Cities across Ukraine are under siege as you read these words. Families gathering their most precious goods, trying to calm their terrified children, desperate to flee but unsure where to go.
Americans have no memory of what it is like to have their own towns shelled, to have their homes blown apart, to see family members die and bodies in the streets as brutal men in uniform spread terror, death, and destruction.
The last time an American city was under bombardment from a foreign power was the War of 1812. On August 22, 1814, President James Madison, “the father of the Constitution,” left the White House to his wife, Dolly, and rode off on his horse to command troops against the British Canadian forces advancing on Washington DC.
Dolly famously saved the portrait of George Washington the next day and fled the White House herself on August 23, as the approaching troops came and attacked the city. By the end of the day the White House was in flames; the Madisons would never again live in the badly damaged building.
That, and the horrors of the Civil War, were our last experiences of widespread domestic warfare; the only Americans alive who remember what it is like for an American city to be under siege are the tiny handful of survivors of racial violence at places like the Tulsa Massacre in that city’s prosperous Greenwood neighborhood in 1921.
Outside of those few survivors and their relatives, the terror, the senseless loss of life, the organized violence that is war directed against your own home is an abstraction to most Americans. Something we see in movies.
Today it is real for Ukrainians. Particularly Ukrainian children.
War is legalized mass murder – and, historically, legalized mass looting and rape. It is as if people step out of their own humanity and become monsters, their brutality almost unrecognizable as human.
Like a pack of wild dogs, a swarm of locusts, the reaction of hornets when their nest is damaged, humans become something other than “civilized” when they commit to war. There is something deep in our DNA — we observe the same swarming, warlike behavior in our closest relatives, the Chimpanzees — that drives us to the type of temporary insanity necessary to murder total strangers in mass numbers.
Because humans have this demon buried deeply in us all, societies throughout history and prehistory have organized themselves in ways to reduce the chance of war. We let out that horrible instinct in gladiator conflict like football; the Iroquois did it with Lacrosse. The Olympics were created to diminish the probability of wars breaking out.
But there is a small slice of humanity that — through nature, nurture or both — deviate from the norm in a way that makes it possible for them to contemplate an order to mass murder, to commence war against others, or to charge into the face of a murderous onslaught to protect their nation, homes, and families.
When they are defending their people we consider them great leaders: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ulysses Grant, Winston Churchill.
When they are the aggressors, history records them as monsters: Adolf Hitler, Andrew Jackson “The Indian Killer,” Josef Stalin – who starved 4 million Ukrainians to death to force them into submission.
And here we are. This is one of those hinge points in history, a moment people remember other events in the context of “before” and “after” that moment.
As the pre-planned slaughter of a war-of-choice plays out on TV before those of us living in safety some turn to prayer, others to outrage, others hide their faces and try to plunge back into normalcy, insulated as we are from the terror and death by thousands of miles.
But make no mistake. A war against one is a war against all. As John Donne reminded us:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
As well as if a promontory were:
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.