Fragments from a War Diary, Part #119
As I tramped down the hill from my current place of work this afternoon, on a short break from my duties to attend to some sundry affairs, a cheery colleague who was bounding up the hill gaily commented “you look knackered”. And then it suddenly occurred to me that I feel knackered, so it’s probably not a surprise if I look it too. When fatigue comes upon you, in an environment of high stress, it hits you in multiple waves and I think that is the stage I am at now. Another of my colleagues observed to me yesterday evening, “don’t you ever sleep?”. I suppose the answer is that I am not sleeping enough, because it is that guilt thing going on in my head: I need to be doing more to help. I am still learning to relax. I think I have been trying to learn to relax for all of my life, but I have never quite managed it. I am thrilled to be helping the Ukrainian people in their time of need, precisely because there is so much to be done. But this relentless toll of activity takes its dues, and at some point you really start to get exhausted.
You can get a good night’s sleep; but somehow it doesn’t help. War zones are full of anxiety, boredom, repetitive tasks, loneliness, the need to be constantly sociable with lots of different people, disrupted routines, and constant management of unusual events and unexpected shocks to the system. There is a routine in both military and civilian life in times of war, but it is disrupted often several times daily and living through this sort of experience is not like normal life at all. You need to be enormously psychologically tough to put up with it for any period of time, as your emotional state veers between excitement and tedium. I see it in my friends and colleagues here. Sometimes they each of them have good days, and others not so good. Some days I feel haggard by the end of the day, or even at the beginning. This morning started well but after a few hours I had a thumping headache and my stomach was groaning for satisfaction.
I went to the mobile phone shop. My phone has taken to changing its settings. You need a certain calibration to your mobile phone settings for them to accept Ukrainian SIM cards, and this was the source of great anxiety and study of my phone when I first arrived in Ukraine. The lady behind the counter in the store grumpily snatched my phone out of my hands and started trying to play around with its settings, without informing me what she was doing. I remonstrated, saying that I would like to know what she is doing with my phone before she does it. Then she threw it back at me, saying that I could solve the problem myself. Customer service standards in Ukraine can be a little different from what we are used to in the West, but I figured she probably had some other problems and issues on her mind of her own and she wasn’t really concentrating on being polite to her customer. Everyone has problems and concerns in times of war, and the small details of things like customer service can go amiss.
I’ve taken to falling asleep during the day. This is something everyone living in a war zone for any period of time knows about. Anxiety and hard work combined can be managed by the body and the brain for a few weeks but after that it becomes increasingly difficult for the body’s internal mechanisms of control to moderate all the feelings and physical exhaustion you are going through every day and you start doing things like falling asleep for an hour during the day or dozing off while sitting in the corner. Last night, while I was waiting for a take-away kebab in one of Lviv’s many kebab houses, I noticed young people slouched in each corner on the wooden seating, glazed eyes drearily interacting with their phones and I was sure that some of them were just asleep. I have seen this in many cafes and restaurants, on park benches, and elsewhere across Lviv. People go through bursts of energy and then they just collapse.
I am about to march back up the hill to my place of work now, after the shortest of breaks to clear my head, but I am reminded of a consistent theme of these diaries, namely that war changes the psychology of everybody as the confidence and aspiration one places in the expectation that life will generally get better is shaken to the core. In wartime, all bets are off. There is no longer any certainty of anything, and this shatters a person’s internal core and endangers their very soul. I don’t know how much longer the money I have will serve me. I don’t know whether I can make more money. If I am a soldier, I don’t know whether my legs will be blown off by a shell tomorrow. If I am a parent, wife, brother or sister, then I don’t know whether my relative will come back from the front line alive or in a body bag. I don’t know whether I may get sick tomorrow. I don’t know whether I will be able to find healthcare. I don’t know whether I will be able to sleep tonight, and I don’t know whether I will be warm. There is no pleasure or glory or comfort in war. War is another form of Hell, the deepest level of Hades, and it is the worst possible affliction that humankind has ever imposed upon itself.
I am reminded of the immortal and gruelling words of World War One poet Wilfred Own, who recorded his own thoughts about war in his infamously depressing poem Dulce et Decorum Est.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.