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 make 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 the 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 proposed?(****) 

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, not solidarity.
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.

- AW

                                                                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.

Jan Palach

(**) 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 version

 (****) 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: