What am I doing? Why am I here? Have I made a terrible mistake? Why am I doing it all over again? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, except the obvious point that I must be rather unhinged. I said goodbye to my native England yesterday, on a flight to Kraków in southern Poland, the jumping-off point for most Ukrainian wartime adventures. I arrived late in the evening, and of course I rushed to one of the worst bars in Kraków, to drink as much as I could in the shortest possible time with an old friend and fellow volunteer and we were shooting the breeze and talking about this and talking about that and we nattered on about friends and lovers and friends and lovers and round and round and this sort of thing. We reminisced about all our silly stories together and planning our times ahead and deciding when we’ll meet again in the middle of a war zone and it won’t be long it seems. Anyway I stayed out far too late and I had a thorough “blow out”, and I woke up about lunchtime today in my cheap nasty hotel that just happens to be next to the bus station from where the buses to Ukraine depart.
And I ask myself again: why oh why am I doing this? Why am I sitting here in this truly appalling hotel with a room the size of a punishment cell in a maximum security prison so that I can sit through seven hours on a crumpled dumpy bus tomorrow in order to arrive in a war zone with air raid sirens and all the rest of this crazy stuff? Why is there a giant single-compartment camouflage-pattern military rucksack on the floor of my hotel room? Why am I wearing a military camouflage fleece jacket and why is my luggage full of military flag patches for friends of mine in Ukraine? Why am I listening to a YouTube channel consisting of back-to-back James Bond themes? And I didn’t have to struggle very hard with all these silly questions; the answer to them is always the same. It’s because I find it exciting.
Back in late August of 2023 when I started this Ukrainian adventure, I never imagined for one moment that I would be so drawn in. I never imagined I would be here now in Kraków in these sub-zero temperatures in some crummy hotel waiting for a bus to drive me off to a war zone. My mother tearfully waved me off at the airport security channel yesterday and said she hoped she’d see me again soon. I’d almost become normalised with over two weeks in England, seeing family and friends; I’d almost rehabilitated myself into normal society and I’d started thinking normally about things again: everything from the real price of beer (it seems it costs about Five British Pounds a pint right now) to the fact that hotels in the real world don’t have stacks of complimentary body armour in reception - a curious feature of my hotel in Kharkiv that I recalled today in casual chat with a friend.
The same friend and colleague reminisced about some of the extraordinary experiences we have both had in Ukraine. I remember thinking she was the first normal person I met there. Her opening words to me were “thank God you’ve come; we need someone serious around here”. I think she said that before even telling me her name. Anyway I don’t know whether I was or even am that serious person; maybe I’m an imposter in all this game; I feel like I have imposter syndrome; maybe I’m just doing it all for the thrills.
Or maybe not. Maybe I’m coming because actually I too really hate the Russians - or, to be more accurate, I hate their government and the way they do things and the way they treat people, and their casual disregard for life that has led to the Russian Armed Forces sending hundreds of thousands of their own people to pointless and mindless deaths; the terrorising and suffering inflicted upon the civilians and Armed Forces of free Ukraine; the misery, intimidation and atmosphere of intimidation and cruelty prevailing in the Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine; the egregious war crimes committed; the existential threat to the European and international legal order that the contemporary Russian Federation presents to us all. Maybe I’m motivated not just by hatred and loathing of this vile Russian system, which I am determined must be reformed by whatever means necessary as well as its pernicious influence across Europe being resisted at every turn - and not just in Ukraine.
Maybe I’m also motivated by duty. I think we must all be motivated by duty in this, the most ideological of all contemporary wars, in which western values of liberty, democracy and rule of law are pitted against casual Russian totalitarianism of the most cynical and depressing kind. Maybe I am feeling so positive today because I feel that I have my part to play in this the most consequential conflict of modern times, the outcome of which will shape generations to come and the future of Europe. Crawling round the seemingly interminable bars of central Kraków, which sometimes feel as though it has become an extension of an English high street with pub after pub after pub selling cheap beer and vodka and hearty Polish food, it is easy to forget that an existential war for Europe’s very future is just on your doorstep. But it is, and tomorrow I am heading back into military theatre to play my part. I have a seemingly endless list of things to do; I can’t linger here as an eternal drunk; there is a war to win and I have to play my part in winning it.
I’m well aware that the rest of Europe and the United States haven’t quite yet got it. This is a real war. It’s World War III. Russia is trying to dismantle the modern European order and they have what may now be the largest and most battle-hardened army in the world and they have militarised their economy so that now all it does for the most part is produce weapons for supply to the front. And we’re going to have to catch up. And, in one way or another, with your taxpayer’s money or your private donations or your own lives as you are called up for National Service to bolster NATO’s troop capacity: you’re going to be following me. Sooner or later, like it or not, you’ll be involved in all this too. There is no choice. We’re fighting for our way of life, against something tyrannical and sinister in equal measure.