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When The Fog Lifts

Thomas LeeMay 6, 2022 (0)

Hilaire Belloc, the Anglo-French man of letters, soldier, scholar and poet, in an excess of zeal and simplicity, wrote:

“Whatever happens, we have got

The Maxim gun, and they have not.”


It was a clear and concise statement from a writer who wished to write as simply as possible while still retaining flair and style to his prose. The Maxim gun, the world's first true machine gun, changed the course of the First World War in ways a weapon had not previously. Like Belloc's writing, it provided a sort of clarity, for when the smoke from it cleared, there was often not much left to see. It was simple, unlike war itself, for wars are complex systems and often change when viewed through the lens of history. Not since the Second World War has this country fought a controversy-free war, and of course, controversy did surround World War 2, a war cast as an epic struggle between good and evil, between absolute right and absolute wrong. My grandmother told me that right up until December 7, 1941, nobody,  none of my grandfather's friends, nor he himself, wanted to leave Brooklyn. He had a good job at Western Union, a baby, and was going to Brooklyn Law at night. Why would you want to leave? It was hard to forget that there were a few guys in the neighborhood who had been gassed at Belleau Wood, and would spend the rest of their short, sad lives on iron lungs. Then came Pearl Harbor, and the narrative shifted 180 degrees.

Of course, nothing is so simple, but I think it is fair to say that the Second World War is not mired in controversy like Vietnam or the global war on terror. One of the great modern works of fiction, inspired by the Second World War, is ultimately a very complicated trilogy but really details a simple struggle between light and dark: The Lord of the Rings, and its prequel, the Hobbit. Taken from many sources, including Afrikaans lore, Icelandic legend, Arthurian tradition and the fertile, fertile mind of J.R.R. Tolkien, at bottom there is the good, represented by the simple folk of Middle Earth, and evil, represented by Sauron the Dark Lord and his minions, from orcs to goblins to Shelob, the vast talking spider. It is a simple struggle cast in sophisticated terms, and has precisely the kind of moral clarity people crave in a war: we are right, and they are wrong. Sure, historians, and not necessarily revisionist ones, have said otherwise about WW II, but the Japanese treatment of prisoners, and even of their own men, and of subjugated and conquered people, was perhaps the worst of this century. And the Germans, with Death's Head Legions, concentration camps,  punishment of traitors with sippenhaft – killing the entire family – it is hard not to identify the Axis with the dark, and the Allies with light, even if a more nuanced version of reality is true. Whatever the case, since then the United States has involved itself in many shady conflicts, and looking back at Vietnam, and probably before too long the vicious attrition and pointlessness of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, achieving anything like the moral clarity we felt as the liberators of Europe and the areas the Japanese conquered will be nigh impossible.


I first saw the Russian soldiers referred to as “orcs” by a Ukrainian female sniper in a news quote. I didn't think much of it, but did notice that references to orcs were cropping up now and again, and just this morning saw an APC that had WW2 style nose art that read “Orc Killer.” But what was weirder, although a logical extension, is that this struggle is being characterized not only as a struggle between good and evil, between Lucifer and Michael, but specifically as the struggle of the hobbits, elves and dwarves against Sauron and the orcs. I was amazed to see, walking down the street next to me this morning as we went out to patrol, Galadriel and Legolas. Legolas, the elf who was in the company of the ring was also on the corner of Bogdanskaya Prospekt, although he wasn't as good a character as his female companion, who was elven down to the Spock ears she wore. The inhabitants of Tolkien's middle earth, carrying a Ukrainian flag, walked down Pushskinskaya street, where they met their friend, dressed as Gandalf the Grey. It is a case of art imitating art imitating life. And the clear import is to reduce the message to one of utter simplicity, of wrong versus right, good versus bad…us versus them. It was unexpected but fun, and immediately I realized why the Russian soldiers are being referred to as orcs: orcs are not good guys. Orcs are bad, pig-like creatures who follow the orders of the king of evil, ride about on giant wolves and provided the cannon fodder for the army of sin. They look bad, are bad, and even have a super bad bunch, the Uruk-Hai, who were wont to do things like decapitate other Orcs because they just felt like it. Calling Russians orcs is the process of “othering,” as described by the French Existentialists, Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre. It is a process that causes people who share genetic heritage as well as many customs, an alphabet and many, many other things to currently be embroiled in the worst war in modern history. The Russians have “othered” the Ukrainians, describing them as “Nazis” and “swine” and the Ukrainians have responded by relegating their former brothers in arms and so many other things to the status of fantasy-literature villains: it is a lot easier to kill someone who you don't think of as human.

During the second world war, the US Army did not use flamethrowers in Europe. Nor did the Nazis use them in their war on the western allies, but did use them against the Russians, whom Hitler and Co. considered “sub-humans” or untermenschen. The USMC and the army units posted to the South Pacific used flamethrowers against the Japanese, with great effect: they were particularly useful in dealing with pillbox emplacements, and are a fearsome, fearsome weapon - the M2 flamethrowers could send a two inch wide bolt of flame some sixty-five yards, for seven seconds, and do so again and again, reducing all in its path forever to ashes. They were so feared that sometimes their operators were separated from other captured soldiers and executed out of hand. The Germans have a similar weapon called a Flammenwerfer, meaning literally the same thing. It, too, could throw out bolts of fire accurately and for several seconds at a time…and these paled in comparison to the tank-mounted flamethrowers of Korea and Vietnam. But the point I am trying to make is that at no time did the US or the Germans use them against enemies they saw as racially similar. And not just similar, in some cases – Hitler was fond of saying that the reason the Americans were such trouble is because they were Germans, and with a commander named Eisenhower, he had a point. And it wasn't just Eisenhower – there was an excellent, older air force pilot and commander named Goering…in the USAAF. He was the nephew of another Goering, who was chief of the Luftwaffe. So it is understandable that the Germans and Americans, and the British, Anglo-Saxons that they are, with their current royal family being of German stock, all have genes in common; it makes it hard to “other” people with whom you share so much. Not so with the Japanese, then the Chinese and Koreans, and finally the Vietnamese.


Reducing the Russian invaders to inhuman monsters serves a purpose: for half my lifetime, these two belligerents were the same country, and the great Ukrainian poet, Shevchenko, has a street named for him that is crossed by a street named for the great Russian poet Pushkin, in Kyiv. It is possible that the light and dark, elves vs. orcs narrative is necessary, because the closer enemies are, the less likely it is they will remain enemies at all. The British learned that in Northern Ireland, when they found that stationing Scottish regiments in Belfast often produced Scottish boyfriends to Irish lasses. So they solved the problem by bringing in units from commonwealth countries that were very different: there is a great image of an old Irish woman staring at Jamaican soldiers on patrol with a look of abject amazement on her face. Evidently, she had never seen a black person before, and the next picture is her running her hand down the smiling soldier's face, trying, I think, to rub the color from his skin.

Such narratives serve a purpose, because  of things like the Christmas truce, where in 1914 soldiers from allied countries crossed no-man's land with cookies for the Germans, and games of soccer ensued, with each side singing the other Christmas carols. Nineteen year old soldiers left to their own devices would be showing each other pictures of their girlfriends, sharing sips of beer, and thinking about how they really, really didn't want to kill this guy they just shared a drink and a backslap with. But the narrative overrides all, and the truth is that as soon as the flare went up, at the end of the Christmas truce, the Germans were killing the British just as enthusiastically as they were before O Tannenbaum drowned out God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen. Without the narrative, we would all beat our swords into ploughshares, and our knives into pruning hooks. So even while I thought it was great fun to see Gandalf the wizard sneaking a cigarette, waiting on his friends, I wished that those costumes could be worn not in the service of division, but in the service of reconciliation. I wish the narrative could alter, and that othering would never occur. It doesn't serve the people in the trenches, or their parents at home, scared witless for the lives of their children. It only serves the men who sit in great towers, the oligarchs, the generals, the politicians, the men who own arms factories – not the people who work there, or their sons who carry the products.


That is why I feel lucky for having the perspective I do. The wars I have seen have pitted people from one culture against those of another, vastly different culture. They have been wars of race against race and religion versus religion. But just this morning it all really came home, as today is liberty. With a comrade, I took a hotel for the day, and left the encampment. We took a cab to a hotel, and on the way, the driver told us about his time as a captain in Afghanistan. I then told him about my time as a captain in Afghanistan, and at length, we realized that we were there at similar ages, in similar places, and had felt similar senses of anomie. He wouldn't let us pay, bought us coffee, and drove away saluting and singing. It brought home to me just how similar we are, despite what we perceive as amazingly vast differences. So let us hope, let us pray, that this ends soon enough, so the reconstruction can begin…both of the streets that have been damaged, and of our insurgent hearts and minds.

Unity, before this goes the way of the Guns of August 1914.

The writer is a former military man, now researching and writing about the Ukrainian Conflict. Questions can be sent directly to


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