The Forgotten Truth of War

“Human skin,” Catherine the Great once observed, “is more ticklish than paper.” 

I wonder if the people beating the drum to escalate the war in Ukraine have taken that homely wisdom on board. I suspect that the American people writ large are beginning to. 

A year ago, soon after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, I saw the beautiful people in my deep blue town, the ones who had posted “Black Lives Matter” signs on their front lawn, substitute (or, if they were really gung-ho, add) a Ukraine flag on the poles they had erected to declare their higher virtue. 

Those Ukrainian flags, I’ve noticed, are beginning to come down. Why? In part because of simple economic self-interest. People—the ones not part of the government or its auxiliaries, anyway—understand that the sanctions “against Russia” are just as much sanctions against us. Ordinary people look at the price of gasoline and heating oil and think, “Why should I be paying for this?” 

And speaking of paying, you don’t need an advanced degree in economics to realize that there is a connection between sending billions upon billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine and Biden’s demand for higher taxes. How exactly, people wonder, is defending Ukraine and poking a major nuclear power in the eye in our national self-interest? 

A not entirely irrelevant data point: the federal debt of the United States is now north of $31 trillion. Even if you don’t know that, your children, their children, and their children’s children will learn about the significance of that albatross, fixed around their necks by irresponsible politicians, in ways too mournful to contemplate. 

There are other pragmatic questions. Joe Biden has siphoned off a large percentage of our strategic petroleum reserve in order to make a little dent in the runaway gas prices brought about by his incontinent spending spree. “Isn’t that dangerous?” people are asking themselves. “What if we needed the oil for our own military?”

And speaking of the military, what about all that hardware we’ve been shipping to Ukraine, not just the Abrams tanks (not the Stacey Abrams model, alas, but the M1), but also all those high-tech missiles, drones, and other kinetic matériel? What has that done to our own stockpiles of the stuff? Responsible news outlets—outlets, I mean, other than the New York Times, CNN, and kindred media middens—are warning that our own stores of Stingers, HAWK air defense systems, Patriot missile systems, HIMARS, Guided Multiple Launch Rockets System, etc., are dangerously depleted. 

Every day for the last 10 months or so, I have read headlines about how the walls are closing in upon Putin, how his army is nearing collapse, and his people are nearing revolt. But so far none of that has happened. Maybe it still will. The Russian army certainly had many early setbacks, much to the shock of naïve Russian war planners (and also, it must be said, to the surprise of equally naïve Western observers). But that was early on. Russia has learned or at least half-learned from its defeats. 

Now it is prosecuting a devastating series of artillery bombardments, smashing civilian and military infrastructure alike. Which brings us to the humanitarian side of the situation. A recent tally of Ukrainian casualties put the number of deaths at about 140,000. Who knows how many others are seriously maimed or wounded? That’s out of a population of about 40 million. 

Cui bono? Not us, surely, nor Ukraine, nor Russia. But how about China? It’s getting lots of oil at bargain-basement prices from Comrade Vladimir, oil that might otherwise be heating homes in Berlin. It is also watching as we expend expensive military assets in a theater far, far from our homeland. 

China is rattling its sabers, girding its metaphorical loins, moving various bits of its economy to a war footing. According to China observers like Gordon Chang, the signs are “unmistakable” that it is preparing for war. That was the not-so-hidden subtext of last week’s adventure, the Chinese surveillance balloon that was allowed to traverse the entire continental United States before being shot down. 

You wouldn’t really know this from the vicious, disgusting, and mendacious media that will lie about anything in order to bolster the regime narrative. They lied about Trump and Russia and about Trump and his call to the Ukrainian president back in 2020. They lied about the origins of COVID and about how best to handle and treat COVID. They lied about the 2020 election and that black thug who died of a fentanyl overdose in Minneapolis while resisting arrest. 

They lie about everything. I acknowledge that sometimes it is not quite fair to say that they are mendacious. Sometimes they are merely vicious, disgusting, and ignorant, but it amounts to the same thing. 

The problem is that we are in a situation akin to that faced by the Trojans after they landed in Italy and Aeneas was making nice to King Latinus with an eye to marrying his daughter Lavinia. Juno hated the Trojans and prevailed upon the hideous Fury Alecto in whose heart bred “Treachery, war, rage.” “Rouse your genius,” Juno urges, “Shatter their treaties, sow the seeds of war.” 

And so Alecto does, driving women as well as men mad with homicidal fury.  

After the Soviet Union broke up, the West prevailed upon Ukraine to give up its nuclear arsenal—at the time the world’s fifth largest—in exchange for a security guarantee. They did give up their nuclear weapons. And how did that security guarantee work out?

Now, as the military commentator Austin Bay points out, countries from South Korea to Japan, covertly or openly, are considering acquiring nuclear weapons. They have watched what has happened to Ukraine. They can hear and see what China is doing. Security guarantees from Antony Blinken and his ilk are all well and good. But as Catherine the Great observed, “human skin is more ticklish than paper.” That’s a fact Alecto, the “mourning-bringer,” is aware of, too. 

Winston Churchill once observed that “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.” At the same time, he well understood that “The story of the human race is war.” That is a melancholy truth that, marinated in peace and affluence, we in the West have neglected at our peril.

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