Fragments from a War Diary, Part #96
The notorious miserablist German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had the following infamous, if delectably enjoyable, quote about humans immersed in the passage of time. He said:
No little part of the torment of existence lies in this, that Time is continually pressing on us, never letting us take breath, but always coming after us, like a ruthless taskmaster with a whip. If at any moment Time ceases to harass us, it is only when we are delivered over to the misery of boredom.
(This author’s translation)
I find that these words have an unnerving resonance whenever I am in a war zone or conflict environment. Life for the people of Ukraine is on hold. Time is passing by but they are not achieving anything positive or new. Instead they just have to wait indefinitely, for something to change, and it seems that nothing is going to change very soon. In the meantime, they are struggling for something to do and people are all very bored. Regular jobs have dried up. You might have an office to go to but it is unlikely that you have much of value to do and it is unlikely that you are being paid a lot of money to do it. I have experienced multiple instances of ersatz jobs, in which Ukrainians complain that they really have nothing to do with the day and they are just going through the motions of going to work to stop themselves from going crazy.
The same is true of the international community here. Now the immediate crisis resulting from a torrent of internally displaced people is over, the NGO community is substantially more relaxed and as I have suggested in prior essays, they are often doing jobs, such as cooking, that Ukrainians can do themselves with at least the same level of efficiency. The capacity to make money in wartime Ukraine has ground to a halt, and the natural entrepreneurial spirit possessed by many young Ukrainians has no outlet. A lot of people spend the day just hanging around, with not much to do and not much money to spend either. It is all rather depressing, and this may be fuelling the country’s continuing problems with alcoholism.
I have noticed that a number of NGO staff spend a lot of time driving around. A number of people drive from various places in western Europe to Ukraine to deliver something and then they drive back again. Others spend a lot of time driving around Ukraine, which is an enormous country. This all takes time but also it costs money, as vehicles require refuelling and they also require repair and maintenance. Moreover I do not see the sense in using foreigners to drive across Ukraine. The best people for that are surely Ukrainians. Elementary logistics - supplying things to the front lines and to remote rural communities affected by the horrors of war - is not something that requires international expertise.
I have heard the excuse proffered that if foreigners do not deliver the aid personally to the front line military or civilian communities, then it is likely to be lost or stolen. That does not strike me as a priori obvious, although undoubtedly in wartime a lot of material assistance does indeed go missing. However personal delivery by foreigners will not necessarily minimise the wastage. It may increase wastage, by creating fuel and personnel costs that otherwise would not have to be incurred because Ukrainians are undertaking the same journeys anyway. Moreover foreigners who drive to the front line may not know who they are supplying their assistance to or what that person is likely to do with it. You can deliver medical supplies to people on the front line who are wearing military fatigues and they may be every bit as likely to see those medical supplies to a third party in a way that you would not want as is a person in an office in Lviv.
The same applies to food deliveries. Foreigners may provide food to people in remote regions of the country but those people may not necessarily eat the food themselves or they may not eat all of the food provided. You do not necessarily know what their current food supplies are. Also the municipal administrations in these regions may have arrangements whereby food supplies by foreigners are paid for out of the public budget in shadowy backroom deals. These are the unmentioned transactions costs involved in foreign NGO’s delivering humanitarian assistance and everyone knows they exist but few like to talk about them in any specific instance and I will not do so either. We should all just acknowledge that this is an issue so it is a fallacy to say that Ukraine needs a lot of foreigners driving across the country all day every day to undertake deliveries personally.
We are all looking for something to do in wartime Ukraine, and we are all trying to be helpful. Everyone’s intentions are the best, both locals and foreigners. But whether it be waiting around for a permission to be obtained; driving huge distances across the country; or sitting in your hotel room waiting for a telephone call or a meeting, living through war is fundamentally very boring. There is not enough to do except in the moments of crisis and panic where military violence is imminent and people rush for the air raid shelters or suddenly thousands of people try to board the same train without tickets as they rush to flee an anticipated invasion. People sit around by themselves, bored and trying to find something to do to fill the days. They feel frozen by the conflict going on around them, and in Schopenhauer’s words Time has delivered them over to boredom.
On the other hand, the soldiers on the front line have an entirely different experience. They are spending their days in the trenches or defending buildings, trying just to stay alive. They become increasingly exhausted, nervous and frustrated as they see their friends and colleagues dying and being injured around them. Yet even fighting on the front line can be very boring. To paraphrase American inventor Thomas Edison’s comments about genius, war is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. The challenge is to find a way to get through each day, boring, frustrating and difficult as it is, and nothing more. This is a war of attrition.