War is not only about heroes

Donetsk, September 24, 2023. Photo by Heidi Levine. Source: @heidi_levine

By Andriy Lyubka

Originally appeared @Krytyka

War is about more than heroes and valor. In essence, war touches every one of us, even those who are far from the front line and without shrapnel wounds. None of us were born for war; it is not in our nature. Yet, in different ways and to varying degrees, we all eventually become its victims.

Thirty-four-year-old Oleksandr had not left his home for almost fourteen months. He and his wife Solomiya set out from Kyiv on 28 February 2022. I met them in Uzhhorod on 10 March. They stayed with friends for a few days along the way, but their later attempts to find a place to live proved futile as everything was already occupied, rented, or fully packed.

The couple had planned to locate a place closer to Ukraine's western border, ensuring that, "in case of an emergency," they could flee more easily. However, crossing the border right away would prove impossible because the state prohibited men of military age from doing so, and Oleksandr lacked any grounds to seek a deferment from military service.

Friends of friends asked me to help Oleksandr and Solomiya find a place to live. It was then I heard, quite by accident, that my friend from Uzhhorod had decided to rent his tiny Khrushchev-era apartment to IDPs. His mother used to live there, and he never got around to renovating or selling it after she passed away. At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, such real estate in Uzhhorod, which is located on the border with the EU, suddenly became a luxury. Only the floors of school gyms were free of charge, whereas this was a separate apartment with a decent owner wanting pre-war era rent. What a bargain!

Oleksandr is a prime example of Kyiv's successful middle class. He has a good salary, owns a mortgaged two-floor apartment, and an electric car. He has visited several countries, has insurance covering all expenses, and is building his retirement fund. He is an IT specialist, and a department head in one of the state corporations. He's the kind of person whose achievements in life would serve as an example to others.

The war broke something in him. He was driven from Kyiv by blind fear, but in Uzhhorod, which has not been under threat of missile strikes, it did not disappear. Fear took root inside him, initially manifesting as a long-healed gastritis that persistently nagged, troubled, and eroded his body. Eventually, it metastasized into his soul, completely subduing and paralyzing the man. Oleksandr stopped venturing outside his home. Rather than fearing Russian missiles, his concern shifted to military patrols distributing mobilization notices.

One way or another, it was the fear of death — first from enemy bombs, and then from death on the front line. While it is entirely natural to feel fear, the intensity of Oleksandr's fear surpassed the usual bounds of natural and normal emotions, evolving into a form of paranoia — a sort of persecutory obsession.

During short walks or trips to the supermarket in the evenings, Oleksandr felt as if someone was about to tap him on the shoulder from behind. And then the military summons would come, followed by being forcibly escorted to the military registration and enlistment office, deployment to the front line, and, inevitably, death. His imagination was fueled by the terrifying tales he encountered on social media — stories of the military sealing off mall exits to distribute mobilization notices to every man inside, of patrols visiting stadiums and beaches. Eventually, he reached the conclusion that it was safer to remain home. Fortunately, there was plenty of work to keep him occupied. After the liberation of the Kyiv region and the passing of the ill-fated May 9, which everyone was so afraid of, people returned to their homes en masse. The state corporation where Oleksandr worked decided to resume full operations and called on all staff, especially top management, to return to work in the office. After weighing all the pros and cons, he wrote a letter of resignation, deciding that he could get enough IT work to freelance at home, without missiles regularly falling on Kyiv and patrols lurking on the streets with summonses. Uzhhorod seemed safer, and in the end, it was.

Solomiya, Oleksandr's wife, supported her husband's decision in every way — so much so that my friends thought it was actually her decision. She was worried about her husband and did not want him to go to the front. It wasn't that he was unfit; quite the contrary, Oleksandr was a healthy man. But in her opinion, he could contribute more effectively from the rear. At the very least, he could generate income online from abroad working online and pay taxes to Ukraine, thereby supporting the economic front, so to speak. And, after all, how could he possibly, being faint of heart, a nerd, and a pacifist, engage in combat? Even Solomiya had more of a belligerent streak.

I found out about all this as a fait accompli, given that we had not had a chance to see each other since our first meeting in March. I first heard about Oleksandr's phobia on New Year's Eve. My friends wanted to prank him, knocking on the door and pretending to be military enlistment officers. This joke did not seem very amusing to me, especially since by the winter of 2022, I had already heard of many instances where men had not ventured outside of their home for months. The fear of mobilization became widespread, with daily obituaries from Bakhmut casting a dark shadow over everything, and there were no lines of volunteers outside of military enlistment offices anymore. This is the sad and unvarnished truth.

In May 2023, the couple decided to separate, and Solomiya filed for divorce. That was the moment when I heard the whole story from my acquaintance who had rented them the apartment. Long story short, the couple could not stand being locked in an uncomfortable space for such a long time. They managed to survive the covid isolation for a while, but the war finally destroyed the bonds between them.

The woman, who at first categorically forbade her husband to leave home, eventually began to humiliate and bully him for his cowardice. During their arguments, she would sometimes resort to forbidden tactics, labeling him as weak and unmanly. She would compare him to others, then apologize, exit their apartment, and vanish for the entire day, leaving him without an explanation, knowing he would not chase after her. This psychological cruelty became a routine feature of their monotonous provincial existence, a grim form of domestic entertainment. I was not quite tactful in asking for further details and gossip about Oleksandr and Solomiya, because this seemingly banal story seemed to be a topic for a full-fledged novel. A novel about a war that penetrates everywhere, seeps into the strongest compounds and destroys them from the inside. It destroys families, destinies, lives, even when it does not bombard them with missiles. War is a virus without a vaccine or completely safe isolation in the rear.

In the novel that I had already begun to imagine and compose in my mind, Oleksandr was destined to rise from the ashes after his divorce. Crushed like a rotten apple by the roadside, he had to hit rock bottom emotionally before finding the strength to get back up. The hero of my novel would enlist to the army on his own and undergo the hell of the front. Wounded and shell-shocked three times, he would return to Kyiv after the victory, and be awarded one of the highest honors.

He would make one more attempt to rebuild his family with Solomiya, but their efforts would ultimately falter. After demonstrating his strength to her and regaining her respect, the man would suddenly find himself emotionally drained. He would decide to escape and continue living in isolation, haunted by harrowing dreams in which he relentlessly retrieves the lifeless bodies of his fallen comrades from the front lines.

It has the potential to become a compelling and realistic novel, successful in Ukraine and popular abroad, and it could even be made into a movie, with slight changes to give it a happy ending with a happy marriage and two children. Frankly speaking though, I do not see the need to invent and "create" anything now. The role of a writer may well be reduced to simply "recording" real life during such terrible and crucial times, which is much more interesting and bizarre than any conceivable fantasy.

War raises a multitude of questions for everyone, but it also imposes requirements concerning the responsibility and maturity of creative individuals who communicate with a broader audience through their works. As a writer, for instance, I feel a sense of acute danger: when writing about war, you always run the risk of falling into one of two key traps. The first is the excessive glorification or romanticization of war, which can lead to overly simplistic, categorical judgments and overuse of pathos. Any author worth their salt is wary of this, as it is easy to become a tool of propaganda, a mere cog in the information front, and ultimately a predictable and uninteresting representative of the official Soviet creative establishment. But how (and should one) avoid this if you are a writer and what you do best is write? And why not do what you can do well during a terrible war, doing your part to help your country and save your people?

The second trap is boasting about one's truth-telling, trying to be more righteous than the righteous themselves, when the writer derives satisfaction from his or her creative courage. They raise painful topics, ask uncomfortable questions, have the power to criticize not the enemy but their own people, as if they were swimming against the tide. It is an incredibly tempting stance, to be distinct and esteemed, to set oneself apart from the crowd and pull no punches. At the same time, if you put your talent to use by criticizing your own people, wouldn't that be putting a nail in your own coffin? When starting a new page, you have the choice to write about a war hero who bravely stood up for us, or you can delve into the story of a deserter or traitor. Which of these narratives will contribute to boosting morale and align with our path to victory, as they often say in these times?

Creativity during wartime is a constant balancing act between self-censorship and responsibility — a navigation between personal intentions and the broader expectations placed upon you, akin to steering between the Scylla and Charybdis. It's not surprising that in such circumstances, many writers opt to forego their writing pursuits and instead dedicate themselves to volunteer work or military service. They come to the conclusion that there are more important and useful things to do during the war than writing.

I cannot remember the source, but I came across the idea that if all writers and storytellers in general were to romanticize war less and describe only its horrible, bloody, stinking guts, humanity could finally break free from the cycle of wars that recur every few generations in almost every corner of the world. The logic is that by glorifying war heroes and victories, we are consciously encouraging future generations to repeat this vivid experience and have their own war.

While I acknowledge a partial truth in this statement, I ultimately disagree with it. I do not pretend to be a great thinker, but my personal reflections and observations lead me to believe that war is indeed a facet of human communities' nature, much like evil is an inherent part of human nature. Human nature can be diverse; we are all unique and one-of-a-kind, even when we exhibit striking similarities in certain aspects. Some individuals naturally possess more strength and courage, while others may appear more delicate and reserved, yet exhibit exceptional intelligence. There are those who embody both bravery and intellect, while standing alongside them are individuals who may be physically less robust but possess unwavering determination. These combinations are abundant, and they can often be deceptive. At times, a quiet and introverted person can reveal their tenacity and determination when it matters most, even surprising themselves.

I have used this somewhat banal introduction to articulate an obvious thesis: people are different by nature, so everyone experiences war in their own way. Certain individuals are more inclined to fear and panic, while others seem to operate like drones in modern warfare. Determination and physical endurance are a significant advantage during war, but weakness or frailty is not an indulgence.

Let me give you an example. In the winter of 2022, Ukrainian social media was stirred up by a post of a woman who said that her boyfriend was "not born for war." In other words, his physical and psychological traits do not make him an ideal soldier, but he was much more useful as a civilian because he could create a marketable product and pay large taxes from which the state maintains an army that should consist of "ideal soldiers" who are obviously "born for war." Naturally, this deeply angered thousands of people whose own loved ones might also be more valuable in non-combat roles, and who, too, experienced fear on the front lines. They never dreamed of having to kill their enemies, but it so happened that they ended up in the army and were now bearing the burden of it. Needless to say, these words were painful for those whose own sons, brothers, and husbands had died on the battlefront.

One of the most terrible consequences of war is the erasure of differences, peculiarities, and individuality. During wartime, you are not a writer, a farmer, or a businessman who pays large taxes to the state budget. You are a target for a missile, a bullet, or shrapnel. A bomb does not care about your education or income, your mental state, gender, or readiness to fight. In Russia's all-out war against Ukraine, the targets are not only the army, but the Ukrainian people, each and every one — without exception. Hence the conclusion that everyone should be involved in the country's defense, not just Rambo-like men "born for war."

The war became a true litmus test for patriarchy as a concept, evolving into both the most significant crisis of masculinity and a celebration of it. After all, no matter what is said, men are primarily the ones who are fighting on the front line. Of course, there are a lot of women in the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and other units of the Defense Forces, many of whom are fighting in the most hellish parts of the front line, but men outnumber them.

In this sense, the war has strained gender relations in Ukrainian society. It once again revealed the long-known but often mocked thesis that both genders are equal but not identical. In the post-industrial Ukrainian society of the 2010s, it seemed that the roles of men and women were the same, as were professional opportunities, and all that remained was to achieve equality in wages, representation in government, and opportunities for self-realization.

The Great War catapulted us back to a more primal, if you will, state of being. It is inherent that men possess greater physical resilience and strength, making them the primary focus of compulsory mobilization under martial law, whereas women are traditionally entrusted with safeguarding children and tending to family and household responsibilities.

I understand that such pronouncements can upset many people, but the fact remains that war is pushing us backward, leading to regression and deterioration across all aspects of life. It is a return to times marked by a lack of security, shortages in electricity and fuel, and a descent into earlier, less advanced stages of societal development.

Viewed from this perspective, the war in Ukraine serves as a stark illustration for the West of what can happen to their societies if a major war breaks out, requiring more than just preexisting military reserves to achieve victory. It is a situation where individuals with no prior military experience, staunch pacifists, and members of creative communities find themselves compelled to abandon their former lives, take up arms, and get accustomed to dirt under their fingernails from digging trenches.

In the end, feminist organizations refrained from organizing demonstrations and protests against forced mobilization or the ban on men traveling abroad, as such discriminatory measures appeared tolerable under the exceptional circumstances of imminent peril. These extraordinary conditions and mortal threats have driven contemporary society back to an (archaic) mindset where men assume the primary role of defenders.

The masculine image of this defender, nurtured in our collective imaginations by mass culture and Hollywood cinema, turned out to be quite different in reality. Ukraine is defended not by a conventional-looking Bruce Willis types with bulging biceps and a perfect smile, but by ordinary working-class men with calloused hands or gray-haired men with beer bellies.

The paradox of this situation lies in the fact that the war has simultaneously become a celebration of masculinity and the source of its most significant crisis. It has confirmed the patriarchal foundations of society while also imposing a heavy burden on millions of Ukrainian women who went abroad alone with their children or were left without their husbands who were mobilized.

The war has unmistakably divided gender roles and profoundly altered the perception of various individuals within society. A man who volunteered for the army and has been at the front for a year and a half without a vacation has become a hero. Oleksandr, who had been hiding for a year and a half and did not leave his home, became tantamount to a traitor, an object of social ostracism. It is not solely about gender, but primarily about decency, civic consciousness, a sense of duty, and specific character traits, including courage. There are undoubtedly many heroic women who would not hesitate to go to the front if required, while others would desperately look for ways to avoid conscription. The difference, however, lies in the fact that the state put men to this test, not women. Let me share a personal memory. In early March 2022, I brought my family to my hometown of Vynohradiv in southern Transcarpathia. Back then, the city had doubled in size, as so many internally displaced people had come there to escape the war and Russian occupation. One day, I took our daughter for a walk to the city center. I will never forget the feeling I had at the playground. There were only women around, and their eyes were full of mute reproach: Why are you here? Their husbands were either at the front or hiding from mobilization in their homes. At that moment, being a man was extremely embarrassing.

In the second year of the war, we are living in a situation where there are fewer men on the streets of Ukrainian cities than before. A significant number of them are serving in the military, but even more prefer not to go out into crowded places without reason, lest they accidentally run into a patrol of military enlistment officers. Perhaps many years after the war ends, Ukrainian history textbooks will write about how lines of volunteers formed in front of military commissariats, ready to defend their country and people, in the first hours of the Russian attack. I wonder if anyone will mention in even one sentence that a few months later, many more men were hiding and avoiding social life? Some were afraid of being drafted, while others were simply physically uncomfortable in the company of women whose son, husband, or brother could be somewhere in the hell of the front.

Indeed, war is far more complicated than all stereotypical notions and frameworks. It corrodes us from within, fosters feelings of hatred, and erodes human relationships with aggression. At a certain point, an enraged society can no longer refrain from seeking out those responsible and identifying an enemy. The air is saturated with malice and a desire for quick justice, and completely random people often become victims of this tension. A reckless word in an interview, a different tone of voice, a slightly more sophisticated thought, and a person is automatically subjected not just to criticism, but attempts to "cancel" them.

The cases of Yuriy Andrukhovych, Yaroslav Hrytsak, and Oksana Zabuzhko, who their own Ukrainian society tried to crucify as apostates or traitors, are very telling. Performing at a festival with the "wrong" person, giving an interview to the "wrong" media outlet, publishing a text in the "wrong" anthology  —  and the lynch mob shows no mercy. People who have been building modern Ukrainian culture and a modern European state for decades were suddenly declared enemies. And these tirades often contain more aggression than against the actual enemy. The pursuit of internal enemies is ongoing, and it is also remarkably convenient, as the potential victims are right here, in close proximity, just a comment away. We are familiar with them, making it effortless to inflict harm.

In the grip of daily stress and existential woe, society seeks avenues for psychological relief, ways to unwind. With an abundance of fear and anger in their lives, people instinctively seek outlets for these emotions, ultimately latching onto aggression. Subconsciously, they search for targets to release these pent-up emotions. Since the real enemy is distant, it is often relatives, friends, or even strangers, whose existence the justice-seeking individual just discovered on social media, that become the unwitting targets.

In such circumstances, everyone, without exception, gradually starts to be perceived as cowards, traitors, or enemies, not just individuals like Oleksandr who evade military service, but also ideological "saboteurs" like Andrukhovych or Hrytsak. Someone fought near Bakhmut, while someone else served in a less dangerous area. Someone volunteered, while someone else was forcibly mobilized. Someone was wounded, while someone else was just shell-shocked. Someone had their leg amputated, and someone was "unfairly" rewarded military honors. Ideally, there should be no room for disputes and accusations among those who wear military uniforms, but they persist, and they are alarmingly widespread. The contagion of aggression is affecting everyone and everything, eroding societal restraints across all strata of society. I am not writing this to excuse Oleksandr and his shameful and irresponsible, yet somewhat comprehensible stance. I see him not so much as a coward or a traitor but as a victim of war. He may not bear any visible wounds or injuries, but the war has already run him over with the tracks of a multi-ton tank and destroyed him. The law must provide a legal judgment of his actions, but from a human perspective, everything is more or less clear: he was a good, successful, and decent man. And if it had not been for Putin and his army, Oleksandr would have lived a normal and fulfilling life, and not become an object of ostracism and public contempt. Often, when we criticize or persecute some Ukrainians, we forget who is the main enemy and the cause of all our fears.

War is about more than heroes and valor. In essence, war touches every one of us, even those who are far from the front line and without shrapnel wounds. None of us were born for war; it is not in our nature. Yet, in different ways and to varying degrees, we all eventually become its victims.

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan

Andriy Lyubka
writer, translator, essayist
Uzhhorod, Ukraine
Writer, translator, essayist. Member of the Ukrainian PEN. In 2023, he became a member of the Taras Shevchenko National Award Committee of Ukraine. The latest book is a collection of short prose "Something is wrong with me" (Chernivtsi: Meridian Czernowitz, 2022).

The "War Is… Ukrainian Writers on Living Through Catastrophe" essay project is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization.