Think Pieces: Peaceniks Still Struggle With Ukraine War Support

NOTE: On a day off from the January 6 Committee hearings, it’s a suitable time to ponder the Ukraine war, and how it has scrambled long-held beliefs & positions for many people. Here are two perspectives: first, that of an internationally-noted public scholar, and the other from a writer who interviewed & wrote about many combat veterans who strongly opposed the U. S. War in Iraq, but now feel supportive of Ukraine’s resistance to Putin’s invasion.  Like the Ukraine war, these mostly inward struggles seem likely to  continue.

#1 – The Guardian: Ukraine
Pacifism is the wrong response to the war in Ukraine
Slavoj Žižek — Tue 21 Jun 2022

The least we owe Ukraine is full support, and to do this we need a stronger Nato

For me, John Lennon’s mega-hit Imagine was always a song popular for the wrong reasons. Imagine that “the world will live as one” is the best way to end in hell.

Those who cling to pacifism in the face of the Russian attack on Ukraine remain caught in their own version of “imagine”. Imagine a world in which tensions are no longer resolved through armed conflicts … Europe persisted in this world of “imagine”, ignoring the brutal reality outside its borders. Now it’s the time to awaken.

The dream of a quick Ukrainian victory, the repetition of the initial dream of a quick Russian victory, is over. In what looks more and more as a protracted stalemate, Russia is slowly progressing, and its ultimate goal is clearly stated. There is no longer any need to read between the lines when Putin compares himself with Peter the Great: “On the face of it, he was at war with Sweden taking something away from it … He was not taking away anything, he was returning … He was returning and reinforcing, that is what he was doing … Clearly, it fell to our lot to return and reinforce as well.”

More than focus on particular issues (is Russia really just “returning”, and to what?) we should read carefully Putin’s general justification of his claim: “In order to claim some kind of leadership – I am not even talking about global leadership, I mean leadership in any area – any country, any people, any ethnic group should ensure their sovereignty. Because there is no in-between, no intermediate state: either a country is sovereign, or it is a colony, no matter what the colonies are called.”

The implication of these lines, as one commentator put it, is clear: there are two categories of state: “The sovereign and the conquered. In Putin’s imperial view, Ukraine should fall into the latter category.”

And, as it is no less clear from Russian official statements in the last months, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Finland, the Baltic states … and ultimately Europe itself “fall into the latter category”.

Slavoj Žižek

We now know what the call to allow Putin to “save his face” means. It means accepting not a minor territorial compromise in Donbas but Putin’s imperial ambition. The reason this ambition should be unconditionally rejected is that in today’s global world in which we are all haunted by the same catastrophes we are all in-between, in an intermediate state, neither a sovereign country nor a conquered one: to insist on full sovereignty in the face of global warming is sheer madness since our very survival hinges on tight global cooperation.

But Russia doesn’t simply ignore global warming – why was it so mad at the Scandinavian countries when they expressed their intention to join Nato? With global warming, what is at stake is the control of the Arctic passage. (That’s why Trump wanted to buy Greenland from Denmark.) Due to the explosive development of China, Japan and South Korea, the main transport route will run north of Russia and Scandinavia. Russia’s strategic plan is to profit from global warming: control the world’s main transport route, plus develop Siberia and control Ukraine. In this way, Russia will dominate so much food production that it will be able to blackmail the whole world. This is the ultimate economic reality beneath Putin’s imperial dream.

Those who advocate less support for Ukraine and more pressure on it to negotiate, inclusive of accepting painful territorial renunciations, like to repeat that Ukraine simply cannot win the war against Russia. True, but I see exactly in this the greatness of Ukrainian resistance: they risked the impossible, defying pragmatic calculations, and the least we owe them is full support, and to do this, we need a stronger Nato – but not as a prolongation of the US politics.

The US strategy to counteract through Europe is far from self-evident: not just Ukraine, Europe itself is becoming the place of the proxy war between US and Russia, which may well end up by a compromise between the two at Europe’s expense. There are only two ways for Europe to step out of this place: to play the game of neutrality – a short-cut to catastrophe – or to become an autonomous agent. (Just think how the situation may change if Trump wins the next US elections.)

While some leftists claim that the ongoing war is in the interest of the Nato industrial-military complex, which uses the need for new arms to avoid crisis and gain new profits, their true message to Ukraine is: OK, you are victims of a brutal aggression, but do not rely on our arms because in this way you play in the hands of the industrial-military complex …

The disorientation caused by the Ukrainian war is producing strange bedfellows like Henry Kissinger and Noam Chomsky who “come from opposing ends of the political spectrum – Kissinger serving as secretary of state under Republican presidents and Chomsky one of the leading leftwing intellectuals in the United States – and have frequently clashed. But when it comes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both recently advocated for Ukraine to consider a settlement that could see it dropping claim to some land to achieve a quicker peace deal.”

In short, the two stand for the same version of “pacifism” which only works if we neglect the key fact that the war is not about Ukraine but a moment of the brutal attempt to change our entire geopolitical situation. The true target of the war is the dismantlement of the European unity advocated not only by the US conservatives and Russia but also by the European extreme right and left – at this point, in France, Melenchon meets Le Pen.

The craziest notion floating around these days is that, to counter the new polarity between the US and China (which stand for the excesses of western liberalism and oriental authoritarianism), Europe and Russia should rejoin forces and form a third “Eurasian” block based on the Christian legacy purified of its liberal excess. The very idea of an “Eurasian” third way is a form of today’s fascism.

So what will happen “when voters in Europe and America, faced with soaring energy costs and broader inflation driven by sanctions against Russia, might lose their appetite for a war that seems to have no end, with needs that are only expanding as both sides head for a protracted stalemate”? The answer is clear: at that point, the European legacy will be lost, and Europe will be de facto divided between an American and a Russian sphere of influence. In short, Europe itself will become the place of a war that seems to have no end …

What is absolutely unacceptable for a true leftist today is not only to support Russia but also to make a more “modest” neutral claim that the left is divided between pacifists and supporters of Ukraine, and that one should treat this division as a minor fact which shouldn’t affect the left’s global struggle against global capitalism.

When a country is occupied, it is the ruling class which is usually bribed to collaborate with the occupiers to maintain its privileged position, so that the struggle against the occupiers becomes a priority. The same can go for the struggle against racism; in a state of racial tension and exploitation, the only way to effectively struggle for the working class is to focus on fighting racism (this is why any appeal to the white working class, as in today’s alt-right populism, betrays class struggle).

Today, one cannot be a leftist if one does not unequivocally stand behind Ukraine. To be a leftist who “shows understanding” for Russia is like to be one of those leftists who, before Germany attacked the Soviet Union, took seriously German “anti-imperialist” rhetoric directed at the UK and advocated neutrality in the war of Germany against France and the UK.

If the left will fail here, the game is over for it. But does this mean that the Left should simply take the side of the west, inclusive of the rightist fundamentalists who also support Ukraine?

In a speech in Dallas on 18 May 2022, while criticizing Russia’s political system, the ex-president Bush said: “The result is an absence of checks and balances in Russia, and the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq.” He quickly corrected himself: “I mean, of Ukraine,” then said “Iraq, anyway” to laughter from the crowd, and added “75”, referring to his age.

As many commentators noted, two things cannot but strike the eye in this rather obvious Freudian slip: the fact that the public received Bush’s implicit confession that the US attack on Iraq (ordered by him) was “a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion” with laughter, instead of treating it as an admission of a crime comparable to the Russian invasion of Ukraine; plus Bush’s enigmatic continuation of his self-correction “Iraq, anyway” – what did he mean by it? That the difference between Ukraine and Iraq doesn’t really matter? The final reference to his advanced age doesn’t affect in any way this enigma.

But the enigma is dispelled the moment we take Bush’s statement seriously and literally: yes, with all differences taken into account (Zelenskiy is not a dictator like Saddam), Bush did the same thing as Putin is now doing to Ukraine, so they should be both judged by the same standard.

On the day I am writing this, we learned from the media that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition to the US has been approved by the UK home secretary, Priti Patel. His crime? Nothing other than to render public the crimes confessed by Bush’s slip of tongue: the documents revealed by WikiLeaks revealed how, under Bush’s presidency, “the US military had killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents during the war in Afghanistan, while leaked Iraq war files showed 66,000 civilians had been killed, and prisoners tortured.” Crimes fully comparable with what Putin is doing in Ukraine. From today’s hindsight, we can say that WikiLeaks disclosed dozens of American Buchas and Mariupols.

So while putting Bush on trial is no less illusory than bringing Putin to the Hague tribunal, the minimum to be done by those who oppose Russian invasion of Ukraine is to demand Assange’s immediate release. Ukraine claims it fights for Europe, and Russia claims it fights for the rest of the world against western unipolar hegemony. Both claims should be rejected, and here the difference between right and left enters the stage.

From the rightist standpoint, Ukraine fights for European values against the non-European authoritarians; from the leftist standpoint, Ukraine fights for global freedom, inclusive of the freedom of Russians themselves. That’s why the heart of every true Russian patriot beats for Ukraine.

Slavoj Žižek is a philosopher. He is a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University, and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London

#2 – From “Ukraine: an Antiwar Dilemma”
Nan Levinson, Tom Dispatch

So What’s Our Problem?

. . . Thanks to Ukraine’s proximity to established news bureaus, its communication infrastructure, and the flow of refugees to neighboring countries, the coverage there has been more like the U.S. war in Vietnam of the previous century than like the coverage of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That connection wasn’t lost on Pat Scanlon who worked in military intelligence in Vietnam. As he followed reports of Russia’s indiscriminate bombing and missiling of civilian targets in Ukraine, his post-traumatic stress disorder flared up badly. “I’ve seen what bombs do,” he told me. A member of Veterans for Peace (VFP), Scanlon is a long-standing antiwar and environmental activist. “This feels very different,” he said and, in response, he joined a local demonstration supporting Ukraine, even getting funding from his VFP chapter to contribute to humanitarian organizations there.

I, too, find myself appalled and saddened by the situation and frightened by the looming dangers. I, too, want to meet the needs of those more than six million refugees. And I, too, am susceptible to the way both Washington and the media are playing on my sympathies: the child with contact information written on her back in case she gets lost as her family flees Kyiv; President Zelensky in that hoodie resolutely staying put; and besieged Ukrainian soldiers flipping off Russian demands to surrender.

. . . The extensive and vivid reporting on the nightmarish nature of the war in Ukraine has certainly helped bolster NATO’s sense of purpose and common cause, even as it’s drawn our fractured country closer together on at least one issue.

So why am I complaining?

I just wish our compassion had been more capacious and had kicked in for the Afghans and Iraqis when our military invaded their countries, bombed their cities, and terrorized their people. . . . I wanted American feelings of empathy for the terrorized to translate into the gift of peace, and now, I want some of our resources to be made available to rebuild the places and lives we destroyed in those countries over so many years.

Instead, just as in the previous two decades, America’s involvement in war, this time with Russia, is above all a bonanza for war profiteers and our military-industrial-congressional complex.

Spoils of war

A shrewd and inspiring communicator, Zelensky has made it clear that any American commitment to Ukraine must include military equipment and lots of it. The U.S. has obliged: it pledged close to $5 billion in such assistance in the first 10 weeks of the war and President Biden asked Congress for another $20.4 billion for weapons and security measures on April 28th. (The House then upped that to a $40 billion package of humanitarian and military aid and the Senate is soon likely to follow suit.) That same day, Congress voted to resurrect the World War II-era Lend-Lease program, the Senate unanimously, the House 417 to 10. On signing the original Lend-Lease legislation, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “And so our country is going to be what our people have proclaimed it must be — the arsenal of democracy.” Indeed.

Between the Ukraine war and the demand it’s created to replenish the weapons supply at home — $8.7 billion of the new package — it looks like a good year for those defense contractors and their many benefactors in Congress. The investigative news outlet Sludge counted a dozen members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, who, in 2019, reported holding at least $50,000 worth of investments in top arms manufacturers (and I doubt it’s gotten better since).

One of the problems with lavishing weapons on Ukraine is that the arms and ammunition meant for that battlefield won’t necessarily stay on it or in the hands they’re meant for. The Global Organized Crime Index reports, “While [Ukraine] has long been a key link in the global arms trade, its role has only intensified since the beginning of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.”

So it’s hardly mystifying that, for example, Ukrainian forces have cluster bombs, banned internationally but used by the Russian army, and probably wielded them while trying to retake the village of Husarivka.

Ukraine may even have used Western-supplied weapons to attack fuel and research sites inside Russia itself. (Ukrainian officials are cagey on the subject.) As we know from leaks in Washington, their forces also used U.S. intelligence to target and kill a striking number of Russian generals and sink the most formidable ship in that country’s Black Sea fleet.

Those attacks may indicate a strategic shift from a defensive war to one aimed at debilitating Russia’s military. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said as much when he visited Ukraine in late April, declaring, “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree it cannot do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”

Mission creep? Slippery slope? Those, of course, aren’t the preferred terms here, although they’re beginning to sound like accurate descriptions of what’s happening.

What Can Be Done?

Okay, so arming the world up the wazoo, as the United States, long the world’s greatest weapons merchant, has been doing for years, isn’t the best response. Then what should this country be doing as Russia destroys Ukraine’s buildings, infrastructure, and environment, while endlessly brutalizing people there?

Of the many tropes being applied to the situation — David versus Goliath, standing up to bullies, Europe on the precipice, freedom versus tyranny — the dominant one is good against evil. What a relief to finally have a war situation be so clear-cut.

Except, of course, it isn’t.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan on the flimsiest of pretexts — and, in the case of Iraq, outright lies (about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction) — it was clear, at least to me, that the right response was Don’t Do It! and, once it was done, Get the Hell Out Now!
My country was the one acting criminally and I believed it to be not just my right but my obligation to protest vociferously and make those in power take heed. They didn’t, of course, but in my heart of hearts, I still believed that they should have.

In contrast, protest over Ukraine feels empty, performative. I can doff my cap to Marina Ovsyannikova, the valiant Russian TV editor who burst onto a news set with her antiwar sign. I can mourn the seven journalists who have died doing what the world needs them to do. I can send money for humanitarian aid and love to the librarians who are backing up Ukraine’s digital archives. I can support the 35 or so young men from both Russia and Ukraine who, according to Jeff Paterson, the founder of Courage to Resist, have called a resisters’ hotline in Germany to get accurate information about how to refuse to fight in this war. I can even recognize the impulse that moves veterans of America’s recent morally murky wars to volunteer to fight in Ukraine because it feels like a kind of redemption.

I could do that and more, but still, 300 civilians were slaughtered while sheltering in a theater in the city of Mariupol, although the Russian word for “children” was painted in giant letters on the ground nearby in the hope that the bombers would spare them. Still, 50 or more civilians were blown up in Kramatorsk while awaiting a train to take them to safety. Still, investigators found evidence of torture and rape, along with mass graves, in Bucha.

I don’t believe any war is a good war, but I recognize the need for self-preservation.

Such war crimes and brutality have put many antiwar activists, including those with military ties, in the disquieting position of struggling with their stance on this war. Veterans For Peace and Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), for instance, issued statements early on condemning the invasion and calling for a commitment of both sides to sincere negotiations. They also expressed concern over the weaponry pouring into Ukraine and the environmental consequences of such a war at this moment. VFP rejected punitive sanctions as not targeting those responsible for the war and used its military expertise to argue against establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. MFSO also demanded that the thousands of additional American troops the Biden administration had dispatched to Europe be withdrawn.

But in the face of war’s atrocities, the tyranny of the immediate can be overwhelming and, for groups that have long opposed America’s wars (and sometimes war in general), confusing indeed.
Intra-group discussions in such organizations have reflected this and led to a marked lack of unanimity on how to respond. Positions have ranged from blaming the U.S. and NATO for provoking Russia’s invasion, to charging Washington with not negotiating in good faith, to worrying about provoking Russian President Putin further — the Biden administration seems to be worrying about this, too — to calling out defense industries and their supporters for making hay while the sun shines, to hailing the Ukrainians for their resistance and affirming that people indeed do have the right to defend themselves.

Jovanni Reyes, who served as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army from 1993 until he resigned in 2005 because of his strong opposition to the Iraq War, acknowledges such internal conflicts in peace groups right now, including About Face, where he’s a member. He believes that sending arms to Ukraine will only fuel the conflict further and that our government doesn’t want to end the war but to fight the Russians. “There is no military solution,” he says, “so you have to come to the table and stop flooding [Ukraine] with arms.”

In contrast, Celeste Zappala, an early member of Military Families Speak Out and the mother of a National Guardsman killed in Iraq in 2004 (who once described herself to me as “everybody’s bleeding-heart liberal”), disagrees.

She doesn’t think the U.S. should back off. As she put it, “I feel like if we don’t somehow face this down, what happens?” And if she had a son in the military now? “I’d be super worried, but I would reluctantly support [his deploying to Europe] because I don’t see any other way.”

Any Other Way?

Since NATO was launched in 1949 as a defense alliance of 12 Western countries aligned against the Soviet Union — it has 30 members now — much has transpired, including actions that were provocative or poorly timed. Nothing NATO has done, however, justifies Vladimir Putin’s invasion and destruction of Ukraine.

Of course, the odds on his listening to American peace activists are nonexistent. He has, after all, ignored more than 1.5 million of his own citizens, the 4,000-plus Russian scientists and science journalists, the 20,000 artists and other culture workers, and the 44 top chess players in his own country who have signed petitions and letters stating their opposition to his war. He seems no less capable of ignoring the deaths of anywhere from 7,000 to 24,200 Russian troops, not to mention probably tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians.

What Putin wants and what he’s still planning to do are the subject of much speculation, especially if he’s given no face-saving way out. I hope that there’s more diplomacy going on behind the scenes than is now being reported and that realistic compromises on all sides, even hard-to-swallow ones, which will satisfy nobody, are being considered. But maybe Putin is just plain crazy, in which case, we’re all screwed.

The significance of Ukraine’s struggle certainly doesn’t lie in educating Americans, but perhaps it is finally making us reckon with the costs of war, as we’ve needed to do for so long. As the blood and dread and filth of war are made vivid to Americans through relentless reporting and imagery, is it possible that we will become at least somewhat more mindful of going to war? Might it even lead us — and yes, I know it’s unlikely — to reexamine this country’s militarism in this century and its role in other wars in places we’ve done our best never to see from the inside?

Copyright 2022 Nan Levinson

Nan Levinson’s reporting, commentary, and fiction have appeared in print and online platforms including the New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Women’s Review of Books, In These Times,[1] Boston Phoenix, SuperLawyer, American Way, tomdispatch,[2] and Huffington Post,[3]where she is a featured blogger on military culture and peace work. She was on the masthead of the London-based magazine Index on Censorship from 1988 to 1995,[4]and speaks in forums on free expression and political activism around the U.S.

War Is Not a Game: The New Antiwar Soldiers and the Movement They Built, her 2014 book, follows Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), Veterans For Peace (VFP), Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) and other military-related war resisters who banded together to stop the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Levinson is a lecturer in English at Tufts University, where she has taught journalism and fiction writing since 1988.

One thought on “Think Pieces: Peaceniks Still Struggle With Ukraine War Support”

  1. Žižek quotes Putin in what could as well have been Trump’s notion that either one is sovereign, meaning that one gets to make all the rules for one’s behavior, or one is a colony.

    The contrasting view is one of a pluralistic democracy, where certain values apply to all, and otherwise there is choice at all the various levels (e.g., state, city, homeowners association, etc.).

    Pluralistic democracy is messy. Boundaries get negotiated (via elections and the judicial system).

    “I will make it work” has been the Putin’s theme. Why that works for Putin is described well in this piece: tldr; Gorbachev didn’t have good central bankers and economic planners and Putin does. Or, as Pres. Clinton put it, “it’s the economy, stupid.”

    In 10 years, as the petro economy shrinks, Russia’s economy will begin to tank. That’s why Putin needs to either expand or give up some power (those pesky shared values, again).

    We’re all in for an extended ride on this particular roller coaster.

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