I was born in September 1939, three weeks after Hitler invaded Poland. My earliest memories kick in around the time that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. They are memories of the home front in World War II: of blackout curtains at night and rationing and my young uncles going off to war, to Anzio, Normandy, Patton’s Third Army. In living room windows in houses up and down Mount Pleasant Street, we saw little flags with white stars or gold stars on them. They meant that a son or brother or husband was in the service (white) or was dead (gold). I remember the front pages of the Washington Post and the Times–Herald and the Evening Star on the day after the bomb fell on Hiroshima; I have the clearest memory of the inky black headlines and of the photograph of an explosion shaped like an immense mushroom against a flawless blue sky.
Such memories of a time of actual world war—vivid, almost preconscious impressions—made me somewhat contemptuous, many years later, of what are called “culture wars.” I dismiss them as mostly ignoble, self-pitying, trivial: bleatings and grievances of the lesser self. In old age, I accuse myself of having become what people used to call “a Neanderthal.” A long historical memory may end by simplifying one’s sense of proportion. But it hardly matters. We are all Neanderthals now. Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threat returns the world, in its fears, to the neighborhood of the cave.
The savage Russian invasion of Ukraine has called the elaborately wired Planet Earth back from the screens—video games, political hallucinations, social media—to the basics of life and death, to reality in primary colors. Welcome back. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky tells the European Parliament: “Now we are dealing with real life.”
Actual wars are different from culture wars and dramas that occur in the dimension of the virtual. Bombs fall. People die. Countries are destroyed. There’s actual blood in the streets. People do not cavil over pronouns when faced with, shall we say, the equity of death. In the chaos of macroaggression, no one mentions the micro kind. There are no culture warriors in the bomb shelters, in the columns of refugees.
The progressive Left might respond to this by saying that actual wars are fought in order to make the world safe for culture wars, which, after all, represent a higher stage of civilization: the road to social justice. It’s not necessarily true. It depends upon whether the forces of democracy and tolerance triumph in the war. What if it’s the brutes who prevail? And—almost worse than that—what happens when the good guys, the forces that claim to represent democracy and tolerance and diversity and inclusion (you know, “the Revolution”) turn out, in the refinements of their doctrine and the enjoyment of their power, to be autocrats themselves? What if the winners are the people who chant, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western civ has got to go”—their heartbreaking ignorance sweeping aside several thousand years of philosophical, scientific, and artistic accomplishment? What if the winners are the self-proclaimed elites who suppress all opinions except their own?
Big history sometimes shocks a people into clarity. On the afternoon of Pearl Harbor, all the country’s vicious divisions of the previous few years (isolationists v. internationalists, and so on) dissolved, to be replaced by a common purpose and will.
But sometimes the great surprises—the Communists’ Tet offensive in 1968, for example, the turning point of the Vietnam War—are misconstrued. The American public had an impression that Tet was a military triumph for its enemy, North Vietnam. In fact, the Americans prevailed in Tet, but it became for them, nonetheless, a devastating psychological defeat, and the point at which they decided (correctly) that Vietnam was a bad, unwinnable war.
But how can one know the meaning of the unstable present, with its layers of fog, its trapdoors and mirages? How can one recognize a turning point in history when it is upon us? The future, too, is a fog—much denser now than in normal times.
It helps to look into the past. Russian history has its fatal habits. In the early 1930s, Joseph Stalin imposed the catastrophe of the Great Famine upon Ukraine, what Ukrainians call the Holodomor. Because Ukrainian “kulaks” resisted collectivization, Stalin took away their food. It’s impossible to say how many Ukrainians died of starvation as a result of Soviet policy—somewhere between 5 million and 10 million. As if to compound the great crime and mock its victims, the New York Times’s Moscow correspondent, Walter Duranty, possibly the best known and most successful foreign correspondent at the time, was awarded a 1932 Pulitzer Prize for his articles praising Stalin even in the midst of the famine. Duranty did not bother to go out to Ukraine to see for himself what was happening. In Moscow, he had a genial and attractive Russian mistress and a comfortable house with a fireplace. He filed his Pulitzer Prize-winning dispatches from there. He and Stalin agreed upon a rationale for the Famine—a food metaphor, of all things: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.” That is more or less Putin’s mentality. (One used to hear it now and then from CIA guys at lunch at the Metropolitan Club).
Reality and ideology are usually at odds with one another. Two good things that have emerged in the current crisis: the return of such brutal actuality to the news has tended to mute, for the moment, the noise of America’s almost psychotically partisan politics. It has also seen the return of first-class journalism—courageous, factual battle reporting—to American media.
Russians are forbidden to call this “an invasion” or “a war.” It is, instead, “a special military operation.” What is the accurate term for it? There’s a spectrum of condemnation: Criminal? Wanton? Wicked? Evil?
Much of the world sees Putin now as a kind of world-historical Charles Manson. If he has remaining admirers or apologists, they regard him as a fusion of James K. Polk and Ivan the Terrible: Vlad the Omelet-maker. Optimists hope for a palace coup. We’ll know more soon enough.
Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images