Fragments from a War Diary, Part #174
This evening was another evening in Lviv when I felt things were going slightly amiss. I missed my ticket at the Opera - a true holy devotion in my mind - because I needed some time to myself and I became interested in studying the history of late Soviet Ukraine. So I threw my ticket to the Opera in. I felt guilty; but it was some modernist piece no doubt with screeching arcane instrumentals and angular vocals; somehow I just felt it wasn’t for me. Instead, having had a difficult and heavy day recovering from some severe blunt trauma injury that involved falling off a swampy squat toilet a few days ago, and marching off to a medical clinic for an unnecessarily bureaucratic exercise in obtaining a renewed prescription, I was feeling a bit tired and exhausted of everything and I needed a break,
So the Opera was not to be. Instead I strolled over the street, bobbling along the Old Town cobbles, to my favourite bar, just to be surrounded by some of my favourite people, who make my life colourful and interesting and who give Lviv the flavour and a sense of joy that I so associate with this town. I have all these ideas up in the air. Will I form my own NGO to bring discipline to the chaos in the international community that I see around me? Who will I recruit? Who are the best people to bring into my team? There are so many unknowns. I thought I would sit down, and order some food, and have a beer or two, and think about all of these questions on a Friday evening, relaxing, calm, amidst familiar faces.
There was a drunk or two in the bar. They engaged me in casual, mindless conversation, but I was immune to it tonight. I didn’t want this sort of drivel in my ears. I was more focused on my inner thoughts, and my future, and really more importantly the future for Ukraine and what I can actually and concretely do to help this country and better to guide and direct the well-intentioned but sometimes undisciplined efforts of the international community here. I have a grand idea in my head, which involves finding funding for the international and domestic NGO community but channeled through procedures satisfactory to foreign donor governments, and I have shared this idea with some colleagues and I believe it will work but it will require a lot of commitment and consultation and cooperation and maybe I am the right guy to spearhead it publicly or maybe I am not and I just set up the structure and then I leave it to others to implement my ideas.
I don’t know. Nobody does. We just have to take it day by day because this is a war zone and anything, including the political winds, could change tomorrow. Nevertheless I owe it to Ukraine, and to whose people I have come to love, to give it my best shot. I have become committed to the cause, and until someone comes along and tells me that there is some better cause for which I am more properly suited, I figure I am going to give this the best shot I can. That is how I am thinking.
Anyway I was sitting in my favourite bar, watching the casual drunks sway like swamp reeds, when my friend sends me a message and says I should come to some other bar. This one was much better and it was just around the corner. What was so good about it, I enquired? The answer turned out to be that things were kicking off there. Yes, some local Ukrainians had gotten themselves drunk and had decided to sort out their differences by beating one-another to a pulp. I have never really understood this form of dispute resolution as it seems to have no upside for either party involved. I have always believed in the principle that burying people in meaningless pieces of paper and correspondence is a better way of resolving mankind’s inevitable and interminable disputes than getting excited about the spillage of blood. And therein lies an important insight into the conflict in Ukraine.
Right now we are all focused upon the spillage of blood and the continuation of bloody conflict between the parties, and resentment and hatred and violence and frustration and all of the boiling and impossible and irrelevant and heated emotions that Robert De Niro’s iconoclastic character in the infamously depressing 1976 movie Taxi Driver (images from that movie in the graphic accompanying this essay) displayed when he repeatedly asked the camera, his imagined visceral enemy in some phantasmagorical violent street scene, “Are you talking to me?”.
De Niro’s character in that movie was a maniac, of course. But that is precisely my point. This war is making maniacs of us all. It is causing men who barely know one-another but who are on the same side of the conflict to engage in bar brawls in public. It is causing people who are stressed and frustrated to exhibit their anger and aggression. It is causing anxiety and heartache in us all. It is militarising a nation, making us all think and talk about guns and ammunition and weapons and artillery and other various deathly things as though they are casual features of daily life. And all these thoughts and imaginations are dehumanising us, just as De Niro’s character in Taxi Driver is dehumanised through routine daily exposure to casual violence and infamous events on the streets of a violent American city. War corrodes at the heart and soul of a nation, and its incidents mean that I end up throwing away my opera ticket in favour of a night in a bar with a bunch of alcohol-sodden maniacs.
War is the most ghastly and horrifying disease and evil that any society can impose upon itself. I do not know what to do to suppress all these negative emotions. All I see is a society on its knees, its culture being broken apart through a form of collective psychosis because its people are inured to the routine incidents of war. I am reminded of the Bard of Avon, in his infamously depressing play Julius Caesar, Act III Scene I:
O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, That I am meek and gentle with these butchers! Thou art the ruins of the noblest man That ever lived in the tide of times. Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood! Over thy wounds now do I prophesy— Which, like dumb mouths, do ope their ruby lips To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue— A curse shall light upon the limbs of men. Domestic fury and fierce civil strife Shall cumber all the parts of Italy. Blood and destruction shall be so in use, And dreadful objects so familiar, That mothers shall but smile when they behold Their infants quartered with the hands of war, All pity choked with custom of fell deeds, And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge, With Ate by his side come hot from hell, Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war, That this foul deed shall smell above the earth With carrion men, groaning for burial.