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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


No sensible person doubts the horrors of war. Casualty figures for the Russia-Ukraine war run into the hundreds of thousands. In three weeks alone, since 7 October, the Israel-Hamas conflict has killed thousands -- very few of whom were combatants -- and at least four times as many people have been wounded as killed according to reports.

The barbarity is seldom confined to the battlefield, with civilians too often tortured or raped as well as killed in missile strikes, and in any case urban warfare means the battlefield is where people live. This is starkly evident in the Israel--Hamas conflict, where more than one and a half million people have been displaced from their homes and there have been horrendous stories of atrocities.

The brutal phenomenon of war elicits a range of feelings. There is the tremendous fear and worry, presumably a sense of helplessness or complete lack of control. Another component of the lived experience of war, however, and one that is often overlooked from outside, is how tedious many soldiers soon find the experience.

And as the war in Ukraine grinds on, with a repetition of the same kinds of horrors, military offensives and wartime propaganda, there is a risk that those afar are succumbing to boredom as well.


The literature on wars has paid plenty of attention to soldiers' emotions (I think John Keegan's book The Face of War (1976) was fairly pathbreaking in this regard). More importantly, there is a wealth of archival material, including soldiers' diaries and letters for historians to draw on in archives as they try to grasp the lived experiences of war.

The emotions need not all be negative; the Latin word for war, bellum (hence 'belligerent' and 'bellicose'), is strikingly close to the word for beauty, bellus, and I don't think there is an authoritative answer as to whether they have a common origin. In history, regardless of the word's etymology, many cultures have revered the bravery and beauty of their warriors.

For some soldiers, arguably, there is an element of excitement and camaraderie. Lieutenant Hans-Otto Lessing, serving in the second world war, wrote: 'I am having the time of my life. I would not swap places with a king' (cited in English, 2013). Not that he survived very long; he died in 1940. And, it is true, such letters may betray a wish to protect the reader -- these are typically letters home to loved ones -- from the grim reality of war (thank you, Gwen, for that insight!).

I expect that, notwithstanding my last point, for some the experience of war remains exhilarating today as it did for previous generations. Many of the current generation fighting in Ukraine or the Middle East grew up playing 'shoot 'em up' and 'first person shooter' computer games for entertainment; games which often seem to glorify war. And if one believes in the cause for which one is fighting there may be a mixture of indignation and pride.

For other soldiers, undoubtedly, the dominant emotion is fear. A sentence that springs into my head comes from the opening of Eric Linklater's novel Private Angelo. Linklater, who had served in the first world war and later been despatched to war zones by the War Office as a military historian, and who had been thoroughly exposed to the suffering and violence of war, begins with Angelo being told that he lacks 'the dono di coraggio' (the gift of courage).

Linklater's 'hero' is a self-proclaimed coward. And yet in war the soldier is drilled to be courageous in fulfilling their 'duty'; to serve is an 'honour'. A soldier is drilled to be courageous as if it is a moral duty, even if it is probably true that any duty is a command not a natural inclination (vide Kant). But cowardly Private Angelo does not share in these sentiments, saying with relief: 'It has taken us a long time to lose this war, but thank heaven we have lost it at last.'

There is also boredom in the duty of fighting. Many people come home from war describing long periods of sitting around waiting or watching. Here's the historian Eric Hobsbawm:

'The best way of summing up my personal experience of the second world war is to say that it took six and a half years out of my life, six of them in the British army. I had ... an empty war. I did nothing of significance in it, and was not asked to. Those were the least satisfactory years in my life.' (cited in English, 2013)

Amidst the misery of news coverage, it's easy to overlook how boring war can be on a day-to-day basis. In an article in the Times recently, it was reported that many Russian soldiers -- and some Ukrainian ones too -- had turned to drugs to pass the time. Attributing the drug-taking to boredom, a Ukrainian soldier made the point clearly: 'So you understand,' he told the journalist, 'I've fired a gun twice since March 2022.' (I should make clear that there is no suggestion the quoted soldier was using drugs, he was speculating about the reasons others might.)

And out

But there's another kind of boredom in the Russo-Ukrainian war that may be more consequential. Namely, the fatigue among Ukraine's supporters. I'm conscious of how cynical I sound here, but many people not directly affected by the war have got bored of it. Max Hastings made this argument well last weekend. He cited Eurobarometer polling that shows only 24% of EU citizens currently 'strongly support' sending weapons to Ukraine, which is a significant decline from last year.

If Europeans' support is slipping, then the issue is even more divisive in the United States. A CNN poll in the summer found 55% of Americans opposed to sending aid to Ukraine, and foreign policy has already emerged as a contentious issue as the Republican presidential candidates set forth their positions. The same CNN poll found that 71% of Republican supporters are opposed to allocating more funding to Ukraine.

Among the public, many of those cheering on Ukraine on social media seem to treat the war like a spectator sport, happy to show their NAFO colours while the action is favourable. Increasingly people are talking of a stalemate and that is far less 'entertaining'. The Ukrainian counteroffensive failed to make the rapid gains that many in NATO countries wanted to see: as winter sets in people will need to acknowledge that it had only limited success.

It is dangerous if attention turns too far away from Ukraine. As Michael Clarke wrote on Saturday: 'It has been a good three weeks for President Putin in Ukraine [since 7 October]. A lot has been happening on the ground while the eyes of the world have been directed elsewhere.'

A world divided

Whatever one thinks about the causes of the war in Ukraine, NATO states that have supported Ukraine have to see that support through to an end -- whether that means a victory for Ukraine or a settlement of some kind. It is unlikely that Ukraine can prevail on its own. As Clarke rightly says, realistically Ukraine can only last in a war of attrition 'with western support, particularly next year when Russia will be heavily dependent on what it can squeeze from North Korea, Iran and China.' (Russia's war industries are overcoming some challenges, but Clarke argues they will be able to meet their country's own needs come 2025).

With the western media, publics and politicians focused on the Middle East over the past few weeks, how many people noticed that Vladimir Putin went to Beijing and had a three-hour meeting with President Xi Jinping? Both Ukraine and the Middle East were on the agenda. Neither leader has the worry of elections to contend with (unlike many of Ukraine's backers). The ongoing conflicts, Putin said after the talks, 'strengthen Russian-Chinese cooperation.'

Although China has been cautious to back Russia too openly, it has quietly increased its support for Russia. This is in line with an argument that I made back in March: that China benefits most from watching from afar ('the waterbirds' dilemma'), but that it does not wish to see Russia defeated and can be expected to involve itself further to prevent that as needed. The two states' leaders still talk of a new multipolar order to supplant American hegemony. For Putin, one of the primary aims in such bilateral meetings is to augment an anti-western coalition.

Who paid attention as Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, met Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang on 19 October? Or how Lavrov thanked the North Korean leader for his support in the Ukraine war? Satellite images suggest that North Korea has been transferring arms to Russia since Kim visited Russia last month and, while I think that support is not especially significant (my reasons are given in this blog post), it still adds to the sense of an anti-western coalition consolidating.

Meanwhile, representatives of two Israeli enemies -- Iran and Hamas -- both visited Russia last week. Iran is giving material support to Russia's war effort by supplying drones, and it also sells a considerable volume of crude oil to China. Iran, it should be noted, remains one of the leading military powers in the Middle East despite western sanctions. Again, Putin sees the consolidation of an anti-western bloc and it would be dangerous to neglect the reality that cooperation among Russia, China, Iran and North Korea is deepening. (I'm not inclined to see the Hamas ties as all that significant; see my remarks here.) [1]

The chances of a big war are only growing in my view; a coming war that could involve all of NATO. The bloodshed in Ukraine and the Middle East may merge into that larger conflict, but it is the European war than will be decisive in involving NATO because that is where alliance members have the most at stake. The coming war will look unlike previous wars, but it will still likely bring conscription and barbarity home to those of us who are currently far away from the war zones.

It is hard to gauge how easy it will be to draft people into obligatory service, how strong morale will be, if people's indignation and outrage has drifted to another cause, if they do not understand the severity of the situation and challenge to the global order because their attention wandered elsewhere. Some people will sign up willingly to fight, they might even believe it is sweet and honourable to die for one's country -- 'the old lie' as Wilfred Owen called it -- but it could also be rather dull.

Thank you for reading! You can support this blog by buying a copy of my book Belarus in Crisis (available on Amazon &c.).


1. The Russian side emphasised that talks with Hamas discussed the release of Russian hostages and I don't think people should read anything more into the meeting. I doubt Putin wants to alienate the Israelis, at least not too soon, and I note that he kept his distance from the visiting delegation.

Cover image: Soldiers from the Vietnamese army fighting Viet Cong guerrillas. Public domain image from the defunct US Information Agency.

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