The Thief of Joy in the Maw of Hell
As Vladimir Putin’s tanks continue to encircle and bombard the cities of Ukraine — and as Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, continues to hold serve in the capital city of Kiev — there’s a new trend taking hold in the American commentariat: Comparison.
Zelenskyy’s courageous, immovable, and vocal leadership of the Ukrainian people puts him in rare air when it comes to world leaders. He’s been linked to Winston Churchill, naturally, as a European leader standing astride the advances of a rogue tyrant, but he’s also been compared to a surprising roster of American politicians. Would Joe Biden be this great if America were under attack? How long would Biden’s predecessor have camped out in a besieged Washington before making a beeline to the nearest jet? These aren’t serious questions about our previous presidents in wartime so much as thinly-veiled insults, smack talk wrapped in a bow of high-minded political matchups: Why can’t our leaders be more like that guy?
You might find it hard to imagine this nation’s past and future presidents rallying their people in the middle of a war zone — fair enough. But our comparisons haven’t stopped there. As the news of the world shows less famous, less powerful Ukrainians sacrificing life and limb for the homeland, we’ve wondered — needlessly and inexplicably — whether our own neighbors would have the gumption to do the same. As the decisiveness of Ukrainian men and women, their lack of hesitation as they make for the front lines, puts the American macho industry to shame, we’ve wondered whether the people in our own lives fond of lecturing on toughness would be tough enough to face the ends and odds of Eastern Europe. We’ve even wondered whether some of the people we know and trust, groomed to warm to Putin’s Russia by dark corners of conservative media, would sell us out to a foreign threat when push comes to shove.
If — as — we’ve asked these questions, of ourselves and one another, there’s one question I haven’t noticed floating around on Twitter, on cable news, in corner booth caucuses: Did the Ukrainian people even see this in each other?
The Union general William T. Sherman is famous for declaring, “War is hell.” As the words formed themselves in his mind and his mouth, he might have conjured the image of war, of hell: “Demon fire,” perhaps, or “devils with pitchforks,” countrysides razed to desolation and despair by the instruments of manmade death. But the hell of Western canon is also the worst kind of miracle: Its legend and lore are rife with supernatural beings, creatures unfound anywhere on Earth. The very presence of such a horrendous abode demands new kinds of existence, new ways of living and being, modes of operation that wouldn’t be necessary if everything hadn’t gone, well, to hell.
Yes, the people of Ukraine have risen to the occasion. As push comes to shove, and a more powerful army brings its forces to bear on their cities and towns, they’ve unearthed parts of themselves that only arise in the worst of times — the hearts of warriors, unflinching in the drive to surrender everything they have or will have in the defense of what they’ve been told they don’t have: A country. Perhaps most impressive, their iron will to survive started at the top, with Zelenskyy, and has turned what Russia projected as a short campaign requiring half the Federation’s standing army into a blow-for-blow slog.
But we are not now beholding the feats of gods, or the excavation of long-buried superpowers. The faces on our screens, beamed halfway across the globe, were once beaming themselves, the faces of ordinary people. We see them now in an awful after-time — some of them fearful, some of them steeled, all of them transformed by visions of the maw of hell — and they stand glorious against the backdrop of the war. If we can’t see this in each other, it might be because we don’t have to.
Is it a blindness? Yes. But perhaps it’s something else, too, a word that feels blasphemous to ascribe to malaise and distrust. Perhaps it is a privilege; perhaps, above all else, it is a mercy.