Fragments from a War Diary, Part #79
This evening I had the pleasure to spend my time with a wonderful Ukrainian lady who came to meet me out of the blue. She was the epitome of courtesy, respectfulness and decency. She wanted to know all about me, and I told her my story. She was funny, kind and generous. I love meeting Ukrainian people of this kind.
My new Ukrainian friend barely drank a drop. But she was so polite and patient with me, that I relished every moment of the evening. I am going to Kharkiv tomorrow, and I invited her to come with me. Unfortunately she had other obligations, and I could not tempt her to join me on a 15-hour train ride to the other side of the country in a grotty and claustrophobic second class carriage on a gargantuan Ukrainian Railways train rolling across the full span of the country. But she had a happy smile, and she enraptured me with her generosity of spirit. I do not know whether I will ever see her again.
The bar staff in what has now become my local place in Lviv asked me to take off my military jacket when I entered. Military personnel in active service are prohibited from drinking alcohol, as a sort of “drying out” scheme intended to keep the Ukrainian Armed Force sober and focused upon their jobs. If you want those high-paying front line salaries, then you have to stay sober. The corollary of this is that the bar staff in Lviv’s many Old Town taverns are prohibited from serving anyone in military uniform, in case they are implicated in the improper service of alcohol to members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The staff knew that I am not in a proscribed category; but they did not want problems with the Police. Military police with assault rifles cocked and slung over their shoulders patrol the streets of Lviv both in daylight hours and at night: a sobering reminder of the meaning of martial law.
I spend much of the time I have to myself in Ukrainian military theatre wondering why I am here and whether what I am doing is really a worthwhile exercise of my time. I think that on balance it is. One thing I have noticed is that my tolerance of danger and risk is substantially higher than that of the average Ukrainian. My new and temporary female friend of this evening considered Kharkiv far too dangerous for her to go to visit, and she had some other plans to travel to western or central Europe. I wondered why she did not want to visit other parts of her own country first, and to help the loyal Ukrainian patriots serving on the front line. No doubt she had her reasons. Is she really scared, or are there other motives at work? I will never know.
Nevertheless she wanted to help me, and I find that Ukrainian people are overwhelmingly appreciative of the fact that I am here, as an Emissary of the West and representative of continuing Western support for the Ukrainians in their darkest hour. I am humbled by the respect and gratitude accorded by ordinary Ukrainian people to me for my modest service to their country. I hope they understand how fundamental the geopolitical stakes are in this confrontational power-play with the modern Russian Federation. If Ukraine falls, then other parts of Europe may fall and ultimately the values we hold dear as Europeans and Americans may disintegrate.
I am reminded of the famous words of that most esteemed and dignified of US Presidents, Abraham Lincoln, in one of the shortest but most admired speeches in political history, the Gettysburg Address, when amidst the ruins of the battlefield and amongst the bodies of the fallen on both sides, he uttered the following solemn words:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
This is one of the shortest, yet one of the most compelling, political speeches in history. For me, it sums up why the West is fighting this war on behalf of Ukraine. We are fighting this war for the values of freedom and democracy, that all decent and civilised nations uphold as fundamental values. We are fighting to keep the tyranny of totalitarianism at bay, and to embrace Ukraine and her people into Euro-Atlantic institutions and the community of civilised nations governed by the principles of democracy, freedom and rule of law. Slava Ukraini.