“Let’s stop pretending that the conflict in Ukraine marks a return to tragedy”

It is customary to say that the truth is the first victim of war. But while we persist in scrutinizing the actions of the Russian president as those of a Soviet autocrat in the heyday of Kremlinology, or in following the ongoing conflict as a return to the Cold War, it is rather our type to know who is at stake. Is the Russian army behind on its objectives? Did Vladimir Putin underestimate the Ukrainian resistance?

→ MAINTENANCE. Catherine Chalier: “The war in Ukraine questions our ability to look at misfortune”

These questions mobilize certain expertise to understand the present time. Others find themselves forgotten or marginalized: those which, slow and complex, also more disturbing, are the only ones capable of studying violence as closely as possible, of understanding its internal mechanisms, of bringing to light the deep movements which shape it meaning. In other words, we cling to a single form of knowledge, strategic or geopolitical, to the detriment of all the others and no doubt also of the spirit of nuance.

Preserving a space in the face of cataclysm

What can the social sciences do to explain war – an ongoing war, at that? The question does not date from today. It was posed by the historian Marc Bloch twice – in an article from the early 1920s, boldly devoted to the “fake news” of the Great War and, twenty-five years later, in his masterpiece The Strange Defeatpublished at the Liberation, after his execution as a resistance fighter on June 16, 1944. Since that time, few have been able, in times of war, to preserve a space, an energy, or even a simple reflexive aspiration in the face of the cataclysm that threatened to swallow them.

Let us recall, however, a few principles that can make it possible to think differently about the war in Ukraine and to hear the voices of those who seek to shed light on its mechanisms.

1. Every war is rooted in a long time. That of collective memories or conflicts, Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, the Donbass, whose links must then be exhumed, patiently, sometimes several decades apart. Let us take seriously the myths that Vladimir Putin uses to his advantage: the “Great Patriotic War” in particular, which allows him to present “military operation” in Ukraine as a defensive conflict in which the identity of his country is at stake. And let us ask ourselves: do Russian soldiers and their families adhere to this great national narrative? in what ways, for what reasons, to what extent?

→ READ. In Russia, the systematic use of war propaganda

2. All history is contemporary. This conflict, like all the others, assails us with questions, on the mechanisms of an entry into war, the place of civilians, the role of women, the impact of the destruction of cities and massive displacements and refugees…

The beyond of violence that must be described

3. The violence of war is never a simple unleashing of forces. It operates like a language, for those who implement it as well as for those it targets. Crossing of thresholds; choice of cruelty, that particular way of deliberately inflicting extreme suffering; targeting of civilians, of their identities, of what binds individuals together across generations, through “crimes of desecration” (Véronique Nahoum-Grappe): rape of women, ransacking of cemeteries, destruction of heritage. It is always the beyond of violence, its ultimate symbolic function, that we must strive to describe and understand – not just what we have before our eyes.

4. The woes of civilians are neither timeless nor universal. A subway platform in Kyiv may look like the same subway platform in London during the Blitz without the war in Ukraine and the Second World War being similar or suggesting a hierarchy of suffering. In this, the discourse of historians differs from that of humanitarians.

5. The brutality of a war cannot be explained by the madness of a man. Invoking that of Vladimir Putin, as Harvard psychologists did for Adolf Hitler in 1943, confirms a profound historiographical regression: historians have long taught us not to think of power as the attribute of a single individual, to criticize the notion of totalitarianism, to question the resistance of societies. It also means clearing customs at a lower cost for “ordinary men” and their violence. Those who look like us, finally.

Thinking out of the conflict

6. Thinking about war must integrate the question of how to end the conflict. Break with the illusion that hostilities end with peace treaties. Anticipating ruins and reconstruction, traumatic memory, traces of forced displacement, perhaps even the moment when international law will make itself heard. And build today the archives of the hostilities in progress.

7. No discipline can pride itself on being able to grasp alone the complexity of a conflict, in all its forms, at all its levels. History no more than the others. We understand just as well (and sometimes better) a country at war by reading its writers, watching the films of its filmmakers, listening to its composers.

→ MAINTENANCE. War in Ukraine: “Vladimir Putin is not a tyrant who wakes up”

8. Men and women caught up in war cannot be mere objects of study, reduced to the status of victims. We must refer to the work of Ukrainian and Russian researchers, echo their analyses, continue the scientific dialogue with them. Amplify their voices.

9. Let’s stop pretending that the conflict in Ukraine marks a “return of the tragic in history”. Let’s be clear. He never left us.


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