Many Americans of the “War Generation,” like me, are astonished that Russia, which suffered devastating losses at the hands of the Third Reich in World War II, has taken a page from the Nazi playbook in its brazen territorial attack on Ukraine. Like millions of people around the globe, I’ve watched on TV as Russia dismantles Ukraine piece by piece: the horrendous scenes of mass destruction, brutal attacks on civilians, the collapse of cities, the historic flood of war refugees fanning out across Europe, amid bellicose Russian threats about nuclear weapons.
Yet amid the utter madness there are acts of kindness rarely seen since World War II. Poles, whose nation suffered 6 million deaths at the hands of the invading Germans troops and opposing Russian forces, are responding with compassion and generosity reminiscent of V-E day. Germans, too, are opening their homes to desperate Ukrainian refugees. And even in Russia, thousands of citizens are bravely facing arrest to demonstrate against Putin’s War.
What to make of this mix of madness and selfless generosity? The world watched largely with indifference as Germany built up a 6 million man army in the 1930’s with the Japanese right behind. Many thought WWI, and then WWII, would serve as a sufficient lessons against the folly of unbridled military might posing as security. Yet some 70 years after V-E day Russia, among many other nations, is armed to the teeth and the US has assembled the most potent array of capabilities ever known. China is fast catching up, stockpiling thousands of nuclear weapons of its own, as India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran compete to join or expand membership in the global nuclear club.
War is bloody awful. To his great credit Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower insisted that GIs returning from Europe personally witness the German death camps so they could tell Americans back home what we were fighting for.
The UN, founded in great hopes of securing global peace, has fallen short in that mission. Fielding great armies hasn’t prevented the Russian invasion, nor eliminated the risk of nuclear war. Both the US and Russia maintain fleets of nuclear subs off each other’s coasts whose missiles could destroy the world’s major cities within minutes.
So what to do? One can take comfort in the generosity of free peoples around the globe, including Americans, as they rush to donate funds and needed goods, and support to Ukraine. And there is perhaps even room for hope in the continued efforts to secure a peaceful resolution, eventually, to Russian territorial demands. But if and when peace is secured in the immediate fighting, the world will remain an arena of competition and conflict among highly armed nations, defensive alliances, and more than a handful of despots.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine reminds us the business of WWII hasn’t been finished. We’re seeing Russians – victims of the Nazis – now behave like Nazis killing innocent Ukrainian civilians. And even if we bring enough economic pressure to bear on Vladimir Putin, how do we prevent other autocrats from behaving similarly ?
My uncle, Col. P. George Paston, was a prosecutor at Nuremberg and Salzburg War Crime Trials. He and senior Russian officers spoke frequently during and after the war. He told me both sides often noted, with utter amazement, that many of the highest-ranking German leaders expressed no feelings of guilt for their atrocities.
That void of human compassion and moral responsibility haunted my uncle for the rest of his life – just as Russia’s attack on Ukraine would trouble him today, as much as it does me and much of my “War Generation.” It’s as if WWII never happened, and the lessons that war taught us— together with the tens of millions of lives lost in that conflict–have been forgotten.
Peter I. Berman