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What do you mean, Ukraine? — Reflections on J. Glenn Gray’s “The Warriors”

Early on in J. Glenn Gray’s “The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle,” Gray relates the following significant anecdote about his time spent stationed in Italy during World War II:

In a free hour one day I climbed one of the nearby hills of the Apennines and got off by myself in the late afternoon sun. Passing through olive groves, I soon got away from the evidences of war and gradually came near the top of the ridge. There I came upon an old hermit, who was sitting upon the grass of a cleared space, smoking a battered old pipe while his donkey grazed nearby. A sod hut into which I peered contained only a clean pallet of straw and a few simple cooking utensils. The old man greeted me amiably, and we fell into conversation, though communication was not easy owing to his dialect and my imperfect mastery of Italian, which was drawn largely from grammars. He was smoking dried grass, and his grizzled features took on a delighted smile when on my invitation he replaced this with good American tobacco.

Down in the valley the evening cannonade began, and in the distance we could see where the shells from both sides originated and, a few seconds later, where some of them landed with huge dust clouds and explosions. The hermit began to gesticulate and to question me, and it gradually became clear to me that he was mystified by all this and wanted an explanation of what was going on. Could it be, I asked myself, that he does not know about the war? And there flashed in my mind a remark of Tolstoi’s in “War and Peace” to the effect that many Russian peasants who suffered loss of everything in Napolean’s invasion of Russia had not the faintest idea from first to last who was making war or what the campaigns were about. That, however, was in a novel. Here, more than a century later, I had stumbled upon a man who was totally detached from what was absorbing my whole life and the lives of millions like me.

Perplexed, I tried to explain simply in my halting Italian what World War II was all about. Then it gradually dawned on me how impossible my task really was and would be even though I spoke a perfect dialect Italian. How could one explain to this illiterate old man why Americans and British and Germans, with some of his countrymen on both sides, were fighting in Italy? Did I myself know in other than a superficial sense? The strangeness of the conflict and my part in it made me shiver. Why were we fighting individuals whom we had never seen and who had never seen us, soldiers who were probably as miserable and ignorant as we? What was I doing here? How did this mad war concern me? For a few minutes I could observe this spectacle through the puzzled eyes of the old hermit, long enough to realize that I understood it as little as he (Gray, 18-20).

At the start of this calendar year, I set a vague intention not to follow the news, and I have been thinking of this passage as intimations have come to me–mostly through students and family–that World War is brewing. One day, a student approached me and asked whether the United States would ever reinstitute the draft, and while I said that was doubtful, I also asked why he was inquiring; I hadn’t heard about the Russian encroachment on Ukraine that was prompting this student’s concern. 

Like the hermit in Gray’s story, many readers might think this obliviousness irresponsible, an abdication of duty especially in the face of young people. After all, as a person tasked with stewarding these youngsters through an evolving world, isn’t it my duty to know what is happening in and to that world, moment by moment, day by day? 

And yet like the hermit, not knowing the abstraction in the news has ushered me into the very tangible knowledge of another kind of happening: the ever-present reality of being, one in which distinctions among beings evaporate. In a world divorced from the mythology of news, of ideology, in a certain sense there are no Ukrainians, just as there are no Russians and no Americans: there are only people wandering about the earth, bewildered by the immensity of it all and simply hoping to lead a joyous life. 

And to extend the thought experiment further, if everyone in the world conducted themselves as I now am–and as the hermit did in J. Glenn Gray’s story–would there be anyone left to fight the war? If a person were grounded in being, as opposed to abstraction, and a different person told them to take up arms and kill someone they had never met, wouldn’t the person be as confused by this directive as the hermit in J. Glenn Gray’s story? Why kill? Why kill one who is our brother? From an intimacy with reality, such an act becomes absurd. 

So yes, vaguely, I know that happenings are afoot in eastern Europe which threaten to draw all beings into conflict, including me. At the same time, in a very real sense I deny these happenings: they exist at the level of ideology parroted by beings in need of attention–I mean world leaders–not at the level of actual conflict among people. To the average Russian, to the average Ukrainian, to me, these matters mean as little as the distant explosions in J. Glenn Gray’s story: they constitute phenomena, but not necessarily phenomena that instill meaning or that provoke any reaction. Like dust in the wind, they will dissipate without our attention. 

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