The war before our eyes in the twenty-first century in Ukraine, that is to say in Europe, is very real, while peripheral conflicts of considerable magnitude however, either in South-East Asia, MiddleEast, Africa and even the Balkans at our doorstep had not concerned us in the same way and at this point.
It is undoubtedly due there to a past selfishness, even an autism, of our societies of the so-called developed northern hemisphere and reflects also the expression of confused feelings today, according to which spiral are possible, even a rise to extremes, taking into account the aggressor’s psychology and as the serious incident in a nuclear power plant in Ukraine has clearly shown.
In the western part of Europe, there had been a slumber sustained by the idea that the construction of the latter had brought a lasting peace between former belligerents, while the European community, then the European Union, were also the result of a state of peace. There is a shock in return and it stems from the observation that the cold war has disappeared but also the balance of terror that had resulted. The play of actors, including between nuclear powers, is now perceived as escaping from rationality.
The images of the war in Ukraine, multiplied by the media and social networks, are in black and white because the apocalypse is never in color. They show us buildings torn apart by shells and missiles, tanks on fire or burnt, dazed Russian prisoners who look like teenagers and whom the empire of secrecy and lies would have sent to do «exercises», populations of all ages fleeing on muddy roads with meager bales to escape hell and even the worst. No, these are not archives, but an atrocious reality.
It is terrible to experience this tragedy and also to contemplate it from a distance, overwhelmed with a feeling of powerlessness. We must also repress a feeling of revolt that pushes us to extreme reactions because, if defense is necessary as well as the search, by all means, for the end of the clashes, the response we have the means to do so would take us down dizzying paths that are sometimes close to the abyss. But, without any voyeurism, we must see, hear, try to understand. We are not in a video game but in the fulfillment of a duty of humanity and assistance.
Violence in contemporary history has often been reduced to images, sounds and newsreels, for public opinion, away from the ground, from confrontations and unspeakable suffering. It was often an abstraction, designed in certain situations to comfort the populations, to tranquillize them or on the contrary to lead them. It has even sometimes become so for experts and actors camouflaged under the term “geopolitics”.
Maybe the first day of modern warfare on video was Hiroshima. Everyone knows the nuclear mushroom, to which Nagasaki succeeded. This is most often an aerial view taken from the plane in charge of the sinister task or from an accompanying aircraft. The explosion unknown until then does not make noise in the image, we do not feel the devastating force of the blast and even less the fire that it spreads on the ground like a monstrous sickle. The plane was called Enola Gay, named after the pilot’s mother, and the 235 uranium bomb Little Boy. A mother and a son, how is it conceivable that they could have been the symbols of death?
Was this the price to stop Stalin’s advance in the Far East, to put an end to a Pacific war that would have been endless, island by island, and costly in men? A President, provincial, seemingly dull, unpopular, whose administration was marked by numerous corruption scandals, entered the history as a major actor of the Cold War.
Alain Resnais’ film Hiroshima mon Amour, with the screenplay by Marguerite Duras, focuses on the memory and reconciliation of peoples. “You didn’t see anything in Hiroshima,” repeats the Japanese lover as a leitmotif. Indeed, it is not the images that count, including that of the still preserved epicenter, but the impregnation of spirits. The crime is no longer even identified, in Japanese consciousness, with the great power that committed the act but it is judged as the supreme Promethean act of fire stolen from the Gods, forbidden until then, committed by a determined humanity capable of damaging the cosmogonic elements and destroying its own creation. Hiroshima, it’s all of us.
But Japan at the end of the second world war was not only marked by Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Who remembers the bombing of Tokyo from 1944 until June 1945. On the night of March 9-10, 1945 – while Japan on the same day, in a headlong rush, was operating its coup de force in Indochina to eliminate the French administration -, incendiary bombs were causing more damage than the atomic explosion of Nagasaki, five months later. It was the deadliest bombing of the Second World War that exceeded the number of casualties of Hamburg in July 1943 or Dresden in 1945.
I knew a Frenchman who was a prisoner in Dresden at the time, sentenced to compulsory work (STO). He volunteered, as he could, to help put out the gigantic fires and rescue the survivors. Years later, the greatest chance – but the word is weak – was that I knew a German family saved by this captive who was in search of him. The reunion took place in Paris. Beyond good and evil (Jenseits von Gut und Böse)…
Vietnam, after Indochina, comes to mind. Again, the war was, at least initially, airborne, distanced, until the media – accompanying an expeditionary force that had changed size and reached its peak with President Johnson – made it the most publicized conflict in history. In the film, Heart and Minds, made of a montage of newsreels, we have to see again this sequence showing General Westmoreland, commander-in-chief on the spot, speaking before 1968 in his immaculate white uniform of the Vietnamese whom the bombs crushed like mosquitoes. They could be eliminated because they weren’t quite human, could they? But on the ground, without being there, no one has forgotten the 1972 Napalm girl photo taken by Nick Ut showing a little Vietnamese girl burned, running and wandering on a road. This photograph helped to put an end to the Vietnam War.
I was in Vietnam in 1974, between the Paris Agreements of early January 1973 and the fall of Saigon in April 1975. A strange transition was taking place, which would shake everything up until the reunification of the country, that oscillated between an imperfect peace and an unfinished war. In Center Vietnam, I was staying in a hotel called La Frégate, in front of the beautiful Nha Trang bay, run by an old « colonial » man who came in 1945 with Marshal Leclerc’s expeditionary force to re-establish the French presence and remained after marrying a local woman. The establishment was the headquarters of American military advisers operating in the area around Danang. They came back in the evening from their operations in an atmosphere of Apocalypse now.
In the province of Vinh Long in the Mekong Delta, the setting of Marguerite Duras’ L’Amant (The Lover), “the day (continued to be) for the government forces and the night for the Viets”, as they used to say in French times. In the rice fields, during this monsoon season, one could encounter Vietcong dressed in black with a large conical hat, discreet, isolated and engaged in surveillance operations. The night sounded of deafening «barrage» fire, whose targets were not easily identifiable, from the regular South Vietnamese army. This was the reality on the ground, of a war going on in supposed peace time and which it seemed so difficult to interrupt.
Everyone has in mind the images of the fall of Saigon, but do we remember that of Pnom Penh? And even more, can we visualize what followed, the Khmer Rouge terror and the virtual annihilation of a nation? Have we also delved into the subject and wondered whether years of bombing the famous “Ho Chi Minh Trail”, defoliation and deforestation – of which we have virtually no image – also contributed to this senseless violence? It is true that William Shawcross wrote a book on the subject that sums things up well: A Tragedy of No Importance, in his French title (Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia, 1979).
The Soviets carefully concealed, as far as they could, the turpitudes of their intervention in Afghanistan, from 1979 on, for a ten-year war. But it is the coffins repatriated to Russia and the mothers of soldiers who have powerfully contributed to tipping the conflict. The wound is probably still not closed and Svetlana Alexievitch, Nobel Prize-winner of Literature, born in Ukraine and now Belarusian, dedicated in 1990 to this tragedy Zinc coffins an investigative work. The same is true of the internal war, this time in Chechnya, where horror peaks have been reached.
I was in Afghanistan in 1996, when the fighting was raging around Kabul that was going to end with the first takeover by the Taliban. In Mazar-e-Sharif, still controlled by the warlord Dostom, there was still a false peace. United Nations programs continued to benefit minorities, such as the Shia Hazara or the children that UNICEF and UNDP cared for. NGOs were involved in many development actions. What has become of these humanitarians and their beneficiaries under the Taliban?
The period of fake euphoria, which accompanied «The End of History» due to the disappearance of the Soviet Union – announced with great fanfare by political scientists who continue, after having been so much mistaken, to write and to perform complacently in the media of the whole world -, has been accompanied by great technological changes, especially in the field of armaments.
The 1991 Gulf War was thus presented to world opinion as a conflict involving the anti-Saddam coalition in unprecedented technological means and, in these conditions, as a «zero death» operation. On the evening of 16 January 1991, I was in the Security Council consultation room, next to the well-known room where the public sessions are taking place. When the conflict broke out and the night of Baghdad caught on fire, United Nations delegates and officials gathered in front of a television set. The sky was green with flashes of lightning, the spectacle was almost beautiful and aroused excitement as the long period of tension that had preceded the response since the invasion of Kuwait in August of the previous year. We were totally in the video game that had been proposed to the world public opinion.
The reality is that there were only a very small number of victims on the coalition side (NB: but where were Saddam Hussein’s so-called weapons of mass destruction?). On the other hand, the Iraqi side had to endure carpet bombing worthy of World War II. It was on the scale of Dresden, Berlin or the Tokyo fire of March 9, 1945, following shelling, described by Robert Guillain, a first-hand witness in Orient extrême. We were not entitled to images taken on the ground.
In the middle of the first Gulf War, which lasted only a few weeks, there was a major incident reported in the media. Caciques of the Iraqi Baathist regime with their families had taken refuge in a bunker where an American bomb of a particular type pierced meters of concrete protection before exploding inside. It is useless to describe the follow-up which was naturally exploited by Saddam Hussein but the shock was so great in the public opinion, compared to the announcement «zero deaths», that President George Bush Sr also affected obviously was about to put an end to military operations.
The litany of all the conflicts on the planet, those we know and those we do not know, cannot be broken down. Perhaps the worst is ignorance. What representation do we have of the “swamp war” between Iran and Iraq, sort of a 1914 trench war in the Middle East? of the war in Yemen and even that still taking place in Syria? And of course we have to go back to Ukraine.
While this may be depressing, it is good that we have as much information as possible about what is happening there. Testimonies of refugees, presence of journalists from all over the world, filmed and photographed resistance of the population, recording of violations of humanitarian law and more generally of the abuses committed by the aggressor, will make Russia accountable for its actions.
The designers of the invasion will have somehow played a video game. Besides being blinded by mental patterns of another age, they deluded themselves on their army, which they believed modernized and irresistible. Whatever the military outcome, we can see its weaknesses, whether it be equipment, tactics and operational control, not to mention the morale of troops engaged sometimes unknowingly in a real war, without any legitimacy other than a deceptive and grotesque discourse on the «genocide and neo-Nazism» of the Ukrainians, facing populations defending their land.
The long litany of wars must not lead us to renunciation and a pacifism out of circumstance. The collapse of France in 1940 resulted from such a mentality leading to “appeasement” by all means, apart from the division of the country and an emollient drop in birth rate. The first prerequisite of freedom is security and the time is therefore to support resistance and provide humanitarian aid to the affected populations. These goals also require total firmness, while the aggressor has repeatedly resorted to a language of nuclear deterrence, the maintenance of minimal channels of communication and also the commitment to promote diplomacy if it is still possible.