The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

protester holding sign with stop putin on it

Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.
~ William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

What exactly is it that motivates a man to “let slip the dogs of war,” on an innocent nation, a country doing nothing but minding its own national business?

The injured nation possesses nothing that the attacker needs; no resources that can’t be otherwise secured, no riches in particular. The attacker doesn’t need the land for colonization, what Hitler termed  lebensraum.

But there’s a sin, one unforgivable sin perpetrated by the injured nation, a decades-long transgression conjured up in the twisted mind of a narcissistic madman; the sin of existence.

After months of amassing a huge army on his country’s border with the Ukraine, and spinning a yarn of war games and exercises, Vladimir Putin let slip his Russian Army.

It’s the question that Putin has answered only with fury and more fables, and pundits have tried to answer with theories.

My own?

Ukraine long ago took up residence in Putin’s head. The Ukrainian national anthem must be the earworm that disturbs Putin’s sleep at two o’clock every morning.

That Ukraine exists as an independent sovereign must, for decades, have been more than he could take. Putin probably looks at a map of Europe, sees all of those former Soviet republics and cries in his borscht, nostalgic for the “good old” cold war days of an intact Soviet Union.

As he sips his vodka maybe he waxes over those glory days of TU-95 bombers cruising off the coast of Alaska, nuclear submarines peeping at Boston Harbor through periscopes and the Kremlin casting its ominous shadow over the vast Soviet land mass.

When the Berlin Wall came down, Putin was a young KGB agent in Dresden, in what was at that time East Germany. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was, for Putin, a traumatic event that would stay with him and shape his life (Germany’s defeat in World War I and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles were traumatic events that shaped the life of a particular German corporal).

If Putin’s goal is to reestablish the old Soviet Union, what better place to start than the second largest country in Europe.

When I was a young boy, my mother and grandmother, Nonna Maria, used to tell me stories about life in war torn Rome. During my childhood, the memory of World War II was still fresh, war veterans were in the prime of life and old, war footage was regular television fare.

We’re sixty years removed and the scenes played out on television remind me of the old newsreel films of World War II that I watched as a child, the only difference being that now it’s all in high definition, living – and dying – color.

Those old newsreels long ago kindled my boyish excitement about war, its power and its glory. Now my perspective comes from the wisdom of old age. Excitement has been replaced by sorrow for the poor people of Ukraine and disbelief that we’re watching a replay of the Europe of over eighty years ago.

I feel a mixture of sadness and amazement when I see the resolve of the Ukrainian people.

It’s hard to fathom
How is it to go about an evening getting ready for work or school or whatever the routine will be the next day, only to wake up and find out that one of the world’s largest armies is approaching and everything that was normal the night before is all amok? Imagine wondering when normal will return, or if it ever will return.

What does one do? Make love one last time in the bedroom you may never see again? Try hard to savor the tenderness, wishing those precious moments could never go away because you realize that once they’re past those moments will never return again.

Pack up what little you’re able to bring…tell the children they can only bring one small toy each…and then there’s the dog.

Do you even bother turning off the lights and locking the door?

Bombed buildings…people sifting through wreckage…charred military vehicles and other detritus of war strewn on a bridge…the couple who married on the day of the Russian invasion and then traded their wedding clothes for fatigues and AK-47s…subway stations and basements turned into makeshift bomb shelters…the Ukrainian brewery that has suspended bottling beer and now bottles gasoline to make Molotov cocktails…crowds trying to board a train, and columns on foot, all trying to make their way to safety.

How can we Americans begin to understand? Even a natural disaster pales. Certainly my San Francisco Bay Area home might get leveled by the next big earthquake. But what have I lost? A thing that can be rebuilt. The Ukrainians stand to lose their way of life, their freedom; things you can’t rebuild but only struggle to reclaim.

A divergence of faiths
Sometimes I envy those who, like my wife, can put their faith in prayer. While Russia is launching missiles at Kyiv, she and her friends and family are launching prayers to “god the father,” to soften Putin’s heart.

Pardon me for being dubious, but I keep thinking back to the Crusades, Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. There was no heart softening going on then and there won’t be any as regards Putin. First there has to be a heart to soften.

If this is how “god the father” is treating his brood maybe we should report him to child protective services and turn to “god the mother.” Maybe what we really need is “god the kindly aunt who wears an apron and bakes apple pies.” The world could certainly use some apple pie love about now.

Right now I have more faith in Ukrainian patriots and Molotov cocktails.

In my darkest, and more irrational moments, I’d like to put some faith in NATO air strikes unleashing hell on the Russian columns.

Take one for the team
A few days before the invasion took place, the dinner table conversation turned to the events in Eastern Europe. “Russia is going to invade Ukraine, and China is going to invade Taiwan and I don’t care about either one,” said a family friend.

A long silence followed. I imagine my wife held her breath, hoping that I wouldn’t lose my shit.

It was a hard thing to do, but I held onto my shit and held my tongue. Swallowed the words, ‘You’d better fucking care about them. Our economic world is going to be turned upside down. But more importantly, a peace loving democratic nation is going to be attacked and in the end, Ukraine is going to be taking one for the team.’

“Taking one for the team;” it’s an old saying which the Urban Dictionary defines as “The act of someone willingly making a sacrifice for the benefit of others.”

Ukraine is “taking one for the team.”

Who’s the team? The democratic world that’s sitting back watching.

Sure the team is providing materiel and monetary aid, along with levying sanctions on Russia but what Ukraine really needs is the military help and reinforcements that will never come. Ukraine has found itself to be the frontline of democracy.

Ukraine will most certainly fall but it will also likely never fall. The Ukraine Army will at some point be defeated but the people will continue to resist. It will be Putin’s quagmire.

Ukraine will continue to take one for the team for years. The Russian Army might become the occupying army but it will find itself an army occupied, occupied with trying to quell an insurgency, tying Putin down and stymieing any notions of swallowing up any of the other former Soviet republics.

As Putin ups the ante, unleashing more brutality, I wonder how long America can stay out of the fight. It seems like this is one of those scenes in a movie when the hero is tied down and made to watch a family member tortured until the hero manages to break loose and vanquish the villain.

Seeking hope
I get up every morning, turn on the news and hope for a miracle.

Maybe that 40 mile long Russian convoy of death has turned around or been bombed into wreckage.

Maybe some general who doesn’t want to be tried for war crimes or see his army turned into fodder for snipers and the resistance has put a bullet in Putin’s brain and called the whole thing off.

But every morning the news is uplifting only for the bravery of the Ukrainian people, yet disheartening because the Russian Army relentlessly moves on. It only gets worse as Putin’s notion of being able to waltz into Ukraine becomes a fantasy that now requires a scorched earth strategy in order to succeed.

During the first days of the war, I found myself mired in sadness and depression, only managing to cheer myself up a few days later with a photo excursion to San Francisco.

But even that was disturbed.

I’m sitting outside of Royal Coffee on Clement Street, in San Francisco’s Richmond District. Less than two miles to the west is Ocean Beach and the Pacific Ocean. It’s a fair day in The City. Three men at a nearby table are talking about…the war.

One of the men brings up a fact and a theory and both of them make the blood run cold. The fact is that Putin has nukes – and plenty of them. The theory is that Putin has gone bonkers, nuttier than your Aunt Mabel’s fruitcake.

Sympathy for the devil
“Older men declare war. But it is youth that must fight and die.”
~ Herbert Hoover

I can’t muster much anger against the Russian soldiers. It’s reported that many of the soldiers are conscripts just trying to serve their two year hitch before getting on with life. They don’t have the training or the stomach for this war. There are reports of Russians surrendering or sabotaging their own vehicles in order to avoid moving forward.

I felt an overwhelming sadness reading the story of a Russian soldier whose texts to his mother were found on his phone.
“I just want to hang myself now,” he texted to his mother.
“What are you talking about? What happened?”
“Mom, I’m in Ukraine. There is a real war raging here. I am afraid. We are bombing all of the cities, together. Even targeting civilians. We were told that they would welcome us and they are falling under our armored vehicles, throwing themselves under the wheels and not allowing us to pass. They call us fascists. Mama, this is so hard.”
Moments later the soldier was dead.

The other day my wife heard a song dedicated to Ukraine and she played it over and over and over again. It had her on the verge of tears but she couldn’t stop listening, as if turning off the music and looking for some cheer would be an affront to Ukraine.

I understand the sentiment.

Sometimes you just feel the need to hurt.

28 thoughts on “Cry Havoc – Thoughts on a war

  1. Jane Fritz says:

    Paul, you have absolutely outdone yourself in relaying the history, the heartache, and the complexities of this evil act. And yet, it’s still going to unfold, most likely exactly as you predict. Like you, I wish I thought prayer would help. Like you, I weep for Ukrainians and their proud nation. Thank you for the care you have put into this post.

    1. Paul says:

      “Thank you for the care you have put into this post.”
      Honestly it took a few days and a lot of editing to put this together. This is absolutely heartbreaking.

      Thank you for reading and commenting Jane.


  2. Hettie D. says:

    There are a lot of natural resources i Ukraine, and also there are several plants which produce missiles parts – back from the UUSR times. Nobody in Russia cared when Estonia joined NATO.

    1. Paul says:

      Granted. But resources can always
      be had and plants can be built.

      Estonia and Latvia, both a fraction of the size of Ukraine joined in 2004 – 18 years.

      A lot can change in 18 years, though in 2005 Putin publicly denounced the dissolution of the USSR.

      When Estonia entered NATO, Bush, a man who seemed all to ready to get into a fight, was President.

      It wouldn’t surprise me if Putin has had this in mind since the Berlin wall came down and calculated that, with American politics now in disarray (thanks largely to Trump), this would be the best time to move.

      I would be curious to know your opinion on why Putin invaded Ukraine.

      1. Hettie D. says:

        My apologies I didn’t meat to leave it without reply, it’s just other things became more urgent, and it’s increasingly difficult to talk about this war. Natural resources and industries are more important than you might think, because in the Soviet Union, the economy was very “specialized”, and in many cases, some important industry would exist only in one of the republics. And having that until recently most of the industry was using the confiscated German equipment, the loss of a strategic plan is essential.

        You are right, however, that this is not that important. Now, on the third week of the war, I know “why”. Because we ALLOWED it to happen! I remember the Abkhazian crisis: Putin tried to say “genocide” multiple times during his “meetings with people.” It was not well received, and after several attempts, the idea was dropped. This time, we let him say so, and nobody said “no”….

        1. Paul says:

          Hello Hettie,
          Thank you for your response.
          “This time, we let him say so, and nobody said “no”….”
          Well said.
          Be well.

  3. Regardless of our political stance, and regardless of our faith in God, there is no denying this sad, evil and very scary war. My heart breaks. And yes, I do pray. No matter the outcome, I will still pray.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Lisa,
      I’m not certain about your politics and it doesn’t really matter to me, though some of my posts might hint otherwise.

      What disappoints and frightens me is that the Ukraine war (I’m not going to call it a conflict), has become politicized. It used to be that a crisis like this was a uniting thing and yet I’m seeing frayed edges. Historically we may have squabbled over various issues but when a democracy is being swallowed up by a brutal dictator we used to come together, to rally around the president. This war is not the hill to die on to score political points. It’s a very troubling thing.

      As to religion. I knew when writing my post that I might stir up a hornet’s nest, including my wife’s. I have strong feelings about the matter. My wife, who is very devout, and I have reached a détente. I realize that in that area she is probably disappointed but in the end we respect each other’s beliefs.

      I suspect that you and I have some politically divergent views and for that I appreciate your comments all the more.

      Be well.


      1. Thank you, Paul, I appreciate your very kind response. I like to read other people’s perspectives on life, religion and even politics. Sometimes I can very much understand where they are coming from. This war does scare me, and sometimes I almost feel sick knowing what they are going through. And I honestly don’t know what the answer is. But it sure seems to me like we need to help them more than we are. This seems so wrong to me. I am always hopeful, and I’m going to continue to hope. Thank you again Paul!

  4. The blunt, unadulterated truth about the reality in Ukraine is difficult to listen to, to watch, to swallow and to digest–no matter how eloquently you have described it, Paul. There IS a heartless madman on the loose there who will likely not be convinced to change course by his crony oligarchs who are concerned for their wealth. There is no winner here – assuming that a nuclear holocausts is avoided. I’m not saying there are better options for us. I am pessimistic. Stewart

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Stewart,
      My feeling is that any resolution to this is going to have to come from within Russia. Hopefully the oligarchs and/or the people will grow tired of being squeezed and force change. I’m not optimistic though.

  5. Horrible, horrible. May Putin rot in hell.

    1. Paul says:

      Could not come soon enough

  6. Tina Schell says:

    Hello Paul, when it comes to blogging, I am first and foremost a photographer and my words, while offered minimally, serve only a limited role in my posts. I will admit I very rarely read posts that offer long discourse which typically is not of interest to me. With both of those thing said I must tell you I read every word of your post as well as the comments and your responses. I have seen and read many discussions on the situation in Ukraine and without doubt yours is the most thoughtful and thorough, and could appear in any major publication standing proudly on its own two feet. I could not agree more with your thoughts, and share your frustration with wondering how on earth to deal with a madman, especially one in possession of nuclear weapons. Sadly, we have not yet found the answer. May the brave citizens of the Ukraine persevere long enough for us to figure out the answers to the questions.

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you for the kind words Tina. I’m afraid that this isn’t going to stop until something changes inside of Russia. I think we’re in for some inconvenience here in the U.S. and I hope that as a nation we go forward with resolve and with understanding.

  7. I abhor war, and I do not like the idea, much less the reality, of the USA policing the world. Yet as America holds back what Ukraine truly needs, I’m left feeling we’re losing some of what has always made us America.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Martin,
      It’s a horrible thing that I never could imagine happening.
      If there wasn’t the chance of a cataclysm, this would be one of those rare instances of fighting the good fight. I’m afraid it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

  8. Sandy says:

    Powerful words Paul. Your closing statement captures what most of us feel.

    I’m chilled by your ‘family friend’s comment. Distance affords a false sense of security & it’s a too easy to disassociate oneself from what’s happening far away. I hope you don’t mind, but I make a slanted reference to this in my post about Ukraine. More relevant though is an opinion piece I read where someone compares the meaning of freedom at two different rallies in Canada. One rally is for Ukraine freedom and another is for freedom from Covid-mandate. It’s thought provoking.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Sandy,
      Thank you for reading and commenting.

      Of course I don’t mind your “reference” to our family friend. It still bothers me and sometimes I lay awake at night and argue with him in my head. My feeling, my hope anyway, is that after seeing the death, the destruction and the ruined lives, he has reconsidered his opinion. I’m simply going to keep my own counsel and only argue with him in my head.

      We just had a trucker’s protest here in America. Much of it fizzled (a group from California only made it as far as Utah before turning back for home) and those that continued on have been made the subject of ridicule for the fact that they look like whiny infants given what’s going on in Ukraine.

      They also have nothing to protest as most of the mandates have been dropped, though they’re trying to take credit for forcing the changes.

      Be well,

  9. annecreates says:

    Beautifully expressed, as always. This new reality is chilling. I’m holding my breath for what comes next…

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Anne, This new reality takes me back to my childhood and the old reality of the cold war when we were only a madman’s whim away from ordering the button pushed. I hope that there are some cooler and more rational heads in Russia who will have the courage to refuse to follow a madman’s orders.

  10. In deep agreement. Your family friend quote messed with my mind because of the dejavu feeling. Then I realised I’ve read it on Sandy’s blog. I thought you two must have the same family friend, but then I read her comment above.

    1. Paul says:

      Many of the replies to my post have focused on the comment from our family friend. In America there is a detachment from war. America has fought them but modern, protracted warfare has not visited our shores. I’m going to chalk our friend’s comment to ignorance of the reality of war and occupation.

  11. Toonsarah says:

    Such a thoughtful and empathetic post, but I would expect nothing less of you. In reference to what your family friend said, there is a known phenomenon that we are more affected by bad news in places closer to us. One man murdered in our own town can disturb us more than a massacre on the other side of the world. But a lot of the world seems almost united in its horror at this war, perhaps because it seems even less justifiable than most. And for many of us it is, rightly or wrongly, easier to imagine ourselves in the situation that faces millions of Ukrainians because until two weeks ago their lives were not so very different from our own, as your words above reflect.

    I have a friend in Severodonetsk, whom I met through Virtual Tourist. His city was shelled yesterday but thankfully he is OK, for now at least. I’m hoping he’ll manage to leave – he has the chance to go to friends in Germany and because he is over 60 the Ukrainian authorities will let him leave the country. It brings it home to you all the more when you know somebody there. Maybe I need to introduce your family friend to my friend!

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Sarah,
      “One man murdered in our own town can disturb us more than a massacre on the other side of the world.”
      True enough.

      We Americans are fortunate that a major war hasn’t occurred on U.S. soil since 1860. That insulation has left us immune to the horrors and the loss of war. War has been a thing that we see from afar. This isn’t to make excuses for off the cuff comments but I think that this is one reason, and there are many, why such comments are made.

      We even have “leaders” and “legislators” making uninformed, callous comments, mostly to score political and ideological points. One pundit recently opined that the images of Ukraine are exaggerating the scale of the suffering and the damage.

      My wife and I are from the generation that was born to the veterans of World War II. My father was in Europe during the war and my mother grew up in occupied Rome. My wife’s mother lived through the Japanese occupation of the Philippines (the story goes that a Japanese soldier slapped my mother in law). I guess that we have a greater realization.

      The photos and films of what is happening now in Ukraine are reminiscent of the images of the recent history of our childhood.

      In any event, the comment has been mostly forgotten. I’m guessing that given the events since the invasion began, opinions have likely changed.

      Thank you for reading and commenting

  12. eden baylee says:

    Hi Paul,

    This couldn’t have been an easy post to write. And to be honest, I’ve read it a few times and it’s hard to know how to comment.

    Of course, your blog was thoughtful, historical, and touching. What I didn’t expect was to feel a sense of dread after reading it. I’ve followed the news since the start of this invasion like everyone else, alternating between horror and anger and sadness. At times I’ve felt despair and detachment. But one thing I haven’t done is cry reading an article about what’s happening in Ukraine until I read yours.

    And what got me was that line from your friend – not sure why. Maybe it’s symbolic of how little we’ve learned from two World Wars and countless others before and since then. Or maybe it’s the lack of compassion I see in a world that’s connected technologically but still divided when it comes to our humanity.


    1. Paul says:

      Hello Eden,
      This was actually a fairly easy piece to write. Sometimes adrenaline and emotion just push you through.

      LIke you, I think many of us who are following the events in Ukraine are feeling a sense of dread. For me it comes from the notion that there doesn’t seem to be an endgame for Putin beyond mass destruction. This thing is apparently not going as he’d expected and I can’t imagine him calling the whole thing off. That leaves him with no alternative but to escalate and he doesn’t seem to have any boundaries which is a scary thing. I won’t be surprised if we soon hear about chemical weapons.

      “Maybe it’s symbolic of how little we’ve learned from two World Wars and countless others before and since then…”
      I think that about says it all. My generation recalls stories of World War II from people who lived it. The images of Ukraine, tanks rumbling down roads and the skeletons of bombed out buildings, are very reminiscent of what I remember seeing when I was growing up, when WWII was recent history.

      Americans have been insulated from war in their home country. There are very few generational stories except for those that have come down from immigrants.

      It doesn’t help that Americans are, by and large, ignorant of history and geopolitics. Before this all started I doubt that you could find more than two in ten Americans who could find Ukraine on a globe.

      The “comment” has been forgotten. I’m figuring that the events of the last two weeks have been mind changing.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.4

Would love to hear from you

%d bloggers like this: