Ukraine and Falsehood in the Time of War
It happened the other night, it was nearly 3 a.m.—a telephone call in the middle of my slumber. I could hear it ringing from downstairs. Thinking it might be something serious at that late hour, perhaps a neighbor in distress, I picked up the receiver next to my bed.
The voice inquired: “Is this Dr. Cathey?”
“Yes,” I answered, still half asleep. “Who is this…what’s going on?”
The male voice at the other end continued: “We know who you are—you are a traitor to the United States, you are a Communist who supports that war criminal Putin. Well, you need to watch your back, ‘cause things can happen to traitors.”
That got my attention; I repeated: “Who is this…why are you calling me?” No answer, and my interrogator immediately hung up.
About my three recently published 2022 essays concerning Russia and Ukraine (on January 7, February 19, and February 25), I had already received a couple of very ugly, profane email messages earlier accusing me of being a “Putin apologist.” Unlike several correspondents and good friends who have expressed rational if very different opinions from the ones I have, those messages were unsigned. I am pleased to discuss the Ukraine crisis with friends, and I understand that if you express strong views, sometimes you’ll get blowback. But the depth of venom, hatred, even personal threats? Even as a strong supporter of my Confederate heritage and my support for keeping our monuments to that heritage up, I’ve never been the recipient of such unrestrained vitriol as now.
It got me to thinking about questions I ask anyone who approaches me about my stance on what is going on in Ukraine: Why the over-the-top passion on this topic? Why Ukraine? Why such an hysterical response when Ukraine and its position in Europe and in the world are not strategically important to us? After all, the United States has been on the invading-end of conflicts for decades…Bosnia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and so on. Yet, somehow our foreign ventures are always virtuous and noble? And what kind of outrage did we express for those hundreds of thousands of Tutsis killed in Uganda or the thousands of Kurdish inhabitants eliminated by our ally Turkey?
Look at the intensity and what can only be called unleashed hatred directed at anything Russian and its leader—look at the expansive, all-encompassing campaign, from North Carolina’s governor Roy Cooper ordering that all state liquor stores dump Russian-made vodka, to the firing of one of the world’s greatest classical music conductors Russian Valery Gergiev from his position as head of the Munich Philharmonic because he wouldn’t publicly condemn Putin (he’s also had contracts with the Metropolitan Opera and a dozen other musical organizations cancelled—which was never done even in the “hottest” moments of the Cold War), to the attempted banning in Italy of the works of the great Russian novelist Fydor Dostoevsky, to the suspension of Russian television broadcasting in the US, to the cancellation of dozens of sporting events which were to feature Russian athletes, to the growing persecution of Russians living in the West, including vandalism of the Russian embassy in France. The list of such actions is endless.
Why the frenzied fury and the passion?
There are, I believe, several reasons for this.
First, there is an imperfect analogy with what happened regarding Germany long after the end of World War II in 1945. I recall when I was growing up that every “war film” I watched featured a nasty and cruel, smartly-dressed uniformed German soldier, monocled, in jackboots, probably with a whip, who was personally responsible for all sorts of mayhem and vicious criminality and murder. We knew those Germans were all evil Nazis, and they were soon to be “taken out” by the super-courageous American grunts, who became in a strange way the “new supermen.” We could do anything…We never lost, and, in fact, in Hollywood our heroic and valiant boys kept winning glorious victories for three decades after Germany was defeated. We knew that Lee Marvin and “the Dirty Dozen” would get it done.
The Germans, you see, were intrinsically evil. And that meme built on the narrative dating from World War I. One of my great uncles would repeat to me when I was young a little ditty from that war, popular among Americans of the period: “Kaiser Bill went up the hill, to take a look at France; Kaiser Bill came down the hill, with bullets in his pants!”
And many of us over the age of forty will remember “the evil empire” that Nikita Khrushchev said “would bury us.” In primary school, I recall those air raid drills when we would crouch under our desks, lest a Commie missile
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