I have been convinced there will be a world war in my lifetime for some time. When people look at me askance in response, I ask them to consider the people in photos of parties and gaiety in any European capital in the late 1930s. As they danced into the night, champagne flowing and feet a-flapping, few of them thought that in a short few years, the survivors among them would be knee deep in the mud and muck, pushing wheelbarrows with their remaining worldly possessions ahead of them. A similar delusion of security has taken hold of our society in the last quarter century.
Since the end of the Cold War – 9/11 notwithstanding – we’ve convinced ourselves that History was an unfolding linear progression, and indeed we’d reached the very end of it.
Our culture evolved in furious agreement with this belief. It became virtuous to oppose increases in defence spending. It became saintly to propose cuts in military expenditure in favour of social welfare. It was cool to festoon your surplus NATO jacket with “no nukes” and “peace” badges and roam around the fields of Glastonbury or the streets of Portland. Indeed, it became fashionable to denounce Churchill and FDR as the real war criminals, little better than Hitler himself. Every VE Day saw articles about ‘Dresden’ and ‘Hiroshima’ in our liberal press as progressive Millennial columnists demanded our grandparents generation admitted their shame. Along with this went a growing consensus that everything to do with Western Liberal Democracy was a lie, and its success was built on the backs of slavery, colonialism, Imperialism, ‘the patriarchy’, ‘white privilege’, and ‘supremacy’. Could we even be sure we were the good guys, or was that just a narrative? That even Hitler’s Holocaust of the Jews might be a ‘narrative’ was back on the table again, so unsure our societies became of their own histories. But all this was ‘progressive’ and ‘post modern’ since history, after all, had ended, and we were all now woke to the problematic nature of ‘The Past’ (whose statues we dragged down and whose places we renamed).
Borders themselves, we thought, were arbitrary. If The Internet proved anything, we were one huge global village, one humanity. People who worried that our borders may be a line of defence against criminal organisation, people traffickers, terrorists, and modern slavers were all party-poopers – suspected white supremacists, nationalists, Little Englanders, American-firsters, Trump-supporters! – who couldn’t get on-board with the celebration of our common humanity. What could possibly be wrong with sending all our jobs and manufacturing to China? What could possibly be wrong with relying on Russian energy? What could possibly be wrong with Iran’s nuclear ambitions?
It used to be that the personal was political, but that was in ‘The Past’. In ‘The Now’, the political was personal as our social media narcissism and identity obsession grew. At the end of History, The Past was on the wrong side of it; and we were on the right side of history. Or so we thought.
We were wrong.
Not only was the past still there, it was rearming, reorganising, and it has nuclear weapons.
And of course these terrify us, so we respond with passive-aggression: sanctions and asset seizures. We comfort ourselves in the belief that passive-aggression won’t have the same consequences as active aggression, as we abandon Ukraine to fight its own shooting-war with Russia. Of course we’ll accept refugees. We see this as a sign of virtue, rather than what it is: the consequence of our cowardice in not helping them defend their homes. We’ll send medical supplies. That too we see as a sign of our virtue rather than our relegation of Ukraine to the ‘suffering and death’ team while we remain in the Premiere League of virtue-signalling and token gestures. We think this will have no consequences for us that may lead to our suffering and death.
We may be wrong.
Vladimir Putin is unlikely to view our material support for Ukraine any differently from military support, particularly as it slows his advance and costs him more Russian lives. Of course it will not end his advance, it’ll just make it more bloody as he knows as well us we know, once we’ve fired our damp squib of sanctions and seizures, we will not have anything left to fire, or at least nothing left that we are willing to fire. So he will continue to demolish Ukraine until he has it. He will not be deterred and he will not back down. Why?
Because he has invested too much in getting this far. If he retreats now, he will never be at the gates of Kiev again. It cost too much to get there.
Imagine a man who trains and saves for years to be able to climb Mt Everest. Finally fit and ready, he takes a leave of absence from his job, depletes his savings on all the climbing apparatus he’ll need and on plane tickets to Nepal. But then there are reports of bad weather or some similar complication. He has to decide whether to take his chances or go home. But if he goes home, it is unlikely that he’ll ever have the health, time and resources to attempt this again, so as reckless at it might be, he proceeds up the mountain. That is where Putin is in Ukraine. He’s not going back. We thought we could deter him with material threats.
We are wrong.
What do we think is going to happen when his grip on power feels like it is slipping as the Russian economy faces collapse? As I said in my last piece, ask yourself what would Hitler do if he had a nuclear bomb?
You may think it is hysterical to compare the mad ambitions of Hitler to Putin’s own ambitions, but that is because you suffer the delusion that History is progressive and linear and the world will never produce another Hitler again. Ask yourself why you think that. Hitler was not appeased. And if you think that Putin can be appeased by the sacrifice of Ukraine, ask yourself why you think that.
What needs to end is not History, but our delusions about the present and our wishful thinking of the future, all of which is rooted in the past.