Although we rightfully support Ukraine defending itself against Russian invasion, it's dangerous to view war as glorious, exciting, or entertaining.
I admit it: I’m a Ukraine news addict.
I’ve gotten into the habit of starting each morning by checking a Reddit forum like r/UkrainianConflict, or the Twitter accounts tracking events in the war, or some of my fellow columnists on OnlySky.
Why we follow the Ukraine war
Thanks to social media, we know more about the day-to-day progress of the war than any past era did about theirs. We even have video of many of the most impactful moments.
It’s more thrilling than any movie. I exult when Ukraine scores a coup, like sinking the Russian flagship Moskva, or its lightning advance rolling back Russian conquests in the east, or its audacious strike on the Kerch Bridge. I feel vicarious hate when Russia lashes out with its characteristic brutality, massacring civilians in occupied Ukrainian cities or raining bombs down on hospitals and playgrounds.
Unlike so many other wars, where the causes are murky and the sides are indiscernible shades of gray, this one promises a clean, morally straightforward conflict. Ukraine is a fledgling democracy, attacked without provocation but defending itself with indomitable courage. Russia is under the thumb of a genocidal dictator, obsessed with recreating the Soviet empire, willing to crush people and whole countries beneath the wheels of his hubris.
It’s an alluring narrative. That’s why we should be skeptical of it.
I want to be very clear that I’m not casting doubt on any of the facts I’ve described. Ukraine is a democracy that deserves the right to choose its own destiny. Russia is a dictatorship that invaded its neighbor and has committed war crimes in the course of that conflict. I believe more than ever that the moral duty of every free nation is to give the Ukrainian people whatever help they need to win. I reject the view that this war is, somehow, the U.S.’ fault, and Ukraine is an American puppet state with no will of its own.
I’m speaking of a deeper problem. Namely, it’s morally hazardous to cheer for war.
War promotes a dangerously simplistic view of the world. It instills the message that violence is glorious and those who commit it are heroic. It promotes jingoism and blind nationalism. It teaches us to divide humanity into “good guys”, who can do no wrong, and “bad guys”, who can be killed without consequence. It’s a sugar rush of righteousness.
All of these are habits of thought that we shouldn’t cultivate in ourselves. And this holds true even in the exceptionally rare cases where war is justified.
Russia’s philosophical error
Sometimes, war is necessary. I wish it weren’t so, but not every problem can be solved peacefully. There are still monsters in the world, and if the rest of us give up our arms, they’ll treat it as permission to seize whatever they want.
Sometimes we have no choice but to fight. But we should beware the trap of seeing “our” side as all virtuous and neglecting the humanity of the other.
For example, some war accounts refer to the Russian invaders as “orcs”, after Tolkien—brutish henchmen of an evil lord, nameless adversaries fit only for killing. I understand the justified rage that gives rise to this term, but it makes me uneasy.
After all, this is the same dehumanizing rhetoric that gave rise to this conflict. Russian propaganda takes this exact stance: dismissing Ukraine as a a fictional nation with no history or culture of its own; and the Ukrainian people as, at best, dimwitted peasants who need to be reeducated for their own good, and at worst, a den of Nazis who ought to be purged with fire.
Russia’s philosophical error is prior to its war crimes. Views like these, disseminated by the Kremlin’s mouthpieces, created the preconditions for Russians to support or at least accept the war. Views like these, held by invading Russian soldiers, gave them the justification to commit atrocities upon Ukraine’s civilian population.
Because we recognize the wrongness of this belief, we should treat it as a cautionary tale and take care not to make the same mistake. So, as a philosophical exercise, we should at least try to empathize with the Russians.
I’m not speaking of Putin himself, whose guilt is beyond question. He’s the prime mover of this conflict. He alone could have prevented it by making different choices. Pitying him would be a bridge too far. But as for the people living under his regime, we should make an effort to imagine their perspective, lest we blind ourselves to their humanity.
The truth is, there’s good reason to feel sympathy for them. Most Russian soldiers are ethnic minorities from poor rural provinces whose rulers treat them as cannon fodder. They’ve been snatched off the street with draft notices, given pitifully inadequate supplies and next-to-no training, and packed off to the trenches to be bombed and shelled. They’re told that if they try to surrender or retreat, they’ll be shot by their own side. The Russian dead and maimed are victims of Putin’s imperial ambitions, no less than dead and wounded Ukrainians.
Other Russians, who aren’t in the army but don’t support the war, face the same horrible dilemma as citizens of every other dictatorship through history: Should I protest, knowing it’s unlikely to make a difference, and risking prison or worse? Should I flee to another country where I have no prospects, no home and no ties, to live the unstable life of a refugee? Or should I keep my head down, hoping that the shadow will pass by?
We all want to tell ourselves what we’d do in that situation, how we’d have the courage to choose the right regardless of the cost. Few of us, I hope, will ever have occasion to put that to the test.
The limits of empathy
Of course, you can take this too far. Whether they’re poor or not, whether they’re draftees or not, the fact is that countless Russian soldiers have committed atrocities in Ukraine. If they’re being bombed and shot at, they are, after all, invaders who came to kill and destroy. Whether willingly or not, they’re doing the bidding of a tyrant. These are crimes that must be answered for, and we established the principle long ago that “just following orders” isn’t a defense.
The same goes for Russian civilians. They may not back what Putin is doing, but if their opposition remains confined to the private corners of their mind, what good is it? At some point, silence means assent. This is especially true since the people who stay in Russia are paying taxes to fuel the war machine that’s chewing up the lives of innocent Ukrainians. (A comparison that’s been suggested elsewhere: how do we compare the passivity of Russians to Iranian teenagers facing down the regime’s guns?)
War brings an unavoidable degree of dehumanization. In the thick of combat, you can’t think of the other side as human beings with hopes and dreams while trying to kill them.
But, as humanists, we have to hold these two views in balance in our heads. We can root for Ukraine and do everything possible to help them to win. We can believe that this war is essential to the defense of democracy. At the same time, we should think of war as an awful last resort—not a glorious spectacle to cheerlead from the sidelines.