Part 2: I was only following orders


Russian Soldier – Dan Gonchar, Photographer – courtesy of Flickr CC (comment by Flickr viewer: “Goodbye, trigger control”)

(Note: This is Part 2 of an ongoing series. Read Part 1 here. Part 3, The culture of genocide, coming soon.)

An old Ukrainian woman whose village had been ravaged and kinfolk killed by Russian soldiers said in a television interview: “Perhaps God will forgive them. That’s up to Him. But I will never forgive them.”

We’ve all heard the reports: Russian soldiers rape a woman in front of her children, then cut out her tongue. Russian soldiers gang rape women and girls, then kill them. Russian soldiers gun down old men and children in village streets. Russian soldiers lock people in a basement, steal their food and let them starve to death.


These are not reports of the long-distant missiles and bombs falling on schools and hospitals and train stations — the sort of war crimes where the immediate perpetrators, those who push the buttons and pull the levers, are sufficiently removed from their victims that they might achieve, or at lease feign a certain degree of detachment, muster a certain convenient denial of their emotions, however disingenuous that might be. These rapes and beatings and murders are up-close-and-personal crimes, acts of violence and violation where the perp can clearly see, and often touch his victim. Touch her with his hands; with the length of his body. Smell her. Smell her fear.


These crimes are beyond our imagination, or beyond the limit where most of us will allow our imaginations to go — crimes too heinous to conceive of in any concrete way, to visualize without shuddering and drawing the curtains on those dark recesses of our minds where such things are possible. We can’t see them, feel them, even come close to experiencing them, lest we become overwhelmed.


Instead we assign them words that summarize and categorize the event as a concept. Words such as “rape,” “murder,” “butchery,” and “war crimes.” And the words give us enough distance from the experience, enough breathing room, as it were, so we can go on, so we can be appalled without being rendered powerless, so we can speak of hundreds of rapes, thousands of murders — and thus each individual act of violence becomes depersonalized, manageable, as it must if we are to manage it, to list it, so we can determine, for example, if is legally a simple war crime or part of a pattern genocide.


Would that the victims of these crimes could assign them words, and talk about them as if they were in the past, as if they happened in some distant country, at some remote and almost forgotten time. Would that one of them could say “I was raped,” like she could say “I fell and broke my wrist, but it’s healed now. It happened, my fall, long ago.” But to paraphrase one Ukrainian social worker: “Perhaps a bomb didn’t fall on them. But now the bomb is inside of them.”


That bomb is, in fact, like a cluster bomb. Little bomblets, each one powerful enough to kill a child, will keep detonating inside the victim for months, years…the rest of her life.


I could challenge you to draw back the curtains from the depths of your imagination and visualize that rape, that beating, that gunning down as if you were standing just a few feet away and could hear the blows sinking into the flesh or the rifles blasting next to your ears, see the blood oozing out of the wounds, the bruises darkening, the rivulets of tears on the dusty faces. I could, but I won’t, any more than I ask or allow myself to go there. To what avail, this unveiling of our inner demons, our capacity to bring nightmares to light? Just acknowledge the power of those demons within yourself, their potential to distort you, poisoning your mind and actions, and be grateful that instead of reoccurring nightmares the distance from horror with which your mind is able to defend itself frees it to ask questions.


Questions such as, “Clutching a child, sensing her terror, how could a man rape her? Then rape her again, or go on to rape another?”


Questions such as, “What kind of men would do this? Are they human?”


The circumstances allow for no knee jerk answers such as, “Well, of course they’re human, they’re just misguided, psychologically damaged”…and so on. These circumstances are the ones in which a great many Ukrainians are calling the Russian soldiers “orcs,” the vile, monstrous foot soldiers of the Dark Lord in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The people of Ukraine see hordes of dehumanized Russian soldiers and mercenaries descending on their land like ancient barbarians, wantonly destroying everything and everyone in their path for the sadistic pleasure of it, for the lust sport of inflicting pain on the frail and helpless. Are these sick fucks human? Fully human? Or, are they something else, something that started out to be human, has human genes and secretes the hormones of adult male homo sapiens, but are not possessed of a human hearts, human feelings of empathy or compassion. Aren’t they indeed inhuman?


We needn’t ask this about the young Russian conscripts who have found themselves under fire from the Ukrainian regulars and militia, of course. Many of them just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and wish nothing more than to return home alive.
But we must ask it of those committing the crimes — the sadists who preen themselves as they strut around with their rifles and their erections. Whither their humanity? And who is responsible for its loss? And finally, if someone took their humanity from them, can they, the orcs, now be held responsible for their behavior? Or are they just following orders — direct, on the spot orders or long since internalized instructions from their military’s culture, their country’s culture?


We must ask it because we will be their judges — we, along with the parents and spouses of the murdered; we along with those walking-dead rape victims. We will decide whether the Russian soldiers are redeemable, here, on this earth, or only in heaven, if there is indeed forgiveness in the after life. We are tasked to decide whether they deserve life, or should be slaughtered like the animals they have shown themselves to be, even as we glean satisfaction from their executions.


We will judge them, and as we do we will judge ourselves, judge our own humanity. So we’d better try to get it right.


(Note: This is Part 2 of an ongoing series. Read Part 1 here. Part 3, The culture of genocide, coming soon.)

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