A long time ago, everybody understood that war was an armed and violent enterprise undertaken by soldiers to achieve specific objectives. One was expected to hate the enemy and his goals, but even the most egregious jingoists were clear that the enemy had goals, and that their side did too. Now that Europe faces its most significant armed conflict since 1945, we are discouraged from understanding war in this way. The dominant message is that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a bluntly evil thing, which the evil Vladimir Putin is perpetrating for vague evil expansionist purposes, or because he is crazy, or both. To judge from press reports, war is no longer something that soldiers wage, in battles, at the front; instead, it is an undifferentiated atrocity wrought upon civilians at home. For every sloppy, low-resolution piece the media publish on the strategic situation in Donbas, there are ten about mourning parents of fallen soldiers, about refugees, about air strikes on schools, about subway bomb shelters, about alleged war crimes against civilians.
I’m not saying that war isn’t violent, or that civilian casualties don’t matter. I’m saying that you can’t understand what is happening in this war as a mere series of atrocities, and I’m also saying that press narratives of Russian war crimes are a monumental hypocrisy. They proceed from the American empire, which since World War II has demonstrated ruthless, near-total indifference to the civilian victims of their air campaigns. What’s happening in the Ukraine is nothing compared to the brutal shock and awe tactics that killed hundreds of thousands of ordinary people in Iraq.
Recasting every global conflict as a 1940s morality play of genocidal evildoer vs. all that is righteous and good, is very dangerous. It has created a groundswell of popular demand for escalation against a nuclear-armed power, which the political actors themselves don’t always seem prudent enough to resist. Some Anglosphere politicians have taken this hysteria as permission to indulge their dangerous fantasies of regime change in Russia, while the intelligence services encourage still further escalation, by leaking stories about their role in helping the Ukrainians kill Russian generals and sink the Moskva. I’m not a geopolitical analyst, so I can’t realistically evaluate the risk of escalation, but I know that people massively underestimate the likelihood of rare catastrophic outcomes, and that nuclear war heads the list of both rare and catastrophic. To the extent the empire underestimates the risk, it will keep pushing.
If 1945 moralising has encouraged some British and American leaders to reprise their role as conquerors in Europe, it is increasingly inspiring German politicians to cultivate corresponding period fantasies of defeat and deindustrialisation. As I type these words, our Minister of Economic Affairs is assuring us that we can get through the coming winter just fine without Russian gas; two days ago, our Foreign Minister pledged in Kiew that Germany will end its dependence on Russian energy forever. The worst case scenario is that they actually do this. The more likely scenario, is that Russian oil and gas are merely laundered through third countries, so that we can appear virtuous while continuing our imports at considerable mark-up. That might stave off catastrophe, but it will also make millions of Germans drastically poorer and it won’t hurt Russia.