Reprinted from The Nation with permission of the author.
Russia invaded Ukraine in violation of international law, and now we stand on a precipice. Advocates of war are saying that World War III has already begun, and the United States should therefore plunge in. How can they say that? People may finally hurl themselves into an abyss from the sheer terror of falling.
I learned something about this mood from a retired Foreign Service veteran. On October 27, 1962, he was sitting in the next room, listening on an intercom with second-echelon State Department officials while President Kennedy and his advisers discussed the appropriate response to Russian missiles in Cuba. As we now know, Kennedy barely held off an almost unanimous recommendation to bomb. What my informant vividly recalled was the mood of decision. They all recognized that a nuclear war would be a catastrophe of unimaginable dimensions; but at a certain point, the momentum seemed irresistible. “I thought to myself,” he said, “OK, let’s just do this.”
That state of mind – of blank acceptance (because they had already come so far) – “lasted,” he continued, “for about 20 minutes. Then, somehow, I came to my senses. But I’ve thought of that moment ever since. I was willing to ‘live with’ the end of the world. It showed me what we are capable of – what I was capable of.”
Joe Biden has long been a man given to sentimental avowals and reckless denunciations. He was indulged for half a century; the slips were easily exposed and of no large consequence. His rhetorical effervescence took on a graver aspect in mid and late March, when he called Vladimir Putin a war criminal, broke with the US renunciation of chemical weapons by saying we would use them in retaliation if Russia used them, told members of the 82nd Airborne Division that they would soon be deployed in Ukraine, and signaled a wartime goal of regime change in Russia: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
When a leader speaks of an international rival with unbounded contempt, it renders negotiation impossible. Yet the president’s advisers, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, have done little to blunt his message. Congress, too, is full of members who yesterday could not have found Ukraine on a map but today want US missiles to shoot down Russian planes. The US/NATO plan looks forward to a long and bloody war, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians killed, Ukraine vindicated and the Russian economy destroyed.
Is this a probable result? Is it desirable?
There is a broader allegorical battle in which many Americans now imagine us playing a part. We – along with our surrogate, Ukraine – stand for democracy, civilization, and enlightenment. Russia is tyranny, barbarism, darkness and dirt and gas.
The push for a bigger war draws enormous strength from the weapons lobby, of course, but another influence is the daily inundation of headlines. Consider The New York Times, April 10: “Russia Resets Military Command as Western Arms Pour In.” April 15: “Russian Flagship Sinks in Black Sea; E.U. Could Ban Oil” It has been permanent Ukraine, all day and every day, with a drumbeat that exceeds any comparable string of headlines during Afghanistan and Iraq. This is a foreign war that the Times and The Washington Post, CNN, NPR, and all the old networks cover as if it were being fought on American soil.
The columnists have followed close behind. On April 13, the Times’ Bret Stephens asked: “What Do We Do if Putin Uses Chemical Weapons?” His answers, fluent and brash, led off with approval of cyberwarfare against Russian pipelines, and proceeded to a series of excited subheads: “Tear apart Russia’s supply chains,” “Arm Ukraine with offensive weapons,” “Plan for a long war.” Writers of humbler strategic ambitions have written accusingly of American faintheartedness. A recent George Packer column in The Atlantic was listed in the magazine’s online “ideas archive” as “Can We Be Worthy of Ukraine?” while the article itself was titled “I Worry We’ll Soon Forget About Ukraine.”
This posture of sorrow and humility, the prayer We are not worthy in homage to people living a higher moral reality, owes much to an undeserved nostalgia for the Cold War. More insistently, our opinion-masters look to the example of World War II. The zealots want another good war like that one; and Volodymyr Zelensky has breathed new life into their yearning. He is courageous, and his appeals are convincing; but the truth is that Zelensky is a target from more than one direction: the Russian Army facing him and, at his back, the Azov Battalion and the neofascist militias, who fear him as little as they love the Russians, and whose actions many months ago nullified his election promise to negotiate peace in the Donbas. Even now, Zelensky could save most of his country and many lives if the United States strongly backed negotiations; but our leaders and munitions-makers agree that Ukraine must go on fighting.
What still seems barely possible, at press time, is a solution that Zelensky has come halfway to suggesting, with no encouragement from the US or its European dependents: namely, a neutral Ukraine, part of the Western European community in most respects but not a member of NATO; autonomous status for the Donbas, the details to be decided perhaps by referendum; and Russian troops withdrawn, never to return. Admittedly, this would disappoint believers in a worldwide struggle-to-the-death from which either tyranny or democracy must emerge the final victor.
Words are going to matter more than usual in the next few weeks. The let’s just do this mood is as deranged now as it was in 1962. Trap the invader in a tight enough corner, choke off all the exits, make him feel he has nothing to lose, and he will drive the world off a cliff as surely as our generals and think-tank adepts, our senators and columnists. “I am,” says Macbeth, “in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” We had better step back before we step any further.
David Bromwich teaches literature at Yale University. His latest books are American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us (Verso Books), and How Words Make Things Happen (Oxford), both published in 2019.