Verdunish episodes

The curious journalist might consult people who have lived in Grozny (Chechnya), or in Aleppo (Syria), about Russian military tactics, and in particular about how merciful their troops are.

Both cities were bombed to rubble, but more poignantly, the civilian population in each was intentionally targeted by the Russian war machine. The suffering of the inhabitants was unimaginable — to we who live comfortable bourgeois lives at “the end of history,” here in the far West. In Europe, especially in its eastern sections, there is more appreciation of such things, and it helps to explain their sudden recovery of enthusiasm for NATO.

I am still smarting from the (intellectual) beating I received after writing an especially unironical newspaper column, in 1991. On the verge of the first Gulf War, I reviewed preparations for the Battle of Verdun, some seventy-five years earlier. My point was that a lot of (relatively innocent) people were going to be killed, and probably a lot more than we anticipated. But the battle was necessary, and had to be won at any cost. This was the view of French generals at the time (who’d been “set up” by German generals), and I argued, it is a view that is still defensible, even though we know what catastrophic bleeding ensued.

An inundation of non-fan letters washed in, of the worst kind. It was from readers who actually understood what I wrote, unlike the ignorant plebs I was used to. A much-admired (and formerly admiring) old friend wrote that he was aghast to find my soul so wrapt in darkness. He would never trust me again.

Operation Desert Storm did not cause so many casualties — except on the Mesopotamian side — but would have been much worse if Saddam Hussein had the “weapons of mass destruction” that some of our spies already thought he had. But I had argued we must simply take the risk.

The reverse of my argument has been made by President Biden, and all responsible allies. Putin has wagged his staffs — he has put his nuclear missiles on alert — and that is why we must do nothing. We must not encourage him to “escalate.” Or rather, we must do everything we can to confute him, short of anything that would work. We must not, in any case, “send in the air force.”

It is merely an aside, but the same Russians who went about their massacres in Grozny and Aleppo have behaved as pussy-cats when they were plausibly threatened by a superior force. Putin is not actually mad, and if he were, we could count on a member of his own inner corps to deliver the necessary lead injection. He does take extraordinary risks, however, and we can guess that he is arrogant and proud. As Stalin would say, this is not a situation for people with bad nerves.

One must be ready, in this world of sin and death, for all one’s best intentions to collapse, and all one’s reasonable calculations to go wrong. We might especially hesitate to gamble with other people’s lives. But sometimes it is necessary.