Notes and reflections by Nora Hoppe for the Saker blog
To retreat or not to retreat…
I have no idea about war… I have never experienced one. I understand nothing of military campaigns, strategies, manoeuvres, weapons, etc. I’ve only seen several war films, read novels featuring war and followed the news on various wars…
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I have heard that each war is different, and that comparisons are only useful for “certain aspects”.
I follow the news regularly on Russia’s Special Military Operation in Ukraine. And I have recently read and heard many varying and divisionary views on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Kherson, a city that is now lawfully part of Russia.
Dispensing with the views of the pro-NATO side, which are of no interest, I am observing the division of thought amongst analysts, journalists and commenters in forums siding with the Russians: There are those who are outraged and see the withdrawal from Kherson as “a disgrace”, “a sign of weakness”, “an embarrassment”, “a poor strategy”, “unattractive optics”, etc. Others see it as the outcome of a difficult but wise decision – that was primarily made to save the lives of Russian soldiers, who would have been cut off by a massive flood if NATO were to blow up the Kakhovka Dam. (There may well be additional tactical reasons for the withdrawal, but they are not (yet) known to the public.)
When people speak of the “optics not looking good“… a film set immediately comes to my mind (I have worked in the film world for many years). And that immediately tells me how some people view this operation – as spectators: it has to have a good catchy script, suspense, uninterrupted action and – heaven forbid – no lulls! It has to ultimately supply a dopamine release. It has to have a “Dirty Harry Catharsis”.
This reminds me of similar reactions to the prisoner exchange in mid-September, where some saw it as a sign of weakness to even think of releasing Azov prisoners… or when the Chinese government did not deliver a dramatic retort when Pelosi went to do her skit in Taiwan.
What is at the base of these kinds of reactions? Why such impatience? Why such concern with “appearances”? Why such a need to satiate one’s own personal sense of justice and retribution? Does it have something to do with consuming? Especially in the western world one has become an addicted consumer of not only things but “experiences” that can be lived indirectly.
Today we witness events of other peoples’ wars and battles on computer screens from the comfort of our homes or on our tiny phones from chic cafés… these events can accessed at any moment – just press a key… and they appear – like a scene in a film, a game, a contest, a sports match. Even the dead bodies that lie mangled, bloodied or in gory stumps strewn over the mud become the pieces of a broken puppets on a stage. “Hell, one gets used to it…” The sacredness of Life is gone.
We have become spectators… and our world has become a spectacle.
In his philosophical work and critique of contemporary consumer culture, “The Society of the Spectacle”, Guy Debord describes modern society as one in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation: “All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.” He argues that the history of social life can be understood as “the decline of being into having… and having into merely appearing.” This condition is the “historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonisation of social life.”
I don’t want to veer off into the film world or into a philosophical discourse here… but I just want to ask the question: When are we going to wake up to the real, authentic world?
When are we going to stop fussing about “cool appearances”, “sensational manoeuvres” and “snappy rebuttals”… and start remembering what this operation is all about in the first place?
Isn’t it essentially about LIVES? Not only about the lives of those who have been suffering injustices and atrocities in Donetsk and Lugansk (and elsewhere) since 2014 (at least)… but also the lives of those fighting for the salvation and survival of those other lives… and – by extension – the lives of sovereign human beings on the planet who yearn to live in a better, multipolar world?
President Vladimir V. Putin had tried to avoid a military response in Ukraine for many long years until the Russian people and Russia began to be faced with its devastation from outside, especially with the burgeoning NATO menace and the enhanced cultivation of the neo-Nazi regime in Ukraine. It is not an easy decision to take risky military measures to confront an inevitable clash. In his speech on National Unity Day before the historians and representatives of Russia’s traditional religions on 4th November he visibly expressed his horror and personal pain over the profound tragedy of this clash and over what was befalling the Ukrainian people: “The situation in Ukraine has been driven by its so-called ‘friends’ to the stage where it has become deadly for Russia and suicidal for the Ukrainian people themselves. And we see this even in the nature of the hostilities, what is happening there is simply shocking. It’s just as if the Ukrainian people do not exist. They are thrown into the furnace and that’s it.”
Perhaps the “transient” retreat from Kherson is not a setback and can be even seen as a victory, another kind of victory – a moral victory.
In his powerful masterpiece, “War and Peace”, Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy depicts the Battle of Borodino as the greatest example of Russian patriotism… The collective engagement of all those involved in the Battle of Borodino is what ultimately attained the end result: despite all their losses and the sacrificial need to evacuate Moscow and burn its resources – in order to save the army and Russia, the Russians, achieved a moral victory in this battle… which ultimately led to the comprehensive victory of the Russian army and the entire campaign.
“Several tens of thousands of the slain lay in diverse postures and various uniforms on the fields and meadows belonging to the Davýdov family and to the crown serfs—those fields and meadows where for hundreds of years the peasants of Borodinó, Górki, Shevárdino, and Semënovsk had reaped their harvests and pastured their cattle. At the dressing stations the grass and earth were soaked with blood for a space of some three acres around. Crowds of men of various arms, wounded and unwounded, with frightened faces, dragged themselves back to Mozháysk from the one army and back to Valúevo from the other. Other crowds, exhausted and hungry, went forward led by their officers. Others held their ground and continued to fire.” [“War and Peace” – book 10; chapter 39]
General-in-chief Mikhail I. Kutuzov’s motto of “patience and time” allowed the Russian army to be victorious when he was able to embrace, as opposed to trying to know, the contingencies of war and prepare his soldiers as best he could for such battle. He knew that, by fighting the pitched battle and adopting the strategy of attrition warfare, he could now retreat with the Russian army still intact, lead its recovery, and force the weakened French forces to move even further from their bases of supply.
“By long years of military experience he knew, and with the wisdom of age understood, that it is impossible for one man to direct hundreds of thousands of others struggling with death, and he knew that the result of a battle is decided not by the orders of a commander in chief, nor the place where the troops are stationed, nor by the number of cannons or of slaughtered men, but by the intangible force called the spirit of the army, and he watched this force and guided it in as far as that was in his power.” [“War and Peace” – book 10; chapter 35… bold script mine]
According to Tolstoy: “In military affairs the strength of an army is the product of its mass and some unknown x. … That unknown quantity is the spirit of the army, that is to say, the greater or lesser readiness to fight and face danger felt by all the men composing an army, quite independently of whether they are, or are not, fighting under the command of a genius, in two—or three-line formation, with cudgels or with rifles that repeat thirty times a minute. Men who want to fight will always put themselves in the most advantageous conditions for fighting. … The spirit of an army is the factor, which multiplied by the mass gives the resulting force. To define and express the significance of this unknown factor – the spirit of an army – is a problem for science.” [“War and Peace” – book 14; chapter 2]
This Russian approach to war opened up an entirely new option: for “the destiny of nations” to depend “not in conquerors, not even in armies and battles, but in something else.” That “something else” Tolstoy explains, was in fact the spirit of the people and of the army, that made them burn their land rather than give it to the French.
The highest qualities of a human being, according to Tolstoy, are: simplicity, kindness and truth. Morality, according to the writer, is the ability to feel one’s “I” as a part of the universal “we”. And Tolstoy’s heroes are simple and natural, kind and warm-hearted, honest before people and before their conscience.
Tolstoy notes that, whatever the faith may be, it “gives to the finite existence of man an infinite meaning, a meaning not destroyed by sufferings, deprivations, or death”. … “I understood that faith is a knowledge of the meaning of human life in consequence of which man does not destroy himself but lives. Faith is the strength of life. If a man lives he believes in something. If he did not believe that one must live for something, he would not live. If he does not see and recognize the illusory nature of the finite, he believes in the finite; if he understands the illusory nature of the finite, he must believe in the infinite. Without faith he cannot live… For man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.”
“I understood that if I wish to understand life and its meaning, I must not live the life of a parasite, but must live a real life, and – taking the meaning given to live by real humanity and merging myself in that life – verify it.”
For us to attain a true victory – for a better world… we may need to recalibrate our thinking and values. This is indeed a spiritual struggle… not one just being fought in Donetsk, Lugansk and Ukraine. It is a struggle now within our own selves – whatever one’s beliefs are… What has meaning for us? Perhaps it is necessary for each of us to first define what we hold “sacred” in our own lives.
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