War, what is it good for?

The horror, the horror

There are some things, some sights that etch themselves into your very soul and from which, having witnessed them you may never quite be the same again.

The images coming out of Bucha, of Ukrainian civilians slaughtered with their hands tied behind their backs, of a 6-year-old boy, standing beside the grave of his mother, a dog sitting beside the body of its murdered human companion. These are such images.

War begats war crimes. Fact. The bombardment and near total destruction of cities was something that we knew, the minute Putin took his troops into Ukraine, would happen, even though we didn’t really want to believe it would. Why did we know? Because we’ve seen it before.  In Syria, where another Russian ‘intervention’ razed the city of Aleppo to the ground. There too it wasn’t military targets that were hit but civilian areas – hospitals, residential buildings.

And there too, the perpetrators tried to pass it off as opposition propaganda – fake news, long before that term began to be bandied about with the ferocity it is today. Then too, they tried to tell us that the hospitals were military installations, that the women and children bombed out of existence were in fact the human shields put in by opponents of the Assad regime, on whose side Putin had come down so very, very heavily.

Today, Russian state TV is telling its citizens that any bodies they see on the ground in Bucha are staged or killed by Ukrainians as a way to make Russia look bad. No, I think you are managing that all by yourself.

So, we should be shocked, horrified, angry, but not surprised. Because if nothing else, this war has reminded us of just how inhumane the most lethal killing machine on the planet can be. I don’t want to believe the images from Bucha, I really don’t. But I do. And all the rumours of indiscriminate shootings, the use of rape as a weapon. Because anyone who’s studied anything of 20th century history knows we’ve seen them before – in in NemmersDorf, and Bronki and Treuenbritzen in WW2, in Dachau and Auschwitz, and more recently in Srebrenica and Rwanda.

It looks like the warnings that the Chechen mercenaries would be deployed in Ukraine may be coming true. And that is very, very bad news. I worry for whoever hasn’t got out of Ukraine yet. I worry that we will get war-fatigue before long, too sickened by the images coming out across our screens and our newspapers to be able to feel the true horror. I also worry for the sanity of those who have had to witness it all and still go on living.

President Zelensky is going to need counselling for the rest of his life I suspect. All this happened on his watch. He’s fighting for his country, for the people that elected him, but at what cost? They say that Churchill never quite got over abandoning Coventry to the massive air-raid in order to protect the knowledge that the Allies had broken the Enigma code. It had to be that way, but it never quite left him.

What he is having to see in Bucha and elsewhere in Ukraine will never leave Zelensky either. When this is over, will the West have learned its lesson? I want to believe yes….but I can’t.


The face of a man who knows that what he has just witnessed is etched on his heart forever.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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