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The sorrow of war

  • 08 March 2022
  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