Excuse me if I wander a little today — and if it bothers you, don’t blame me, blame Vladimir Putin. After all, I didn’t decide to invade Ukraine, the place my grandfather fled almost 140 years ago. In fact, I suspect that I was an adult long before I knew this place existed. If I were to be charged with anything, it would be that I have evaded Ukraine for most my life.
All of us are, in some fashion, now living inside the shockwaves from the Russian president’s grotesque invasion and from a war taking place close to the heart of Europe. I was barely one year old when I was born. May 1945The end of World War II in Europe brought an end to years of carnageUnsurpassed on the planet. Millions of Russians, six million Jews, god knows how many French, British, Germans, Ukrainians, and… well, the list just goes on and on… died and how many more were wounded or displaced from their homes and lives. Given Adolf Hitler’s Germany, we’re talking about nothing short of a hell on Earth. From the 1930s through 1945, that was Europe.
In the more-than-three-quarters of a century since then, with the exception of the brief Soviet invasions of Hungary1956 Czechoslovakia1968: civil war (with outside intervention) in the early 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, as well as warring in marginal places like ChechnyaEurope is the epitome of peace. The shock at the end of it all is evident. Believe me, it wouldn’t have been faintly the same if Vladimir Putin had invaded Kazakhstan or Afghanistan or… well, you get the idea. In 1979, the Soviet Union’s leaders did indeed invade Afghanistan and Kazakhstan. send the Red Army into Afghanistan and again, just over two decades later, when George W. Bush and crew ordered the U.S. military to invade the same country, there were far too few cries of alarm, assumedly because it hadn’t happened in the heart of Europe and who the hell cared (other, of course, than the Afghans in the path of those two armies).
Now, the Vlad has again made part of Europe a war-torn hell, a real hell on earth of fires and destruction. He’s blasted out significant partsSent from major cities more than four millionUkrainians fled the country as refugees and were uprooted at most 6.5 million moreThat land. It is a sign of how horrendous the moment is. more than halfAll Ukrainian children have been affected by displacement in some way. Since that country became the focus of staggering media attention here (in coverage terms, it’s as if every day were the day after the 9/11 attacks), since it became more or less the only story on Earth, little surprise that it also came to seem like a horror, a crime, of an essentially unparalleled sort, an intrusion beyond all measure. It has been a shock. You just don’t do that, right?
The Heartland of War, Historically Speaking
Strangely enough, though, the Russian president’s gross act fits all too horribly into a far larger and longer history of Europe and this planet. The truth is, the continent was, up until 1945, not a beacon of global peace, order and European Union-style cooperation but a constant source of conflict, war, death.
You could go back at least 460 BC to see the beginnings of the civilization. 15-year Peloponnesian War between the Greek city states of Athens and Sparta began in an era that has long been considered the “dawn of civilization.” From then on through Roman imperial times, war, or rather wars galore, lay at the heart of that developing civilization.
Once you get to the later history of Europe, whether you’re talking about Vikings raidingEngland or English kings such as Henry V fighting it out for France (read your Shakespeare!) This is what became known as the Hundred Years’ War; whether you’re thinking about the Thirty Years’ WarIn medieval Europe, where millions are believed have died; the bloody Napoleonic wars of the early nineteenth century, including that self-proclaimed French emperor’s invasion of Russia; or, of course, World War I, an early-twentieth-century slaughterhouse, stretching from France again deep into Russia, not to speak of civil conflicts like the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, you’re talking about a genuine heartland of global conflict. Keep in mind that Ukraine was a former Soviet republic. all too often involved.)
In the years since World War II, especially here in the United States, we’ve grown far too used to a world in which wars (often ours) take place in distant lands, thousands of miles from the heart of true power and civilization (as we like to think of it) on this planet. In the 1950s, there was the Korean War. Vietnam, Laos, and CambodiaThe U.S. and its allies fought wars that were a significant Asian phenomenon. The key locations in the 1980s and 1990s were South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. They were once more in South Asia and the Greater Middle East in this century.
And of course, in the history of this planet, so many of the wars fought “elsewhere” ever since the Middle Ages were sparked by European imperial powers, as well as that inheritor of the European mantle of empire, the United States. Looked at in the largest historical framework possible, you might even say that, in some fashion, modern war as we’ve known it was pioneered in Europe.
Worse yet, as soon as the Europeans were able to travel anywhere else, what’s come to be known all too inoffensively as “the age of discovery” began. They used wooden sailing ships to transport troops and cannons around the globe, and tried to control large swathes of the planet through what became known as colonialism. From the genocidal destruction of native peoples in North America (a legacy the United States inherited in the “New World” from its colonial mentors in the “Old World”) to the Opium WarsChina, starting from the Sepoy MutinyIndia to the repressionThe Europeans exported extreme violence of all kinds worldwide in a manner that would have impressed the ancient Greeks or Romans, as evidenced by the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya.
From the Portuguese and Spanish empiresFrom the 16th century through the English and French empires in the 19th and 20th centuries to more recent American empires (though not mentioned here), the world was filled with violence during those years. Vladimir Putin would be very happy indeed. In fact, from the Peloponnesian War on, it’s been quite a Ukrainian-style story, a veritable European (and American) feast of death and destruction on an almost unimaginable scale.
The Afterlife of War
It would be very deceptive to claim that the war in Ukraine or elsewhere is the same thing in 2022. After all, we’re on a planet that neither the Greeks, the Romans, Henry V, Napoleon, or Hitler could ever have imagined. You can at least partially credit that runaway child of Europe, America, while recalling one day in history: August 6, 1945. This was the day that a single bomb dropped from a B-29 Superfortress bomber on Hiroshima, Japan, and destroyed it. 70,000 or moreIts inhabitants.
In the decades since, the very idea of war has, sadly enough, been transformed into something potentially all-too-new, whether in Europe or anywhere else, as long as it involves any of the planet’s nine nuclear powers. Since 1945, as nuclear weapons spread across the planet, we’ve threatened to export everyday war of the sort humanity has known for so long to heaven, hell, and beyond. In some sense, we may already be living in the afterlife of war, though most of the time we don’t know it. Don’t think it’s something odd or a strange accident that, when things began to go unexpectedly poorly for them, the Vlad’s crew promptly started threatening to use nuclear weapons if the Russians, instead of conquering Ukraine, were pushed into some desperately uncomfortable corner. As the deputy chairman of Russia’s security council, Dmitry Medvedev, put it recently,
“We have a special document on nuclear deterrence. This document clearly indicates the grounds on which the Russian Federation is entitled to use nuclear weapons… [including] when an act of aggression is committed against Russia and its allies, which jeopardized the existence of the country itself, even without the use of nuclear weapons, that is, with the use of conventional weapons.”
Keep in mind, however, that Russia has an estimated GDP of $1.2 trillion. 4,477 nuclear warheadsThere are more than 1,500, including new, deployed. “tactical” nukes, each of which might have “only” perhaps one-third the power of the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima and so might be considered battlefield weaponry, though of an unimaginably devastating and dangerous sort. Keep in mind that Vladimir Putin has publicly stated his opinion. oversawJust before he launched the present war, he tested four nuclear-capable missiles. This is the point. Such threats mean nothing less than that, whether we care to realize it or not, we’re now in a strange and threatening new world of war, given that even a nuclear exchange between regional powers like India and Pakistan could create a nuclear winteron this planet, potentially starving one billion or more people to death.
If you stop to think about it, could you imagine a stranger or more dangerous place? Consider it irony of the first orders, for example, that the U.S. spent years focusing on this. trying to keep the Iranians from making a single nuclear weapon (and so becoming the 10th country to do so), but not — not for a day, not for an hour, not for a minute — on keeping this country from producing ever more of them.
Take, for example, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent or GBSD, an intercontinental missile that the Pentagon has plans to build in order to replace our current land-based nukes. estimated price tag of $264 billion (and that’s before the cost overruns even begin). And that, in turn, is just a modest part of its full-scale, three-decade-long “modernization” program for its nuclear “triad” of land, sea, and air-based weapons that could, in the end, cost $2 trillionIn taxpayer funds to ensure this country was capable of destroying not just this planet, but many others.
And just to put that in context: in a country that can’t find a red cent to invest in so many things Americans truly need, the one thing that both partiesThe only thing Congress, the president (whoever he may have been), can agree upon is that there will be no ever more staggering sumsShould be spent on a military that’s fought a series of undeclared wars around the planet in this century in a remarkably unsuccessful fashion, bringing hell and high water to places like Afghanistan and Iraq, just as Vladimir Putin so recently did to Ukraine.
So, don’t just think of the Russian president as some aberrant oddball or autocratic madman who appeared magically at the disastrous edge of history, forcing his way into our peaceful lives. Unfortunately, he’s a figure who should be familiar indeed to us, given our European past. Shakespeare would have enjoyed a great time with the Vlad. And while he’s brought hell on Earth to Europe, given the way his top officials have raised the issue of nuclear weaponry, we should imagine ourselves in both an all-too-familiar An all-too-new world.
Although Europe should historically be considered the heartland for the history and wars, today it should be seen as a potential springboard to eternity for all of us.