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Otto von Bismarck on the war in Ukraine


"Be polite; write diplomatically; even in a declaration of war one observes the rules of politeness."


The war in Ukraine, that began on 24 February 2022, must be the most offensive, foul and rudely conducted war to date since Bismarck uttered these words. It is being conducted in outrageously undiplomatic terms, in which bile, offensiveness and appalling lies are mixed in with all discussions upon the war and in such direct and indirect diplomacy as the parties may be undertaking.


Everyone is guilty of this. Russian President Vladimir Putin started the trend by calling the Ukrainian government in Kyiv neo-Nazis, scum and drug addicts. However the Ukrainian propagandists soon picked up the habit, comparing Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler and calling the Russian Armed Forces fucking scum, pigs and bastards.


Here is a selection of 'questions' used by various authorities in their 'questioning' of foreigners seeking to do good deeds in Ukraine of all kinds, and spend money assisting Ukrainian civilians as well as mediate resolutions to disputes.


  1. 'Fuck the Russians, they are fucking scum. Do you agree?'

  2. 'You're not giving us enough money as enough weapons.'

  3. 'The Russians are fucking bastards and we will kill them all.'

  4. 'Expressing opinions like that [calling for a ceasefire], you'll go to military prison.'

  5. 'Fuck Vladimir Putin, he is a fucking Nazi.'


We could go on but there is really no point. We are reminded of a humourously proffered iron law of international relations, to the effect that the longer the debate goes on, the greater the likelihood of one or both of the parties comparing the other one to Adolf Hitler or Nazism. This sort of verbal slanging match is worthless. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the war in Ukraine (and it is rare to find someone with no opinion about it), nobody is properly compared with Adolf Hitler or the Nazis, the greatest genocidaires of Jews and others in the history of human conflict.


This angry, incoherent, flailing rhetoric is a bad thing for at least three reasons. The first is that it obscures objective, measured assessments of how the sides are progressing in the war. It makes it very hard to assess who is really winning, or the likely length of the war, or how quickly events are unfolding on the ground. That is because the government propaganda, intelligence community reportage, and domestic and international journalism, all find themselves bogged down in discussions of Nazis, scum and bastards. The problem with using this language to describe one's adversaries is that it becomes an unreasonably trite inference to conclude that the Nazis, scum and bastards cannot be doing well because such people (so the reasoning goes) never do well. If both sides adopt this sort of approach, nobody will have a clear view of the course of the war.


Wars are processes. They go on over time; the relative strengths of the parties vary over the period of the war in lots of different ways, and there are many different moving parts. One side may be losing on the battlefield but gaining economically, which may or may not be more important depending at what stage of the war we are at. While all wars are fought for territory, few wars are fought solely for territory. (Those that are are relatively easy to bring to an end; you just let the parties fight themselves to a halt.)


Because wars are so complicated, with issues such as territory, manpower, logistics, economics, manufacturing capacity, domestic public support, international public support, sanctions, hydrocarbons availability, infrastructure maintenance and collapse, civilian deaths, civilian displacements, military deaths, military prisoners of war, the military wounded; and dozens of other factors to be combined and assessed to gageing the progress or otherwise of a war, it becomes very difficult to measure war's progress.


The habit of most people is simply to jump to the first conclusion or inference that seems convenient to their point of view or preferred perspective. In doing this the general public, and governmental authorities, and domestic civilians, and domestic serving military personnel, tend to adopt the first view they like to hear that they read in the media aligned with their desires. This we call propaganda; and the most intelligent, educated members of a society can fall for propaganda hook, line and sinker. Liberal democracy is no defence to wartime propaganda, which is controlled during wartime to a large extent by the access that military personnel and propagandists grant to journalists. What virtually everyone tends to forget is that exactly the same thing is happening in reverse with the propaganda machine on the other side. To get at something approximating to the truth during wartime requires constant forensic examination of the competing propaganda in order to discard unreliable assertions that are inconsistent with other facts we know. This is where the skills of forensic military analysis become important: to work out what is really going on.


Unregulated populist contemporary internet mass media used and abused by both sides and their proxies amplifies the lies and aggression in a way we've never seen before in the modern era of war reportage.


At the time of writing it is not clear whether the Russian Armed Forces are progressing and taking territory or are retreating. The different sides' propaganda is saying diametrically opposing things, and the quantity of forensic military analysis being undertaken by intelligence agencies (which is really their job during war) is insufficient. We just don't know which side is progressing, in any of perhaps two dozen or more different metrics that one might use to measure the Ukrainian war's progress.


So the task is hard enough without the Nazis, bastards, murderers and scum narratives entering the propaganda machines. These just inject imagined moral certainty into the debate when moral certainty is unfortunately irrelevant to who is actually prevailing whether on the battlefield or elsewhere.


The second reason the scum and bastards language should not be used is that it tends to dehumanise one's enemies in the eyes of the person doing the ranting. Hence the persons participating in the war are less likely to have proper regard to the sanctity of civilian life; the welfare of Prisoners of War; the imperative not to kill or harm surrendering soldiers; and all the other things we call the laws and morality of war. It is easy to murder scum and bastards and to rape their wives. It is not so easy to do these things to fathers with families and children. The dehumanising use of violent and vile language against one's opponents in wartime is a revolting disgrace that can lead us down the path of grievous war crimes and acts against humanity. Because everyone fighting in and affected by war is ultimately a human being deserving of our Christian sympathies.


The third reason language like this should not be used is that all wars - and we mean all wars in human history - are ended with agreements, armistices and the like - agreed written arrangements for their conclusion, in the vast majority of which there is an element of compromise. (Unconditional surrender is incredibly rare in history.) When wars are being brought to an end it requires armies of international diplomats, mediators and civil conflict specialists to place together the pieces of a comprehensive jigsaw that can result in lasting peace. It is an enormously difficult task with multiple moving parts. When the warring parties and their proxies and allies are using outrageous and offensive language both to describe one another and to obscure the truth on the ground that must be the starting point of any negotiation process leading to the end of the war, the exercise in mediation becomes unnecessarily toxic and the war becomes all the harder to bring to a conclusion because the use of foul language has dissolved any trust the parties might have and has tarnished the common resolve that is always necessary to end a war.


The war in Ukraine will come to an end. It may be next week; it may be by the end of the year; it may be in five years. But it will end. Those who imagine that it will end with the unconditional surrender of Russia are as deluded as those who imagine that it will end with the unconditional surrender of Ukraine. The war will end with a compromise between the sides' competing objectives, just like every other war. The use of foul, immature and stupid language to keep tempers boiling will only extend this process to result in the deaths of more young men and the destruction of more civilian infrastructure. It will not prevent the ultimate peace process that will be imposed upon the parties eventually from without. Nobody can keep the war in Ukraine going forever off the back of international funding. The war will be brought to a negotiated conclusion, just like every other war since the end of World War II. Those who use obnoxious and offensive language are just kidding themselves.


We conclude this essay with two more of Bismarck's observations about war.


First, we invite the reader to take note of Bismarck's observation that 'when you have to fool the world, tell the truth'. The truth in war is almost invariably deeply obscured but there are those who persistently dig at it, and they get there in the end. No party to a war ever wants to accept the truth, which is typically that both sides are guilty in varying degrees of grim and ghastly crimes; neither side has a monopoly on wisdom or rectitude; and morality and decency was quite typically discarded in some of the earliest days of the war. As the war continued, whatever the rights and wrongs of how it began, it became ever more awful, angry and appalling.


We're going to have to start speaking the truth about this increasingly miserable and wretched war if we want to stand any chance of bringing it to a negotiated conclusion. The longer we go on deceiving ourselves with intemperate language and misleading propaganda, on both sides, the longer the war will last and the greater the suffering will be, the higher the bodies will be counted, each dead person innocent in their own way. War is a moral tragedy every bit as much as it is a moral outrage.


Alas wars are the methods by which complicated political disputes are often resolved. As Carl von Clausewitz famously observed, war is the continuation of politics by other means. It has always been so; there has never been a moment since the end of World War II when some part of the world has not been at war. In Bismarck's words, 'the great questions of the day will not be settled by speeches and majority decisions but by iron and blood.' This

depressing statement of human political affairs having been proved true recurrently throughout the history of our human race, we owe it to our own sense of progress at least to analyse the wars we engage in to fight out our disputes in as dispassionate, humane and civil terms as we can. By this we show ourselves to rise above the animals rather than to fall beneath them.