“There’s Nothing Worse Than War”

24 February, 2022
“I Had a Dream III,” by Syr­i­an artist Mar­wan Sah­marani, oil on can­vas, 225 x 300 cm, 2016 (cour­tesy Mar­wan Sahmarani)


Letter from the Editor: Russia’s Attack on Ukraine seen from European and Middle Eastern Vantage Points


Jordan Elgrably


The war start­ed this morn­ing in the ear­ly hours, with bombs falling on Ukraine. The con­se­quences of a major war in Europe will be far-reach­ing. I expect gas prices to go up imme­di­ate­ly and infla­tion will increase the cost of food — so war always costs most those who have the least.

Con­ven­tion­al west­ern wis­dom would sug­gest that there hasn’t been a major war in Europe since the first shots were fired in Sara­je­vo in 1992, and even then the con­flict was con­fined to the Balka­ns, most­ly in the for­mer Yugoslavia. But between Bosnia and Koso­vo, war last­ed in the region till 1999. What about Russ­ian bomb­ing and troops in Chech­nya 1994–1996, the Rus­so-Geor­gia War 2008, and in 2014, the Russ­ian Fed­er­a­tion annex­a­tion of east­ern Ukraine’s Crimea? Now, with Russ­ian mis­siles and artillery shells drop­ping on Ukraine — on Odessa, Kharkiv and Kyiv, all hell is break­ing loose. As explo­sions are report­ed and Ukrain­ian pres­i­dent Volodymyr Zelen­sky com­mands peo­ple stay in their homes while blath­er­ing “we’re ready for any­thing” brava­do, there are miles-long lanes of vehi­cles head­ing west toward the bor­der with Poland, while thou­sands of Ukraini­ans hun­ker down below ground in sub­way sta­tions, fear­ing the worst.

Ukraini­ans gath­er in the Kharkiv sub­way, escap­ing the inva­sion on 24 Feb., 2022 (pho­to cour­tesy Twitter).

Hon­est­ly, I find myself won­der­ing whether to stay, or go — go where? I would like to be near fam­i­ly in Cal­i­for­nia if these are end times. I real­ize that’s extreme­ly bleak, but hav­ing seen apoc­a­lyp­tic movies and been oblig­ed to think about the end of the world result­ing from nuclear holo­caust, it can’t be helped.

I feel depres­sion com­ing on, like every­thing is going to hell in a hand bas­ket. Recent­ly I escaped what was a trau­mat­ic sit­u­a­tion, where near­ly every day felt like an emer­gency, and thoughts of the next brought fear of loom­ing cat­a­stro­phe — not that I am any stranger to think­ing about war. For years I have worked with refugees from coun­tries includ­ing Afghanistan, Iraq, Pales­tine and Syr­ia, peo­ple who have suf­fered far more than most of us could ever imag­ine — and are suf­fer­ing still.

But now war is a black cloud cast over the whole of Europe, and poten­tial­ly the world. Fear hasn’t yet become as omnipresent as Covid, but I noticed today at the local Car­refour super­mar­ket, here in Mont­pel­li­er, peo­ple seemed to be pil­ing their carts high with more goods, and the dis­count gas sta­tion, always open 24/7, was inex­plic­a­bly closed, with a long stay-out rib­bon block­ing its many pumps. One imag­ines not that we have already run low on petrol, but that on the con­trary, sup­pli­ers are wait­ing a day or two to see what hap­pens to the price of oil, before they raise their prices.

It almost seems obscene to go about one’s day as usu­al, but what oth­er choice do we have? Obses­sive­ly, I read the Ukraine updates report­ed on Euro­pean and Mid­dle East­ern news sites, avoid­ing US sources, for fear they may be com­pro­mised by CIA speak. I notice that the polit­i­cal chat­ter among friends on Face­book has quick­ly reached a kind of fren­zy, with one per­son I know rail­ing that the work of the neo-cons has chick­ens com­ing home to roost. He swears, “I’ve fol­lowed Rus­sia and Eura­sia from geo-eco­nom­ic angles for over two decades,” argu­ing that the Russ­ian inva­sion of Ukraine is to be expect­ed “because Russia/China dare to chal­lenge the 48 year-old petrodol­lar stan­dard through oil/gas/yuan strat­e­gy, ver­sus hot war — ‘bor­ing details’ one won’t hear/read about in trite, bull­shit-rid­den Atlanti­cist cor­po­rate press, which remains sim­ply stenog­ra­phy for hack­neyed spooks ready to send oth­ers’ kids off to fight the entire Eurasian continent.”

Is every­one already as amped up about this, you wonder?

Maryam Jamshi­di, an inter­na­tion­al law pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da Levin Col­lege of Law, writes on Twit­ter: “This is a dev­as­tat­ing day for 10s of mil­lions of ppl who have become the casu­al­ties of polit­i­cal lead­ers flex­ing pow­er. NATO’s expan­sion led to this point. As did Russ­ian impe­ri­al­ism. As did US intran­si­gence. As did the US-led ero­sion of Intl law. All of it could’ve been avoided.”

Claire Berlinksi, the Paris-based edi­tor of a polit­i­cal site called Cos­mopoli­tan Glob­al­ist, responds to an email query from me, ask­ing how she’s doing, not­ed that she is extreme­ly wor­ried. “This is as dan­ger­ous a con­flict as we’ve seen in the atom­ic age. Putin is not going to stop until some­one stops him. His appetite will grow with the eat­ing. And this will even­tu­al­ly end in a nuclear show­down of some kind, where eye­ball to eye­ball either some­one will blink or the fuck­ing things will be launched. 

“We made a fun­da­men­tal strate­gic mis­take when we demand­ed Ukraine give up its nuclear weapons. I’m read­ing an aston­ish­ing­ly pre­scient arti­cle by Wal­ter Meir­sheimer right now—people keep blath­er­ing on stu­pid­ly about how Ken­nan was right and we should nev­er have pur­sued NATO expan­sion. (Peo­ple who know noth­ing at all about his­to­ry will latch on to ideas like this and par­rot them mind­less­ly, com­plete­ly unaware that Ken­nan thought the for­ma­tion of NATO was a mis­take in 1948!) No, the fun­da­men­tal strate­gic mis­take was forc­ing Ukraine to give up its nuclear deter­rent. And we’re going to pay and pay and pay for that mistake.” 

A Ger­man I know, who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and always talked about the ash­es of WW II, who today makes her liv­ing at a think tank, writ­ing about East­ern Europe, admit­ted to me that she is “shat­tered. The Euro­pean weak­lings and appease­ment politi­cians have suc­ceed­ed in giv­ing Putin’s Rus­sia a free hand to invade an inde­pen­dent Euro­pean coun­try. This is a process which has been going on for 20 years. Stu­pid Ger­mans wor­ry more about prop­er woke speech than liberty.

“As Churchill said in 1940, ‘Each one hopes that if he feeds the croc­o­dile enough, the croc­o­dile will eat him last. All of them hope that the storm will pass before their turn comes to be devoured. But I fear great­ly that the storm will not pass. It will rage and it will roar ever more loud­ly, ever more widely.’”

My Ger­man friend observes dark­ly, “Today there is no De Gaulle and no Churchill to lead. Only clowns.”

And Maya Mik­dashi, edi­tor at Jadaliyya tweets: “There is noth­ing worse than war. Any­one who has lived through an inva­sion knows this in their bones. From Ukraine to Iraq to Lebanon and across the world, the feel­ing of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, the knowl­edge that ‘inter­na­tion­al law’ was nev­er meant to pro­tect you, but rather your invaders.”

Try as I might, I’m afraid I can find lit­tle solace today, despite the fact that the sun con­tin­ues to shine. Look­ing for guid­ance some­how, I turn away from the news of Ukraine to read a poem, “With Urgency,”* by Moroc­can poet-nov­el­ist Aicha Bassry:

No one has desired me
With such urgency as death has.
I have lived many lives in my metaphors.
That is how I extend­ed life
And forged a small eter­ni­ty for myself.

The world is still here, but it seems infi­nite­ly more frag­ile than it did yesterday.


*from With Urgency, A Selec­tion of Poems, trans­lat­ed from the Ara­bic by Mbarek Sry­fi and Eric Sell­in (Diá­go­los, New Orleans, 2021).


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