As I write this column, our 6th UU Principle – “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all” – is, like the people of Ukraine, being bloodied and bludgeoned and set back once again.
I do not know what will happen to Ukraine. I do not know how many more people will die in this war, or how many more refugees, or how many schools and hospitals will be destroyed. I cannot say who will declare victory, or what the eventual peace will look like. There is one thing, however, I do know with certainty.
First, I need to give you the background before I share my prediction. I know something about the essence of war. Before I was 20, I was in one. I witnessed things that I will not share. To this day, I miss people who neither I, nor their families, will ever see again. I have the one consolation that I was never in a position to find out if I have the capability to directly take another life. For others, the fates were much less kind.
I can foretell the future of soldiers and airmen and sailors from Russia who are fighting in Ukraine. When they return to their country (those who do) they will eventually realize they have been lied to by their officers and by their government. They have worked to destroy lives in a cause that cannot be justified. No matter how much they want to believe that they were performing their duty, or living up to an oath to serve, the harm they perpetuated cannot be rationalized away. The people who cheered them on and paid taxes to make this possible share a large portion of the blame, and they too may slowly realize the waste. The rulers who made the decision to have a war (in our times and in the past) seldom have the capacity to recognize their culpability unless things turn around so badly it affects them personally.
The veterans who return from this war may hold an illusion of a glorious cause, but this will not last for very long. They will mourn their friends. They will, perhaps infrequently but inevitably, recall the horrors of their youth. They will learn more about the war they were in. They will be faced with reminders, often in trifling things, in their daily lives. They will be reminded in their dreams.
Countries, and the people who inhabit them, always underestimate the price the gods of war demand.
These Russian soldiers and airmen and sailors will then, as individuals, have the same two choices that countries have after an immoral war. One: They can lead a life of embitterment and denial. Two: they can learn to question what they are told, make moral choices, and resolve to do good in the world.
No matter their reluctance to follow orders, or their ignorant embracing of a chance for national glory, I know their fate.
“Never think that war, no matter how necessary nor how justified, is not a crime. Ask the infantry and ask the dead.” Ernest Hemingway
And, I would add, ask the millions of Ukrainian civilians killed, displaced, wounded and forever scarred by the whim of a maniacal dictator.
-John Patrick O’Neill. PhD