“The Arrogance of Rehoboam,” circa 1530, Hans Holbein the Younger | Public domain
God bless James Carroll for his master class on geopolitics, history, and the agonies of moral discernment. Bless him doubly for advancing a defiant premise in a world of meager citizen power: that what we think deeply matters—if not to the world, then to ourselves.
One feels bruised watching Carroll wrestle with his conscience. Steeped in religious meaning, his confessional is occasioned by the demonic return of Russia as America’s “primordial enemy.” But Russian villainy is no longer the exaggerated stuff of Cold War propaganda. It is real—in Russia’s savage war on Ukraine.
In a second great twist, the United States government—long the object of Carroll’s ire for its own aggressions—is no “perpetrator” here. Breaking with his luminous pacifism, Carroll makes peace with at least this war, cheering for a Ukrainian victory made possible only by the force of U.S. arms.
This posture shakes the foundations of Carroll’s anti-war faith. Penance follows in his naming of his prior peacenik sins: among them, self-righteousness for judging the misdeeds of his country too harshly, while playing down those of its adversaries.
But doubt invades even Carroll’s new stance. What of the archdemon, the specter of nuclear war, raised by the Ukraine conflict? Does supporting Ukraine against the madman Putin in effect welcome its return, along with a renewed arms race in the name of enhanced deterrence?
In a final twist, Carroll seeks to resurrect the politics of nuclear abolition as a necessary dimension of the very liberal, democratic, and pacified world order for which the Ukrainians are ostensibly fighting. The sin of war may be partially redeemed by a durable, disarmed peace to follow, if we have the will to work for it. Amen.
Carroll’s public display of private angst is admirable for its intellectual and moral honesty. He writes as if the state of his soul depends on developing conscientious positions, informed by skepticism and self-doubt.
Such rigor is a welcome salve. First, against a whole swath of the war’s U.S. backers, like the Biden administration and much of the political and media establishment. They trumpet the return of America’s “arsenal for democracy,” protecting freedom-loving peoples from tyranny.
Wholly absent is any mention that America’s War on Terror itself entailed war crimes—from the unprovoked invasion of Iraq to tortures at Guantanamo and elsewhere. (In recent days, volunteer American fighters captured in Ukraine recounted to a mortified CNN anchor their abuse by means of “stress positions” at Russian “black sites.” These keywords from America’s own sordid history with torture triggered in her no comparative reflections.)
Hypocrisy and double standards are constitutive of the projection of U.S. power. Carroll reminds us of that. American support for the war, by extension, should come with a consciousness of guilt, and renewed efforts across policy domains to align U.S. behavior with the country’s professed values.
But even more so, Carroll’s message is aimed at the anti-war Left, for whom he has long been a lodestar. A member of that community, I scrutinized the details of Carroll’s positions—partly to navigate my own.
He, like I, remains unconvinced of the common charge in vocal pockets of the Left that the United States is the authentic author of Putin’s invasion. Chief among the alleged provocations is NATO’s expansion, breaking decades-old pledges to anxious, post-Soviet Russian leaders. Another culprit is U.S. support for the 2014 “Maidan Revolution,” remarkably cast as a right-wing coup executed by neofascist foot soldiers.
In this narrative, Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of parts of Ukraine became both defensive maneuvers to stave off Kiev’s hegemony and the legitimate reuniting of ethnic Russians with Mother Russia. Russia’s 2022 invasion is the decisive act in a long-simmering master plan, cooked up in Washington, to shore up Western alliances, isolate Russia, and weaken Putin domestically by means of a proxy war, with Ukrainians as cannon fodder. All the while, Ukraine and its Western patrons rebuffed good faith efforts at negotiation by Putin—that great peacemaker and responsible steward of Russian sovereignty.
There are kernels of half-truth to each conspiratorial stipulation. Paired with cherry-picked quotes from experts and historical figures, these have been hastily drafted into anti-war talking points, repeated as catechism at scattered protests and on against-the-grain websites. But well-founded suspicion of American motives and fears of subterfuge do not, in themselves, a credible analysis make.
The United States was the first to warn Ukraine publicly about a Russian invasion. It implored Putin, with only the tepid threat of sanctions, not to do it. The Biden administration could have hardly assumed that the Western alliance would hold together, or that the Ukrainian military and Zelenskyy government, contrary to its own predictions, could hold out for more than a few weeks. It strains credulity that Washington willed a Russian invasion, with all the attendant risks, including escalation to nuclear war.
The brutal means by which Russia has prosecuted the war reveals something of its ends. Deliberate attacks on civilians, torture, rape, and forced deportations are not the stuff of armed diplomacy compelling negotiation. They are the tactics of total war, aligned with legacies of massacre.
In a painful separation from both comrades and his own anti-war past, Carroll emancipates himself from the whole species of strained thinking on the Left, tinged with nostalgia for the Soviet Union as a bulwark against Western domination. Doing so, he frees others to see with political and moral clarity a complex contemporary reality, requiring difficult choices.
My own path to support for Ukraine’s defense felt less anguished than Carroll’s. I had little need for the scholastic judgments of the deeply Catholic “just war” theory that aided Carroll. The simpler idea of a “people’s war” sufficed—a national community, uniting in shared sacrifice as “one heart, one mind” (more or less) to fight for its dignity, survival, and basic right of self-determination.
If Ukraine’s resistance does not meet this measure, once idealized by the anti-imperialist Left, then what armed struggle does?
Even so, two considerations have given me a haunting pause. The first is the reality that war is hell, with both shared suffering and blame. The erstwhile war correspondent Chris Hedges, among the most outspoken opponents of the Ukraine war, has written eloquently about the devastation of armed conflict. In the invasion’s first days, he demanded that the United States end the war by halting arms shipments to Ukraine. To do otherwise, he argued—when he assumed Ukraine had no prospect of victory—was immoral. America was thus duty-bound to save Ukrainian lives, if at the expense of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
But there is an uncomfortable arrogance to this argument, framed as tough love.
Perhaps the Ukrainians themselves should determine what’s worth fighting and dying for, not the U.S. government or compassionate Americans like Hedges. To be sure, Ukraine is dependent on foreign weapons for its defense, and therefore cannot alone forge its own destiny. But this is always the case for besieged underdogs.
Hedges’s whole moral calculus was anyhow based on an errant military assessment. Ukraine, it seems, is winning. In this brewing victory, Ukraine sustains a long tradition whereby peoples defending their freedom and homeland defeat “superior” imperial armies waging illegitimate wars, driven by the vanity of their leaders.
In this sense, Ukraine may well be “Russia’s Vietnam,” much like Afghanistan was for the Soviets. As yet, there appear no major cracks in the Ukrainians’ defiant will. Revelations of Russian torture and civilian executions have only strengthened their resolve, just as America’s saturation bombing of North Vietnam failed to make the Vietnamese buckle. It pains me to accept the Ukrainians’ suffering, but the burden is not mine.
The second great worry concerns the possibility of nuclear war, enhanced by Russia’s battlefield losses. From the start, I have felt that backing Ukraine militarily would be the right policy, until it becomes the wrong policy. It becomes the wrong policy precisely at the horrifying point that Putin authorizes a nuclear strike—tactical, strategic, or as the start of World War III.
At that point, the fundamental meaning of the Ukraine war will change, throwing its justification into grave doubt. Whoever is left amidst the fallout will curse reckless patterns of escalation, dangerously constrained decision pathways, and the closing of off-ramps. Putin will be the world’s archvillain. But Biden and Blinken, and even Zelenskyy will not escape culpability for having kept the perilous conflict in heated motion.
Carroll is similarly haunted by this possibility. His ingenious hope, assuming that nuclear war is averted, is that the world concludes that it was too close for comfort.
The fate of the earth, after all, was in the hands of an aggrieved sociopath. To the extent that deterrence—under the unbroken logic of mutual assured destruction—worked, it did so only because democratic leaders like Biden were willing to incinerate countless lives in retaliation. By this intolerable fear, a pathway conceivably opens for a renewed, global push for disarmament or even abolition—as if to take away a toy too deadly for a belligerent humanity and its mercurial leaders to handle.
I endorse Carroll’s wishes but here break with his hope.
Global warming is already an abyss into which humanity, knowing the hazard, plunges deeper every day. Huge populations in beleaguered democracies believe in dangerous nonsense that undermines democracy itself. Resurgent chauvinisms mark whole races, ethnicities, religions, nationalities, and gender identities for abuse. And Russia’s aggression may equally well make nuclear prophylaxis appear more desirable.
We likely have a greater shot at long-term peace among nations—greatly enabled by defeating authoritarians, whether in Russia or the democratic West—than the kind of collective action required to seize their most lethal toys. That is where my efforts, even absent much hope, will lie.
Jeremy Varon is an organizer with Witness Against Torture and a professor of history at The New School.
Read James Carroll’s six-part series reckoning with nuclear weapons, peace activism, and war in Ukraine.