War highlighted this week’s news headlines acknowledging the one year anniversary of the invasion of the Ukraine in addition to the attention given to President Biden’s visit there. For me the most important coverage of the war, however, is the haunting photos of the war- torn citizenry and the devastated landscape that is less likely to make the headlines. In other words, I am most interested in the photos and accounts about the “casualties" of the war in the Ukraine rather than its politics, because the casualties of war most accurately tell the real story of the Ukraine war in both humanitarian and historical terms.
The term “casualty" is related, ironically, to the word “casual" which is defined as “done without serious intent or commitment; by chance.” There is a terrible randomness with war, of course, but war itself is not “by chance.” It is a strategically calculated effort to engage in lethal combat, whether considered defensive or offensive. Many nations, most notably our own, invest enormous sums in armaments and training in the preparation and the execution of war and our government votes to do so very intentionally, often prompted on by the arms industries which are the main beneficiaries of war. My research found that the term “casualty" was actually originated by the military to describe “a person killed or injured in a war or accident” as a means to somewhat blandly acknowledge that bad things just do happen in war. So we are to conclude that when it is anticipated that cities will be destroyed and thousands of people will be killed or wounded, we can just expect these “casualties" during war will be the acceptable, anticipated results of war. We are just to consider them normal.
But for those whose lives and culture have been destroyed by war, it is not “normal.” It is personally and culturally devastating. From a moral perspective war is humankind’s tragic failure to protect itself and to sustain justice and peace. Nation states are thus all too willing to engage in the brutality and destruction of war and lack a serious and sustained effort to prevent and abolish the horror of it all. And then to add to the tragedy, we actually now know how to prevent war through the still resisted means of international law (International Criminal Court in The Hague, which the U.S. refuses to join) and the prevention of deadly conflict by negotiation and meeting the basic needs of the poor and oppressed (the intention of the United Nations which is hamstrung by the prerogative of the super powers to sabotage its full potential in order to protect their self interest).
Although I have not been directly involved in a war zone, from my reading from those who were casualties of war, including soldiers with PTSD and moral injury, it is not really possible to describe war but only experienced it. What they can say is that war is an experience so traumatic that most soldiers, and certainly survivors, are reluctant or unable to relate what they felt, saw and heard. Which brings me back to the photos in the Ukraine of the dead, wounded, and distraught; the sadness in the eyes of the people fleeing their homes as refugees (now over 200,000 Ukrainians in the US alone); the video of artillery slamming into the side of a a beautiful apartment building. All simply “casualties?"
For those who become casualties of war, their understanding of “the enemy" is far less likely to be the invading nation and army. For them the real “enemy” is war itself. It is war itself that threatens and terrorizes them. I try to imagine the helplessness of those living in constant fear, hiding out in bomb shelters, grieving their losses, burying their dead if they can find them. I can only begin to fathom my empathy and sorrow for their plight.
Occasionally there is an effort to redefine the term war in more positive terms: war on poverty, war on drugs, etc. I like to envision the impact of a successful effort to engage in a “war-like” national mobilization for peace, as though it were a life and death matter. The same amount of national resources now assigned to war, would not likely produce “casualties” but would provide the groundwork for an assault on injustice and deprivation. Instead of creating tragic “casualties" people across our nation and the globe would benefit from clean water, available health care, and an internationally established standard of the rule of law. The real “battles" then would be how to summon the hearts, minds and economies to eradicate hunger, disease, economic disparity, and ethnic and mediate tribal power imbalances in a world of mutuality and respect. Isn’t the essence of peace and planetary sustainability?
I know I am idealistic, but I am also passionate about naming and confronting the horrors of war. I truly believe history is on my side, don’t you? The macho strutting of “commanders-in-chief” of any nation would have little power before a world court and the non-cooperation of the rest of the world that would isolate them, resist their oppression, and condemn them as criminals. We need to hold that possible vision.
As we continue to follow the drama of war in the Ukraine, let us hope, pray and work toward the goal that the tragedy will soon end. There are no winners in war. The anguished faces of the “casualties” of war remind us of war’s tragedy and to seek its alternative. War can - and will be - abolished just as the world was able to eventually unite in spite of entrenched economic and regional opposition to abolish slavery. I truly believe that the people across the globe are ready to abolish war if the national and partisan interests will stand aside - or made to do so. This is my vision, my hope.