Download PDF Here 13th Anniversary
Live Encounters Magazine Volume One December 2022.
Time for Peace – Destroying the Legends of the Ukraine Conflict
by David Morgan.
The late British historian A J P Taylor several decades ago sought to destroy the “legends” surrounding the origins of the Second World War and argued that his approach should not be seen as in any way a “vindication” of Nazi Germany or of Adolf Hitler. “I have never seen any sense in the question of war guilt or war innocence,” Taylor argued, which was a bold and provocative position to adopt in the early sixties when he originally penned these words, less than two decades since the end of that most calamitous of wars.
“In a world of sovereign states, each does the best it can for its own interests; and can be criticised at most for mistakes, not for crimes”, Taylor further argued. He took destroying legends as part of the obligations of the historian: “It is a service to historical truth”, he said.
In his book, The Origins of the Second World War, Taylor judiciously sets out the various factors that led to the war’s outbreak. The book is still in print and still worth reading, especially at a time when we are embroiled in another protracted war again in mainland Europe, and whose end seems nowhere in sight more than eight months since the shooting started and the mobilisations began.
Of course, the roots of the Russia-Ukraine-Europe-NATO confrontation can be traced much further back in time than the outbreak of hostilities in February 2022. A case could be made for tracing its origins to the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s or even to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the onset of the Cold War. In many ways, the war is “unfinished business”.
But whatever its origins, we need to emulate the considered approach of the great historian if we are to fully grasp how we found ourselves mired in this latest European war and if we wish to find a means of extricating ourselves from the conflict before it all gets out of control.
Given the scale and sophistication of the technology of modern advanced weaponry it is a difficult task to confine modern warfare to a single restricted battlefield arena. Spillovers are inevitable. Civilians are targeted, innocent parties are dragged into it. Threats of nuclear annihilation should not be dismissed too lightly; the combatants are all playing for very high stakes.
With the very future of humanity at stake, all politicians have a duty to be absolutely honest with their public about their war aims especially if they expect people to make enormous sacrifices for the war effort. If we are expected to make these sacrifices, such as enduring cold and hunger, perhaps even losing our homes, we are entitled to understand why this is happening.
The war in Ukraine however is an unnecessary conflict and one that could have been avoided. It can and should be brought to an end as soon as humanly possible. Where are the international agencies, where are the intermediaries, where are the voices of reason? Whatever happened to our once mighty peace movements, who mobilised in their millions against the war in Iraq?
It is not our war, that is, it is not a war in the interests of ordinary people; the leaders of the main Western powers in the European Union, the UK, NATO and the United States, have chosen deliberately to wage this war using Ukraine as a convenient proxy, to take on Russia and are now committed to fighting it for “as long as it takes”. They are jointly spending billions of dollars on it; the war budget is limitless. Our governments are prepared to push their citizens into poverty, destitution, homelessness, until the war ends in the nebulous “victory”.
Russia wants security guarantees, it seeks to halt the relentless onward march of NATO, a military alliance that was founded with the objective of containing Russia. All the rhetoric is about freedom and democracy, but the West’s war aims in Ukraine have never been clearly set out; yet it seems obvious that the objective is to weaken Russia, topple Putin and ultimately bring about a “regime change” in Moscow, in the expectation that a more pliant administration in the Kremlin is put in place; a weak and timorous Russia that will be favourable to the West, if not exactly one that is a client of Washington, as in the humiliation inflicted on the country during the Boris Yeltsin era as it emerged weakened in the wake of the Soviet collapse.
In weakening Russia once again, Washington and NATO would also be weakening China because of the alignments of the countries on the global stage. It is important to recognise that this war is largely a Western endeavour; much of Asia, the Middle East, China, India and Latin America, are not in favour of the war. These major countries do not support the punitive and swiftly imposed sanctions on Russia, the block on normal trading and the curtailing of oil and gas supplies; the latter being an all too obvious act of self-harm if ever there was one.
A Story Without Heroes and Villains
In writing his book, A J P Taylor explained that he was “concerned to understand what happened, not to vindicate or condemn…in retrospect, though many were guilty, none was innocent…This is a story without heroes; and, perhaps even without villains.” These principles need to be applied by those commentating on the course of the war in Ukraine and the political complexion of a future Ukraine, which is currently engaging in a form of ethnic cleansing of all traces of Russian influence, despite the fact that the Ukrainian and Russian nations are historically entwined.
I want to argue, strongly and unambiguously, that we urgently need to take some of the heat out of the current situation. We need to conduct our debate more intelligently and rationally when outlining our arguments over the war in Ukraine and how we want to see it end. Inevitably, it will take time for the Russian and Ukrainian neighbours to live together amicably after all that has gone on, but they are connected by geography if nothing else at present and they will be forced to live and work together in the future. That conclusion is undeniable, even by the most diehard Russophobe, of which there are sadly far too many.
We do not really even know all the real reasons why we are fighting, or why the war is being allowed to drag on for so long. Some of us are shocked that there is so little discussion on the war taking place in the public domain, even in serious outlets, there is so little attention given to or focus on how the war might end, no real efforts are undertaken to broker a peace deal when a just peace is so desperately needed.
Even talk of peace seems to have been forbidden. Voices for peace have remained silent, or have been silenced, which amounts to virtually the same thing. Consequently, there is no peace movement of any significance; its activities are minimal and are carried out almost grudgingly as if mere gestures; the public statements made by peace groups are muted and at best ambiguous, as if they don’t wish to offend anyone or to be judged to be “siding with the enemy”. There is a real war fever in the air which is instilling a fear that is clouding the atmosphere and imposing constraints on our very thoughts and opinions.
Ironically, while the Western powers claim constantly to be standing up for freedom and democracy in backing Ukraine, our own domestic freedoms are being curtailed and our normal democratic processes eroded. The rigorous restrictions on the free media are like nothing we have experienced since the Second World War, when German nationals were rounded up, impounded and when pacifists were jailed.
Popular attitudes to the war are inevitably shaped in large part by the information that is available to people, how it is presented to them, how it is assessed and read, just like with any other news story. The message from the mainstream media has been unvarying since the start of the war in February: We must back Ukraine at all costs, we must support the Ukrainian people; we must win this war. This message is repeated over and over again, with little variation, although as the war has progressed political leaders are more candid about their wish to “defeat Russia”, rather than simply forcing its troops to withdraw or teach it a lesson in how to conduct itself.
Every utterance from Kiev must be respected and believed; every news bulletin repeats the latest speech from President Zelensky and his cohorts; their latest accusations against Russia are believed without question, their claims are taken as fact and always go unchallenged, no matter how lurid and extreme the language that is used.
We have been told that Russia is like Nazi Germany or worse than the Nazis; we have been asked to equate Putin with Hitler. It seems clear that those making these careless comments fail to consider the vital role of the Russians in defeating Hitler with their twenty million dead or how offensive it is to Russian sensibilities to draw such crass parallels. Such comments are really an attempt to rewrite history, as are the systematic removal of war memorials across Eastern Europe and their replacement with monuments to ultra-nationalist heroes such as Stepan Bandera in Ukraine; who sided with the Nazis, as did many of the far right across Europe during the Nazi era.
This extensive and largely unchallenged rewrite of history is a very dangerous consequence of this war; we are impelled to equate the equivalent of the Nazis with freedom-loving democrats at time when the far right is a growing political force across Europe once again. The dangers of all this should be obvious. We are playing with fire.
In most situations in modern life, we are supposed to be aware that our words have consequences; that thoughtless comments can be misinterpreted, and that others can take deep offence when we crack a silly joke or express an ill-judged opinion on matters of race, gender, sexuality or countless other sensitive subjects.
Respecting the Other
We are taught to respect the “other”, we are instructed to treat each other with the utmost respect, as we rightly should. But when it comes to Russia and Russian people these edicts and fine obligations are cast aside and do not apply. There is an ugly free for all. It is as if all our pent up rage and frustrations caused by having to bite our tongues incessantly in all other situations are being released for once over the war in Ukraine. The debate is toxic. From reading what is written and said about Russia in the press, uttered by our politicians, commentators, pundits, tweeted by social influencers, so-called experts and from those in power in Kiev, the only realistic conclusion that can be drawn is that the venting of anti-Russian sentiments, no matter how extremely worded, has become fair game and is endorsed by those in authority.
There are simply no limits to what we are allowed to accuse Russia of doing. It is no exaggeration to describe this as a free for all with each successive commentator appearing to be seeking to outdo the other in their dreadful, facile, mostly baseless, Russophobic remarks. I am convinced that we would not be permitted to express the same opinions about any other nation or race.
There are few people around with the courage or the foolhardiness to speak out and say loud and clear that, “enough is enough”. Is everyone too timid to speak up? Are we all intimidated or are we willing accomplices in this farrago? Does the herd mentality now rule supreme over public discourse, and will this go forever unchallenged? If so, this is a step towards a tyranny the like of which is even beyond the wildest dreams of the most megalomaniacal of dictators. It is a total mind control, verging on total social control, and ominously the majority of liberals, peaceniks, humanitarians, the legally minded civil rights activists, are either remaining silent or actively colluding in the process.
Setting aside for one moment the rights and wrongs of the war in Ukraine and who bears most responsibility for prolonging the conflict, this trend towards total opinion management is a very dangerous development indeed. If we cannot allow genuine debate on such a major topic of the day, whose ramifications are so far reaching on our ordinary daily lives, there are serious questions that need to be asked about the future of modern democracy.
Perpetuating the war unnecessarily is pushing millions into direst poverty and destitution. People in the wealthy nations of Western Europe and the United States are suffering power cuts, a cost of living crisis, sky high rises in the prices of basic goods such as bread and milk, rocketing rents and mortgages, energy bills that are simply unaffordable, so that many will go without heating and possibly freeze to death during the winter months, that is if they do not starve first. In the poorest countries of the world, meanwhile, the impact of the war is far, far greater: people are going to die in their millions as famine rages and food supplies are depleted. The costs of this war are far too high.
An Act of Stupidity
All wars are a failure of diplomacy; all wars are a sign of human stupidity and irresponsibility. This war must be one of the most stupid in modern history and those wishing to “see it through to the end” are the dumbest politicians ever imaginable.
Of course some derive real benefit from the war, such as the arms manufacturers, which is patently obvious; and weak political leaders such as President Joe Biden, who, apart from being physically frail was literally on his back politically following his debacle in Afghanistan and desperately needed to demonstrate his strength to restore his personal image and more importantly to reinvigorate the standing of the United States among its allies and more widely on the world stage. The outbreak of the war in Ukraine seemed perfectly designed to allow him to achieve these objectives. It was a godsend.
But it is not only those civilians who find themselves in the frontline who are suffering as a result of this terrible war; innocent people dwelling in countries thousands of miles away from the conflict zone, many of whom may not have even heard of Ukraine or at least will be quite unfamiliar with the reasons why the war is being conducted, are suffering needlessly. Many are already paying a very heavy price and will lose their lives. Children will go malnourished as victims of the famines provoked by the food shortages and high prices that have been rising as a direct result of a war that has absolutely nothing to do with them.
We must hold our political leaders to account; we must repudiate the emotional blackmail; we must resist the simplistic solutions offered up to us; we must oppose the demonisation of Russia and the cancelling of the great humanistic culture of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky. End this folly, end this war. Despite all the hate and suffering, a just peace and moves towards a future reconciliation between peoples cannot be outside our grasp. A solution cannot be beyond the wit of human beings, can it?
To give peace a chance we need to break the spell of the Ukrainian enchantment and the West needs to learn to love Russia.
© David Morgan
David Morgan is the author of The Good Old Cause – Communist Intellectuals and the English Radical Tradition and co-author of Writers of the Left in An Age of Extremes, both published in London by the Socialist History Society, of which he is the secretary. David is a journalist and editor who is interested in exploring the connections between literature and history.