Is the war making you anxious? Good.
The conflict in Ukraine may be shocking, but there are important lessons to be learnt from such moments in history
Tuesday 10 May 2022 By George Chesterton
The narrative of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already eaten itself. First it was ‘oh God, it’s WWIII!’. This was followed by declarations that this horrific conflict was really about our pet grievances: Brexit or wokeness or Trump or Biden or whatever. We might as well have blamed Will Smith. Then, people just started talking about how it made them feel, rather than the war itself. As we observe this nightmare, it may slip further back in our minds, like an ache we hope just goes away. The search for meaning amid the violence continues. Is there a ‘lesson’ we can take from the attempt by a mafia regime to crush a democracy?
The war has exposed our inability to contextualise such moments. Too many of us exist in an ahistorical bubble, which means that when something truly frightening happens, we can see it only as it affects our individual mental health. We cannot step back, even from something unfolding a thousand miles away. That’s the trouble with ‘living in the moment’ – it’s the intellectual equivalent of not looking both ways when you cross the street. Is the war in Ukraine making you anxious? Good. Anxiety is the alarm call to think.
When the invasion began, the story was about how Vladimir Putin had exploited the weakness of liberal democracy. Nato was toothless. Europe was divided. A few weeks later, it was about how Putin had underestimated the strength of liberal democracy. Nato was emboldened. Europe was united. This confusion is the result of misplaced moral and ideological certainty, because when you don’t acknowledge how complex the world is, it’s just too tempting to reach easy conclusions: capitalism is broken, democracy is failing, nuclear power is bad, defence spending is always wrong, to name just a few.
A well-known columnist declared that young people (meaning Britons of his generation) had ‘known nothing but austerity, pandemic and war’. Which war was that exactly? To argue that young people of the West have suffered by watching distant wars on screens when the young people of Ukraine are enduring an actual one is perverse. Analysis without history is as hollow as a Russian government statement.
History has no arc. At best, it’s an endless theme park ride with similarly ill effects on the stomach. Neither is it wise to think of ourselves as better than our forebears (if we think of them at all). We have, for the most part, better lives, but we are essentially the same, prone to the same fatal weaknesses. Society is the management of those weaknesses: democracy accepts them with conditions, tyranny employs them in the pursuit of power. This is what the invasion of Ukraine reminds us. Putin may be the current bogeyman, but there’s plenty more where he came from.
To say we take our freedom and prosperity for granted is the understatement of the century. But Putin’s war shows the principles of our politics are no mirage. There is no longer scope to deny the difference between an imperfect democracy and a violent tyranny – and those few who continue to split hairs with ‘whataboutery’ look ever more disreputable.
History, sadly, is usually the history of suffering. The joy of life is in the everyday or, occasionally, when the will to fight for good defeats the will to power, as we hope we’ll one day witness in Ukraine. Talking of good versus evil, one of the reasons boomers seem so preoccupied with WWII is because their parents spent years reminding them of what a transformative experience it was. This was often as boring for them as it was for their children and grandchildren. But it was also true. Few things make you think as a war does.
Putin’s invasion was decades in the making and fits into a pattern of geopolitical struggle that goes back at least two centuries. The freedoms we enjoy took even longer to forge. Yes, your personal struggle is real, but it is also one of billions through time. Now is the moment to think about the tributaries that flowed into those rivers. Step back from your own preoccupations and ponder – wonder, even – at the infinite complexities and connections of history. Ironically, at a time when we spend so much energy obsessing about who we are as individuals, the overview of what historians call the longue durée can help us better understand ourselves. It may seem counter intuitive, but there is consolation in context. There is some inner peace to be found in perspective.
Let’s keep trying to make our bit of the world better, whether that be over climate change, social injustice or economic inequality. But let’s not confuse our problems with having our houses, schools and hospitals destroyed by rockets and our freedoms threatened by tanks. It’s because we live in peace that we have the time to fight our own battles. Poor Ukraine shows how easy it is for a nation to be the victim of a regime drunk on paranoia, blood lust, and historical delusion. The war is, in a sickening way, normal. It’s understandable that we are shocked by war, but we have no excuse for being surprised.