As Russia's invasion of Ukraine takes another brutal turn, the long history of human fears on the brink offers a source of clarity for our current crises. Maybe even strength.
In 1919, a poet started drafting what would eventually become one of our most oft-quoted poems, especially in times of struggle and disaster. In its earlier forms, it referenced tensions on the Russian border, before being scrubbed of precise details and left with a more all-encompassing sense of dread. As the poet was writing it, too, his pregnant wife was deathly ill from influenza: part of the brutal and ongoing pandemic of their time. Years later, first during the Great Depression and then as World War II mounted, the poet would refer to this poem as something prophetic, as if its lines had foretold all the ruin about to unfold.
But did they?
Or is it just that humanity often finds itself in times of total disarray?
“The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats is filled with phrases that have informed Western culture ever since. “Things fall apart”, “the widening gyre”, “the centre cannot hold”, the “rough beast”, the idea of “slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem”: Yeats’ poem is considered peak Modernism, filled with the dread realization that all our affectations of social order have come undone, and that while something monumental might be on the horizon, we can no longer hope it is salvation. We now stand estranged from everything we thought we could rely upon, to signal for truth and hope.
When the Great Depression hit, it came with no small challenge to democracies that had only recently moved toward more universal suffrage. Nationalist tyrannies rose easily in the wake of economic uncertainty. And yes, with the atomic age at the close of World War II, we then renewed in horror at our capacity for self-destruction. But it was also a horror that the trenches of World War I had given to prior generations. And it’s one that recent events, especially around the Russian invasion of Ukraine and related threats of nuclear war, have brought to us again.
Yeats used the image of a falcon flying higher and higher, increasingly disconnected from a falconer who might have provided order, to portray his sense of coming societal ruin. In the “widening gyre” of this falcon’s upward flight, we’re called upon to imagine the world becoming increasingly unstable, with no recourse to be found because “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” But when one rises far enough above the specific, when one soars over history at a greater remove, another possibility emerges:
That we have always been this precariously situated.
That some “rough beast” has always been “slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem”, on the verge of bringing us all to total ruin.
And that, far from dismissing the value of present crises because of their historical similarity, we can draw strength from the knowledge that other human beings have had these doubts, these fears, these struggles in eras long before our own.
What’s old is new again, and human loss abides
Things may well fall apart, but symbolism persists amid the rubble. At least, that’s the interpretation one has to take from how the West often writes about Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine: full of signs and portents, every action infused with greater meanings that you too will better understand if you click through on that next link.
Early in the morning of October 8, for instance, an explosion tore across the Kerch Bridge, damaging sections of its roadway and killing three. The longest in Europe, and the longest built by Russia, this part-roadway, part-railway connects Russia’s mainland to the Crimean Peninsula, and represents a significant supply route for the war. The bridge’s construction came in the wake of the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian War, when Russia annexed Crimea. An explosion on it was therefore reported as a devastating symbolic blow.
That same day, though, Russia was busy making its own symbolic gestures–some with more immediate and real-world consequences than others.
For one, it escalated strikes on civilian holdings in Ukraine, including areas officially annexed on September 30 (though fighting remains fierce therein). You might recall Zaporizhzhia from international concerns over its nuclear power plant. Although the plant had finally powered down the last of its reactors, even in a resting state it relies on the surrounding energy grid to avoid a meltdown. Shelling on October 8 saw at least 13 people killed, some 50 multi-storey residential buildings damaged, and the plant cut off from the main power system, forcing a switch to emergency generators. Power was later restored, but the situation continues to alarm international watchers, who have been asking for a dedicated DMZ around the plant for months, even as Russian forces kidnapped the plant director.
Then came the attacks on other urban centres: an express message being sent with many choices of target. Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, remains on alert after a strike on October 10 hit a children’s playground, a university, and tourism features. Around the country, at least 19 were reported dead, and over a hundred injured, with around 300 sectors losing power. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called upon the West to step up support, including through an “air shield”, and G7 leaders gathered to discuss their ongoing commitment to Ukraine, and to holding Putin accountable.
Also on October 8, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced the appointment of an overall field commander for its “special military operation”: the first such appointment since the invasion of Ukraine began in late February. This move comes at a time when the Kremlin has faced significant internal criticism for its mismanagement of the war. It clearly serves as a political effort to show a stronger, more cohesive, and more merciless presence on the battlefield: both internally, and to the world.
“Merciless”, that is, because they appointed General Sergey Surovikin. Surovikin is a veteran of Afghanistan and the Second Chechen war, but his reputation better precedes him both as an officer who improved Russian combat effectiveness in Eastern Ukraine, and as a leader comfortable with brutal tactics. He directed military attacks against protesters during the 1991 coup, orchestrated bombing campaigns of Ghouta and Aleppo in Syria, and was in charge of local operations when Syrian forces used chemical weapons against civilian targets. For helping to stabilize Bashar al-Assad’s regime, he gained the moniker “General Armageddon”.
But the symbolism hardly stops there. The term “Armageddon” was also used last week by US President Joe Biden, when he expressed concern over the possibility of nuclear war through a Russian-led descent into more extreme military tactics. Fears of escalation are well-founded, too, as Belarus recently entered into a joint-deployment of its forces with Russia’s. President Alexander Lukashenko claims that the move is a security measure to defend Belarus from supposed threats by Ukraine and its allies. Either way, this move marks an intensification of regional commitments—and with it, a further escalation of a European war that in February most international commenters, overestimating Russia’s military might and underestimating Ukraine’s resilience, assumed would be over in weeks.
As has happened for us, when faced with European war, many times before.
First drafts of history, and all the rest
These are delicate times for media reporting. The usual approach, which we’ve seen in abundance in news articles since February, is to lean into comparative body counts, to analyze and speculate around the psychology of prominent leaders and movements, and otherwise to gamify so much loss of human lives. To talk of the whole brutal conflict in terms of “wins” and “losses”.
But there are no “wins” here. Let’s be absolutely clear on that accord.
Only losses, and our attempts to prevent more of the same.
And so, we enter a tangled period of this war. After the shock of initial invasion, after the counter-shock of robust Ukrainian response; after the long, bitter push-and-pull of summer hostilities, economic sanctions, and energy-grid power plays; after the recent triumphs of Ukrainian counteroffensive forces; and after the mad scramble of Russian political and military reactions (conscription, formal annexation, the appointment of a new general commander, and above all else the increased targeting of civilian infrastructure) we find ourselves at a deeply uncertain precipice.
Which is why, when struggling with what’s next, we’d do well to look to our history.
And also, into what our teaching of history so often overlooks.
Now, if you were bored in school by talk of literary movements: fair enough. The difference between “Modernism” and “Postmodernism” has always been a bit of a cheat, the same way physics professors will reduce a hypothetical cow to a circle with vectors on the chalkboard, and let first-year students believe that electrons are discrete planetoids in orbit around tight little “suns” of protons and neutrons.
Unfortunately, this insistence on a grand difference between Modernism and Postmodernism is sometimes taken too seriously by the scholars themselves. And when it is, that rigidity only illustrates how little those same scholars have learned about humanity from both. There is, after all, something quaintly teleological about the idea of our species “progressing” from one era to the next: of moving on completely from the shock of old institutions falling apart, to fully embracing the idea of everything having already come undone. Yes, some movements reacted to preceding movements because they had clear differences in perspective. But no single outlook fully represents either period. And it’s in that deeper complexity, that sheer mess of competing perspectives around Western struggles in each era, that we find the most important lessons for bearing up to the crises we face today.
In the Modernist period, for instance, you had technological triumphalism, people thrilled with the promise of technology and urbanity as guarantees of a better world ahead. Sound familiar? We were finally beyond the stuffy superstitions and religious practices of prior generations! Secularism was on the rise! Now we could build new narratives to replace the old, and we would be the dreamers of better dreams!
But at the same time, you also had people like Yeats, who saw the dehumanization of “progress”, the grim fragmentation of human experience under automation and populism’s rise. In the main Modernist period, plenty of prominent thinkers either dove deeper into more ritualized faith (High Anglicanism and Catholicism in particular) as an escape from the horror of progress, or into forms of surrealist expression that served as a reminder of realism’s failure to depict the world in full.
And then, in Postmodernism? You supposedly had a full breakdown of meaning, a belief in the impossibility of any one narrative reflecting the entire world, which had been shaped in part by the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Plenty of philosophy, art, and politics in the wake of World War II, deep in the Cold War, served to stress that objective meaning, and belief in some deeper, collective consciousness and trajectory toward some better end, had been constructs all along. (And not just among “leftists” and “liberals”, for all that some conservative pundits today like to pretend as much: Margaret Thatcher belonged to a strong right-wing school of neoliberalist thought that believed “society” was an illusion, too.)
In this framing of reality, everything was relative, and all our experiences (and language for them) were mediated through our initial subject-positions. But if you think for a second that there can ever be just one Postmodernism, you’ve missed the point even of that version of the era’s dominant ideologies. There are many Postmodernisms, including ones that fixate on a return to nature, or a doubling down on scientific rationalism, or the supremacy of Western civilization, as “solutions” to the prior dissolution of (belief in) objective truth.
In short, many Postmodernist movements, just like many Modernist movements, were attempting to establish new and “better” systems to replace the old.
Just as we today are steeped in all sorts of competing movements: some driven by despair at the decline of old institutions (and a general state of impending ruin); some, by a belief that more rigid traditions of nationalism and faith will save us from the chaos of the masses; and some, banking on the hope that science and technology can emancipate us from all our current crises.
We have always been slouching towards Bethlehem
So what lessons can history give us, when we knock off thinking about “periodization” in fixed terms, and just let ourselves remember that other generations also grappled complexly with being on the brink?
Well, for one, we can pay attention to how over-determining certain outcomes does us no favors. Just as inflation is worsened by fear of inflation, so too does the fear of escalation to nuclear war have the effect of lending more power to that potential reality. Fear of nuclear war is a weapon unto itself, readily and frequently leveraged—as is the ability to drive one’s opponents into all-or-nothing political binaries.
This kind of rigid, “on the brink” thinking is difficult to avoid, though. In the throes of a brutal invasion that has already driven millions from their homes and killed thousands, one certainly does not want to be accused of equivocating between forms of violence, or fence-sitting until the fence is completely overrun. There are many who swear by a strong first blow against the bullies of the world. And yet, in our history of global conflict, this has repeatedly proven a misguided strategy at best.
The underlying theory, though, is sound. Strength does matter. The question is—what kind of strength? What would the most courageous and forceful response to Putin’s mess of a brutal and entirely unnecessary war look like? How can the West make its resilience known in a way that will drive the Kremlin back to the negotiations table, to seek peace in earnest, as soon as possible? Military and economic analysts already predict that this war will roll on well into 2023. What better end can we hope for, and build towards, when it’s clear that nothing less than Putin delivered unto the International Criminal Court to face charges will even begin to help the world reckon with these daily, vindictive traumas on the ground?
World War I. World War II. The Cold War. The US Conflict in Vietnam. The War in Afghanistan. Time and again we’ve leaned on shows of force (whether by necessity, or by choice) that only drove us deeper into the fog of protracted war. Deeper, into more sustained periods of societal uncertainty writ large.
And maybe we can’t avoid the same this time. Maybe Yeats’ “widening gyre” does still serve as a good metaphor for the escalating and increasingly uncontrollable consequences of having first allowed so much violence to be set in motion.
But if this is an unavoidable brink, we are at least not alone upon it. Long before us, and long after us, stands a line of human lives also spent grappling with the fall either of stable constructs—or of the lie that they were ever stable at all.
What will our legacy of response be for those who come after us? For those who will one day stand on such a terrible brink in turn?
How will we carry forward the very best of human hope, despair, and striving, from all our equally uncertain ancestors come before?