Is There Happiness in War? Where?

August 21, 2022

It seems in war there is only death, destruction, lost cities and fates, and absolutely — no way, no how — no happiness. Happiness in war sounds almost like a betrayal of suffering.

I used to be a soldier and then I became a civilian. I graduated from a military institute and was sent to the reserves. Many years have passed since then. Now I’m a civilian who’s become a soldier. It’s hard to say which transformation was more painful, or which clothes my body is having a harder time getting used to. Especially when the bloodiest war of at least the last three generations is raging.

I’m filled with sadness when my daughter shows me her new notebooks on a video call. The first notebook is red, the second is blue, and the third is yellow. She got the notebooks at the school she’s now attending abroad. A lump forms in my throat.

The Kyiv International Institute of Sociology conducted a study on how many Ukrainians are planning for their children’s and grandchildren’s futures in Ukraine. 43% of Ukrainians see theirs and their children’s lives tied to their motherland, even if the war continues (I wonder what regions they’re from). If a ceasefire is signed, that number jumps up to 55%. We can assume that the rest see no prospects under these circumstances, or that they remain undecided — which essentially means that they also see no prospects. So the number who see no possible future is either 55% or 43% — is this a lot or a little? Another roughly 2% of my fellow citizens see neither their futures nor those of their children and grandchildren in Ukraine under any circumstances.

The future … It seems to be simply disappearing from under us, along with the people and buildings getting buried by Russian shelling. The planning horizon has ceased to exist as such. Only the present remains. Which makes it all the stranger to see roads being repaired, to hear about something other than military equipment being bought, to see on social media that someone went to the sea or the mountains. In my present there is only a single, long note: war. It is an endless note that has no beginning and no end. And I didn’t even have to go through all the degradation expected by every Ukrainian soldier: I didn’t live in cold barracks on a military base; I never worried about how to dress my kids when my salary just wouldn’t cover it; I didn’t have to listen to the idiocy of Soviet-era officers whose only skill is building a cadre of personnel around them, since brainless subordinates are worse at seeing through immature fools. I’m glad that the newest recruits have avoided most of that.

“It’s hard to see his smiling face and realize that for this young railroad man, who was nobly defending his country, the sun has set for good,” reads a typical post on a public channel. It’s hard to even think about the smiling faces of those who are no longer with us. Most often, these thoughts are hellishly intolerable, though we’re taught to abstract from actual living human people. Some people are doing their best to die in this war, from enemy artillery or a veiled suicide, for there are many who come with the explicit desire to die. Ultimately, it’s no harder for me than for the many other women and men whose lives have been turned upside down once and for all and who now need to find new meaning, or rather to rationalize their actions. Or inaction.

So I ask myself what it means when my daughter shows me the colorful notebooks given to her in a foreign school. What does it mean for me when she’s okay and gradually becoming part of the free world without Russia or rockets flying overhead, but also without Ukraine? Do I want her and her children to be happy in their adoptive society? What role do borders and nations play today, anyway — are they not an old construct of medieval lords, for whom land and people were expendable resources? Borders are slowly being erased. Right?

We are fighting for our values, for our cultural code, for the right to be the dominant community in a given sociocultural space — nothing has changed since the Middle Ages. I see my children’s future in Ukraine. Already this means that my planning horizon extends a century into the future, and therefore that I will become realized and happy. This is happiness during war. Despite the senselessness of death, despite the apparent futility of some of my tasks. Everything will change and everything has meaning.

Mahatma Gandhi said something that has often occurred to me when thinking about these things: “Whatever you do for me without me, you do against me.” This is true not only for Russia’s barbaric “liberation” of Ukraine from its best people, cities, language, and culture. This is also true for my children. I can counsel, nurture, and guide — yes. But not make a final decision for them. Right now my task is to make it so that they themselves want to live in Ukraine. It doesn’t matter when; this is a project for hundreds of years.

During war you think about how exhausting it is to return to the beginning and take those same turns again and again for many centuries in a row. Approximately once a century for us. How is the planning horizon not the opposite? We have to change this for at least the next hundred years! This is why I wanted to join the Ukrainian army and ultimately ended up here. But I’m tormented by a sense of guilt, a burning, mocking sense of guilt from which I and many of my fellow soldiers in different regions, on different borders also suffer. Simultaneously, we’re confounded by an unbearable sense of happiness. I’m ashamed because what I did as a civilian was actually more sincere and honest since I was highly qualified and had more experience. I was able to help here and there, but I felt I wasn’t doing enough. At some point I “added it up” and realized that I had been helpful. Yet all that time I wanted to enlist. I wanted to defend my country, to help as a Ukrainian soldier.

So here I am. This is both happy and sad. Happy because I’ve fulfilled my wish and I’m with them, the other defenders of Ukraine. I feel the anger and hatred that all soldiers feel. It’s sad because our army still has a long way to go to achieve total transformation where people act freely as a disciplined military, rather than as robots with no right to a voice. It was said during my army days that initiative was punished. This is slowly changing. I know of countless displays of military heroism when a soldier’s or officer’s initiative saved entire units. It seems our Armed Forces finally value human life. I hope.

I sometimes wonder if my wife  would recognize me if — well, if — well, after I’d been lying on the ground for a while. I have a birthmark on my leg. The right one, near my knee.

I also wonder if happiness in war is when you haven’t seen each other for a long time, and then you do.

When you’re in danger, feelings are more acute. And the feeling of danger stings more sharply the closer it gets. It’s vague, unclear, blurry. But perceptible like a shadow, and gradual like a sunset.

There’s also the waiting. The dumb waiting and impossibility of planning anything in advance. When you can’t write poems, listen to music, or read books. Because everything has been replaced by waiting. Not knowing and not minding. It’s a very strange liminal state. The majority of my experience in this war has been waiting.

I suddenly realized with great focus that the greatest pleasure is to create. To be a demiurge, a creator, is the best thing a human can do. The worst is to destroy.                           

The feeling of the lack of meaning multiplies like an infectious disease, like panic on the field of battle.

Which brings me back to happiness in war. Youth exists to throw yourself into a whirlpool you can later ride a current out of into your life. Some people never find their current and remain stuck in this backwater throughout their youth, maturity, and old age. And then they quietly go. War is a second youth for those who are ready and willing; it has its own backwaters and currents. The latter are marked by heightened danger.

There is happiness in war. Happiness in the belief in distant horizons for yourself and your children. Faith gives you wings. Brushing close to horizons such as an entire epoch or the duration of civilization is happiness. At the same time, like the antithesis to monumentalness, happiness hides in minutiae: when you spend time with someone you love, not online, but for real. Or when your daughter gets some notebooks from a wonderful foreign school and shows them off to you — is her joy not happiness? Everything else is war where there’s no happiness or joy. Sadness comes more often in war. It sneaks out from everywhere. Sadness is when you’re buying ointment at the pharmacy for your brother-in-arms and an older woman lowers her eyes upon entering and seeing you. She mumbles under her breath that they’re “going to bury a boy” of 22 at the church, since every soldier in uniform reminds her of death.

Which is why we’re doing everything we can to end this war as soon as possible. All of us together. All of Ukraine. And that’s the greatest happiness.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Ali Kinsella