By MICHAEL DAVIDOW, Radio Free New Hampshire
Springtime is here, and mud is fate. My son wears nothing but sneakers every day of his life. My wife thinks this is okay, so I am outvoted in my house (I really need to lobby our dog more). His sneakers get covered in mud, and perhaps I’ve already mentioned this, but springtime is here, and mud is fate.
Ukraine has mud too and it appears that Vladimir Putin tried to time his invasion of that country so that his tanks could avoid that mud. Because Ukraine has held out longer than he thought it would, however, his tanks have gotten bogged down anyway. Russia used to fight and win its wars because two great soldiers always fought on its side: General Winter and General Hunger. Napoleon lost to those two opponents and so did Hitler. Putin hasn’t lost yet and given the balance of power in that land, he probably won’t. But General Mud will take his toll of Russia’s soldiers regardless.
It is hard not to admire the gallantry of the Ukrainians but I don’t think we should be surprised by it. We have seen it before. As citizens of the Soviet Union, after all, Ukrainians fought at Stalingrad, Leningrad, Kursk, and Berlin. As did Russians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, and Georgians (to name just a few). It is heartbreaking to see our former allies– and they were our allies, and they were unspeakably brave– fighting each other for so little cause and to such horrible effect.
When I was younger and I thought about war, I often imagined myself as a soldier. I suppose that’s inevitable for a young man, with Hemingway on the bookshelf, and Stephen Crane, and Siegfried Sassoon. Most fiction tries to debunk the glory of war but as George Washington famously noted (from his experience in the French and Indian War, when he himself was young), there is something rather charming about bullets whistling past your shoulders, and it’s hard to not wonder about that charm.
But now that I am older, my imagination takes a different turn altogether. Though I can still picture myself as a combatant, and in Ukraine right now, middle-aged men are indeed combatants, I now see the other side of things even more easily. I picture what it would be like to have an infant to care for when the missiles strike; I picture what it would be like to have an aged parent in a nursing home; I picture what it would be like to be physically ill myself during this time. General Sherman said war was hell and he was not being poetic. I always thought I understood that, but it helps to be a little older.
The siege of Mariupol has left hundreds of thousands of civilians without food or medicine or fresh water. This is astonishing because it’s cold in Mariupol and I can’t even last six innings of my kid’s springtime baseball games without getting angry with myself, about really needing a scarf.
James Agee was a writer back in the 1940’s, he wrote a book about poverty called “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” and in that book he talks about how hard it is to truly describe certain things. He uses the music of Beethoven as an example and ends up suggesting that you find some on the radio, you crank it up as loudly as you can, and put your ear right next to the box: and even that will not suffice. It’s bigger and better and more important than that.
The siege of Mariupol is like Beethoven. It’s a stunning thing and it can’t be real, except for the fact that it’s real. And what is the upshot of all our recent national politics– of Barack Obama’s infamous red line in Syria, and his fatal shrug when the Russians took Crimea; of Donald Trump’s scoffing at NATO and sick affection for Vladimir Putin; of our two-year-long argument over we should wear masks and get vaccines when an easily avoidable fatal disease is being spread by spit and mist; of our capitol coming under siege by thugs and racists and mental cases, with the blessing of the Republican Party itself — what has been the upshot of this lethal self-involvement of ours, our spoiled rotten selves?
Springtime means mud, and mud is fate. Let’s hope that General Mud holds out a while longer in front of Kiev, because every day that Ukraine still stands, is a day that we can feel less guilty about the fact that America has been letting itself down for decades now.
He is the author of Gate City, Split Thirty, and The Rocketdyne Commission, three novels about politics and advertising which, taken together, form The Henry Bell Project, The Book of Order, and his most recent one, The Hunter of Talyashevka . They are available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.