An old friend of mine wrote me recently, mentioning
in passing, as if it was a mere aside, that a cold wind is blowing from
the East. I comprehend his worries. He lives in a former Warsaw Pact
country. We met in 1969, and at the time, the armies of the USSR and their
involuntary allies had just squashed the attempt to build a "different
socialism" in Czechoslovakia. At the time, dumbfounded, shocked, and perhaps
feeling also what may have been grief, I wrote a poem, triggered by the
news that a young man, Jan Palach, had set himself aflame in Prague, in
protest of what had happened.(*) Together with Vladimir Smetaček, I translated
a number of poems by Pavel Janský.(**) It was an act of solidarity, I thought
– in support of Janský's defiance. And we hoped also to oppose in this
way those who wanted to silence him.
Yes, my friend is probably right: There is a cold
wind blowing these days, also from the East. If I say "also," it is
because I don't live where he lives; our history and our societies condition
our perception. If my friend feels the strong wind from the East and shudders,
I sense, even more deeply, the gale approaching from the West.
It was Kissinger who said quite recently, "Public discussion
on Ukraine is all about confrontation. But do we know where we are going?
In my life, I have seen four wars begun with great enthusiasm and public
support, all of which we did not know how to end [...]
The test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins."
And then, he added, "Far too often the Ukrainian issue
is posed as a showdown [...]"(***)
Kissinger is an old fox. In Japanese mythology, fox spirits
abound but it is not clear whether any of them issued a warning to the
militarist war planners who decided to start the so-called Pacific War
in 1941. If so, they did not heed the warning. The results are well-known.
The concluding facts were the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It happened on beautiful summer days. The girls working as nurses in the
hospital adjacent to Hiroshima's river may have had dates for that evening.
Western Europe has seen no wars "at home" since May, 1945.
And the people of the US have seen only home-made violence in their 50
states for a much longer time. The last war on their territory was
the civil war of 1861-65. And that, too, was "home-made."
Perhaps, in contrast to soldiers sent abroad, politicians
and the bulk of the population are not only forgetful of the horrors
of war – they have never experienced them. Peacetime people easily
incur risks they cannot assess, and to assess them requires not only abstract
knowledge but the social imagination that brings home at least a shadow
of the horrors possible if the worse comes to the worst.
My friend has known the war, and worse things to boot.
He is aware of the cold Easterly wind. But the weather is crazy, and the
wind changes direction often and fast. As it were, some – in Ukraine
– live in the area where the fronts collide; North wind brushes the
Easterly region, and may hit the West. A Southwesterly wind struck Kiev,
created havoc on Maidan Square, turning it into a mess, causing wounds,
blood and tears. And more clouds are approaching, perhaps bringing
chaos and floods to the country.
But the weather metaphor perhaps obscures more than it
illucidates. Conflicts are no natural thing and do not "run their natural
course." Man is making history. Much depends on the powerful, those
with economic interests. And allied with them, the geo-strategists: careerist
and opportunistic politicians, backed by diplomats, advisers, "think tank
experts" and military planners.
Much depends also on us, the people, who see themselves
as "governed." Will we swallow everything? Will we remain onlookers of
what tends to become fate if we do not interfer, if we do not attempt to
history, to change its course?
A vain hope, perhaps – I know. But those who (like the
girls working in the hospital by the river, in that doomed city?) never
make an attempt to put a stop to what is wrong maybe said, in hindsight,
to share a small part of the collective guilt. But then, there may be no
one left to see things "in hindsight" some day.
So what are we to do, you may ask. I respond, Who but
you yourself can tell you? To live in this world involves and implicates
us. As it is, living means also – but not only – that we are becoming guilty,
often without being aware of it. Sometimes we attempt to do "the good thing,"
we want to do what is alright, even required, what is necessary, and out
of blindness or stupidity it all turns out to be wrong. There are not only
conscious decisions – taken perhaps when we face difficult situations,
with no clear alternatives – that let us end up at times with "dirty hands."
There are also the blind choices, moments when we slide into a situation,
not comprehending what we are doing. And thus I ask myself, Where do I
stand, and what do I long for, in terms of justice and freedom? And how
do I see what others advocate, especially the media, and politicians? How
have they hitherto acted, especially during the last twenty or twenty five
years? Wasn't a humanitarian intervention (like the one in Bosnia in 1994-95)
or a humanitarian war (like the war on Yugoslavia in 1999) a contradictio
in adiecto? WAS THERE NO BETTER ROAD, no fairer and more
humane path towards peace and justice than the road map our elected rulers
The same question does not confront us now, it seems,
as almost nobody in the West seems to consider open (rather than covert)
military intervention in the fighting that is going on in Ukraine. As far
as Russia is concerned, the same holds true. There is, however, the arms
build-up in the surrounding region, and there is the chill that has become
apparent; two big powers (a superpower that possesses the strongest military
might on earth and a nuclear-armed former superpower) assess each other,
more or less openly, as "adversaries."(*****)
Any attempt to face historical confrontations, stalesmates,
social conflicts, or perhaps an impending war, forces us to take sides,
some say. Perhaps this is the case – sometimes – when things appear as
obvious, when light and shadow are clearly distributed and the zones of
twilight seem negligible.
But wisdom, if it is (at least faintly) within reach of
human beings, requires also fairness, seeing every side of a matter, of
a conflict. And often, there are more than two sides to it.
The rogue and the saint, devils and gods – that's a strangely
simplified Manichean worldview.
A Chinese poet and philospher once singled out three virtues.
Love, simple needs (thus, also modesty or undemandingness) and humility.
The first is diminishing in a world bent on competition,
The second lacks in consumerist societies; the capitalist
economy thrives on its absence.
The third is conspiciously lacking in our rulers, it
seems. Arrogant and obsessed with the exercise of power, they are the worst
servants of the public good that one can imagine, and the most incapable
of preserving peace. Wanting to arrogate more power for their country and
its elite, they remain bent on a course that leads to war after war. Small
ones, it is true, since 1945. But that need not remain so.
go back to AiS issue 14, Contents
|(*) Jan Palach (b. August 11, 1948, d. Jan. 19, 1969) set himself
aflame in Wenceslas Square, Prague on 16 January 1969 in protest
against the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops that killed in so many the hope
of building a different, more democratic and solidary socialist society
than existed at the time, in both East and West.
|(**) Jiří Gruša says about Pavel Janský, " Pavel Jánský, my poet friend,
then a beginning poet, wrote a few critical verses in ‘48 and vanished
to jail in Bory. He had to wait for his first book until the thaw
of the 60s, only to be banned again. As was the case then for all quality
authors, without regard for the political accent of their own beginnings."
Jan Hanzlík, Jiří Reichl, "Interview with Jiří Gruša" http://www.ustrcr.cz/en/interview-with-jiri-grusa
|(***) Henry A. Kissinger, "How the Ukraine crisis ends," in:
The Washington Post, March 5, 2014. Please click to see Online
| (****) Regarding the "humanitarian" war in former Yugoslavia,
see also:. .
|(*****) This was already obvious, however, since the statements by
presidental candidate Mitt Romney during the election campaign that pitted
him against Barack Obama in 2012 (2011?). See: