Acts of Human Will

Indeterminacy, bombast, and the war in Ukraine

Kherson, November 14, 2022.

A year and a half ago, in the hours and days after Russian troops invaded Ukraine, it was hard to feel anything other than rage and despair. The invasion was at once unimaginable and foreordained, and this torturous paradox had its mirror in the uncertainty that followed: in those first few weeks, it seemed that now that the worst had happened, anything could happen (including the worst).1

Uncertainty remains the war’s dominant quality. After the initial shock, the Ukrainian defense proved unexpectedly formidable, culminating in the fall 2022 counteroffensive, which succeeded far beyond most observers’ expectations. But in the year that has passed, both sides can at best claim to have broken even, territorially, at immense human cost. The ongoing violenceand the sense of grinding stasisis increasingly at odds with the rhetoric we hear from the overcaffeinated pundit cheerleaders who preside over the discourse, as if emphasizing the stakes of the war would magically win it. We believe Ukraine will prevail for the same reason we believe socialism will prevail: because the alternative is barbaric. But that emphatic belief must coexist with the recognition of this war’s tragic indeterminacy.

There are historians, journalists, and activists whose certainty about uncertainty is key to their methodology and their outlook. Unfortunately, they are in the minority. In an Atlantic story on this summer’s counteroffensive and Volodymyr Zelensky’s charismatic leadership, Anne Applebaum and Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that “this is a war over a fundamental definition of not just democracy but civilization... The civilization that Ukraine defends has been profoundly shaped by American ideas not just about democracy, but about entrepreneurship, liberty, civil society, and the rule of law.” The authors concluded their article this way:

Europeans, East and West, are waiting for the counteroffensive. Central Asians are waiting for the counteroffensive. Belarusians, Venezuelans, Iranians, and others around the world whose dictatorships are propped up by the Russiansthey are all waiting for the counteroffensive too. This spring, this summer, this autumn, Ukraine gets a chance to alter geopolitics for a generation. And so does the United States.

This is the favored rhetoric: a bombastic, boosterish, essentialist style that carries the sickening aftertaste of Iraq war enthusiasm (in part because its biggest practitioners were Iraq war enthusiasts). Much has changed in two decadesfor one thing, the US lost that warbut pro-war frenzy and triumphalism on the part of the most influential US media elites has not.

The essentialist style conceives of nations in sweeping, almost mystical terms, and geopolitical conflicts in plainly teleological ones. In its pernicious vacuity it owes a great deal to the political scientist Samuel Huntington, author of Clash of Civilizations and the intellectual guru of American interventionism in the early 21st century. (Writing in 1981 (!), George Scialabba noted that Huntington’s book American Politics “nicely illustrates the theological function of the policy-oriented intelligentsia.”) As a method, the essentialist style is both under- and oversensitive to events, so obsessed with conflict at the level of civilizations that it transforms every incident into proof of concept. The short interregnum provided by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny-adjacent challenge to Putin earlier this year condensed the entire hermeneutic of Western commentary into thirty-six riveting hours: “Russia Slides into Civil War,” “The Coup Is Over, but Putin Is in Trouble,” “Putin Is Caught in His Own Trap,” “The Mutiny Could Be a Gift to Putin,” “The Power of a Failed Revolt,” “Yesterday’s Putin Is Gone,” “Putin’s Beast That Would Now Devour Him,” “Prigozhin’s Mutiny against Putin’s Reign of Lies,” “Wagner Uprising Is Reckoning for Putin’s Rule,” “Putin Looked into the Abyss Saturdayand Blinked.” The race to interpret the grand significance of each and every moment leaves very little room for subtlety.

  1. Then as now. As this issue goes to press, American elites and officials have backed — without reservation—Israel’s siege on Gaza in response to Hamas’s attack on October 7. “We are fighting human animals,” Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant declared as he announced that Gaza and its 2.2 million residents would be deprived of food, water, electricity, and fuel and subjected to a relentless bombing campaign in preparation for a ground invasion. As of October 23, Israeli air strikes have killed over 5,000 Gazans, injured more than 15,000, and destroyed or damaged 40 percent of Gaza’s housing. 

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