Heritage Travel, Historic Preservation, Recommended Readings, The Times We Live In
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Ukraine and the myths of war

I am on a writing break and have been taking the time to share some of my favorites from the More to Come archives. However, this new post — which consists of a few words and some pictures — wouldn’t stay inside me.

I woke up early this morning with Ukraine on my mind. President Joe Biden addressed the nation last evening and updated us on the threat of Russia’s launching another invasion of Ukraine. (See updates below.)

He emphasized that we and our allies stand behind Ukraine and pledge to continue diplomatic efforts to prevent a war, and yet will deliver “massive costs on Russia should it choose further conflict.” He urged Russia “to de-escalate and return to the negotiating table.”

Political scientist and journalist David Rothkopf tweeted that Biden is speaking as the leader of the free world. “It has been a long time since a U.S. president filled that role. His remarks were concise and pointed…and underscored Western resolve. But the headline: He is convinced [that] Putin has decided… to invade.”

Heather Cox Richardson, Letter from an American, February 18, 2020

The 42 million people of Ukraine will bear a heavy cost for Putin’s efforts to shore up his support in Russia while continuing to destabilize the west. In the words of Chris Hedges, a war in Ukraine will be a “mythic” war, where those involved will seek to imbue events with meanings they do not have.

In 2006, I visited the country, saw several places that have stayed with me ever since, and talked to Ukrainians as people with real hopes and dreams. A friend and former colleague did her Peace Corps stint in the country, leading us to talk on occasion about this special place, struggling to become a democracy as it is situated in an especially dangerous and strategic area.

Americans may not know much about Ukraine and even less about why we should care if Putin invades, but it matters for a host of reasons. As in all wars, loss of life, injury, and displacement top the list of terrible impacts. Cultural patrimony and beauty are also among the elements at risk.

The port city of Odessa on the Black Sea in southern Ukraine is full of charm. It’s known for its beaches and 19th-century architecture, including the Odessa Opera and Ballet Theater.

A street scene in Odessa

Odessa’s monumental Potemkin Stairs, immortalized in the 1925 silent Soviet-era film The Battleship Potemkin, lead down to the waterfront with its Vorontsov Lighthouse.

Beautiful mosaics on an Odessa church

Sevastopol — along with the rest of Crimea — is internationally recognized as part of Ukraine. However, de facto it is administered by Russia, which illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. The city’s population has an ethnic Russian majority, with a substantial minority of Ukrainians.

Ruins of an ancient theatre in Sevastopol
Saint Vladimir Cathedral, a Neo-Byzantine Russian Orthodox cathedral, in Sevastopol

Yalta is another of the cities in the disputed territory of Crimea. If Americans know it at all, it is because of the famous Yalta Conference of 1945, where FDR, Churchill, and Stalin came together to discuss the postwar peace.

Sailing into Yalta
Site of the 1945 Yalta conference
Yalta Conference Museum

Of all the wonders of Ukraine I saw on that trip, it was when we left the grand coastal resort cities and visited a small, rural village that the people of the country became much more to me than just workers in the hospitality/tourism industry. The images and memory of this small village are what remain most vividly in my mind today.

Scenes from a Ukrainian village
Houses, garden plots, fields, and boats for navigating the waterways.
The view of a typical village compound

As Russia moved toward an invasion, I returned to read Chris Hedges’ important 2003 book War is a Force That Gives Us MeaningHedges “has seen war, and its effect upon those who wage it, at close range.” And in this book, he brings “fifteen years of experience reporting from the front lines to bear on the very nature of war itself, its causes and consequences, and the physical, emotional, and moral devastation it leaves in its wake.” Hedges writes that while humility, love, and compassion are the only chances for the human race, war is hard to shake.

That is not only true for authoritarian regimes like Putin’s, but also for large segments of our citizenry.

War is both a deadly addiction — a drug that offers an unmatchable intoxication, the thrill of being released from the moral strictures of everyday life — and a unifying force that provides a sense of meaning, purpose, and self-sacrifice that can wash away life’s trivial concerns. But the meaningfulness of combat depends upon the myth of war. In reality, no matter what grand cause it is supposed to support, war is simply the basest form of aggression: “organized murder.” Once war begins, the moral universe collapses and every manner of atrocity can be justified in the eyes of those who wage it, because the cause is just, the enemy is inhuman, and only war can restore balance to the world.

There is a hollowness in such thinking, yet that is what is behind Putin’s call for war in Ukraine, and — unfortunately — it is also what drives the response for many who both support and oppose him. That war will have real consequences on the people and places that deserve better.

More to come…


UPDATE: At 10:58 p.m. Eastern Time on February 23, 2022, Russia invaded a peaceful country, without provocation. As Heather Cox Richardson wrote on that day, the “invasion of democratic Ukraine by authoritarian Putin is important. It not only has broken a long period of peace in Europe, it has brought into the open that authoritarians are indeed trying to destroy democracy.” As of Saturday evening, February 26th, Ukrainians are still fighting and defending their country from this unprovoked and illegal assault, and Vladimir Putin is being increasingly isolated. Three days later, here is the historian’s further update.

Image: Ukranian villager gathering reeds in the waterways near his home to use on his thatched roof (by DJB).


  1. DJB says

    This post generated a response from my friends Ed and Ruth, who I met on that 2006 trip to Ukraine. I’ve copied most of Ed’s email here, so that I wouldn’t lose it.

    “Hi David,
    We LOVED your 2006 observations and photos. A beautiful way to remember that whole Sea Cloud gift.

    Odessa, Sevastopol, beautiful memories, which your photos and recollections bring back to life. Even better, that isolated and remote village. The courage it must have taken for those villagers to
    endure brutal Stalin’s collectivization c. 1930’s, with something like 3.9 million deaths before their time.

    You probably recall, there were two options for travelling to Yalta. While you were sailing into Yalta, Ruth & I were on a bus to reach Yalta by overland route [which included the Charge of the Light Brigade’s “Valley of Death.”]

    As your quotation put it, War as “organized murder.”

    Thank you, David, and best to you en famille,”

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