Why Wars Don't Ever End — A Novelist's Notes From The Ukraine Front Line
In Warsaw-based daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Polish writer Szczepan Twardoch poses a crucial question on the front lines of the war in Ukraine: "What will you do when the war ends?" One answer struck him more than any other...
Even if Ukraine manages to defeat Russia, they will never agree to a loss.
Since June, I have been increasingly hearing that the war will end, which has led to several follow-up questions: What will Ukraine look like after the war? Will Volodymyr Zelensky run for president again? What will Russia be like afterwards? What will the security architecture of the two countries be?
Over time, scholarly analyses of new strategies for victory suddenly replaced analyses of what the world would look like when the war was over.
But why? Is it because of overall fatigue with the war as a constant headline? Or maybe everyone has admitted that there may be no spectacular success for the Ukrainian counteroffensive, that there is a chance of a stalemate, and that it's better to think of what will happen going forward?
Maybe these conversations are already taking place, behind closed doors. Wars have often been fought during negotiations. Could it be that someone is already negotiating?
In Istanbul, maybe, or in Vienna, in secluded halls where gloomy men and a few women sit facing each other, tired, weighing their strengths and weaknesses, whispering among themselves, then eventually taking some official-unofficial positions. The pressure of these conversations is so great that it must find an outlet somewhere.
Someone repeats something in confidence to someone else, and then someone, just a little bit, in a socially acceptable way, fails, and the secret — while still being secret — grows, below the surface, then seeps out, and experts who know more than they can write write as much as they can — but deep down, they know what they know, and what they know, which flickers like the rain-drenched embers of a campfire somewhere beneath what they write.
Is the meaning of every war defined by what comes after it?
This is exactly why, during my three trips to the Donbas and Kharkhiv in the first half of 2023, I asked a few Ukrainian soldiers on the front the following question: what will you do once the war ends?
What will you do when the war ends?
We talked in the soldiers' huts, in the trenches, on the training grounds, in the bunker under fire, or during a patrol in the immediate vicinity of the border, which I was unofficially allowed to accompany, against the orders of the command, so that I could see how the scouts work. There, I had to pretend to be one of the soldiers, to drive through checkpoints despite the entry ban for journalists.
At the end of the day, I’m not a journalist. Tactical clothes in dusky colors that I wear near the front helped me to navigate the front as well. I didn’t wear camouflage, but even the Ukrainian army wears military colors from all over the world. A kind young lieutenant who I spoke to on the border was wearing a German tanker's overalls in the characteristic flecktarn pattern, and a vest from Lubawa — in Polish forest panther camouflage.
I never pinned a press badge to my bulletproof vest or helmet — I knew that Russians willingly open fire on places frequented by foreigners. So, learning from those smarter than me, I opted not to draw attention to myself.
I write about this because the places in which I asked the soldiers this question, and heard their answers, seem important to me. I was asking about a war that was as present as the sky and the earth, the trees, rocks and mud.
The war, that is — the human concept that manifests itself in the thunder of guns and the weariness of soldiers, and in their fear and anger. This question would be taken differently, and would provoke different answers, if I had asked it in Kyiv, and differently still if I had posed it in Warsaw or Berlin.
Destruction in the Ukrainian village of Bohorodychne
And so I asked: what will you do when the war ends?
Some answered that they will return to university, whie others intended to stay in the army. About three told me about the boarding houses and hotels they had in Crimea before 2014, to which they would return after a Ukrainian victory.
Among them was an elderly lieutenant colonel of the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine), who, after having a drink, eagerly talked about his training at the KGB school in St. Petersburg. I believed him; others, not so much.
I want to believe that the war will not leave those wounds that are much harder to heal.
A young boy — let’s call him Dżura — a sergeant in the air assault troops, and a great specialist in the field of light infantry operations in urban areas, swore that if the war was over, he would not want to stay in the army, not for anything in the world.
He will fight until the Ukrainian victory, and will not stay in the army for even a day longer. He said that he has had enough of weapons, and when the war ends, he does not want to look at a rifle again, even from afar. I told him that I hoped it could be like that someday. “Just let this war end, and I’ll leave it all behind me," he said.
He was fighting because he felt that he had to. He saw no other option, with the war taking place since 2014. But the war itself didn’t fascinate him, and the army and weaponry didn’t inspire his awe.
Speaking with him, I wanted to believe that he would pass through the sea of war as if it parted before him like the Red Sea before Moses. He would go through the war unstained, dry himself off, and get on with his life.
Yes, he was wounded a few days after our first meeting when the Russians managed to hit his light armored personnel carrier, but he recovered. I believe that his shrapnel wounds are now healing. I want to believe that the war will not leave those wounds that are much harder to heal, those in the heart and mind of my friend, who wants to study mathematics and write poetry after the war ends.
The war will never end
The last person to whom I posed this question was an experienced soldier of the 59th Brigade. Let’s call him “Пацюк," or in English, "Rat", which isn’t his real pseudonym.
We didn’t have a lot of time to speak — we talked for maybe a quarter of an hour in Pokrovsk, where I gave him the Toyota Land Cruiser I had bought for him with the money from a public fundraiser.
I asked him what he would do when the war ended, and what his plans were for the future. His answer was completely natural, as if it were something obvious: the war will never end.
The war will never end.
He said this to me, shrugged his shoulders, and left for Bakhmut. This was in May, right after the final fall of the "fortress of Bakhmut," seen in a kitschy video online.
He had gone there in order to blow up blocks abandoned by Ukrainian soldiers, which he had previously mined. It was going to take him a few days, and I believe he only blew up those blocks when Russian soldiers entered them.
His answer didn’t leave me. What did he mean, that the war will never end?
Every war ends, at some point. Peace has always come, even after the most horrifying wars, even if peace treaties were never signed. Some truces last longer than peace. Rat knew this as well as I did, but still he said the war will never end.
Ukrainian soldier drawing on the front lines near Kharkiv, Ukraine, on June 15, 2023.
How can we forgive?
That evening, I was sitting in a tightly-packed kitchen with his friends, but without Rat himself. They explained to me, infuriated, that for those like themselves and like Rat, the war will only end when Russian soldiers, who have to be killed, end.
“And in the Russian army, there are a lot of soldiers," they said. Of course, they will not go anywhere, no matter how generously the reigning tsar decides to be with their lives. And so, the war, too, will not end. In their eyes, there will always be Russian soldiers left to kill.
They said that they dug up corpses in Bucha with their own hands. For at least one of them, I knew for a fact that it was true. “How do we forgive this?” they asked me, coming to the conclusion that it could not be forgiven.
They could not forgive Bucha, Irpin, the rapes, the filtration camps, the castration of prisoners of war.
But of course, I knew that throughout history, such things, and even worse, were forgiven.
They asked what would happen when they kick Russia out of Ukraine, back to the borders they had prior to 2014? Would Russia agree to its loss? They don't think Russia will ever do so. They will return, and Ukraine must be ready. This war will never end; it will last forever.
Every war has to end some day
These weren’t stupid boasts or metaphors, nor were they a joke, by any means. All of the soldiers I met took their jobs very seriously. Their jobs, I say, because, on the front everything “працює” — it works. The tanks, artillery, and soldiers — they don’t shoot, they work — that’s how they phrase it, which is not to say that they hide the true character of this “work," which is killing enemy soldiers and destroying their supplies.
They say this rather with pride, that their boys are working, or with fear, that the enemy is working all over them. They say it like this, because on the front, these things are as ordinary as going to work each day.
Of course, this war will end someday, because every war has to end someday.
A friend of Rat’s told me more about the fact that, for people like him, the war will never end. In that tiny, cramped kitchen, he showed me how to assemble electrical and mechanical fuses, telling me that he had always been afraid of the "explosive" but that once he had learned, he found great satisfaction in blowing up Russian equipment.
He told me that his friend, Rat, goes up to 30 kilometers behind the front line, below null, as they say at the front, and blows up as many Russian soldiers as he can. Trucks full of soldiers, convinced that they are in the deep rear, that they are safe.
Neither Rat nor his friends told me this to prove their masculinity, their patriotism, or their hatred for Russians. They told me this, in my view, because they saw no chance for peace, neither for themselves, nor for the country that they were defending on the front.
It seemed to me then, that they were blinded to reality by a holy wrath that they held within themselves. But now, I'm not so sure.
Of course, this war will end someday, because every war has to end someday.
One day, the cannons will fall silent, and the vigilant eyes of drones will no longer look for targets; their buzzing will not herald the imminent arrival of an artillery or missile attack.
Contrails in the sky will be left by passenger planes, rather than by rockets and fighters. In this sense, the grief of Rat and his friends is as holy as it is blind.
But maybe this blindness, in its own way, speaks a dark and secret wisdom, difficult, if not impossible, to express in words? Wisdom through blindness, which, by depriving them of the banal reflection that every war ends sometime, sharpens other types of sensitivity to reality?
"We have to make peace with the fact of war"
It is something that the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana wrote about in one of his most famous — if not his most famous — English soliloquies, titled “Tipperary."
The title comes from a song, a touching lament of an Irish immigrant in London, who misses his homeland. This song, which has nothing to do with war, became popular among English soldiers during the First World War, precisely because of this gentle lament of longing for one’s home.
In his soliloquy, Santayana writes about the officers of the British army who sang this song, convalescents celebrating the armistice in November 1918:
“Their soldiering is over; they remember, with a strange proud grief, their comrades who died to make this day possible, hardly believing that it ever would come; they are overjoyed, yet half ashamed, to be safe themselves; they forget their wounds; they see a green vista before them, a jolly, busy, sporting, loving life in the old familiar places. Everything will go on, they fancy, as if nothing has happened. [...] These young men are no rustics, they are no fools; and yet they have passed through the most terrible ordeal, they have seen the mad heart of this world riven and unmasked, they have had long vigils before battle, long nights tossing with pain, in which to meditate on the spectacle; and yet they have learned nothing. [...] Yet the poor fellows think they are safe! They think that the war — perhaps the last of all wars — is over! Only the dead are safe; only the dead have seen the end of war."
Honoring Ukrainian troops in Kyiv's St Sophia's Square in Feb. 2023
War: a criminal, terrible mistake
Habent sua fata libelli. Only this one sentence remains from Santayana’s cruel and elegant meditation on peace from over 100 years ago: Only the dead have seen the end of the war.
This is the motto Ridley Scott used in his film “Blackhawk Down," falsely attributing the quote to Plato, after General MacArthur. These things happen.
I returned to “Tipperary," because I felt that I would find something in Santayana’s words that fits in perfect consonance with Rat’s never-ending war, like a melody that has long since disappeared from conscious memory and suddenly comes back and sounds new again.
“We should have to make peace with the fact of war," writes Santayana. But should we?
Santayana, writing this a century ago from the depths of a conservative reflection on the conditio humana, and therefore also on the structure and principle of human reality, does not regard pacifists who refuse the existence of war as fools; on the contrary, he considers them too clever and thus immersed in a drugged sleep, cut off from the cruel principle of reality.
Wiser and morally better than the generals and politicians who govern the war, they believe that war is just a criminal, terrible mistake, and wise and moral people — and unlike those, in their opinion, who rule the world — could eradicate it from reality once and for all.
“You are mistaken," writes Santayana. "This war has given you your first glimpse of the ancient, fundamental, normal state of the world, your first taste of reality."
A world without wars
Santayana’s thinking is conservative in the sense that it comes out of a pessimistic, raw vision of human nature. A reader of David Graeber might rightly observe here that humanity has the capacity to consciously shape its social life forms more varied than the simple and false alternative between Rousseau and Hobbes (in which Santayana would of course place himself on Hobbes' side).
We were waging wars before we were human
I am fully on the side of Graebarian anarchism, and in this context, against the determinism of Hobbes or Harari. I believe that a different world is possible, I believe that as people, we were smart enough to shape our current social and political reality from a world far less put together than today’s, rather than simply succumbing to it.
Are we capable of it now, in a reality whose mass has turned into quality, increasingly dependent not on our will, but on machine-learning algorithms that we do not understand and over which, contrary to conspiracy theories, no one is in control, because it is impossible to control what we do not understand?
That, I don’t know. An attempt to answer this question would undoubtedly go far beyond the limits of this text.
Remaining only within the scope of this historical premise, of which "The Dawn of Everything" by Graeber and Wengrow is the best example of believing that people can consciously shape their social reality, I ask myself the question: is a world without wars possible?
Has there ever been a world without wars? Wars have been with us since before we became human, and are not even a purely human affair, as we know from Jane Goodall, who first described what kind of wars our closest relatives, chimpanzees, wage. We were waging wars before we were human, and we will not necessarily stop doing them when our humanity turns into something else.
The fact that there has never been a world without war does not mean, of course, that it will not exist in the future, but I would venture, on the basis of a rarely respected virtue of common sense, that war is so deeply ingrained in man's nature that it determines his essence.
We fight, unfortunately, because we are human.
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