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War In Postmodernity: Why The Russia/Ukraine War Feels Different
Why I didn't take a side, and the nature of war in postmodernity
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, I was adamant that in terms of ‘‘Hot-Takes’’ and content creation, I would not become invested or partisan regarding one side or another. Primarily, this is because I’m not really a geopolitics sort of guy, but I also saw the narrative spaghetti being dished up by the war. Some people have been left disappointed by my apparent indifference — after all, isn’t Ukraine a European ethnostate fighting a multiracial empire?
Conversely, is not Russia standing up to the encroachments of America’s Gay-Empire? A last bulwark of tradition and sanity under siege by the Washington NGO complex?
As with the Covid-Op which immediately preceded it, the Ukraine war saw figures and influencers within the Online Right break friendships and then rearrange themselves into new conglomerates and networks based on their opinions of the war.
The ongoing Realism vs Ideology debate resurfaced in the Ukraine war as well. The ideological position is that Ukrainians have a right to sovereignty, integrity, and peoplehood. The realist position is that Russia cannot allow itself to become strategically hamstrung by the various pawns and rooks of the American-led NATO encroachment policy. Personally, I find that the ‘‘alleged’’ American bombing of the Nord Stream pipeline undermines the ideologically Nationalist defence of Ukrainian sovereignty — why doesn’t Germany matter? Indeed, the degree to which any Western nation is actually sovereign and not merely a bulwark of the American Empire is itself the subject of debate.
Conversely, if Russia, China, and the BRICS are genuinely out to torpedo Western dominance once and for all, is that something that can be or should be celebrated?
Yet, simmering away underneath the quagmire of political and ideological expediency was something profoundly unsettling. Neither Russia nor Ukraine is in very good shape culturally, spiritually, or demographically. But then again, neither is the West nor even China.
In terms of civilizational cycles, the Russia/Ukraine war comes during the West’s own late-stage Winter and Empire epochs. The absurdly propagandistic Liberal media in the West portray Putin’s Russia as a decrepit throwback to an older Europe, seemingly glorifying in its decaying infrastructure and rampant alcoholism. Without blinking, the same media will then portray Russia as a new, dynamic force leading an illiberal insurgency against the West. Putin is, after all, the new Hitler.
The uncomfortable reality is that all belligerents and cheerleaders of the conflict are profoundly, metaphysically exhausted. It is telling that the various camps in the discussion bicker over which country has the lowest birth rate, church attendance, or the highest porn consumption.
A running theme of the BBC comedy series set in the World War One trenches, Blackadder Goes Forth, was the predominance of poetry as a form of expression. As a branch of Modernism, poetry was expressive of the individual in the setting of an industrial world war, while at the same time aligning with the possibility of science and reason ushering in a better world. The Romanticism of late summer in the 19th century was burned off the European psyche like a hot morning sun evaporates morning dew on the grass. Romanticism was itself nostalgia for a pre-industrial Europe which, relative to the smog-laden streets and obsessive pursuit of greater degrees of quanta, seemed entirely enchanted and mystical.
Here, we see, going back across the centuries, forms emerging within which the horrors of war could at least be rationalized or justified. The hierarchical structures of the Great Chain of Being gave way to mass patriotism and duty to the nation. The degree to which men were willing to slaughter each other in World War One — motivated by patriotism and a love of home and belonging — astonished Marxist materialists, who realized that revolution was impossible while these forms were left intact. The infamous Frankfurt School was created to study and find weaknesses in ties that men had to their exclusive identities. If reality did not suit the ideology, then reality would have to change.
Thus, the motivating factor and impetus became an ideological struggle that consumed much of the rest of the 20th century. Western liberalism is also an ideology, even if it lies about it. Fascists fought for blood, soil, and glory. Communists fought for (in theory) universal brotherhood, and Western nations fought for freedom and liberty. The cynic may point out that in each case the ideology was used merely as a justification by the ruling establishment in each respective nation, nevertheless, there was clearly a unifying force external to the individual — there was something to believe in, and there was the hope of a better tomorrow.
The era of Grand Ideas ended with Western Liberalism standing alone at the ‘‘End of History’’. In Spenglerian terms, the West had become an Empire.
The conflict in Ukraine is set within a wider context of postmodernity, or even hypermodernity. There are no poems coming out of the battle lines of Kharkiv. Neither is it a religious struggle. Vladimir Putin has delivered speeches in which he decries Western degeneracy, which is fair enough, yet Russia’s abortion rate is higher than most Western nations, and its birth rate is abysmal. More Germans attend church regularly than Russians, and Germany is synonymous with the same Western malaise that has infected the entire civilization.
It is not my purpose to denigrate Russia. There are at least policies in place to try and remedy the situation. However, if Spengler was correct and Russia and the Slavic peoples will become the next great civilization, they’re nowhere near even the spring of their cycle.
We, therefore, find ourselves in a materialist wasteland where even the coherence of modernist ideologies has dissolved, and it is, for this reason, that the war in Ukraine feels different.
Wilfred Owen, England’s most famous World War One poet, wrote in his Strange Meeting:
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell …
The dead person the narrator meets in hell is an enemy soldier the narrator killed the day before. There are a number of assumptions that undergird the concept, such as the existence of hell and the questioning of universal morality. Like many modernists, Owens is asking: where did God go?
The postmodern answer is tantamount to: God left long ago, never to return. The sentiment and style of Owen’s poem can no longer be replicated in postmodernity because the metaphysical priors and assumptions which it is constructed upon are no longer present to the postmodern mind. There is no longer a definitive contextualization of pain, suffering, horror, and war. The Ukrainian soldier is in actuality likely to be killed just after sending a smiling emoji in a text message to his girlfriend or mother, rather than a poem.
Gio’s analysis which (tipping a hat to John David Ebert) he called ‘‘Art After Metaphysics’’ discussed Beksiński within the grand arc of civilization. To describe Beksiński’s art as haunting would be akin to calling Moby Dick a book about a whale. Beksiński’s paintings elicit a sense of horror and despair. We stare into unconscious horrors which nag at us and disturb us, but we cannot quite explain why. After all, isn’t this simply more disturbing imagery in an era awash in depictions of the brutal and macabre?
Figures huddle together atop giant pillars, trying to keep warm. An insect-like humanoid crawls blindly through desolation, and giant monolithic constructs are fed piles of human beings. The linear liberal view of history which dominates today, complete with the crude materialism it deploys as a measure of all things, would view Beksiński’s art as simply ‘‘surreal’’ or even dark fantasy. However, what we’re really seeing is an image of the non-person, the human who exists but without a shred of higher values. This is the world in which Nietzsche has lost. The Will exists, but only to scratch about in the dirt in a vain attempt to find scraps to sustain an existence utterly without meaning or value.
The pre-moderns found meaning in God and transcendence. The Modernists in science and reason, and the postmoderns in blowing up all previous modes of Being. To my mind, Beksiński is showing us where that takes us. It is what could accurately be described as a Dark Age.
I saw a photo of a young Ukrainian soldier cowering in a dugout. The photo was taken by a passing drone. He cowers, freezes, and dies for his homeland. The blood and the soil ideal remain intact, if nothing else. Yet his homeland is a zone of economic activity and geopolitical interest that is captured by a hostile power, and that power is already at work breaking down the social values that make it a place worth fighting for.
Polls have revealed that in Western European nations, less than 50% of the population would actually fight for their country. In Russia, that figure is 59%, and in Ukraine 62%. Only 27% of Brits would fight to defend their ‘‘Sceptred Isle’’.
Economic units, stripped entirely of an exclusive identity, do not make for great warriors. The tragedy of the Ukrainian struggle is that it is precisely this process of malaise which they are fighting for, even if by proxy. An American transsexual journalist uses social media to report on a war featuring two nations with deathbed demographics squandering the best of their manhood in some archaic replay of wars of yore which had actual dynamism and grand narratives to kill and die for.
It is simultaneously surreal and grotesque. We in the West consume shoddy replicas of media coverage of past wars, while the men dying and being tortured exist within a Beksiński horror.
Russian intellectuals such as Alexander Dugin are keenly aware of everything I have described here, of course. It is becoming increasingly understood around the world that, far from trying to resist the malaise and crisis of meaning in the West, Western elites and power-centres have actively embraced it and adopted it as both domestic and foreign policy objectives. We in the West are, for now, somewhat cushioned against nihilism by material comfort and having our attention spans wrecked by social media. The young Ukrainian soldier who listens to Ed Sheeran right before he’s incinerated in a muddy ditch is allowed no such retreat from the ‘‘Desert of the Real’’.
It is for these reasons I have not become partisan over the war in Ukraine. We’ve had many winter wars in Europe, but this time it is a war in civilizational winter, and with that comes the unnerving and somewhat surreal sense that we’re witnessing two geriatric drunken old men who should know better having a fight in a pub.
Beyond the front lines and away from transsexual journalists surfing the algorithm, in cities few in the West have heard of or can pronounce, plots and schemes hatch. Oriental men in suits and Arabs in traditional garb meet with Indians and together they discuss and analyze supply chains and economic systems. Like all good plotters, they probably won’t say it out loud, but in their heart of hearts, they want to make a Beksiński painting of London and New York, Brussels, and Toronto.