At the end of the first fortnight of the Russian invasion of Ukraine its character, its consequences and its characterization in public discourse are becoming clear. The war is set to become a bitter and prolonged military battle which will cause great casualties both to soldiers and the civilian population and lead to a huge efflux of refugees. It will also lead to the destruction of cities and cause massive economic harm. Both the United States, Europe and their allies will continue to push against the Russian invasion by broad sanctions directed particularly against its elite.
The public commentary on the war has been informed by full reporting of the effects of war on the ground and of the response of national leaders to it. Commentators accentuate the contrasts in power, ethical claim and humanity between the Ukrainian defenders and the Russian invaders and between their respective leaders. They emphasise the atrocities and loss of life suffered by the Ukrainian civilian population, and the heroic defence of freedom by their leaders and people in the face of overwhelming odds. Most also advocate the strengthening of economic sanctions imposed on Russia and of the coalition opposed to the invasion. The war is increasingly seen as an international conflict in which nations and individuals are required to take and name sides. It is seen as the struggle of good against evil.
In the face of the horrors of invasion, it is natural to be fascinated by the destructiveness of war and to immerse ourselves in military and political strategies. It is also natural to feel helpless and angry at the destruction of human lives, of cities and freedoms, and from a distance to barrack for one side and against the other. We attribute blame and praise, weigh causes and justifications and divide the world into friends and enemies.
This response is unhelpful. It is right to attribute responsibility to Vladimir Putin for invading Ukraine and for the death of civilians and the destruction of cities flowing from his military strategy. What destroys both friends and enemies, however, is war. In our helplessness and distance, we should rather focus first on the sorrow of war, and attend compassionately to all the people now and later whose lives will be devastated by it. The appropriate music is not a military march but the Last Post.
The sorrow of war and its destruction of human beings and humane values in society have fed reflection from ancient times. Homer’s Iliad is a catalogue both of rage, courage, grief and the loss of human decency. It reaches its climax when Achilles kills Hector and for a week drags his unburied corpse behind his chariot while Hector’s grief-stricken father looks on. The story embodies sorrow at the loss of life and of humanity when rage leads to war and war spawns rage. The Biblical stories of David, too, describe killing, grief and the struggle to act humanely in the culture of war. The poems of Wilfrid Owen later expose the emptiness of rhetoric that dignifies the reality of mechanized killing in warfare in which soldiers lose agency.
More recently in a moving novel The Sorrow of War, told from the other side of a war in which Australians took part, the North Vietnamese writer Bao Ninh describes a soldier’s experience of the privation of guerilla warfare, of the death of people whom he loves, and finally of his revenge killing of the man who raped the woman he loved. War has cost him everything that mattered to him, including his self-respect. The theme of the novel is echoed in the underlying sorrow revealed by witnesses in the libel case brought by Ben Roberts-Smith. Although their evidence about events is in dispute, it made clear the enduring effects of war on the mental health and spirit of soldiers living at constant risk of their lives in a nation not their own in which they cannot tell friend from enemy.
To open our imagination to the sorrow of war is the most decent response to the war in Ukraine by those who are distant from it. It evokes compassion for the soldiers on both sides who have lost their lives and limbs in battle, and with them the families who had hopes in them and grieve for them. It embraces the sorrow of Ukrainian people who have remained in the nation and have lost their lives and health and their homes and livelihood to rockets, shells and other weapons, of children exposed too early to horror and to anxiety about life, food and shelter, of farmers unable to tend their crops, of the millions of people made refugees and facing separation from their nation, their language, from their agency and from all that makes a nation a home. It opens out to the sorrow of poor Russian families whose livelihood, savings and employment are affected by sanctions and who rage against their fate, of families in a now divided world whose employment and living depend on supply chains broken by the war, and of precarious people in the Third World who cannot afford the grain and fuel on which their lives depend.
The sorrow of war also encompasses the effects of rage on the human heart: the inability to recognise the humanity of people gathered under a different flag, to negotiate when the alternative is unending violence, to let go of slogans, and to care for the world our children will inherit. The sorrow of war is also that of a divided world that will not act together to address the ever-increasing threat posed by climate change. In the face of the sorrow of war we can only say, Cry, the beloved Earth.
Despite appearances, attending to the sorrow of war does not avoid commitment or moral seriousness but deepens them. Its natural effect is to make an enemy of war, to denounce the crimes committed in its name, to resist attempts to divide and exclude people on the grounds of their national origin, to feel the burden of national leaders in the prudential decisions they must make, to support initiatives at all levels to negotiate, and to focus on the healing of an endangered world. It is a commitment to build bridges instead of blowing them up.
Fr Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.
This article was originally published on Eureka Street, a publication of the Australian Jesuits. Reproduced with permission.