Fragments from a War Diary, Part #118
As I spend ever more time in Lviv, I feel myself becoming increasingly re-civilised. I am thinking ever less like a military maniac. I find myself wanting to have fewer conversations about Bakhmut (the front line Russian-occupied city in Donetsk where relentless bombardment and shelling is a way of life for both sides). I no longer stash sachets of sugar in every empty pocket of my jeans, nor keep a water bottle inside my rucksack in case I am locked down in an overnight air raid incident in a concrete bunker with adequate water supply. Slowly but surely, I am returning to normal. I don’t know how I feel about this. I feel I am losing something. The real world is creeping back in and grabbing me by the throat. Should I resist, or should I acquiesce? Do I feel guilty that I am no longer having a front line experience, risking my neck every day? I have been here before. These sorts of moral ambiguity are part of the relentless psychological violence you inflict upon yourself when you live through a war zone.
Let’s face it: all wars involving Russia last a long time. The Syrian Civil War lasted over a decade. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was almost as long. This was is going to continue for some time. The Ukrainian people need to find a sense of normalcy and stability amidst the continuing military narrative that none of us in the West, with all our Dollars and our military and civilian support, can do nothing to detract from. The war is going to continue, and we must prepare ourselves psychologically and economically and politically for that.
There is a sense of constant frenzy amongst the international community based in Lviv. We all have the most demanding routines, trying to squeeze every last drop of energy out of ourselves to help the people of Ukraine. It is as though we think that by giving that last piece of effort to the cause, we alone can make the difference. We all of us feel guilty if we take some time out for ourselves. But the fact is that none of us are going to make the difference that counts. We are all just very small cogs in a very large machine that must be sustained over several years. We all talk about victory, as though this is some clear goal to which we are all giving our one per cent. We all have these feelings of guilt if we are not giving everything we can to that final goal. But of course it is not like that. While everyone talks of a final goal of victory for Ukraine, there is no perfect victory. Even if Ukraine succeeds in reclaiming all her occupied territories (and recall that the majority of those occupied territories have been held by pro-Russian interests for some ten years), the total cost in human lives, injured and mutilated people, economic damage - in blood and treasure - will be vast. There will be no satisfactory end to this war except an early one, this war will not have an early end.
Everyone has a collective feeling of guilt if they are not contributing their all; but guilt is a facile emotion, because fear of guilt drives you to attempt the efforts of Hercules and none of us is Hercules. I am sitting her now feeling guilty, because I could be working to prepare meals for hungry soldiers and instead I am ruminating on my own personal feelings. I am impossibly self-indulgent, I think, and I am feeling guilty. This morning I had a lie-in. That’s right: I just lay in bed and did nothing, and it felt wonderful. And before I go to work, I am going to have a cup of coffee and listen to my favourite classical music. I might even listen to the radio or watch the news. I have no idea what is going on in the outside world. I only know what is happening in Ukraine. I could tell you every detail about President Zelenskiy’s daily press briefings, but I barely know that Israel is about to launch a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. I do however know that Ukraine supports Gaza; a sea of Israeli flags have appeared across Lviv and seem to be hanging from every public building. But somebody asked me the other day for my opinions about the conflict between Israel and Hamas and, unusually for me, I replied that I don’t know enough about it. This is true. I am out of the loop with what is going on in the outside world, because I feel that I never have enough time.
My new friends and colleagues were talking the other day about a party we all hope to have in Yalta, once Crimea is liberated. That does sound as though it will be a good party, with the entire international community that has supported Ukraine throughout this war travelling to the Crimean peninsula for this purpose. Alas if it happens, this will be a long way off into the future. The Crimean peninsula is one of the most naturally defensible pieces of land in the world, and an invasion from the sea, even if as President Zelenskiy hopes sea domination around Crimea can be achieved by Ukraine and her allies, would prove exceptionally difficult. So the only way in would be to re-take the territory to the south of the Dnieper River that Russia occupied early in 2022, and I do not know how the Ukrainian Armed Forces are going to pontoon that massive river to launch a ground assault. Certainly none of this is happening soon. Once the current burst of pre-winter fighting has subsided - and I strongly fear that nothing significant will come of it except more funerals - the task will be for the Ukrainians to dig themselves in for another cruelly cold winter. Although we still have bright, crisp days in Lviv, the weather is getting progressively worse. Herculean efforts that drive a person to exhaustion are not going to make the difference in the next stage of the war. Instead people staying calm, supporting one-another, and simple acts of daily kindness and decency, will help people through the privations of the winter.
We must be philosophical, calm and relentlessly reflective in fighting this war, asking ourselves each day what we can realistically expect of ourselves and others; keeping realistic objectives in mind; dreaming, yes, there is value in that; but most importantly, trying to keep have fun and to stay sane.