Here’s a summary of a story I read in The Washington Post this past Sunday (28 August). It occurred on 14 July in the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia, about 160 miles southwest of Kiev. Iryna Dmytriev, a 34-year-old single mother, is pushing a pink and black stroller with her only child, four-year-old Liza (Elizaveta), in it.
About an hour before that Iryna had taken an Instagram video of her smiling daughter looking up at her mom as the child pushed the carriage herself before Iryna fastened her securely inside it. Liza was a Down-syndrome child, and in the video her little face looks up at the camera, awakening the protective parental instinct in most of us adults.
But with Liza now in the carriage, her mom suddenly hears a frightening noise above. She looks up to see a “massive” missile, and spontaneously huddles over the carriage trying to protect her daughter. But it did no good. The Russian missile killed Liza and severely injured mother Iryna, who was hospitalized for a month, with her left leg shattered and missile fragments requiring removal from her stomach and left arm.
Others were also killed or injured in the missile attack. Amid the smoke next to the carriage was a severed foot (not Liza’s), and two other youngsters died along with Liza and 20 others. And, of course, various buildings were damaged.
In the Washington Post story, based on a recent post-hospitalization interview with mother Iryna, there are many other details—and some pictures—that will tug at your heart, that is if it hasn’t been desensitized by the daily drumbeat of tragedies that come out of this Putin-directed war against Ukraine.
We learn, for example, that when Iryna was 14 weeks pregnant, doctors told her and her husband (from whom she later separated) that their child would have various medical problems including a heart defect, and they recommended an abortion, but the couple refused. Two moths after Liza’s birth, the doctors delivered the Down syndrome diagnosis, and when Liza was seven months old she required five-hour heart surgery. Later, because Iryna was still hospitalized, she could not attend Liza’s funeral. In her interview Iryna said, Liza “was my life…What Russia took from me cannot be forgiven. All my plans are destroyed.”
A few weeks ago LA Progressive ran my “Putin’s Vacant Moral Imagination.” In it I quoted Ian McEwan’s novel Black Dogs (1993), which has the main character think of World War II in Europe, “not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near-infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust…For the first time he sensed the scale of the catastrophe in terms of feeling; all those unique and solitary deaths, all that consequent sorrow, unique and solitary too, which had no place in conferences, headlines, history, and which had quietly retired to houses, kitchens, unshared beds, and anguished memories.”
“All those unique and solitary deaths, all that consequent sorrow…” I also quoted these words at the beginning of my An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008), but added that “history books, however, are better at providing mind-numbing statistics regarding all this killing than they are at conveying much feeling for the millions of individual tragedies caused by it.”
Yes, we historians are sometimes guilty of writing about millions of people losing their lives in this or that war without displaying much realization, much feeling, about how tragic even one death might be. The Washington Post story about the death of just one child helps restore some balance. It also provides this information: “Almost 1,000 children have been confirmed killed or injured since the war began, according to UNICEF, though the agency believes the true number to be much higher.”
Several days before the story of Liza appeared, The New York Times provided more statistics. Number of Ukrainian civilians killed? “Believed to be in the tens of thousands.” “In Mariupol, the southern city pulverized by months of Russian siege, Ukrainian officials believe that at least 22,000 people [most of them civilians] were killed.” Military losses? “About 9,000 Ukrainians and as many as 25,000 Russians said to be killed.” Even if these numbers are off somewhat, we’re still talking about thousands of individual tragedies. Mothers and dads, both Ukrainian and Russia, grieving over one of their children, a soldier killed in battle. Other mothers, like Iryna, witnessing the death of a child, like Liza, or a spouse, or mother or father.
And besides the deaths, there are all the injuries—like Iryna suffered—or worse, like the loss of limbs, etc. And all the Ukrainian people forced to leave their cities because of Russian attacks or the fear of them. “The number of refugees has surpassed 6.6 million.” And all the cost, which one way or another is going to come out of the pockets of not only Ukrainians, but also of all the other people in the world who are trying, and will continue to try, to help them. “The destruction has already cost Ukraine at least $113.5 billion, and it may need more than $200 billion to rebuild.”
In an LA Progressive article more than three months ago, "Putin's Ukrainian War and Ecocide," I mentioned that “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is poisoning the country’s land, air, water, and climate in a way that will have longstanding repercussions.” The essay also stated that “one final harmful effect of Putin’s war should be added . . . increasing world hunger.”
About a week ago (22 August) the PBS NewsHour ran two segments on world hunger, “South Sudan faces growing food crisis as millions go hungry” and “World Food Program warns of a looming global catastrophe.” Both segments acknowledged that “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine” greatly increased world hunger, primarily because the war had severely curtailed the exporting ability of Ukraine, a major exporter of grain.
In the first segment, the PBS correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro visits a nutrition center in the South Sudanese capital, Juba, where “almost every infant checks in, in the red zone, severely malnourished.” He states that “on the day we visited Christine Dire brought in her 2-year-old daughter, Esther…who weighs 11 pounds…That's less than half the normal weight range for her age.” Seeing all the wan, malnourished children’s faces at this center, some of whom will die from hunger, we again, as with seeing the video of Liza, feel like crying out against the outrage of an awful, unnecessary war that contributes to such tragedy.
As David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program, said on the second PBS segment mentioned above, if “any child in the world dies from hunger, that's a disgrace on humanity.”
Why are all the tragedies mentioned above occurring? But unlike some previous wars, the answer for this war is pretty straightforward: Putin decided that Russian troops should invade Ukraine.
But why? Why on 24 February, 2022 did he send Russian troops into Ukraine? Several days after the invasion, the Kremlin reported that what he demanded of Ukraine and its Western supporters was “unconditional consideration for Russia’s legitimate interests in the sphere of security, including recognition of Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea [taken over from Ukraine in 2014], achieving the objectives of the Ukrainian state’s demilitarization and denazification, and ensuring its neutral status.”
There is little doubt that NATO expansion since the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and talk of adding Ukraine to the list worried Putin. (See here for more on Putin’s view of Ukraine.) After all even former parts of the USSR, like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, were now NATO members. Thus, hoping to ensure Ukraine’s “neutral status” was not an unreasonable hope. One pro-Putin Russian speculated that NATO was turning Ukraine into “a spearhead aimed at the heart of Russia…The belligerence against Russia has been rapidly growing since the late 2000s. The conflict was seen as more and more imminent. So probably Moscow decided to pre-empt and to dictate the terms of the conflict.”
Putin has also often spoken of the need to denazify Ukraine, but despite some right-wing nationalism in Ukraine, most outside observers regard Putin’s Ukrainian denazification talk as propaganda, even if he half believes it himself.
Another concern of Putin is the Donbas area of Ukraine, where in 2014 the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics (DPR and LPR), controlled by Russian-backed separatists, have been established. These two areas plus most of the two Ukrainian southern provinces of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson are now controlled by Russian or pro-Russian forces. Putin claims that in these four areas the central Ukrainian government had previously discriminated against Russian-speaking citizens, and it seems unlikely that Russian forces will ever withdraw from them unless forced to do so. Thus, the war will likely continue, and with it all the individual tragedies, the likes of which have seen for the last six months.
To point out that leaders from other countries have also approved of horrible wars does not justify or mitigate Putin’s guilt. And it is true that U. S. presidents have been among the war wagers. For example, one of them, and one often ranked among our “best” five presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, oversaw and approved of the latter stages of the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902. Here is what one U. S. officer had to say about that conflict: “Our men have been relentless, have killed to exterminate men, women, and children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people, from lads of ten up, an idea prevailing that the Filipino was little better than a dog, a noisome reptile.”
And, of course, we are now ending the month of August, which in 1945 witnessed the dropping of two atomic bombs in Japan which together killed roughly 200,000 people, including innocent children. Some two decades later (in 1967), Martin Luther King, Jr. said about the Vietnamese, “ We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. . . . We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.”
About all the innocent victims, all of the individual tragedies, that have occurred in the last half century one could go on and on.
Thus, this present article is not suggesting that Putin has been the only leader to direct an “abhorrent” war or that he should be unconcerned about NATO expansion that incorporates former parts of the USSR. But it is saying that his invasion of Ukraine is abominable. It causes too many tragedies, too many deaths of children like that of four-year old Liza or some infant that starves to death in South Sudan. Or some spouse or mother or father, or brother or sister, killed in a missile attack or by some other weapon of war. Like Liza they could have been in a carriage or walking or in a car on a street, or in an apartment building, school, hospital, or train station. For war deaths in Ukraine have occurred in all such places, and to people of all ages.
They have become so commonplace that, as with previous wars, we are in danger of forgetting how close to the truth was U. S. Civil War General Sherman’s comment “War is Hell.” Hence, we need stories like that of four-year-old Liza. We need them to remind us that we must do more to prevent or stop such wars.
In the 1960s writer Wendell Berry stated, “We have been led to our present shameful behavior in Vietnam by…[a] failure of imagination.” More than a half-century later we could say the same about Putin’s “shameful behavior” in Ukraine.