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Reign of Force?

This essay, published in First Things, was first written as a column for ABC’s La Tercera.

In the tense calm of the night train chugging from Przemyśl to Kyiv before dawn on 9 May, while missiles rained down over my destination, I read Simone Weil’s essay from 1940, ‘L’Iliade ou le poème de la force’. Weil contends that the real subject of Homer’s epic is no human agent, state, or ideology, but rather impersonal force, ‘force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away’. The tyrant who makes force serve his purpose makes his brother a slave — an aprosopon, the Greeks would say, a non-person with no claim to a name or a home. Force turns men into things, lands into territories. ‘Violence’, writes Weil, ‘obliterates anyone who feels its touch. It comes to seem just as external to its employer as to its victim’, reducing life and death to calculable abstractions.

The train arrived in Kyiv at 9.55, bang on time. At 10 o’clock — there is no time difference between Kyiv and Moscow — a parade began on Red Square to mark ‘the 78th anniversary of Victory in the 1941–1945 Great Patriotic War’. According to the Kremlin’s website, it featured over 8000 service personnel, ‘among them 530 troops taking part in the special military operation’. Headed by armoured vehicles, it included the newest Spartak and 3-STS Akhmat, ‘presented at the parade for the first time’. If ever there was a display of instrumentalised force, this was it.

The president of Russia explained it as mobilisation. He ventured to claim that Russia is the object of aggression: ‘A real war is being waged against our country’, he said: a civilisational battle, a confrontation of ideologies, as if the force were facelessly at large, requiring containment. He emphasised that Russia had risen before to the task of freeing Europe from evils it had spawned; it would do so again. His speech referred to ‘neo-Nazi scum from around the world’ and to the ‘catastrophe’ in Ukraine. It concluded with an exclamation ‘To Victory! Hooray!’

It may be that Russia’s president is well-versed in Greek. I would not put money on it; but I would not exclude it. To describe what goes on in Ukraine as ‘catastrophe’ is perceptive in any case, wittingly or unwittingly. The word commonly denotes ‘disaster’. That term is no overstatement. To walk along the blue wall of St Michael’s monastery in Kyiv, covered in photographs of men and women killed by occupying forces since 24 February 2022, is to face the human cost of Russia’s iniquitous attack, which has caused 8 million Ukrainians to flee abroad and 5 million to be internally displaced. Yet the term ‘catastrophe’ can sustain another, subtler meaning. It then describes a sudden turn of fortune, a redistribution of stakes. That sense, too, is apposite. Something novel is coming into being before our eyes, if we choose to look and do not avert our gaze in boredom or news-fatigue.

I spent the afternoon of 9 May in Bucha, Irpin, and Makariv, places whose names carry near-mythical resonance owing to atrocities committed there by subjects of the authority which, on Red Square, presented itself as a freeing force. The strategy pursued was the well-rehearsed one of scorched earth. I had located the towns on a map, yet was struck, driving there, by their sheer nearness to the capital. That Russian tanks did not arrive at St Michael’s blue church, that the campaign was not the three-or-four-day grab almost casually announced, exemplifies ‘catastrophe’. A revolution of expectancy happened, astonishing some of its agents. The force had been averted; names and places were intact. Hundreds had perished cruelly, houses had been razed. But Ukraine was standing. It still stands, firmer in its sense of self, perhaps, than ever before. That fact, too, is a ‘catastrophe’ unintended by the aggressor, realising now that force is not unilaterally harnessed.

In a BBC broadcast last year I heard Volodymyr Zelensky comment on a recent victory. Russia had suffered losses. Zelensky acknowledged Ukraine’s advance, but went on to say that Russian casualties gave him no joy, ‘for those men too had fathers’. For a head of state at war to say such a thing with regard to an invader is ‘catastrophic’. It signifies refusal to let oneself or others be depersonalised by force. Zelensky is not one to idealise his nation. For years he was, as star of the TV show Servant of the People, the scourge of establishmentarian corruption and popular unprincipledness by means of slapstick comedy. He knows the compromises to which folk are prone, also in Ukraine. He acknowledges these. At the same time he insists that there are values and terms regarding which compromise is impossible. The band plays different tunes, marches to different rhythms in Moscow and Kyiv. We hear conflicting narratives, not just about borders but about the nature of society, sovereignty, and truth. These cannot simply be harmonised. As an ancient prophet said, we are prone in a crisis, wanting it to go away quickly, to put darkness for light, light for darkness. Yet the night remains night. And cannot be mistaken for day.

On 10 May I lunched with a charity worker from Donetsk — ‘one of those’, he sardonically said, ‘whom our neighbour came to deliver’ — at the Last Barricade, a restaurant underneath Maidan Square, the stage for Ukraine’s 2014 ‘Revolution of Dignity’. To enter, one passes through an iron wall weirdly adorned by 72 upward-turned hands illumined by lightbulbs at the wrist: 72 hands reaching for the light, ‘one’, our waitress explained, ‘for each year Ukraine was subject to Soviet rule’.

The drama unfolding in Ukraine is not just about a ‘special operation’ fifteen months old. It spells the unravelling of a century-long alliance with force, kept together now by rhetorical hyperbole. ‘It is rare’, wrote Simone Weil in 1940, ‘to see misfortune fairly portrayed’. Confronted with the apparent ultimatum of force, we tend to ‘treat the unfortunate person as though catastrophe were his natural vocation’. Ukraine is subverting the very notion of ‘catastrophe’, refusing to be its hapless victim. It is an estimable endeavour, with consequences for us all.

Simone Weil (1909-43)