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The pity of war

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In the photo I have just seen Vadim Shishimarin is in the dock, hanging his head. He is 21, but looks about 15 as he stands there in the polycarbonate box, the first Russian soldier to be charged and tried in Ukraine for a war crime. He holds the rank of sergeant and was a tank commander. At 21? (I’m embarrassed to recall how immature I was at 21.) It is likely he has a mother: I wonder how she is feeling right now, but think I can make a good guess.

My middle son enlisted in the Greek Army when he was 19. I was, naturally enough, opposed to the idea, and well remember trying to talk him out of his decision. My final argument went like this:

‘What are you going to do when you find yourself having to obey orders that are against your conscience?’

“I’ll worry about that when the time comes.’

‘But it’ll be too late then.’

Predictably, I failed to dissuade him, and he went on to have a solid career as a marine commando in the Greek Special Forces, during which protracted time I switched my head off very regularly. And still do not want to know too much about his tours of duty in Bosnia and on the Greek borders, all of which are well behind him now.

Shishimarin has admitted his guilt, and has professed himself ready to take and endure the punishment meted out to him. It appears that he was in a car with other Russian soldiers. They were trying to retreat when they saw a cyclist, an unarmed civilian, get off his bike, and start to use his mobile phone. His name was Oleksandr Shelipov, and he was 62. The Russians feared he was about to betray their position, and Shishimarin maintains he was obeying orders when he shot the man. He has asked the man’s widow to forgive him: she says she understands his actions, but cannot forgive him. He is also on record as saying, ‘I didn’t want to be there, but it happened.’ And one wonders what would have happened to him had he disobeyed the order.

 

'I think of the soldier, the victim, the mother and the widow, and of one of Owen’s most famous lines: The pity of war, the pity of war distilled.'

 

Many things simply happen in war, and the reactions of those involved are most often unpredictable. My grandfather, during his first experience of a shell attack in France in 1916, flung himself into the dirt and screamed for his mother. My father, waiting during seemingly endless nights for an anticipated Japanese attack in the Borneo jungle, started praying for the attack to occur, ‘for then the suspense would be over.’

Do the politicians, and it’s always the politicians at the heart of these matters, have any idea of the effects of rank fear, and of the panic that must be experienced by many soldiers in the field, especially young ones? Politicians know about the desire to survive, but not at all in the same way. They think, it seems to me, in terms of the war machine, giving little thought to individuals who keep said machine oiled and running. There is life after political defeat, as many prominent figures in Australian public life are now having to learn, but life after a deathly episode on the battlefield is quite another matter.

The news has just come through as I write: Shishimarin has been sentenced to life imprisonment. What that means in practical terms in war-riven Ukraine I do not know: 25 years, or the rest of his natural life? It is thought that at least 10,000 war crimes have so far been committed in Ukraine; my thought is that this 21-year-old was bound to be a scapegoat, for he is the one who has been caught. Another thought is that as his victim’s life is over, so is his.

In war, nobody escapes: Shelipov’s widow could well have her own 25 years of a reduced, restricted life to endure. And what of Shishimarin’s parents?

Soldier-poet Wilfred Owen was killed a week before the Armistice was signed in November, 1918. He was a mere 25, and his mother received the news of his death as church bells were ringing to celebrate Armistice Day. Most of his poems were published posthumously, and with their depictions of the horrors of trench warfare, challenged what Owen thought of as the old lie, that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. It may be necessary and even fitting, but it can never be sweet.

In Strange Meeting, Owen’s haunting poem about reconciliation, two enemy soldiers meet in hell. One tells the other, I am the enemy you killed, my friend. Because all is quiet in hell, the narrator tells the dead man there is no cause to mourn. None , he replies, save the undone years, the hopelessness. And more than a hundred years later, I think of the soldier, the victim, the mother and the widow, and of one of Owen’s most famous lines: The pity of war, the pity of war distilled.

 

 


 

Gillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin of the Russian army appears at a sentencing hearing on May 23, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Ukraine, War, War Crimes, Russia, Vadim Shishimarin

 

 

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Gillian Bouras gets to the nub of the matter - whatever politicians begin - they scarcely ever have to pay - for the dreadful circumstances into which they send the young - who when they do as ordered - inflict - and suffer - the dreadful consequences. One grand-father who lived his life - with feelings of luck at his survival in the trenches, the other also survived with serious GSW albeit - and a life of melancholia (PTSD) and mournful harmonica playing - having, it is said, killed a young German soldier - the moral trauma consequent on the taking of another's life - disobeying all human principles - because ordered to do so. A step-father in Greece evacuated from Kalamata to Crete and to Egypt/Palestine - a definite PTSD alcoholic thereafter - a couple of uncles in PNG and other kinfolk connections including two who perished during the Sandakan Death Marches in what is now Sabah - the northern-most Borneo state of Malaysia. Gillian is right - this lad is as much a victim as the man he was ordered to shoot. That he can be sentenced to life makes little sense to me - it is mere "show trial". If he is guilty of a war crime then what of the 15,000 Donbass region inhabitants, civilians - of ethnic Russian-speaking background - murdered/bombed/killed by Ukraine Forces in the eight years up to the start of this current invasion conflict, I wonder. There must therefore be hundreds of war criminals on the Ukrainian side equally to have to stand trial if this is how it is to be. And where does that get peace and reconciliation?


Jim KABLE | 26 May 2022  

Very moving article Gillian.


Arnold Zable | 26 May 2022  

Thankyou Gillian for a more realistic account of war than the jingoistic propaganda we are being fed daily by the MSM.

We should always implement the policy that the allies used at Nuremberg to convict the big Nazis who would ordinarily not have faced a war crimes tribunal because they did not personally kill anyone - those that start a war should be held co-responsible for any war crimes committed during that war because if there had been no war, there would have been no war crimes. It would, of course, mean that Bush, Blair and Howard would all be now rotting in jail.


Peter Schulz | 26 May 2022  

I was 21 years of age when I walked into the Marrickville(NSW) Army Barracks as a National Servicemen. I had no say in that decision, made by Bob Menzies some years earlier. I arrived in Vietnam on Remembrance Day, 1970. Again I was obeying a Movement Order issued by some obscure Army Officer in the Defence complex in Russel(Canberra). We were trained to obey an Order without question.(If we survived we might be able to question its validity or purpose!) Discipline was top priority; the argument being to protect ones mates. For us it was a method of intimidation to protect the backside of the ignorant/arrogant Officer issuing it .
Like many Vets, I have suffer PTSD from my war service. I doubt many , if any politicians suffer PTSD from their ill considered decisions. Gillian has correctly seen the impacts of the decisions made by politicians, in our country, the Prime Minister alone, who don't have to answer for their actions ;at least in this life.
I feel so very sad for this young soldier, most likely a conscript and way too young and immature to hold the rank, responsibility and authority that goes with command. I ask myself what would have been the consequence if he disobeyed that order. At the very least a Courts Marshall , stripping of Rank, status and dishonourable discharge from the Armed Forces , plus a prison term, most likely life. At worst, summary extrajudicial execution on the spot by a superior officer, not doubt ordering another soldier or one of Putin's Special Forces operatives to carry out the order. There is ample evidence of this behaviour in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, the North and South Vietnamese armed forces and in numerous lesser conflicts since World War II.
Jim,
While I have no evidence one way or the other, despite Russian allegations of civilian 'executions', particularly by the so-called Azov Brigade, a paramilitary Unit in the Ukraine Army, no real evidence has come to notice to verify these claims. I believe that such behaviour, as we are seeing from the Russians in this invasion, aided and abetted by Putin, has been part of their behaviour right back to World War II, particularly during recent conflicts in the former non Russian Republics, following the breakup of the Soviet Union. .


Gavin O'Brien | 26 May 2022  

There's war and there's war just as there are Curtins who send to war and Putins who send to war.

At least, on the stage of the cosmic drama of the universe (or should that be the stage of the Second Judgement?), Putin will be featuring in the dramatic role of a sort of antichrist with a false prophet behind his shoulder, while Curtin will be more of the filmic rustic attending to his cows and chickens until compelled to turn his mind towards the raiders approaching over the horizon.


roy chen yee | 27 May 2022  

Good on you Gillian.


Jim Jones | 27 May 2022  

A thoughtful and thought-provoking article. Thanks. If Shishimarin has a mother, she might perhaps reflect on what ethical standards she tried to instil in her son.
Your quotation from Owen made me think of my favourite war poem. AD Hope wrote For Any Soldier in Any War:

Linger not, stranger, shed no tear/Go back to those who sent us here./ We are the young they drafted out/To wars their folly brought about./Go tell those old men safe in bed/ We took their orders and are dead.

At least Ukraine did not impose a death sentence, so there’s always the possibility of repatriation or pardon.


Juliet | 27 May 2022  

A thought provoking article as usual even if I don’t have a personal connection with war, it seems that it is a throwback to an age that should have passed. What did that young man think he was fighting for? And why should he be punished when he was following orders as part of his job. We do not even have poetry to remind us of the horrors, just stark reminders of man’s inhumanity to man which seem to be largely met with indifference.


Maggie | 28 May 2022  

I believe the German seaman ordered to torpedo the Lusitania refused to do it. He was replaced and someone else did. When the submarine reached port, he was put ashore and it sailed off to be sunk by the Allies, with all hands lost. That, to me, was a sort of poetic justice. I think that German seaman was a real hero. Military training in such 'crack' organisations as the Royal Marines is basically to break your will and get you to react automatically to follow orders. You can see former RM Commandos from theatres like Afghanistan with horrific injuries. One here was so 'tough' he was emotionally incapable of dealing with his wife's death and had to be helped by a neighbour, a former Emergency Ward nurse. War is horrible and the sort of technological warfare, with the latest weapons being currently waged in the Ukraine is like something out of the Apocalypse. As far as that conflict goes, it must stop. Now! This is an excellent article Gillian, well thought out and heartfelt, but, with the greatest respect, I think this war has been analysed enough. Only peace is the answer. The war traumatised, all of them, will sadly, bear the consequences, probably all their lives.


Edward Fido | 28 May 2022  

This is one of your most moving articles. It demonstrates the madness of war from many different angles.. and no, politicians never get to face the real frontline terror of war.


Stathis T | 28 May 2022  

This is just one person who did a dreadful thing and his future is bleak. Just one event in thousands. I don't know by what number we need to multiply to get some idea of the horror that is going on in Ukraine. I feel a very deep sense of pity.


Stephen | 28 May 2022  

There was an episode in WW 2 when a couple of young German soldiers refused to execute Yugoslav partisans. There are photos of them being led off to be executed themselves. These only came to light recently. The young German soldiers still had living relatives who wanted a full investigation made, and, if possible, charges laid. War is like that. There are still people, who, in the madness of war, try to do the right thing. They are the real heroes,


Edward Fido | 31 May 2022  

Well might it be said that we are the only species which turns on itself to kill. We, the only species with a thinking brain. For every serviceman's death there are so many to grieve -- parents, wives, grandparents, children. So what's new ? So long as this splendid species has existed on earth, so long as history has been written it is the same story over and over again. Gillian - what hope is there ?


meriel Wilmot-Wright | 01 June 2022  

Actually, Meriel, I believe the earliest cities in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley did not possess defensive walls nor did the inhabitants seem to have weapons as such. It was the invaders who attacked them who were in war mode and who brought the culture of war with them.


Edward Fido | 01 June 2022  

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