Never Again ... and Again ... and Again: The Drumbeat of War

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” With this line the imprisoned Russian opposition leader, Alexey Navalny, closed a CNN interview on Sunday evening, April 24. More about that later (and see second photo below). But first let me tell you another story from my own life.

On one of our bookshelves I found an inscribed copy of a book titled A Time to Speak by Helen Lewis. (See the lead photo.) She was the cousin of my late husband, Leon Levy. As a Czech Jew she was also the survivor of Nazi concentration camps where she experienced not only incredible brutality but also some occasional and surprising kindnesses along the way. The book was published in 1992, and in 2001 a signed copy of the book was sent to Leon two years before we traveled to Cambridge, England, for my sabbatical – and where we met Helen’s two sons and their families that summer.

I read the book for the first time last month, and with all that is going on now in our world it was, in fact, hard reading. In its forward, Jennifer Johnston points out that it is too easy to categorize all terrorists as monsters and thugs and murderers. We should remember that although Hitler, Stalin, and yes, Putin, are monsters indeed, the majority of them and their followers are ordinary people with families and friends. She asks:

What happened to turn those men and women from the paths of humanity can happen again, and it is important that we do not forget, and that we do not allow our children to forget, the terrors we have seen in our lifetime. The suffering of millions in the camps of Hitler and Stalin, in the prisons of Romania, South Africa and Chile, the disappeared, the despairing, the prisoners of conscience [such as Alexey Navalny in our own day before our very eyes] and of political expediency must all be remembered ... to ensure that such things will never be allowed to happen again.

Only the dead know the whole truth and some of those witnesses who survived have taken upon themselves the painful task of speaking for them. It is our task to listen and never to forget.

Speaking of Navalny, perhaps you saw last week's CNN documentary, Navalny. (See third photo below.) A very depressing special it was – winner of a 2022 Sundance Film Festival documentary award. It follows the life of Navalny, an anti-government activist and a thorn in Putin’s side as he uncovered crime and corruption at the highest levels in the Russian government and paid the price – from having antiseptic green dye thrown in his face and damaging his sight in one eye, to the public nerve poisoning he suffered while flying between Siberia and Moscow, to trumped-up criminal charges, a mockery of a trial and now imprisonment for the foreseeable future.

Because of our ongoing but indirect engagement with Putin and his cohorts, watching this special documentary left David and me with a distinct residue of depression. In fact, watching this special was like participating real-time with CNN and investigative group Bellingcat as they uncovered – by an elaborate phone message tracing – members of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (which replaced the KGB) in Navalny’s poisoning. Apparently CNN's Navalny documentary can still be streamed on the internet. But watch only if you have a strong stomach for that sort of terrorist intrigue.

Well let me end on this “happy” note. Some weeks back, Bret Stephens, a columnist with The New York Times, wrote an op-ed piece titled, “This is How World War III Begins.” (See fourth photo below.) Stephens points out that despite the fact that the traditional date for the beginning of World War II was Adolf Hitler's invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, the invasion actually was merely one of a series of events that might have seemed unconnected. From Japan’s invasion of Manchuria to the Soviet invasion of Poland weeks after Germany's, to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, World War II gathered steam over the early years – like water rising until it breaches a dam. And then he points out the obvious.

We, too, have been living through years of rising waters, though it took Russian’s invasion of Ukraine for much of the world to notice. ... Before the invasion, we had the Russian invasions of Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine; the Russian carpet bombing of Aleppo; the use of exotic radioactive and chemical agents against Russian dissidents on British soil; Russian interference in U.S. elections and massive hacks of our computer networks; the murder of Boris Memtsov and the blatant poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny.

And so Stephens asks the rhetorical question, “Were any of these sovereignty violations, legal violations, treaty violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity met with a strong, united, punitive response ... [in the face of] other violations of global norms – Syria’s use of chemical weapons against civilians, Beijing’s eradication of Hong Kong’s autonomy, Iran’s war by proxy again its neighbors? Did Putin have any reason to think, before Feb. 24, that he wouldn’t be able to get away with his invasion?”

The simple answer is no. Stephens concludes that the West has basically spent 22 years placating Putin “through a long cycle of resets and wrist slaps.” Ukraine’s devastation is the result.

Well, this op-ed piece ends ominously. It seems unlikely that Putin will cut his losses at this point without risking loss of face and personal power. So Stephens expects him to just double-down. “If he uses chemical weapons ... or deploys a battlefield nuclear weapon ... does he lose more than he gains? The question answers itself. He wins swiftly ... terrifies the West, consolidates power. ... And his fellow travelers in Beijing, Tehran and Pyongyang take note. How does the next world war begin? The same way the last one did.”

Obviously I have no answer to that. In fact, I guess this is my last blog on this topic unless we find ourselves bombed and in the middle of World War III. I’ll close again with Navalny, and pray he doesn’t die imprisoned: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” Well praying isn’t nothing. And we all might wind up doing a hell of a lot more than that before this is over.

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Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.