So the Russians offered a safe passage for Azov fighters holed up in the Azovstol Steelworks in Mariupol, including even the foreign fighters who, on Russian estimation at least, are technically mercenaries not covered by the Geneva Convention.
The response came that the fighters were not interested, although the word is that it was actually the commanders in safe and far off Kiev who actually ordered them to fight on, hopelessly, to the death. It is quite likely that the Nazi Azov Battalions would, out of ideological hatred for the Russians, be fanatical enough to commit effective suicide, there being absolutely no possibility of any other outcome when the Russian assault started. But whether foreign independent fighters, the rumoured NATO military, or even any remaining parts of the regular Ukrainian army, would choose to throw their lives away so uselessly is less likely. Again, it is said that the Azov people threatened to shoot any who tried to leave anyway, which might help explain things.
As for the high command, there seems every probability that NATO generals, fighting this as a proxy war, are ultimately those “fighting to the last Ukrainian,” and neither of the two most obvious possible reasons is creditable. The first is to cover up local, illicit, Western involvement in Mariupol by sacrificing them all, since the Russians are likely to reduce the plant to rubble by heavy bombing and wipe out most of the potential evidence, if only to lessen their own losses from such a wasteful operation.
The second is to spin the loss of so many soldiers – numbering considerably more than a thousand in all probability – as another atrocity, when in fact there has never been a time in military history when refusal to surrender under hopeless odds meant anything other than annihilation. You may remember US and British aircraft bombing the hell out of a gridlocked Iraqi convoy in the first Gulf War – and they were actually retreating because we didn’t offer a safe passage out of Kuwait.
What this is not is any kind of heroic stand to further the war effort. You might fight to the last man to cover a retreat, or to give time for actions on a different front. But to refuse to surrender when a city has fallen, and when a generous offer has been made by the enemy, is simply crass. And for a high command to order its troops not to surrender is, in the scheme of things, a war crime and a treasonable act against one’s own people.
But what is most remarkable is that nobody in Britain seems to see things that way: the “heroic defenders of Mariupol” (the city that voted in a referendum after 2014 to secede from Ukraine and ally with Russia, but which was prevented by the Ukrainian army from doing so) are seen in a rosy romantic light apparently derived from the defence of Rorkes Drift in the Zulu wars, or at least the film thereof, rather than with any regard to young lives or to the futile military situation.
But it gets worse. The Azov fighters apparently announced on Monday that there are civilians sheltering in the steel factory. And accordingly the popular press here is blowing the Putin war-crimes trumpet as they have at every turn in this conflict. Once more, it seems that the mass of the British public likewise sees this as more evidence that the genocidal Putin loves killing civilians.
Incidentally, have you noticed how in our Western propaganda, it is always “Ukraine” (not Zelensky), that fights bravely on one side, but “Putin” who fights dirtily on the other. The narrative is “plucky democratic nation” on the one side, and “regime change” on the other. This seems to be our usual policy: the “freedom fighters” in Syria were usually pitched in the press not against “government forces” but against Bashar al-Assad in person.
So why is it that the public doesn’t immediately realise that if civilians are in Azovstol, the only credible reason is that the Ukrainian military is using them as human shields, even if the public has failed to register the testimony of local residents that this was Azov policy in the battle for the rest of the city? And why does the public not ask itself why, since the Russians offered safe passage and civilians are not under military discipline, non-combatants have not simply left and saved their own lives? Once again, they ought to have asked this question even if they have been kept from the knowledge that civilians were prevented from leaving the city at gunpoint by the Azov boys.
Perhaps one answer lies in a video YouTube offered me today, describing how Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from Nazi imprisonment before his martyrdom, attributed public acquiescence in Nazi evils not to wickedness, but to their stupidity. That needs expanding, because Bonhoeffer did not mean by “stupidity” a lack of intellectual capacity, but a loss of moral capacity. It is more about people being put into a stupor than about any inherent lack of wits. I should have remembered this, because I read Bonhoeffer’s Letters from Prison many years ago, but perhaps it is only now we are surrounded by such stupidity on all sides that the truth of his assessment is so compelling.
Bonhoeffer describes how this acquired stupidity – a product partly of propaganda but mainly of social compliance – leads to people becoming not only closed to reason, but irrationally angry against dissenters. These dissenters, he notes, tend to be those who are solitary, whereas the gregarious majority think as one (stupid) mind. And I think we “awkward squad” types are very familiar with being the unclubbable ones. I am often reminded that the prophet Jeremiah was always the one in the corner at parties, but eventually the one vindicated.
One immediately sees how this accords with theories of mass formation, or even with Douglas Murray’s “madness of crowds” concept even before COVID. It is rather sobering to read, from the heart of Nazi Germany, the same observation that so many of us have noticed about the apparent loss of critical reasoning by those we once thought to be educated and intelligent. The strength of Bonhoeffer’s slant is to set that irrationality in the moral sphere. If one slothfully allows oneself to accept received wisdom uncritically, then one’s own wisdom will, inevitably, atrophy. We make ourselves into compliant slaves, and we cannot only blame the propagandists. I guess that is why the New Testament appears to lack sympathy for the victims of the final deception of Satan: they sold their own souls to the lie and must bear the cost.
Even so it is rather frightening to realise, first hand, the extent to which mass emotion (particularly fear) so profoundly compromises cognitive ability. I, for one, would have anticipated something more subtle than fear-propaganda simply cancelling reason. That makes totalitarianism look too easy. Alas it seems to be true – “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
Once again, though, I ought to have known better because this kind of stupidity has close correspondence to the biblical concept of “the fool.” The fool is most frequently described in the Book of Proverbs and in Ecclesiastes, that other wonderful example of Scripture’s wisdom literature. But he also makes an appearance in the prophets, including perhaps his most famous manifestation: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” The overall diagnosis the Bible makes is that being a fool is a moral, not an intellectual, incapacity, still less a mere question of bufoonish manners.
I find that comforting, because the Bible’s answer to folly is wisdom, and the beginning of wisdom, it teaches, is the fear of the Lord. It would seem that my gut feeling that the beginning of the path of becoming undeceived, for the Christian, is to become immersed in the truths of God, may be correct. Now, I’m under no illusions that the Bible teaches directly that refusing to surrender when holed up in a factory is not a good thing (though Jesus does actually teach something similar in a military parable – can you think of it?), any more than it teaches the uselessness of face-masks and lockdowns (though Jesus told a parable about who needs physicians and who doesn’t, too). But I have a suspicion that, by freeing up the mind for uncluttered thought, godly wisdom might well enable ordinary folk to restore their critical faculties to see through deception in all its guises.
One can only pray for this to happen before the world rushes to Armageddon.