The Cost of War: Carnage in the Streets, Glamor in the Magazine Sheets

Picture if you can the most nightmarish of mornings: arising late due to a muted alarm; no time to shower, so lingering dread of lingering dinginess; scant time to prepare an adequate breakfast; having to scrub your incontinent dog’s scat dollops from your bedroom carpet; kids are fussy and refusing to rouse, let alone dress; time timorously ticking causing tachycardia over tardiness; a backlog of work emails from last night screaming to be opened; your car igniting with the gas light on.

Sounds like a modern hellscape, right?

Well, take comfort, homo modernus. All of the above, either in piecemeal proportions or a convergence of calamity, pales in comparison to real conflict. I’m talking flesh-peeled, blood-splatting, ordnance-bursting, organ-disemboweling, loved-one-losing, terror-shrieking, life-stealing war.

If you, American reader, want a clinic in appreciating the abundant caritas God blessed you with, skip the King James. Go right to the secular equivalent: The New Yorker. A harrowing dispatch from the Russo-Ukrainian War’s front from Luke Mogelson will make you count your blessings. Blessings such as not surviving on borsch-consistent sustenance, not living in fear of your family home being shelled, not being left behind to endure beatings, rape, or worse from AFRF “liberators,” and not bleeding out vitamin D by eking survival out in a dank cellar bomb shelter.

This isn’t my usual show-offy stylistic hyperbole. And I can’t do justice in accurately describing the horror so I’ll let Mogelson’s quotes from the Lysychanskian victims of Russia’s brutal bombardment do the detailing: “Women screaming, children screaming. Total hysteria—and you can’t do anything. Bam! Bam! All day long. It’s not random, it’s systematic. They focus on a zone, and no one is left alive”; “Our apartment has been shelled three f***ing times. My mother’s eighty-two. She has no more diapers. I want to get the hell out of here, but she has dementia”; “We don’t know what to do with the body,” two sisters told Mogelson about their mother who died in their apartment of a blitz-induced heart attack.

Here’s one that made my stomach clench extra tight: “As soon as I arrived, I saw a little girl lying there with no legs, hugging her Teddy bear.” That image alone reflexively makes me want to pilot a new Enola Gay over Moscow. And I thought having to drive five more minutes to Target because Walmart was out of size 5 Huggies was a parental tragedy. The whole tenebrous account is a grim reminder that even in what Marilynne Robinson calls our “inconceivably wealthy and comparatively stable twenty-first century,” barbarism can still gain a foothold.

The Ukrainian government—the parts of it not being used as Bear bait anyway—believes it has cause to try 600 Russian soldiers for war crimes. Given the grisly images emanating from the war-ravaged country, the case should be a slam dunk in the Hague. Too bad Russia is no longer a signatory to the Rome Statute, which might ruffle the jabots of a few international judges. Vladimir Putin will, in all likelihood, have to wait until his hatch-door yarad to the great infernal for his just desserts.

Not that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky isn’t beating the band to send ol’ Vlad Putler there sooner than the average Russian’s life expectancy. Besides waging an uphill war to defend his country, Zelensky is playing pauper, begging the West for liberal alms in the form of Javelins and Bayraktars. He’s desperate enough that, if given the chance, he’d implore Joe Biden to beat his son’s crack pipe into a sword.

As Rosa Coldfield, a desperate figure who fought her own demon, said, “necessity has a way of obliterating from our conduct various delicate scruples regarding honor and pride.” To spare his countrymen further massacre, Zelensky is going back to his sleb roots, recently participating in a Vogue photoshoot. Of course, his wife, Olena Zelensky, was the focus of the photo-call—Vogue’s editors aren’t thick-headed enough to think macho Russophobes want to see fifteen different angles of Zelensky’s patented fatigue-green wicking shirt.

The piece, paired with a hagiographic profile of the First Lady’s reluctant grit, is drawing ire from right-wing war skeptics like Sean Davis and Jack Posobiec who find the pageantry nothing but a Zelensky ego-boost. I get it: war isn’t glossy headshots. Taking time for toner application between trying to fend off an overwhelming and wantonly destructive force seems untoward. But if Ukraine is to have a chance at regaining territorial sovereignty, it needs to play the celebritum liberalis game. Household names plying preachment for causes isn’t new. George Cohan and Alexander Woollcott did it; later it was Jane Fonda and John Lennon. Soft-brained screechers Whoopi Goldberg now demanding you tattoo the Ukrainian flag on your face or risk being called a fascist aren’t Zelensky’s fault. “That he is taking advantage of our unseriousness is not a strike against him but a reminder that Zelensky understands the power of optics in modern war,” Sonny Bunch observes.

Of course, it’s not an easy balance: waging war, begging for munition scraps, keeping in the good presses, maintaining morale on the homefront. Zelensky isn’t wholly regarded as a martial hero by the people he’s trying to save from Russian servitude. “I will tell you one thing. Our government forgot about the people here,” an aid supplier in Lysychansk told Mogelson. Being forgotten about, or resources and personnel stretched too thin to help, or strategic abandonment—it doesn’t matter. Left to die is left to die. Pawns get sacrificed in the King’s Gambit.

As ever, war is ghastly to the little people, a gas to the elites—so long as they’re spared the Zyklon B. It’s not Zelensky’s fault the comfortable classes have to be wow-ed into unclenching their fists, letting their magnanimity flow. The war-time president is a star asking for the help of his fellow stars before he’s burned out by a Kinzhal.

Hands and consciences get dirty in war, which is why it shouldn’t ever be tempted without just cause. That’s a lesson for the neocon Zelensky stans who removed their American flag emojis while Trump was in office, but eagerly hoisted the Ukrainian emblem when Russia came marching. Until the war-happy Washington players learn the true life-cost of armed conflict, they should relax their flabby jaws.

Just ask the survivors in Lysychansk. Whoever’s left, that is.

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Taylor Lewis

Taylor Lewis writes from Virginia.

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