The Russo-Ukrainian war has been a humanitarian disaster. Though accurate casualty counts are difficult to ascertain, analysts have found that at least tens of thousands of soldiers have died in combat since the full-scale Russian invasion began in February 2022. As for civilians, the U.N. records the minimum confirmed dead at just over 6,000, though the actual number is likely higher. Millions have been displaced.
And daily—nay, hourly—the entire conflict plays out for all to see on their smartphones. While other conflicts have occurred as social media was widespread, the role social media is increasingly playing in this conflict is unique. On Twitter, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his diplomats have sparred with billionaires, who in turn joked with and simultaneously trolled former Russian presidents. Russia has turned its network of embassy accounts into meme factories. Random trees in the background of TikTok videos have been used to geolocate coordinates.
And from the digital sidelines, spectators cheer their chosen side and wear the colors of their chosen team. Unfortunately, the sporting metaphor ends there. Every time a Russian nationalist posts after a missile attack on a Ukrainian position, every time a D.C.-based consultant with a Ukraine profile flag celebrates a video of a Bayraktar drone striking a Russian convoy, they aren’t cheering points on the board—they’re cheering lives lost. While such celebrations of death are not unique to this war, when so much of the violence can be seen almost in real time it has become particularly nauseating. Such cheering is especially grotesque to those like this author who personally know men on both sides of the conflict called up to fight.
Yet on the surface, the cheering and bloodlust comes from an understandable place. Both sides are confronted with a conflict that seems to be the ultimate test of everything they have come to believe. For Russia’s leadership and their nationalists, this is their last chance to reunite the Russkiy Mir, or Russian World, and to decrease Western influence in their near-abroad before the new multipolar world order sets in and replaces the post-Cold War order. Ukraine, and the Western international order, sees this as the ultimate battle for independence and for liberal democracy. Should Ukraine become a country ensconced in the West’s alliance system, it would provide a key geographic base from which to keep Russia permanently weak. Moreover, it would be an unprecedented liberal-democratic thrust into an area long seen as part of Russia’s autocratic periphery. On top of this, many in D.C. have come to see Russia’s attack on Ukraine as an attack on the American world order, one they would like to see kept alive.
This is not the first time that ideology and naïve optimism have contributed to disaster, of course. History is replete with examples, and none may be as fitting as the First World War, which ended 104 years ago today. Though they may at first seem unalike, First World War in fact shares much in common with the much smaller (for now) Russo-Ukrainian War. Like today’s war, World War One marked the end of the then-current world order. Both conflicts developed as if the participants were sleepwalking, taking 1,000 missteps toward an utterly avoidable catastrophe. The combatants in both saw the war as a war for the survival of their ways of life. The Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottomans thought themselves crushed between foes. The Allies, especially after the entry of the United States, came to view the fight as a way to make the world safe for democracy. If that sounds familiar to you, it’s no surprise; it was in the First World War that America first developed a hunger for spreading liberal democracy.
The participants, while believing that WW1 was “the war to end all wars” and would decide the fates of their societies, also dramatically undersold the severity of what was to come. Crowds cheered madly as the soldiers climbed aboard the trains that would take them to the trenches. Governments predicted their boys would be home by Christmas. Instead, they released four years of unremitting hell, in which about 20 million people would die.
The First World War’s lessons have since been forgotten, overshadowed by its more destructive sequel. This is a pity, as those lessons are pertinent for the Russo-Ukrainian War. It is fortunate, then, that a timely reminder of the Great War has just been released by Netflix: All Quiet on the Western Front, known as “Nothing New in the West” in its original German. The film is based on the 1928 novel written by German WW1 veteran Erich Maria Remarque. In it, there are two primary stories, both from the German side.
One tells of the signing of the armistice, from the point of view of Matthias Erzberger, the head of the German peace delegation. Erzberger desperately wants to end the fighting, though, he hopes, not at the cost of the humiliation of the German people. Like the soldiers he is fighting to save, Erzberger is a victim of ideologues: militant German generals castigate what they see as his weakness, and the French mock his efforts at scrounging for any bit of honor in defeat for Germany. “Be fair to your enemy, otherwise he will hate this peace,” Erzberger says to his French opposite at one point—but his words fall on deaf ears, and he is forced to sign an armistice that both ends the fighting and, inadvertently, guarantees a far greater conflict in less than 20 years.
The disdain that both sides hold for Erzberger is reminiscent of the treatment received today by those who discuss peace in the Russo-Ukrainian War. The Ukrainian government argues that making any sort of peace is impossible without recovering all of their land—including Crimea, which is unlikely to ever leave Russian control, short of state collapse. The Russians, though claiming to want negotiation, are making demands that would effectively turn Ukraine into a rump state. Anyone who states the obvious—that the war will end with negotiations, as all wars do—is attacked as either a Putinist-in-disguise or a Western-influenced subversive. Even Henry Kissinger, one of the most respected and experienced diplomats alive, received opprobrium earlier this year for daring to ask both sides to think about the future when it came to building a secure peace. The peacemakers may be blessed, but they are surely not loved.
The second story of All Quiet on the Western Front lies with the soldiers themselves, namely a boy named Paul and his school friends. Praising the “Iron Youth of Germany,” a school master predicts that the youths will return with honor and Iron Crosses so long as they do not give into hesitation in the heat of battle, as doing so would be “a betrayal of the Fatherland.” The words are inspiring, but they are words from a man who will by no means be fighting, and likely never has. Things turn sour very soon. “This isn’t how I imagined it,” one of Paul’s friends says after mere hours of marching onto the battlefield. They quickly realize that the speech they heard was effectively their only training. The Ukrainian International Legion or hastily drafted Russian conscripts come to mind: both have been effectively sent without proper training on suicide missions.
There is a paradox to wars like this. Paul, a naïve boy sucked into the war by ideologues who clearly care little for his life, is an object of sympathy. At the same time, Paul is cheerfully invading a foreign country, and there is no moment where he considers the greater morality of the war in which he plays a part. We do not wish death upon this boy who has been put through hell—but we do not wish for his success. A similar strange dichotomy is playing out in Ukraine, where race hatred is developing on both sides of the conflict. It is dehumanization, but it is understandable—the French soldiers likely had nothing nice to say about Paul as he invaded their territory, and the U.N. has already begun investigating Russian war crimes.
Whatever minority of soldiers that has committed war crimes should be condemned without question, and one need not weep at their deaths. But for the majority who really were simply following orders—to borrow an infamous phrase—in the invasion, a black-and-white condemnation becomes morally trickier. It is easy to think, “If I were a Russian, I would simply throw down my gun or turn it on the Kremlin.” But likely you wouldn’t. People have tricked themselves into believing that they would protect slaves on the Underground Railroad or save Anne Frank—when in reality, they would likely do the same that most people did: nothing. America’s soldiers also have fought and died in places where they were not welcome, and Americans rightly reacted with umbrage when their deaths were met with cheers. This is, obviously, not to equate America’s actions with Russia’s, nor is it an attempt to in any sense justify Russia’s invasion. It is simply to ask: should we be so quick to whoop with joy when 18-year-old conscripts are blown to pieces?
One of the Netflix adaptation’s themes that stands out when viewed through the lens of today’s conflicts, is man acting as both the driver and the victim of technology. After fighting for control of a French trench, Paul and his bloodied companions have less than moments to catch their breath before the ground shakes and five tanks descend upon them. Though the Germans manage to disable one upon retreat, they are soon faced with another technological terror: the flamethrower. Soldiers who pause to attempt to shoot soon find themselves engulfed. All the while, bullets zip through the air.
Today, though far more technologically advanced, drones used to great effect by both sides in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict convey similar terrors. This time, death can come at any moment. In World War One, the lines were clearly drawn; if you were a soldier or civilian in a field far from the front, it was unlikely that death was waiting above. But now, it is anywhere. Maybe if you’re lucky you will see one of the kamikaze drones coming—you’ll make a one-in-a-million shot to disable it, or it will miss and explode “harmlessly” in an empty street—but more often than not, the Ukrainian and Russian targets never even know the drone is there until it’s too late.
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Above all else, there is one technological fear that pervades the film: gas attacks. Gas was used frequently in the First World War. Soldiers waited for it in anxious trepidation. Civilians waited in trepidation as well. On some occasions, when the wind blew the wrong way, entire villages could be subsumed by that crude weapon of mass destruction. Now, 100 years later, talk of dirty bombs and their bigger brother, nuclear weapons, being used in Ukraine resurrects those same fears, only magnified. With a gas attack, perhaps with a warning you could run away or get your mask on. With nuclear war, cities are gone.
While far less than half the world is engaged in the Russo-Ukrainian war, for now, at the very least, half is paying close attention. That half should also pay attention to the past. Nearly three million men died on the Western front, fighting for more than four years for what amounted to mere miles of ultimately desolated land. Millions died in the East as well. While the Russo-Ukrainian War is, barring apocalyptic disaster, not going to result in as many deaths as the First World War, a similar song is playing today, 104 years later. There will be no quiet on the Eastern front. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children are going to die for what is ultimately pieces of scourged earth.
Whether those deaths result in a true peace or merely a temporary armistice, one thing remains clear: as people around the world endlessly check their phones for updates on the conflict, they will find that there is nothing new in the East.