Why are we in Ukraine?
The ‘Elephant in the Room’ question
Why is asking this question anathema? Why do we recoil at its utterance?
Is it because former President Donald Trump asked it?
“It doesn’t make sense that Russia and Ukraine aren’t sitting down and working out some kind of an agreement. If they don’t do it soon, there will be nothing left but death, destruction, and carnage. This is a war that never should have happened, but it did. The solution can never be as good as it would have been before the shooting started, but there is a solution, and it should be figured out now — not later — when everyone will be DEAD!” (1)
Is it because Professor Noam Chomsky asks it?
One of the deeply concerning features of American life is the disjunction between the reality of war on the ground and the way that Americans talk about it. When the news came out, the phrase “destroyed a city” doesn’t really convey what actually happened. But then the photos and testimonies start coming out, and we start to understand what it actually means. But for some reason, this knowledge — this real sense of what war is like for those who actually experience it — seems absent from the conversation. Today, for example, we can have these conversations in the abstract, and people think, for example, “Oh, yes, it’d be a good idea to engage Russia militarily, maybe there’s a bit of a nuclear risk,” without really understanding the human reality of the situation.
Professor Noam Chomsky:
Well, let me recount one of the most horrible experiences of my life, in the early ’50s, maybe around 1951–52, with my first wife who died years ago. My wife and I were graduate students. One evening, we decided to go to a film. So we looked through the movie ads, and surprisingly, we saw a film called Hiroshima. That was surprising. We lived in Boston, and the film was in an area called Scollay Square. It was the porn district. We never went there. But we figured we’d go see this film. It was being shown as a pornographic film. The audience was laughing hysterically. It was a graphic film. I don’t know where they got the live film. But it was a live film from Hiroshima: people running around with their skin peeling off — hideous scenes — and it was being shown as a pornographic film, while people were laughing. Can you even imagine that?
I mean, I can tell you from my own experience. When I was a kid, in the 1930s, my friends and I were running around in the woods, playing cowboys and Indians. We were the Cowboys, killing the Indians. Okay. I don’t know if that was still true when you were my age. That’s the history of the United States. The United States never gets attacked, not until 9/11. The last attack on American soil was the War of 1812. What we do is attack others.(2)
Why is this question not being addressed? Is ‘saving democracy’ a plausible cure for the devastation and upheaval not to mention the murder of civilians for which no International court or collective has the authority to order an immediate cease of hostilities? (3Max Fisher in NYTimes ref. war crimes)
Putin is not going away. He may be absent of power or die of physical causes but the memory and terror of his hubris backed by a majority of Russia’s elites is not going away.
Marine Le Pen who has sanitized successfully — according to the polls — a French heritage of anti-semitism and Islamophobia, now defeated by Emanuel Macron… is she going away? (4cite NYTimes op Ed.)
In past wars two parties thrive — war profiteers and diplomats. One makes money and the other makes borders. And collectively we say to ourselves, ‘but this time it’s different.’
The war in Ukraine is about geopolitical advantage. And Ukrainians are at risk — as a nation and as a democracy.
America is involved.
According to the United Nations, Crimea is not a country. (5) Crimea is not officially part of Ukraine. Crimea is governed by an occupying force.
So is Taiwan. So is Afghanistan. So is Tibet. So is Palestine. So is Sudan. So is Iraq.
Once governed by occupiers, America is involved.
“What we do is attack others.”
American and European intellectuals are playing ‘catch up.’ In a phrase many intellectuals refuse to ‘get ahead’ of this question, hiding behind a scrim of bromides and a general reluctance at meaningful discourse and moral revelation.
You often discuss the fact that there are two twin existential threats to human civilization. There is the threat of climate catastrophe. And then there is the threat of nuclear weapons and global warfare. One of these gets discussed more than the other. We actually had another Professor Chomsky on last week to discuss the climate crisis — Professor Aviva Chomsky, who discussed her book Is Science Enough? Forty Critical Questions About Climate Justice. We talk a lot on this program about the climate crisis, but I want to talk about nuclear weapons and war. And I want to start in kind of an unusual way. I want to go back to 1945. I was reading Daniel Ellsberg recently. In his book The Doomsday Machine, he talks about how when he was in middle school, he was assigned a paper and his teacher told them that they were talking about the possibility of making a new kind of bomb that could destroy an entire city. He said his entire class wrote the paper about this bomb. And they all agreed that if such a thing came into existence, it would be so totally destructive for human civilization that it would need to be eliminated completely. And then, of course, a few years later, the bomb was in fact dropped. And so I want to start by taking you back to that time. You witnessed it — the beginning of the era of the nuclear threat. Do you remember what it was like when you realized what had been done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when you saw the opening of this terrible possibility, this change in the whole world?
Professor Noam Chomsky:
I remember it very well. I was a junior counselor at a summer camp. In the morning, there was an announcement over the camp loudspeaker that an atom bomb had been used in Hiroshima and had destroyed the city. Everyone went on to their morning activity — baseball games, swimming, whatever it was. I was so appalled. I couldn’t believe it. First of all, nobody knew the details of what had happened but the general picture was clear. So, first of all, what had happened. Secondly, about the reaction. In fact, double terror.
I was so appalled by it, I just left the camp, walked off into the woods by myself, sat there for a couple hours thinking about it. It was pretty clear that human intelligence and its glory had reached the point where it would soon be able to destroy all life on Earth. Not yet. I mean, the atom bomb had limited capacity. The bombing of Hiroshima in many ways was not worse than the firebombing of Tokyo a couple months earlier, and in scale probably didn’t reach that level. But it was clear that the genie was out of the bottle, that modern technology and science would advance to the point where it would reach the capacity to destroy everything, so double terror. It did reach that point in 1953, with the explosion of thermonuclear weapons. My feeling at that time was, we’re lost. I mean, if human intelligence is that far ahead of human moral capacity, the chance of closing that gap is slight, particularly witnessing the reaction just increasing in following days. Basically, nobody cared.
So let’s repeat the question:
why are we in Ukraine?
I prompt myself, ‘lean into the question.’ Complete the sentence, ‘we are in Ukraine because…’ What do we come up with?
Not a single unified voice.
And this is the point: being in Ukraine offers little in the way of benefit for the sacrifice we are asking, partly because the sacrifice does not affect us and we know it and partly because we cannot imagine an end to the conflict.
So let’s rehearse our answer to the question, ‘why are we in Ukraine,’ with a thought experiment: imagine having to pay $15 a gallon of gas to support the Ukraine cause, would you pay? Or $20 a gallon? Would you? And that’s the soft part of the question: now ask how many other Americans would pay $15 for a gallon of gas?
Both “sides” to the conflict are manipulating the reasons for being in this conflict: we can achieve our geopolitical goal(s) quickly, perfectly, with as little harm as possible. We can redeem, rewrite, replace authority, quickly and then get out. See how this works? “If… then…” Our presence in Ukraine is conditional: ‘if only… then…’ The absurdity of the question eludes our ‘best rational thinking,’ because we are not deliberating the false consciousness behind the reasoning: military victory is the only resolution to the conflict: our missiles will prevail or threaten to prevail… deter.
It’s.not even about territory. It’s about struggle. And not even what kind of struggle — for victory or peace — but who will struggle more.
It’s about advantage over others, power over others, fear of others, hate of others. What Trump and Chomsky end up portraying is the horror of our moment. For 45 it’s the appearance of horror. For Chomsky it’s worse… it’s our denial of benefiting from the horror.
And the more we dissect the ‘what nows,’ the less we resolve the ‘why.’ Like climate change, we refuse to apprehend the inequality brought on by the normalcy of the moment. Like climate change denial, the horror of looking at another missile pocked apartment building becomes the renewal of things normal, unacceptable, yes, but familiar.
April 25, updated May 2