Ukraine, Gaza — The wars of 2023
Bloody lessons on the fruits of national sovereignty — and the terrible way popular opinion about it is formed
In wartime, the morality of bourgeois society is turned upside down. What people must never do in peacetime — kill other people ---- they are now ordered to do. The right to life, one of the inalienable rights protected by basic law, now gives way to the duty to sacrifice one’s life for the state. This revaluation of values makes war the ultimate moral challenge. It provokes the need for justification, of all things. Opinion holders, both important and less important ones, actually start answering the question of whether all the butchery is okay, for this or that warring party or from this or that point of view. The big mistake starts before those in the NATO West unconditionally take sides and place blame for the current wars, saying who is right or wrong to bomb. It starts when you even ask if those people are entitled to go to war or which warring party is entitled to do what, which not everyone takes the official side on.
The sides waging war are in fact entitled; or rather, “entitled” is the wrong yardstick for judging the actions of supreme powers. They recognize no higher law above themselves, and demonstrate this clearly enough when using war to fight out between each other which side can dominate the other and which side has to give in. Even when they negotiate a peace after the war is over and it is clear who is on top, they do not abide by any law but impose their own. When people play the judge over the force-wielding actors, as they are welcome to, giving them good or bad grades or even disapproving equally of either side, this does not in any way alter the war, its course or its outcome. These judgments do not reach those being judged at all. But they do make a difference when it comes to the lay judges themselves. Even in war, they insist on being the real controlling authorities and somehow having the last word on the military actions of the state powers that are busy wearing each other down big time. In some cases, they are making themselves partisans of one side. But in all cases, their armchair involvement in the war gives them a very constructive standpoint for telling right killing and dying from wrong.
I. Never is the conflict between people and the state so obvious and brutal as in war — and never is there more insistence that the two are inseparably one
It is no secret what war is all about. The political commanders make it abundantly clear, you just have to listen. Ukrainian President Zelensky, for example, is defending his country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity against a Russian attack and vows not to stop fighting until the Russians have been driven from every inch of Ukrainian soil, including Crimea. So the reason for killing and dying is to have the Kiev government’s power extend to Donetsk and Sevastopol and to stop any other political rule from interfering with its own over the land and people on the territory it claims and from restricting its freedom to decide things. This claim on the scope of Ukrainian sovereignty takes no account of whether people living in Crimea or the Donbas would rather be Russian or Ukrainian. They are not asked. Zelensky does not justify his power claims at all, gives his Ukrainians no reasons why Crimea absolutely has to be brought home again and what they would get from it. Just announcing the war aim justifies it, constituting an imperative that citizens can’t get around.
Evidently, “Ukraine” is what is most adverse to the lives of those who have to stick their neck out for this thing called “Ukraine” — regardless of whether they do so with cheers on their lips or not. “Ukraine” — that is not “Ukrainian people,” it is the political rule they obey. The people dying have not chosen the enemy themselves, let alone gotten themselves the means to fight it while risking their lives. They have been recruited, uniformed and equipped within an apparatus of political power. Ukraine is first and foremost precisely this relationship: the split between those who hold and wield state power and those whom they detail to fight as the base and instrument of their power. The force this involves against “Ukrainian people” becomes all too apparent as soon as one of them values life more than the scope of the government’s power. People who want to get out are captured, deserters are locked up, so-called collaborators fall victim to secret service assassinations.
It is so important to the Ukrainian leadership to assert its sovereign power that it not only sends entire generations to the slaughter, it also takes the risk of everything being destroyed that serves its population as a condition for living on its national territory. A city lost to the enemy ceases to exist for the leaders because they have lost their control over it. Worse still, it is now a bastion and resource for the enemy, giving its old home state all the more reason to reduce it to rubble. The population’s lives and living conditions are worth being lost as long as the state power consequently survives and asserts itself. That clarifies the priorities.
The same can of course be said of the Russian state and its power claims, but it’s a waste of breath since people in the West are forever claiming that is all the Russian state — unlike all the others — is interested in anyway. However, it is striking that the nuclear-armed major power to the East is more demanding in defining its sovereignty; up till now it is not struggling to secure its territory. But if one does not just morally repudiate its war as wrong but asks why Russia’s leaders consider it necessary, then one ends up with the fact that this power, too, expects sovereignty to mean that it is the only one to decide what its security needs are in relation to other powers. A heavily armed NATO-Ukraine on its western border is not something Russia is prepared to accept; it sees it as an attack on its world-power status, which it will not have threatened by the steady advance of the Western military alliance. That is what Russia is sacrificing masses of people for, people who are likewise not asked how important Russia’s world power is to them.
At the same time, in war, when political rule has the people who obey it serve as material to be used up for its self-assertion, it insists that its citizens are absolutely identical with their state. Everything that Ukrainian rule does and achieves for itself, it is doing for Ukrainian people. Every new missile from the West that it uses to strike the enemy far behind the lines is saving Ukrainian lives. Every time a rubble wasteland is recaptured where no one can live and hardly anyone is left, this is liberating Ukrainians. The Russian side has the very same view. When it destroys Ukraine and appropriates some of its oblasts (districts), it is doing nothing but protecting the pro-Russian population in the Donbas who “are counting on us and whom we must not abandon” (Putin).
Everywhere, a state power asserting itself against an external enemy claims to be fulfilling a promise to protect the people who belong to it. This is especially true in Israel, which was actually founded as a state and ever further expanded solely to protect Jewish life in a hostile setting. The truth about this protection is that a state regards and guards the inhabitants of the territory it rules over as its possession the same way as it does its territory. When another state lays claim to this population as its own, or a group like Hamas attacks its citizens, it sees this as an attack on its sovereignty: that is something it cannot tolerate. Its reaction is to defend this sovereignty by deploying its human material. Its job of protecting its citizens coincides with beating the attacker — or not. There is no other protection.
Totally identifying a state with the people under its rule is not just a cynical propaganda lie, it is praxis. A state does not just declare itself the first condition of life for its population, it acts as such so absolutely that it does not know or accept a life outside its command. It adopts this relationship towards its subjects in peacetime as well: its monopoly on the use of force compels citizens to renounce force, and is thus the indispensable basis for their capitalist dealings with one another — the first condition of life in a bourgeois society. In peacetime, state power uses its laws to determine the paths and opportunities of an individual’s existence. In wartime, when the state is asserting itself against a competing state power and putting its citizens’ lives at risk for the purpose, they have to see that as defending their living conditions, even themselves and their freedom. Without their state, there is no life, because it doesn’t allow any.
It is a brutal irony that when a state totally subsumes people under it in war, it actually makes this untrue identity subjectively true. The state sends its soldiers into the line of fire, exposes its civilians to enemy bombardments, so that their survival does in fact hang on the success of their own troops. The confrontation with the enemy that their state places them in forces them to identify with their role as a power resource for the nation. Soldiers face those on the other side as exactly what they are themselves: beings completely reduced to their nationality who encounter each other in this and only this capacity and as such endanger each other’s lives. In utterly impersonal opposition to the other person, who they do not know and who they have nothing against as a human being, they have to shoot quicker than the other one to save their own life. And by fighting for their life by killing, they fulfill their function as an instrument for their political rule’s use of force.
II. This madness of state life is the object of very understanding and constructive opinions, both critical and uncritical, in Germany. Appropriate questions are asked to arrive at a sympathetic view of the carnage and the right attitude to it
Confronted with the absolute opposition between state and people in war, those forming an opinion proceed on the assumption that the two are absolutely identical when they try to find out how the historical mishap could happen, or why it just has to be the way it is once it has happened.
“Who started it?”
This kindergarten question is considered by adult thinkers to be good enough for orienting themselves in the world of imperialism, callously distinguishing between this and that use of force to find who is to blame for the clash of political sovereigns. They imagine a prior state of agreement between highest powers, peace obviously, which at some point one of them ends — always “without provocation” — and for no reason replaces with an opposing, hostile stance and behavior.
When it comes to the war in Ukraine, German public opinion is very sure. This war is never referred to as anything other than “Russia’s war of aggression”; Russia started it, it invaded its neighbor. According to the schema of action and reaction, it is solely to blame for this war; Ukraine is an innocent victim only defending itself and therefore has every right to do so. The only political sovereign out to rule at anyone else’s expense is to be found on the Russian side. When Ukraine asserts its sovereignty, it is simply doing what is necessary and protecting Ukrainians’ lives.
All see it that way, unless they side with the Russians. From Russia’s point of view the hostilities date back longer, to when NATO started expanding eastward in 1990 or the West started arming the former Soviet republic next door. Russia claims it was only countering the threat from an anti-Russian enemy, preempting an attack. It too was only reacting.
Asking who started it, which is supposed to show who is to blame and explain why one is taking sides, does not explain anything. The question is only posed when one has already taken sides. One goes back through the events preceding a conflict and simply stops at the one that makes the bad guy’s action seem free and arbitrary. If one has a different bad guy, one just goes back further or not as far.
Everyone really knows how hypocritical this way of passing judgment is when it comes to the Gaza war. In Germany it is virtually taboo to know of any hostilities beginning before October 7, 2023. The mere mention of the historical context — Palestinians being driven from where they lived, increasingly pushed out of the West Bank under the fifty years of occupation, etc. — will not be tolerated by Israel or its supporters. They reject it as illegitimate “contextualization” distracting from the murderous terrorist act and only watering down Hamas’s guilt and Israel’s right to do everything it is now doing. When UN Secretary General Guterres cautiously points out that the attack “did not take place in a vacuum,” Israel’s ambassador to the UN attacks him as an anti-Semite. And by accusing Guterres of bias, even he has a point. With facts commonly only being cited to legitimize or discredit an act of war, that is the only reason the non-partisan highest representative of the United Nations is bringing up the previous events too.
It is altogether wrong to “explain” outbreaks of violence between states (or would-be states) according to the pattern of action and reaction. Nowhere, not in the Middle East either, does the violence of one side “follow” — quasi automatically — from that of the other. The “response” always follows from the political agenda that its protagonists consider is being attacked, and that the use of all the force they can mobilize is the appropriate means for maintaining.
Assuming the right partisanship, there is also a very different way of going on about who is to blame for a war: a self-critical take. Though this completely undermines the sham fights over illegitimate attack versus legitimate self-defense, it does not detract from the self-righteousness of one’s own or favored warring party. Here are some examples. The German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel recently came out with a lead story stating that the current war in Ukraine already became unavoidable with the NATO summit in 2008 because that’s when German chancellor Merkel refused to admit Ukraine to the alliance. The Russians see today’s war as a consequence of their failure to stop the West much sooner. In Israel there is a popular view that the Gaza Strip only has to be cleaned up now because things weren’t done properly in 1948. Some Palestinians (e.g. Tamim al-Barghouti, Palestinian-Egyptian poet, columnist, and political scientist) trace the current tragedy back to not having prevented the state of Israel in 1948. The war of today is necessary, according to all sides’ self-criticism, because they avoided it or didn’t wage it thoroughly enough yesterday, or simply because they didn’t start it. This at least makes it clear that the enemy’s power has long been incompatible with one’s own power and its vital interests, so there can be no talk of a unilateral act by the evil other side breaking an ideal peace.
Such explanations are the way public opinion arrives at a completely uncritical and unobjective view that war is necessary. The real necessity of war, i.e., a state’s national interest, is quite unknown to anyone who is led by the current wars to ask:
“What else were they supposed to do but defend themselves?”
So Ukrainians, Russians, Israelis, Palestinians should have just let the enemy invade, threaten, occupy, rule over them? This rhetorical question doubting any alternative to war is aimed at inhabitants of a country who are considered solely as national citizens. It evokes the identity of people and state that is so absurd especially in war. Once the two are distinguished it is clear how nonsensical the question about the nonexistent alternative is. Ask Putin, Zelensky, Netanyahu, etc., and they will say the question has long since been answered. They are not looking for an alternative, they are not missing one, they know nothing higher than to assert the sovereignty of their power inside and outside their borders; that is what they are working toward with the utmost consequence. That already answers the question if you put it to ordinary Russians, Ukrainians, etc. They have no alternative — for a completely different reason than the one the above question suggests. They don’t decide anything; they are ordered to go to war, they are drafted, and whoever clears out or refuses is locked up. The peace movement’s old saying — “Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came” — is a stupid pipe dream. The war comes to the people, in the form of deployment orders for some and carpet bombing for others.
The question, which rather than being a question is the demand for consent to the warfare, is meant to say that the people affected by the war actually have good reasons of their own for wanting what the state makes them want. The Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank supposedly need a state to protect them from what the settlers and Israel’s army are doing to them, and what the Israeli state — no longer just its radical wing — is about to do. The Jews especially need a homeland that is able to defend itself and protect them from the antisemitism in other countries. The Ukrainians can only be free in a Ukrainian state — and so on. The state does in fact protect its people by ruling over them — it protects them from foreign rule, which it keeps out its own territory using all the force it has. That includes using its people as a power resource, thus endangering their lives by weaponizing them for its confrontation with competing political sovereigns.
What makes the above pseudo-question convincing is that there is no alternative for people today in this respect either. Living without political rule — first of all, there is no such thing on a globe that is completely divided up between political sovereigns, and, secondly, it is especially bad to be stateless in a world of states. The Palestinians, as members of a people without a state, are excluded as a foreign people by the state power whose reach they live within. They are made to feel its force and rule without being recognized by it as part of its base and thus as legitimate citizens. Just because that is a disaster doesn’t mean the prospect of having a sovereignty of their “own” is a fine thing. Not even by comparison. This can be seen by life in the realm of Hamas, which utilizes the people forming its base as a recruiting ground and cover despite its inferiority to Israel, making them victims of its fight for a Palestinian state. Speaking of victims.
“Look at Hamas’s bestial killings, Bucha, the Bakhmut meat grinder!”[*] — The victims of war are the best reason for it
Objectively speaking, the victims of war on both sides document the absolute opposition between people living in countries and the state powers that have them form up as cannon fodder for their own confrontation with each other. But from the point of view of how to orient citizens properly when their state or an ally is at war, the victims are the opposite. The ones the enemy creates demonstrate how evil and inhumane the enemy is. In this case, war victims don’t speak against war, they speak against the enemy’s war, and in favor of one’s own (or the favored) side’s right, in fact duty, to fight an enemy that is causing so much death.
This partisan view isn’t bothered by the fact that the victims of war are being cited as a good reason for it, i.e., that they can’t be the real reason for the hostility and war that preceded it. The graphically presented demonstration that the enemy deserves the war that one’s own side is waging against it is so fine, and so convincing for people with the right mindset, that they can’t be shown enough mutilated soldiers, bombed-out villagers, and — above all — dead babies to always draw the same conclusion about how depraved the enemy is. The daily TV offering of victims for inspection is huge; some images are supposedly so unbearable for the compassionate cynics watching their screens that they can only be shown pixelated, but a hundred times. At the same time, the opinion makers with their hypocritical humanism and the viewers with their steerable empathy are quite capable of making distinctions. Their hearts go out first and foremost to “innocent civilians,” especially women, those too old to fight, and, as mentioned, children. Dead combatants on their own side are of course also to be mourned, but aren’t so good for demonizing the enemy because they are not mere victims but forcibly recruited perpetrators.
For the consumer of the war reporting to get it right, the pros stage-managing the victim argument have to know when state and people have to be separated and opposed, as they are indeed known to be, when they have to be identified as one, and what order to alternate between the two in.
Hamas’s attack in southern Israel was directed against people dancing, praying, going about their daily lives, without any national predicate: “They had to die just because they were Jews.” Although everyone knows better and it is no news to anybody, it is irrelevant that Hamas is waging its war for a Palestinian state against a state of Israel that will under no circumstances tolerate Palestinian sovereignty. In reality, people in Israel’s border region were targeted by the Islamist combatants not as human beings nor due to their relationship to their particular God, but as elementary particles and representatives of the Israeli nation — whether they consciously wanted to be that or not. The enemy treats them as the same abstraction their own state does: they are its human base, source of its power — and therefore the object of an enemy’s use of force. Hardly has Hamas’s contempt for sheer life been established when its victims are no longer abstract human beings, but Israelis, the possession of their state and object of its protection. This state will not stand for such an assault on itself, proceeds to assert its sovereignty over Gaza by war, and declares it is liquidating Hamas along with all its active members. This act of war is supposed to be — now the other way around again — nothing but a saving of Jewish lives, even though it is causing Hamas’s Israeli hostages and an unknown number of Israeli soldiers to die.
No one in Israel or its partner countries is bothered by the fact that the opposing side sees the matter just the same way, with equal justification and ten times as many deaths — only the other way around. They’re obviously lying. For things are different when it comes to the victims one’s own war creates on the enemy side. If one doesn’t ignore them — as in the case of the mass deaths in Gaza — one chooses to recall the truth that in war the population is weaponized by their rulers as a power base and means of power, only to accuse the enemy of doing this out of its sheer contempt for human lives. As Netanyahu says, the deaths in Gaza caused by Israeli bombing and shelling “are the sole responsibility of Hamas.” If Hamas is doing it, using the population for waging war is abuse — as “human shields.” It is a crime to expose one’s own people to such dangers. The humanists in the Israeli military leadership will of course not be impressed by such moral traps, not seriously hindered by human shields when liquidating the enemy.
That brings us to the last test question for developing the right way to look at war:
“Is the person commanding the war really representing the people — or misusing them for his own power ambitions?”
The absolute opposition between state and people is anything but unknown in this world of states. You just have to know where it belongs. It belongs to the enemy. The enemy is denied that untrue “we” that is unconditionally upheld on one’s own side in war. When the enemy state asserts its power, that is no genuine state mandate or need of the people but rather the egomaniacal, if not megalomaniacal, ambition of a “ruler,” who is now also called that name.
This distinction also defines the role of the human instruments of power that are used in war. In the case of a friendly Ukraine outfitted with weapons, the soldiers ordered to the front, whose life expectancy is close to zero, are flattered as the actual war makers: they are defending themselves and if they die, they are not victims but rather making a sacrifice for their nation and its future. They are heroes. The same soldiers on the other side, who are doing the same thing in the same situation, are cannon fodder, they die senselessly, are not defending a “we,” but are misused victims of a baseless, personal will to power. And when Putin awards medals and arranges memorial days for heroes, everyone sees through his cynicism.
War is not the normal way states deal with each other, but it is often looming and now and then waged. It testifies to the brutal yet indispensable basis of all state life: the state’s asserting its monopoly on the use of force within and outside its borders is the first condition for its existence. The state defines the scope of its power and procures recognition for this power only by competing with its peers on the basis of the use of force. It makes this self-assertion a condition of life for its citizens that they have to answer for.
The illusion that things could be any different in civilian Germany after three quarters of a century of peace, that the German state might actually exist for the people and not the other way around — we don’t need to combat it. The politicians and their journalistic mouthpieces are already doing that themselves — with a zeal and clarity that leave nothing to be desired. The Minister of Defense deliberately chooses the phrase “capacity for war” for what the country has to achieve within very few years. A panel of journalists on a talk show applauds: at last, a politician is being honest and coming clean with the people; it should have been made clear long ago that killing and dying are part of state life — this is literally what one of them says (on “Maischberger,” November 14, 2023). Another blithely expects compulsory military service to be reintroduced, yet another thinks Germany now needs nuclear weapons too because America will probably stop acting as a protecting power. Together they agree that “we” too now need a Veterans Day and thank God are getting one. Another thing the opinion leaders agree on is that we will all have to become poorer (and they don’t mean themselves). From now on, wealth will be needed for armaments. The Germans are already paying many billions for the war in Ukraine, and that is by far not enough for the journalists present. Foreign Minister Baerbock explains why all this is necessary: for “our Europe from Lisbon to Luhansk.” Europe will not tolerate any Russian influence in the sphere of control it claims, so it can only achieve security for itself by being able to wage an autonomous war against Russia with good prospects of success. For a “European sovereignty” defined in this way Germany is earmarking the lives and living conditions of its 80 million people, now that it is referring to itself more and more openly as the central power of this imperialist entity and intending to play the main military role in it.
[*] Bucha and Bakhmut are Ukrainian frontline cities.
 What the conflicting national interests that keep needing to be settled by force specifically involve is dealt with in other articles in our journal, not here. Once a country is heading for war, it is always only the opponent’s sheer power, its reach, its bastions and means that have to be destroyed in order to break its will to assert itself and have one’s own will instead.
© GegenStandpunkt 2024