“If everyone fought for their own convictions, then there would be no war” Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
“One struggle for the freedom, but to the power comes to the others. And then the cunning, insidious form of bondage comes, dressed in national symbols, shushed by national pathos, decorated with the attributes of democracy” Lina Kostenko, Ukrainian Poet
As the Russian army is marching into Kyiv, this essay is inspired by a series of mindless and euphoric social media discussions on the war that has erupted around Ukraine with people choosing to side with NATO, Ukraine or Russia – ahistorically – based on their perceived ideological positions or self-proclaimed nationalism across the board. To clarify with concrete examples, there are liberals siding with NATO claiming freedom of self-determination for Ukrainians, right wingers who side with Russia or NATO depending on what they believe is suitable to the bigoted causes that they espouse, so-called leftists with affiliation to mainstream communist parties arguing for Russia because it was the Soviet Union once upon a time without acknowledging that Russia is an oligarchy now and finally even a so-called pacifist who professed that she never imagined that there would be a physical warfare in the 21st century – conveniently forgetting the Afghans, Syrians, Yazidis, Yemenis, Somalis, Palestinians and many other peoples who are still victims of war.
At the outset, I need to clarify that my pacifism isn’t born out of any abstract notion of non-violence, but from understanding the innate power and violence in human relationships. I also need to be make it clear that I am no expert on the geo-politics of the former Soviet Union, beyond my love for the copious amounts of great literature that the region has produced over time. All that this essay purports to do is present a political argument against war contextualized in the backdrop of the recent declaration of war by Russia against Europe and what it means to me and my location.
This requires an understanding of war within the context of the modern Nation-State. While war itself is as old as formation of human beings into social groups and has always been about territory, resources (including women who were considered chattel – references can be seen in as diverse historical and mythological texts ranging from the Old Testament to the Mahabharata to the Iliad) and fragile egos. The basic template for the international law on war evolved within the medieval Catholic epistemology borrowing heavily from ancient Greeks and Romans and advocated by philosopher monks such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas as jus belli justi or the just war doctrine. This evolved as jus ad bellum or right to war at the Peace of Westphalia – which more or less defined the future boundaries of West European Nation States and also marks the beginning of International Law and Relations as we know it today. During the early part of the first world war, a group of German theologians published a manifesto seeking to justify the actions of the German government using just war arguments. In response, the British government commissioned the Archbishop of Canterbury to lead a collaboration of religious leaders to counter German arguments justifying their side as the legitimate just war upholders. While, the concept of law of war was internalized by every ideology that advocates state warfare from theologies to communism, it was only after the formation of the United Nations that it entered the formal dominion of International Law.
It is the idea of Just War that legitimized Eurocentric expansionism, be it the cruelty of the crusades or colonialism. In the guise of the civilizational project, wars were unleashed globally that resulted in ethnocides, genocides and global poverty. However, the contemporary idea of war is rooted in the notion of the modern geographical nation-state hammered out of the philosophy of Westphalian peace. In other words, war under contemporary International law, is a transactional power tool, negotiated within a West European epistemology and controlled by NATO and the US – with participation of others whose interests align or conflict with these powers. Here one needs to remember that the erstwhile Soviet Union was the other axes of this “war” game.
What I am trying to say is that, war is legitimized and marketed as a means to protect “nationhood”. Nationhood as we know it today emerged only in the first half of the twentieth century when international borders were more or less concretized as a fallout of the two world wars and rapid decolonization based broadly on heredity, whims and colonial expediencies. The process of decolonization, didn’t democratize or decolonize the world, but was a process where colonial powers transferred power to the hegemons power to another set of hegemons, depending on the demographics of the colonised land. So, in Northern America, Oceania and few other places settler colonisers got the power, while in other places local hegemons like the Brahminical classes in South Asia were given power. In effect, none of marginalised peoples got access to political, social or economic power and decolonisation only created a new set of hegemons that within a new international alliance also helped purge the coloniser of guilt for all crimes, whether part of colonisation or otherwise – for instance the Zionist state.
As a result, though the founding documents of International Human Rights Laws, namely – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights celebrate Right to Self Determination as the first and primary human right – no peoples have ever gotten this right without violence; and the fiction of Westphalian sovereignty has always triumphed against this right, from Tibet to Kashmir to the settler Israeli state in Palestine.
The fundamental question here is how did a new-fangled idea of a nation that is hardly a few centuries hold gain currency enough to become the most primal identity universally and has caused the worst bloodletting in the history of humankind, from the India Pakistan partition to the Holocaust, from slavery to colonialism being perpetrated in its name. The answer lies in realpolitik of power. In a shrinking universe where human diversity can be seen every few miles and distances becoming shorter, the best way to control human beings is giving primacy to geographical terrains as identity markers, regardless of their social, economic or political status. And this primacy can be sustained only if the Damocles sword of extinction through aggression is dangled before all peoples and their need to self-defence – even if the aggressor is continents away, is sustained. In simple terms nationalisms are sustained by consistently feeding peoples with the danger of the other like India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, US and the rest of the world! In short, the drum rolls of jingoism have to be continuously fed to keep the juggernaut of the nation and war to march on. This is done through various symbols and signs in popular culture, including literature, cinema, arts, music, sports – which often serve as proxy warfare and successful national projects invest heavily in them, even when some of these expressions go against them.
War within this paradigm is also good for global business and the market. I am not talking about the Military Industrial complex alone – I am talking about business as a whole. It is said that the United States was at the zenith of its share of Global economic power at the end of the second world war given that the actual theatre of war was in Europe, Asia and Africa. Since then, there is a theory that estimates that the US marks economy progresses when it is involved in a war (with the exception of Vietnam) and faces regression during peacetime. Again, take for instance the myth of Swiss neutrality. Apart from the better known Swiss complicity with Nazis during the second World War, their neutrality grew with financing wars and profiteering by speculating and buying into the spoils. In the ongoing Ukrainian crisis itself, NATO and the US have increased prices for the weapons that they are transferring to Ukraine. But, before we get into the narrative of Ukraine, there is a little more ground to be covered!
With the façade of decolonised democracy, the arena of war shifted from geographic terrains inhabited by the original hegemons – and with blatant racist bias at that. The overt and covert battlefields were in South America, Africa and Asia with the powerful picking on the powerless and disenfranchised – at the silliest of excuses and to assuage fragile egos, killing and displacing millions as if they were flies in a swamp – in Palestine, Timor, Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Azerbaijan, Cuba and so on. As long as the cold war existed, many of these were only battlefields – because second world war and advance in military technology thereafter, particularly nuclear arsenal had made it unsafe to try the experiment back home – as many of these weapons were too deadly and not precise enough to distinguish between the powerful and the disenfranchised. Analysis of this International behaviour doesn’t require any advanced degree from the Fletcher school; in simple schoolboy parlance, powerful Nations were bullying the weaklings for their already depleted lunchboxes and pocket money.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of new national identities within the Commonwealth of Independent States and former member states of the Warsaw Pact, the world saw the vultures of war circling over Eastern Europe to pick on the feedings in Serbia, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Chechnya and other places – and of course these harbingers of change carried in their bags legal jargon of human rights and right to self-determination that they would hide under Westphalian carpets in their home turfs and the blame for the bloodletting was laid on people’s chauvinism for self-determination rather than the weapons of destruction that arrived in their hands conveniently. As genocides and ethnocides raged, the vultures profited and also judged the rights and wrongs of the spilled blood.
History is witness to the fact that every Goliath has been successfully or unsuccessfully always been challenged. And the newly emerged Russia, despite its chaotic beginnings also participated in the gory theatre of East Europe. With the entrenchment of Vladimir Putin as the face of the Russian Federation in International Politics for over two decades now, Russia has seen itself being re-established as a major regional as well as global power with the capability to influence politics even beyond its geographical reach – like the speculation over Russian influence in the 2016 US elections indicate. Unlike China whose politics is always in low decibels, Russia is seen performing loudly – the way Putin sent forces in the aid of Assad, for instance.
And like bullies behave, Russia would want to be the dominant power in its neighbourhood while the US and NATO would want to increase their sphere of influence there to check Russia. Regardless of all the doublespeak regarding right to self-determination of people of Ukraine or Donbas, Russia did not want US-NATO to expand eastwards. US-NATO conducted trainings despite Russian reservations and flexing of its muscle. I am sure many a Russian and Ukrainian, like the bleeding heart Bidens, Macrons and Johnsons of the world believe that their side of the war is just – but each side is as unjust as the other. While ordinary Ukrainians and Russians would feel the actual trauma of the war – and Nuclear reactors are reportedly getting hit – the paymasters of their Western counterparts are likely to laugh all the way to the bank. Globally energy prices are going to go up, given that Russia produces roughly 11% of the world’s oil, controlling the Nordstrom pipeline and with a $4.2 Trillion economy. The escalation of this war and the sanctions against Russia closely following the Covid catastrophe will prove disastrous – especially for countries like India with bad fiscal management and fuel prices continue to soar regardless of global market.
Despite this, it would be interesting to note how a shallow identity of nationalism can spur peoples to take sides in wars that would in fact hurt them and how they can be made to hate people who haven’t personally harmed them. It is also fascinating how these people actually respond to real self-determination movements like Crimea, Northern Bukovina in Romania or Nagomo-Karabakh in Azerbaijan in the region. That these nationalisms are also fuelled by racism is evidenced by the fact that the European Union has announced an automatic 3-year protection for refugees with Ukrainian passports, including right to work and health insurance coverage –while millions of people maimed and displaced by wars aided by NATO, of which some of these countries are members–have to smuggle themselves into illegal existence in these very countries.
Fortunately for any casual observer, this particular war exposes all the fault lines that wars are based on. It started with the Western Media being shocked at (what some of the more ignorant ones called the first) a war being played out in Europe and people being killed being Europeans and not some exotic, Arab or African people and finished with the Polish border guards having a Ukrainian first policy allowing people of colour to freeze in the borders, while Ukrainians were busy beating up South Asians. This behaviour from ordinary citizens should seal any doubt that there is no concept of “just” in any war whatsoever, unless it is a war for enfranchisement by the disenfranchised. The nature of war still remains in varying form true to its nature from its inception – to legitimately promote the interest of the warmonger, in which the victim participates with pleasure!
“Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime!”- Ernest Hemingway
Bobby Kunhu is a human rights activist and lawyer.
Picture courtesy: the internet.