the attempts we've made to objectify each other from Cain on.

The whole history of human violence is, as Vernard Eller has said, a direct line of escalation from Cain's murder to modern warfare. In any particular instance, we grieve according to what we learn about that instance, preserving our own humanity in our continuing capacity to be shocked yet again. But we already know what we humans are capable of, and how we are required to respond: according to 2 Corinthians 5:19, God has committed to us the ministry of reconciliation. There is no crime, no scandal so shocking that we are released from this commitment.

Dale Aukerman on curse and doom: (Darkening Valley)

When with decisiveness I set myself against a person or a group, I curse. Doom in many forms hangs over me, and that doom has such an ominous quality, not so much because of the particular shape it may take, but because others are the promoters of that doom. In varying degrees their cursing me, their "Away with him," registers in me. I counter by promoting their doom with my secret cursing even as they in turn counter again with theirs. It is from this fearful escalating reciprocal cursing that Jesus brings deliverance. Hydrogen bombs and their missile carriers can be seen as an extraordinary concretization of human cursing. ...

In blessing we ask that the mercy of God and the goodness of life rest upon others. In cursing we seek to exclude them from that, and thus slip into a fateful error: for only by God's mercy can the doom thus unleashed be held back from any of us. It is possible to forgive the person who makes life hard for me if I see that each of us desperately needs God's mercy and the other's compassion and that each of us, frail as we are, needs least of all any promoter of doom.

Another examination of Russian government disinformation. (Again, it's quite fair to ask about the motivation behind this analysis.)

A Twitter thread by Mariam Naiem on the far right and neo-Nazism in Ukraine.

Is Russia committing genocide in Ukraine? It's complicated. An interview with David Simon.

The World Without Genocide program.

Update: Timothy Snyder on Russia's "genocide handbook" for Ukraine.

As a historian of mass killing, I am hard pressed to think of many examples where states explicitly advertise the genocidal character of their own actions right at at the moment those actions become public knowledge.

Who (among others) inspired Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine?

How the Internet platform Telegram embraces contradiction. (Disclosure: it has become my primary way to aggregate channels carrying news of the war in Ukraine.)

Is the Gospel of John a forgery? (In which our friend Paul Anderson is referred to as a Johannine guru.)

Charlie Musselwhite's rendition of Albert E. Brumley's gospel song "Rank Strangers to Me" suits my mood. I used it several times in my Elektrostal classroom.

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