Fragments from a War Diary, Part #71
As I write these words I can hear a man with an American accent repeatedly shout “this is no f@cking good” down a telephone at the top of his voice through an adjacent wall. I suppose he is a distinguished member of the international aid community in Lviv. I have rented what can best be described as a large duplex room in a very large crumbling old house in what must possibly be one of the most central addresses Lviv. It is not en suite but it has an enormous common kitchen and living area. I hardly ever see the other guests in this curious living arrangement, but I do occasionally hear them.
However I have not been doing much with the day, except lying in bed with my feet pleasantly throbbing from my trench foot. The man I met on the train last night who threatened to take me directly to Lviv central military hospital (I couldn’t help finding this threat almost Putinesque in its sinisterism but I am sure it was well-intentioned) has now started messaging me asking what medical treatment I have received so I am going to do something I almost never do. I am going to lie to him. I will tell him I have seen a doctor and I am taking some medications. This is completely false. My feet have stopped hurting and now they just smell relentlessly whenever I take my shoes off. The solution, I have decided, is just to keep my shoes on at all times in the presence of others, and wait until my feet drop off. So if you meet me tonight in a bar in Lviv, I strongly advise you not to go to bed with me.
It is one of those days in a war zone when you are good for nothing except rest, because wave upon wave of tiredness has built up and at some point the body just says: enough. You can lie in bed all day but you still feel as though you have had a full workout in the gym. I thought it time to reflect upon some of the eye watering moments I have had but I have decided not to record so far. There are so many of them that I barely know where to begin; I want to record them for posterity, before memories fade.
One of the most extraordinary was when a young lady I met in Kharkiv told me that her brother is a sniper in Bakhmut, has two degrees and speaks four languages fluently. All I could think is that this is an extraordinary waste of a fine mind: using a sophisticated rifle to murder unknown people at long range. I cannot say it is cowardly or even immoral. Being a sniper can be a very dangerous job and the people who do it are both skilled and brave. Snipers may play important roles in assassinating opposing military commanders or keeping enemy troops at bay across a contested urban front line, as in Bakhmut. But the idea of being trained to kill unknown people is an inherently inhuman one.
I have heard it often said that of every ten soldiers sent into battle, only one of them is able to kill unknown human beings; the other nine will shoot to miss. Whether or not this remains true in the era of modern warfare, in which so much is done down the barrel of a gun or a mortar or via a missile or drone controlled via a computer and a series of cameras, I do not know. But humans are not, as a rule, designed to kill one another. It takes extraordinary discipline and will to overcome the instinct not to kill, and in my mind at least the line is drawn with self defence or the protection of the life of others. I do not think I could pull the trigger on a sniper rifle with the sights aimed at an unknown stranger, my not knowing what this person had done to deserve his peremptory death other than be a member of an opposing army or to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The young lady I met in Kharkiv was herself most intelligent. I can always see intellect in a person’s eyes within moments of their opening their mouths. This intelligent and well educated lady spoke the most meticulous English, despite barely meeting any native English speakers. She was from an educated family in Soviet times, who had lived in the upmarket residential suburb of Saltivka in the north of Kharkiv. She had lost her home, her education (she could not graduate) and her pride when her home was destroyed by Russian shelling, and she was bitter but dignified. All she wanted was an ordinary life back, where she could continue her education and pursue her career. Instead she was reduced to menial work, waiting ad nauseam for the war to end. I gently pointed out to her that in war, menial work is the only work that matters. War zones are no places for high intellectuals - except, perhaps, to keep the sparks of culture and decency alight so that there is some sort of civilisation to go back to at the war’s end.
This young lady was intensely proud of her brother, ten years older than her, who, I sensed, was every bit the frustrated cultivated intellectual as was this lady. She seemed angry; and who can blame her. She had no remorse for her brother’s victims. I can understand why not. But those victims have families too, and they also once had livelihoods that they lost when they were conscripted into the Russian Armed Forces.
As American Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman infamously observed, “War is Hell”. It makes boors and scoundrels of us all. Everyone is reduced to a body count. By virtue of my passport, I am worth US$10,000 to a conscripted Russian soldier if he manages to murder me. By virtue of his nationality, he was conscripted into the Russian Armed Forces by the hideous security services of the Russian Federation, presided over by arguably the world’s most dangerous man, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, who writes in his own memoirs that he recalled with interest and pleasure torturing a rat in a St Petersburg basement when a starving child, before killing it and eating it. That a man with so disturbed a past rose to become the President of Russia may help us all to understand a little bit more how we have ourselves discovered the beast within us in our emotional reactions to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.