The Leaves of War

Ukraine Notes

Describing Ukraine as a Nazi nation is not only a contumelious act of imperial contempt towards fellow Slavs, but also a squalid and abominable opportunity to capitalize on one’s indifference to moral constraints, a disgraceful reason to cry havoc and open the spigots of bloodlust such that all enemies and their offspring will bewail the victors throughout the generations. There will be no victors in a war that transforms otherwise peaceful soldiers into ‘bloody-hunting slaughtermen,’ to use Shakespeare’s caustic term. Rape and torture are the coin of imperial war’s ignominious realm carried out in the carrion fields of xenophobic nationalism. There will be a heavy reckoning to make as Russia continues its unrelenting prosecution of war.

This is not a time to revisit the Hatfields versus the McCoys. After all, books by Clausewitz and Sun Tzu are growing in popularity. Americans glued to tv spectacles on the war are hastily turning to military websites so that they can stretch their legs on their backyard decks among their spindle-shanked grandchildren playing cowboys and Indians, and outmanoeuvre their neighbours at playing cigar-puffing five-star generals.

If only Old Blood and Guts could take command on the ground! Damn, if only we had our pilots in there, it would be fangs out!

Send in an iron gorilla flying at the speed of heat and watch the F.M., baby! Make them eat some of our high drags, yeah!

Excuse me, Frank, Patton died in 1945. Yeah, well, how about Tommy Franks or Norman Schwarzkopf!

Well, Billy, why you looking so miserable? Wouldn’t you like Uncle Sam to be kicking ass in Ukraine?

No, I kinda like what Smedley Butler had to say. He received 16 military medals, 5 for valour, and was only one of 19 men to receive the Medal of Honour twice. So he wasn’t any slouch. His 1935 booklet caused quite a stir. It was called ‘War Is A Racket.’ In that booklet, he wrote (I have it written down here on a piece of paper).

In World War [I], a mere handful garnered the profits of the conflict. At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War…. How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? […] The general public shoulders the bill. And what is this bill? […] Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds…. For a great many years, as a soldier, I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not until I retired to civil life did I fully realize it. Now that I see the international war clouds gathering, as they are today, I must face it and speak out.

Say what, Billy? 

He also wrote:

I served in all commissioned ranks, from second lieutenant to Major General. And, during that period, I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism. I suspected I was just part of the racket all the time. Now I am sure of it.

Damn, Billy, sounds pretty traitorous to me.

Well, sounds pretty heroic to me.

This war is not about the theft of a hog in 1878 or family feuds. Or Unionists versus Confederates. Besides tendering some words of reprimand towards our cigar-smoking armchair military strategists, we need to remind our friends and neighbours that we are privileged to be able to live in relative peace, a peace which history has shown us to be always fragile.

I remember not too long ago, before a disability made it impossible for me to travel, I trampled through the freezing, ice-coated hinterlands of Lapland, in the Arctic Circle, with my Finnish comrade, Juha Suoranta, visiting the Sami, who inhabit Sápmi, their preferred name for Lapland. I recall with a smile riding on a sleigh pulled by a bad-tempered reindeer and giving talks on critical pedagogy at the University of Lapland, located in the city of Rovaniemi, the most northern university in the European Union.

Juha and I travelled in a locomotive brandishing a red star across the Russian border to St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) on a rail line constructed in 1867-1870 (starting from both ends) by the government of the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland of the Russian Empire where we were greeted by oversolicitous store managers with trays filled with shot glasses teeming with ‘Zelyony zmei,’ or, the ‘green serpent.’

Finland was once part of the Russian empire – in fact, it remained so for most of the 19th century. It declared its independence in 1917. In 1939, Moscow demanded Finland trade land that bordered Mother Russia so it could protect Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). The Soviets sent in troops when Finland refused. This led to the famous Winter War, which Finland won. Eventually, however, the Soviets prevailed, and Finland lost some land to the Soviets but managed to remain an independent nation. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has warned of military and political consequences for Finland if it joins NATO. Finland is seriously considering joining. Juha performed his military service decades ago and was trained as a sharpshooter. Let’s hope his rifle never has to leave the cabinet of his home during a twenty-first-century version of the Winter War. And Sweden is going to apply to join NATO, too, according to recent reports.

War is a racket. Who will profit? Are geopolitical shifts going to save lives or put more lives at risk?

Sociologist William I. Robinson reports that ‘[a]ll around the world, a “people’s Spring” has taken off. From Chile to Lebanon, Iraq to India, France to the United States, Haiti to Nigeria, South Africa to Colombia, Jordan to Sri Lanka, waves of strikes and mass protests have proliferated and, in some instances, appear to be acquiring an anti-capitalist character.’ What exactly has sparked this international wave of discontent? Part of the answer is the current global crisis of capitalism. Linked to this phenomenon is a topic recondite to many Americans, known as militarized accumulation, which Robinson describes as ‘a situation in which a global war economy relies on the state to organize war-making, social control and repression to sustain capital accumulation in the face of chronic stagnation and saturation of global markets.’ Robinson further defines militarized accumulation as follows:

These state-organized practices are outsourced to transnational corporate capital, involving the fusion of private accumulation with state militarization in order to sustain the process of capital accumulation. Cycles of destruction and reconstruction provide ongoing outlets for over-accumulated capital; that is, these cycles open up new profit-making opportunities for transnational capitalists seeking ongoing opportunities to profitably reinvest the enormous amounts of cash they have accumulated. There is a convergence in this process of global capitalism’s political need for social control and repression in the face of mounting popular discontent worldwide and its economic need to perpetuate accumulation in the face of stagnation.

Robinson demonstrates how ‘endless low- and high-intensity warfare, simmering conflicts, civil strife and policing’ are now essential to the global political economy as the privatized domain of transnational capital is exerting increasing control over logistics, warfare, intelligence, repression, surveillance and even military personnel. He notes that the Biden administration called for a $31 billion increase in the Pentagon budget over the previous year (which was already a staggering $800 billion) and allotted $14 billion for Ukraine’s defence. The European Union and other governments around the world also allocated billions of dollars in additional military spending. And the steady flow of military hardware and private military contractors into Ukraine seems unabated. Military and security firms such as Raytheon Technologies, Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are rejoicing as their shares continue to skyrocket, and similar surges are seen in European and Indian war stocks.

Robinson is, again, referring to the fusion of private accumulation with state militarization which is attributed to a process in which

the state facilitates the expansion of opportunities for private capital to accumulate through militarization, such as by facilitating global weapons sales by military-industrial-security firms, the amounts of which have reached unprecedented levels. Global weapons sales by the top 100 weapons manufacturers and military service companies increased by 38 per cent between 2002 and 2016 and can be expected to escalate further in the face of a prolonged war in Ukraine.

Was NATO’s proposed expansion into Ukraine a motivating factor in the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine? No doubt. As Robinson points out, US officials were keenly aware that the drive to expand NATO to Russian borders would eventually push Moscow into a military conflict. Robinson cites a 2019 study by the RAND corporation:

We examine a wide range of nonviolent measures that could exploit Russia’s actual vulnerabilities and anxieties as a way of stressing Russia’s military and economy and the regime’s political standing at home and abroad…. The steps we examine would not have either defence or deterrence as their prime purpose…. these steps are conceived of as elements in a campaign designed to unbalance the adversary, leading Russia to compete in domains or regions where the United States has a competitive advantage and causing Russia to overextend itself militarily or economically.

Biden’s Secretary of Defence, Lloyd Austin, explicitly said that the US wants to see Russia’s military capabilities weakened: ‘We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine…. So it has already lost a lot of military capability. And a lot of its troops, quite frankly. And we want to see them not have the capability to very quickly reproduce that capability.’

We can’t give corporate Democrats a free pass simply because we believe Trump to be the most dangerous individual threat to the survival of humanity, since the Democrats do little to combat the forces of fascism that currently plague the nation, and they are heavily imbricated in the military-industrial complex. But they are not as dangerous as the Republicans; this needs to be emphasized. Both parties are responsible for the eastward advance of NATO. Just look at the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, NATO forces in Afghanistan for twenty years after 9/11, and the NATO bombing of Libya in 2011, which toppled Muammar Gadhafi.

Robinson explains how wars provide critical economic stimulus, having ‘historically pulled the capitalist system out of accumulation crises while they serve to deflect attention from political tensions and problems of legitimacy.’ He explains that

[i]t took World War II to finally lift world capitalism out of the Great Depression. The Cold War legitimated a half-century of expanding military budgets, and the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, the longest in history, helped keep the economy sputtering along in the face of chronic stagnation in the first two decades of the century. From the anti-Communist fervour of the Cold War, to the ‘war on terror,’ then the so-called New Cold War, and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the transnational elite, led by Washington, have had to conjure up one enemy after another to legitimate militarized accumulation and deflect crises of state legitimacy and capitalist hegemony onto external enemies and contrived threats.

Much of the problems now facing the capitalist world can be traced to ‘overaccumulation,’ which refers, again, to capitalism’s ability to produce great quantities of wealth but in a context in which the market cannot absorb this wealth because of unprecedented levels of inequality that can no longer be offset by redistributive policies. The level of global social polarization and inequality now experienced is without precedent. Robinson warns us that ‘in 2018, the richest 1 per cent of humanity controlled more than half of the world’s wealth while the bottom 80 per cent had to make do with just 5 per cent.’ The choleric turmoil linked to the global crisis of capitalism has consequences that not only include economic factors such as inflationary spirals and deepening class struggle, including an upsurge of strikes, waves of protest and civic strife, but also menacing political dimensions. The objective changes in global capitalism are also generating racism on a massive scale because, as the economic imperatives of capitalism become manifestly globalized, racial determinations serve to increase capital accumulation, including militarized accumulation. In addition to dividing the working class and diverting attention from domestic crises, such as evidenced by the growing racist sentiments in the US and Europe with the rise of fascism, white supremacy and xenophobic nationalism, we face the threat of multiple imperialisms and sub-imperialisms. What is needed is a grassroots socialism, but in order to facilitate this, we need to support the creation of social structures, organizations, and support mechanisms that can better facilitate the advance of political democracy.

As the crisis intensifies in Ukraine, wars and the scapegoating of marginalized communities become a potent means of side-tracking domestic issues while legitimizing militarized forms of accumulation coordinated by the state and normalizing overall capitalist hegemony. According to Robinson, the Biden administration had clearly targeted China and Russia as external threats to the United States, weaponizing post World War II geopolitical conjunctions well before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And as the fighting grows more concentrated and widespread, Russia could declare a ‘people’s republic’ centred on the Black Sea port city of Kherson. And use its newly occupied areas as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Kyiv. It could also occupy all of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, rather than only limited areas recently recognized by the State Duma of Russia as the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, creating a logistical corridor to Crimea looped through the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. Southern Ukraine might be partitioned. There are numerous possibilities, none looking good.

Gilbert Achcar warns of grave consequences for the world if Russia succeeds in ‘pacifying’ Ukraine:

[t]he fate of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will determine the propensity of all other countries for aggression. If it fails in turn, the effect on all global and regional powers will be one of powerful deterrence. If it succeeds, that is, if Russia manages to ‘pacify’ Ukraine under Russian boots, the effect will be a major slide of the global situation toward unrestrained law of the jungle, emboldening US imperialism itself and its allies to resume their own aggressive stances.

I agree with Achcar that asking one imperialist power – the United States – to clash militarily with another – Russia – ‘is tantamount to wishing for a world war between nuclear powers.’ But solidarity with victims does require giving those who are fighting what can be considered a just war the means to fight against a much more powerful aggressor. Ukraine’s democracy, admittedly a fledgling and limited bourgeois democracy, must be supported because upon the terrain of political democracy, struggles for liberation can best be won. It is imperative to support Ukraine’s fight for national self-determination by supporting international anti-war and anti-imperialist movements that directly challenge the far-right’s agenda of expanding and consolidating state-capitalism around racism, misogyny, and anti-LGBTQ initiatives, an agenda leading only to misery, sorrow, and destruction.

Peter Hudis writes, ‘National self-determination is an integral principle of revolutionary Marxism and Marxist-Humanism: we oppose all state powers and political tendencies that stand in its way.’ It is the Ukrainian people, freely exercising their right to democratic self-determination and self-organizing for freedom in the midst of an invading army, whom we should support. As the forces of General Alexander Dvonikov, ‘the butcher of Syria,’ bear down on Ukrainian fortifications, we will see former tailors, accountants, farmers and café owners subject themselves to withering enemy fire on coverless ground, sustaining wounds as they form defensive perimeters.  They will take on fortified emplacements, and maintain suppressive fire on insurgent positions. They will aim lethal antitank weapons like the shoulder-fired Javelin missile. And images of carnage will feed the media reports. And Russia will continue to sell its oil and gas, and its invading armies will continue to be deployed.

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2022). The Leaves of War: Ukraine Notes. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.