“This is the Enemy” MCANW poster (1980s). Image credit: public domain.
In the spring of 2022, in response to Vladimir Putin’s genocidal invasion of Ukraine, together with his shrewdly reckless rekindling of nuclear dread, the tangle of anti-war assumptions that had previously sustained the shape of my adult life suddenly seemed to unravel.
As had happened in the 1960s, I was transfixed by the images of slaughter televised nightly. When I was young, the havoc had been in Vietnam, wreaked by forces of my own government: Zippo lighters igniting thatched rooftops; naked children in screeching flight from napalm; bullet-riddled corpses of cone-hatted peasants; leaked reports of berserking American boys.
This time, it was scenes of Ukrainian hospitals bombed; a bloodied woman as dead as her just-delivered baby; apartment buildings blackened by shells, the exposed wall-paper of dozens of gutted bedrooms; a theater demolished despite the word “children” painted in Russian on its roof; roadside ditches as burial pits, choked with the corpses of old ladies in housecoats; whole cities deliberately laid waste.
But the perpetrator now was not America. It was Russia, suddenly recalled as America’s primordial nemesis.
The fierce enmity ignited between the Soviet Union and the United States after World War II had, for a time, been tempered, beginning with the peaceful end of the Cold War in the 1980s. That astounding turn in contemporary history was made mainly because of arms-reduction initiatives originating in Moscow, with Mikhail Gorbachev prompting even the militant Ronald Reagan to renounce his “evil empire” rhetoric. What a relief it was when they declared together in 1985 that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Gorbachev had arrived unpredicted on the world scene like a transforming alchemist, and from the mid-1980s on, I had admired him. His country’s prompt turning toward democracy, like springtime shoots reaching toward the sun—an empire dismantled, actual elections, a free press, public political debate, open borders—had quickened an entirely new hope for the human future. In the post-Gorbachev era—through the 1990s and into the 2000s—even with the empowering of drunken Boris Yeltsin and gimlit-eyed Vladimir Putin, I had all but forgotten that Russia had begun as a first mortal enemy . . . of my own.
As a child, I had taken my largest emotional cues from the Roman Catholic Mass. I was an intuitive connoisseur of its signals of gravity and grace, dread and consolation—signals I could pick up from the liturgical rhythm of silence and song; aromas of incense and candle wax; the jangle of bells; the celebrant priest’s shifting mood as he alternated genuflections and bows and elevations. What meaning I took from all of this was less a matter of words than of gesture, undertone, and innuendo. But because of that general unspokeness, a particular set of words always landed on me with force.
Since the Mass was celebrated in Latin, all the prayers flew over my head except one—the only one in English. At the conclusion of every service, the priest swung down from the high altar, jolting onto his knees and loudly intoning the sing-song refrain, “Haaail . . . Holy Queen . . . Mother of Mercy . . . our life . . . our sweetness . . . and our hope!” All the people around me joined in, mumbling along with the rote recitation, but I waited for a particular phrase to leap out of the garble, a phrase bubbling up just now from the depths of long-sunken memory: “To Thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.”
Though I could not have explained its meaning, I grasped the eloquence of that phrase, how it epitomized the mystery of the human condition, the longing, the dread, the worry, the pain. Above all, the unexplained loss of a precious world: banishment! There’s the feeling.
At some point back then, my mother explained that the regular recitation at Mass of the “Hail Holy Queen”—the Salve Regina—had been ordered by the Virgin Mary herself in a miraculous apparition to three children like me at a place called Fatima. Learning to read, I checked the Mass card for those particular words, and saw that the “Hail Holy Queen” carried the title “Prayer for the Conversion of Russia.” That’s what leaps out of memory now.
At Fatima, a small town in central Portugal, the Mother of God, using a trio of child-shepherds as her intermediaries, had expressly conscripted every Catholic Mass-goer into God’s transcendent struggle against Communist Moscow. Only later did I learn that the Marian apparition in Portugal was said to have occurred in July 1917, less than six months after Bolshevism’s triumphant revolution. Roman Catholicism’s millennium-long argument with Eastern Orthodoxy was not the issue: Communism was. The lesson could not have been simpler: Russia was the Virgin Mary’s archenemy, and therefore mine.
That simply, I was brought into the good-versus-evil structure of the Cold War imagination. It is tempting to recall that Manichaean divide as an ethical mistake, as if the West, with its history of imperialism and heartless capitalism, was no better morally than the Soviet Union. But that east-west relativizing deletes the far harsher actualities of Stalinism—an insane system that ruled across decades by terror, openly murdered millions of its own citizens, and subjected those of neighboring nations to rank political slavery. Stalinism, an evil project unleashed, was Russia.
Then, all at once, as I turned 7 years old, Russia’s far-away threat drew very close. Precisely at the time of my initiation into this unequivocal moral dispensation—the year 1949—the news came that Russia had detonated its own atomic bomb, news that promptly sent us school children crouching beneath our desks—generating the PTSD of my generation. Telling our story without reference to those atom bomb drills is like telling the story of millennials without reference to 9/11. While we cowered, arms carefully up over our ears, Sister forbade us to open our eyes because the atomic flash, marking the end of the world, would ruin our eyes and make us blind. I remember wondering why we would need eyes if the world ended. Faced with such perplexity and a quite explicit terror, it seemed completely natural to call upon our All-Merciful Mother: “To Thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve!” Indeed. Cry the detested country! Russia!
Nuclear dread coursed like a network of bubbling volcanic rivulets through my youth and middle years, but with Gorbachev the currents had seemed to cool, and I was like most people in leaving the unease behind. In receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, Gorbachev said, “The risk of a global nuclear war has practically disappeared.”
Putin’s war in Ukraine arrived with an explosive breaking of that placid surface, the long-buried horror shooting into the open like, well, a volcanic geyser. The peak of that alarm passed as the war settled into grinding stalemate, but for a time, it was widely felt.
A fresh dose of the old nuclear fear was not the only surprise Putin brought in 2022. My first reaction to the images of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, like most people’s, was visceral: this unprovoked atrocity had to be stopped—which meant meeting it with force. As a Catholic, I was raised in the tradition of just war theology, but I had long since concluded that, in the nuclear age, abstractions of justice arcing into the human future could simply no longer be served by war.
But Putin’s invasion obliterated abstraction, and if there was a “simply” now, it boiled down to—fight back!
That response intensified as the Kremlin leader’s actual purpose quickly began to show itself—not the winning of concessions on questions of Ukrainian “neutrality,” Moscow’s previous annexation of Crimea, rolling back NATO, or the place of Ukraine’s Russian speakers. No. Putin’s initial goal, however much it would be adjusted later, was clearly the absolute possession of the country. I began to understand how that conquest, when paired with already dominated Belarus, would have fulfilled his czarist fantasy of a Russky Mir (Russian World). If bringing about that historic civilization-state required the destruction of Ukraine-as-it-is, so be it—up to and including genocide. I saw that.
The war was Ukraine’s to fight, but the United States and its allies were, I thought, morally obligated to support Ukrainian resistance with weapons—massively. It did so. That the Ukrainian resistance soon surpassed every gloomy prediction and began to push Russian forces back led to escalations in Western military aid, which prompted complicated second thoughts, but the initial impulse was straight-forward. And an immediate international imposition of punishing sanctions on Russia went without saying.
In affirming the justice of Ukrainian self-defense in those early days of the war, I found myself standing against numerous old comrades on the Left, anti-war friends inclined either to empathize with Putin’s sense of grievance at intrusions from “the West,” or, more simply, to reject, as a consistent pacifist would, the impulse to meet belligerence with belligerence.
Some of my friends who had railed against American militarism for decades diluted condemnations of the Russian assault with equivocations about U.S. and NATO provocations, as if Putin was somehow justified in his aggression; as if a kind of American exceptionalism still applied, making the U.S. responsible for all the world’s ills. Some who had long denounced American appeals to the Monroe Doctrine to justify its “sphere of influence” aggressions in the Caribbean and Latin America now accepted Russian claims to its own sphere of influence.
As I heard my old friends fail to distinguish, on the one hand, between the hubris of American “state-building” abroad, including the violent follies of “humanitarian intervention,” and, on the other hand, the moral urgency of a whole people’s fight for its very life against savage marauders, my impulse was different. It was not only that I regarded responsibility for the crisis in Ukraine as belonging exclusively to Vladimir Putin. Nor was my response merely a matter of defending the territorial integrity of a sovereign nation or principles of international law.
No, I saw something else—something deeply personal and wholly unexpected. Embodied in the palpable valor of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the president of Ukraine, his people’s radical commitment to the defense of their shared common good—not to mention of their families, old people, and children—brought into focus my own understanding of what I had myself been working toward my whole life.
I saw that the creation of a decent society, marked by truth and love and fairness, had been my purpose all along. Slogans of the civil rights movement and the peace movement, into both of which I’d been conscripted as a young man, were shorthand for the social virtue—the commonwealth—I’d been trying to help create. I saw that such a civic value weighed far more than everything else I’d consciously striven for—personal success and its rewards; reform of my religion; even the consolations of family.
However imperfectly realized in my own efforts, a creation of the general good—captured in ideals of constitutional democracy, social justice, and Christian faith at its best; and made real in the mainly generous, if always flawed, ways I’d tried to treat other people—was the life-defining purpose I had embraced. And for now that one transcendent aspiration was what bound me to Ukraine. In Zelenskyy’s apparently selfless goodwill, on display again and again as the war dragged on, I glimpsed such devotion as an absolute ethical norm, and in his compatriots’ readiness to die for it, I saw that value as worth living for.
This was my first Ukrainian revelation: the principles of liberal democracy are worth dying for. So of course they are worth defending.
Surely, I’d seen that truth as a young man, the son of an American military officer, but Vietnam and its aftermath—right into the twenty-first century—had impossibly blurred such a vision, making it seem naive at best, triumphalist at worst. But even if I’d seen that truth before, I’d never seen it so clearly. For the first time in decades, I was unabashedly in favor of war. Ever since Pope Paul VI, standing before the UN General Assembly in 1965, had stunned the world with his cry, “No More War! War Never Again!” that had been my watchword. Well, no. Not this time.
Very quickly, as Ukraine resisted and nations of the West announced sanctions, the nearly discarded blocks of a former international order seemed to fall back into place. The United States was Exhibit A of this reordering: after the demoralizing humiliations of the bungled American exit from Afghanistan only months before; after its legislative paralysis in Washington; and after its Trump-induced loss of unified national purpose, America was all at once seen to be riding high as the galvanizing leader of an international coalition against Putin. The Kremlin was once again the supremely unifying adversary, a malevolent role from the last century that it promptly recapitulated.
In nations bracketing the North Atlantic, despite tensions reverberating from the war, a great sigh of relief could almost be heard: how great to be free once more to openly demonize Moscow—and not only Russia’s elites and power brokers, but the whole Russian people, who seemed, by the millions, to assent to Putin’s war. The “evil empire” was back.
But there were other reversals of the post-Cold War world of dreams. The immediate embrace of emergency military spending by the member-nations of NATO guaranteed the return of defense industries to the pinnacle of Western budgets. Soon enough, NATO itself would be recast as long neutral Finland and Sweden applied for membership. Germany, shipping weapons to Ukraine, all but renounced its long post-war history of a near-pacifist foreign policy, and Berlin’s sudden turn about made its military budget the world’s third largest. The ideal of nuclear abolition, which had found its most eloquent advocate in Barack Obama at the outset of his presidency, was now all but trashed. The Cold War doctrine of “nuclear deterrence” was uncritically elevated once again: would Putin have attacked a Ukraine that had clung to the nukes it surrendered in 1994? Would Putin have stopped at Ukraine if his crossing NATO’s borders—in the Baltics, say—did not put Moscow itself at risk of destruction?
But nuclear deterrence did not really need to be resuscitated. Across the post-Cold War decades, lying below an assumed placidity among and between the great powers, its unadjusted code had continued to take for granted the rarely articulated doctrine grimly known as “mutual assured destruction.” Whether articulated or not, the doctrine was a dead hand on the throat of humanity. It meant that multiple nations, if pre-eminently the United States and Russia, were still prepared, on a moment’s notice and with no moral qualm, to trigger doomsday, instantly bringing about the deaths of millions of human beings, and the possible obliteration of civilized life everywhere on the planet. Especially since the non-violent denouement of the U.S.-USSR stand-off, that readiness had been preserved only in shadows, but Putin’s spring offensive dragged it into the light. MAD was firmly intact, and as mad as ever.
In Ukraine itself, meanwhile, other political and moral complications began to surface. The admirable mounting of staunch resistance by Ukraine’s fighters carried with it possibilities of a new birth of ethnic nationalism just at a moment when the need for an unprecedented trans-national imagination had been showing itself more powerfully than before. Indeed, Ukraine, with that renunciation of nuclear weapons in 1994, had been on the avant-garde of such internationalism, but would that more global vision be rolled back? Alas, the new war made clear that early twenty-first century assumptions of state borders taking second place to economic interdependence and shared cultural expression, making geographic conflicts over territory obsolete, proved to be a fantasy. Beyond Ukraine, and extending to recently shaken democracies in the West, including the United States, xenophobic sectarianism had been co-opting traditional virtues of patriotism, with fascist movements of racial purity and white supremacy ascendant. Putin’s ethnocentrism was a harbinger of worse to come.
But these tectonic shifts in the geopolitical landscape had an intensely personal equivalent in me. My instinctive support for Ukraine’s war against Russian aggression, and a feel for its personal meaning in my own life, brought a question: would what I’d long taken to be my most deeply felt conviction hold? If, after six decades of consistent writing and sporadic activism, I was no longer a war-objector, who was I?
James Carroll is the author, most recently, of The Truth at the Heart of the Lie.