Wednesday, July 13, 2022


 Written before Putin’s invasion, the progress of the Ukraine war bears out generalizations made in Explosive Conflict: Time-Dynamics of Violence


[1] Three-to-six month rise and fall in public crisis attention

[2] High-tech war reverts over time to older-style warfare

[3] Civilian atrocities in the midst of guerrilla war behind the lines

[4] Polarization produces historical amnesia (Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, WWII, WWI-- and Syria)


[1] Three-to-six month pattern

Almost every war is popular at the outset. People are outraged and energized. This goes on at a high level of intensity for about 3 months. Then enthusiasm begins to wane; more and more of the population want to return to ordinary life. By 6 months after the outbreak, enthuasiastic support is done to half of its peak. A split emerges, between those who would like to end the conflict; and those who angrily and righteously press ahead for victory and vengence, whatever the cost. Wars of course can go on much longer than 6 months, but it becomes carried more by organization and compulsion rather than popular enthusiasm. Unless wars are short and victorious, they increasingly divide into peace faction vs. victory faction; end-the-carnage and write off your losses, vs. sunk costs and their-sacrifice-shall-not-be-in-vain.


Explosive Conflict documents the pattern for the outset of wars, enemy attacks, and domestic protests.  I showed the 3-month-peak, 6-month-falling-off pattern in the flags Americans put out after 9/11/01. Enthusiasm for war swept through all the capitals of Europe in 1914, from the Sarajevo assassination in June to the stalemate of armies at Christmas; falling off thereafter into disillusionment. It is the same whether one's side feels themselve the innocent victim at the outset; WWII had the same pattern of early enthusiasm for joining in, followed by much more coercive grinding it through. I have charted similar patterns of enthusiastic turn-out for protest movements in France, Hong Kong, the US, and elsewhere: the biggest demonstrations and the highest emotional level are in the early months, dwindling off in the 3-to-6 month period of falling numbers, and a tail end of violent die-hards.


The Ukraine war began with Russia's invasion February 24, 2022.  Russian advances and defeats were front-page, top-headline news, in the first weeks and months.


This was the period when anti-Russian outrage spread contagiously. Those who did not join in were pressured: 2.28.22 AP "FIFA drew a swift backlash from European nations for not immediately expelling Russia from World Cup qualifying." 3.01.22 FIFA gave in and banned Russia. So did the World Curling Federation; while the International Olympic Committee moved to ban Russian athletes. Russian musicians and conductors were removed from concerts in Europe and the US. Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture was removed from concert programs (7.07.22 NYT). This polarization overrode news  in early March of anti-Putin protests in Russia; and the less publicized exodus of anti-war Russians to Armenia, Turkey and other neutral places.


Exaggerated hero-stories circulated in Ukraine in the flush of repelling the Russians from Kyiv. A fighter pilot nicknamed "Ghost of Kyiv" was said to have shot down 6 Russian fighter jets in the first days of the invasion, survived being shot down, and returned to shoot down 40 Russians before dying in an air battle in early March. Ukrainian officials joined in the publicity. But in May, it admitted that the Ghost of Kyiv did not exist. (5.02.22 NYT)


Two months in, rallies for Ukraine in US cities like San Diego were down to 50 participants, compared to 300-500 in the early days of the war [San Diego Union, 4.17.22]


Three months in, by May when the war shifted to sieges in the east, there was less news from the front. The same headlines repeat day after day. Ukrainian leaders call for more arms, and more sanctions (previous sanctions not yet having visible effects). News stories shifted to inside pages. Reports from the front (where reporters are not allowed) consist of official statements, claiming or denying small advances, mentions of enemy weapons destroyed, numbers of civilian casualties (but rarely of military casualties, except for estimates of enemy casualties).


By June, morale in both armies had declined severely: 6.20.22 AP "Four months of war in Ukraine appear to be straining the morale of troops on both sides, prompting desertions and rebellion against officers' orders, British defense officials said... Ukrainian forces have suffered desertions in recent weeks... Russian morale highly likely remains especially troubled... Cases of whole Russian units refusing orders and armed stand-offs between officers and their troops continue to occur... NATO's chief warned that fighting could drag on for 'years'." 


Such stand-offs are reminiscent of widespread rebellion against US officers in remote combat zones during the later years of the Vietnam war, when over 500 incidents were reported of soldiers "fragging" them (throwing fragmentation grenades into their tent). (Gibson 1986: 211-224) This does not mean the soldiers will force a cease-fire, but rather than the war gets carried on by more coercion and material incentives. Russia announced higher pay for soldiers (6.17.22 Washington Post).


From the early days of the invasion, Western leaders pressed each other for economic sanctions as a non-violent means of punishing and deterring the enemy; cutting off oil and natural gas imports, banning all business relations with Russia, enforced through controls on international banking, and secondary sanctions on those not joining in. But within the first weeks, other parts of the world-- China, India, Indonesia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Mexico, Brazil-- refused to cut economic ties with Russia, or stayed neutral. Some called it a war among white people, with little regard for anyone else's refugees (3.03.22, 3.05.22 WSJ; 3.24.22 AP).  By June, poorer countries in Asia and Africa were protesting food shortages resulting from blocked grain and fertilizer exports of Ukraine and Russia. European countries such as Germany and Italy, heavily dependent on Russian LNG, had joined officially in the sanctions but stipulating only to apply these in the future. By June and July, they were beginning to forecast winter shortages of fuel for heating, and crises in industrial production. The coalition of economic sanctions was wavering, after the early months of rhetorical support.


Ukrainian war leaders began to worry publically about "fatigue" on the part of the outside world. Allies and business commentators began to talk about negotiations and settlements. French president Macron spoke of what Russia would accept as "victory", willing to end combat without being "humiliated" as Germany was in the Versailles treaty of 1919. He walked back these comments after Russian rockets hit civilian areas, but reiterated them in June. (6.16.22 WSJ)


At this time, most Ukrainians still supported fighting to take back all Russian-held territory; but few had faith in the support of their Western allies: 27% for France, 22% for Germany. (6.30.22 WSJ)


In Russia, despite tight government control of the media, apathy set in: 7.02.22 WSJ "In Russia's Biggest Cities, the War is Fading to Background Noise... While opinion polls suggest public support for the military campaign, it is largely passive... According to an independent pollster, the level of attention Russians pay to the conflict is declining. While in March, 64% said they were paying at least some attention, that number was down to 56% in May. Only 34% of [military-age] 18-to-24 year-olds said they were following the situation."


As of July 2022 (5 months in) a division was visible among allies between those pressing for a truce to end the damage; and advocates of a fall offensive to retake all Russian gains in the east.


[2] Limitations of high-tech warfare. 

The lesson was already there from the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Advanced weapons combine targeting from an array of sensors-- satellites, high-flying aircraft, low-flying drones; tracking heat-signatures of vehicles, comparing photos of changes in formations on the ground, spotting electronic activity, locating radar-guided weapons and firing back at them; all coordinated by computers making high-speed precision calculations. The enemy has no place to hide and targets are always hit. What could go wrong?


Interviews and reports from lessons-learned conferences with US and UK veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan list some everyday problems. High-tech weapons are not always available when and where you want them, or in sufficient quantity. High-tech is expensive and requires frequent maintenance.  Computer-guided smart bombs and rockets are big, heavy to transport, and get used up in intense bombardments. High-tech vehicles and weapons platforms require a lot of fuel and maintenance. If war is carried on at a leisurely pace (as in counter-insurgency war), these problems are surmountable; but the cost mounts up over time (astronomical sums in the decades-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). If war is intense and between similarly armed large-scale armies, both sides suffer attrition of their most advanced equipment. The Eastern front in WWII began with motor vehicles and deteriorated back to horses and foot-soldiers.


In Ukraine, reversion from high-tech to traditional weaponry has been most evident on the Russian side. Their supply of long-distance precision rockets was largely exhausted in the early months, replaced by older, less precise rockets targeting Ukrainian urban areas, rather like carpet bombing in WWII. In battle zones, Russian radio communication was vulnerable and broke down early, shifting to a cell phone system shared with Ukraine, which also broke down. High-level Russian officers had to command personally at the front lines, like pre-modern warfare,  resulting in high officer casualties.


The Ukrainian military was hurriedly supplied with long-distance rockets and artillery to target their Russian counterparts, using US/NATO targeting information. But logistical difficulties made the supply slow and intermittent: the many different allies sending available weapons produced a mix of Soviet-style weapons and calibres (Ukraine had been the center of Soviet arms production); plus a variety of west European and Scandinavian weapons systems with specific maintenance needs and ammunition calibres; making it hard to connect the right ammunition, repairs and replacements with the places where particular weapons were being used. US high-tech missile defense and long-distance rocketry started filling the gap in the fifth month of war-- with the highly bureaucratized US military not being known for speedy delivery (having spent almost two years cranking up for the invasion of Iraq in 2003).


There is no guarantee that reliance on US high-tech will prove successful in a longer war of attrition. Ukraine has been most successful with small-group tactics, essentially Special Forces movements under the radar (so to speak), getting close to Russian tanks and artillery to destroy them with man-carried anti-tank rockets. This was crucial in the first weeks of war, during the Russian blitzkrieg rushing to Kyiv from the Belarus border. Pre-war US supplies and troop training made Ukrainian forces well-matched for countering this mechanized invasion. Avoiding most front-line confrontations, Urkainian soldiers infiltrated the long and poorly-protected Russian supply convoys, hitting them with shoulder-fired Javelin missiles. In the early phase, Special Forces-style weapons and tactics defeated a traditional mass-vehicle attack; rather like Taliban attacks on far-flung US outposts in Afghanistan. The lesson of both wars: massive, spread-out forces with expensive logistics and long supply lines are vulnerable to small, dispersed hit-and-run attacks on logistics lines.


Here we have another example of what in Explosive Conflict is called a time-fork: sudden blitzkrieg, resulting in collapse of the enemy's organizational and political structure, if successful, makes for a short war with relatively low casualties. This is what Putin was aiming at, assuming he could do something like what the US did in Iraq in 2003, scattering enemy forces and causing the government to abandon ship within weeks. But if a blitzkrieg does not succeed, the process shifts to a longer time-scale: attrition war where both sides have resources to hang on and cause damage for a long time. Ending such a war victoriously requires enormous destruction of the enemy's resource base, inevitably hitting at the civilian population as everything becomes a military target. Attrition war grinds down everything, high-tech and low-tech alike; raising the human and material cost until one side, or both, run out.


In the second phase of the Ukraine war, Russia cut its losses from the failed blitzkrieg in the west, shifting to eastern fronts less vulnerable to infantry infiltration; keeping the small-arms high tech of US-supplied Ukrainian forces at a distance by massing artillery barrages in building-by-building advances through the cities of the east. Russia countered Special Forces high-tech by returning to WWII era sieges. Russia did the same in 1995 under Yeltsin, defeating break-away Chechen guerrillas by destroying their capital city, building by building.


This could be countered by the delivery of more firepower from US weapons. But here again high-tech superiority runs up against logistical limitations. Within 2 months, the US was running low in its supply of the kinds of weapons most in demand in the Urkaine. (WSJ 4.29.22; 7.09.22)  Cranking up production to  manufacture replacements is difficult because the DOD in recent years has shifted its defense budget to future weapons systems, focusing on long-distance war with China rather than front-line combat; and because supply chains in weaponry as in other manufactures having deteriorated and backlogged in recent years. High-tech is no quick fix, except in some very short-run wars.


[3] Pattern of Atrocities 

Atrocities have been big news stories in the period between the first weeks of defeating the Russian blitztkrieg and the shift to artillery battles in later months. Atrocities, by definition, are shocking; but they are not beyond the scope of sociological explanation. There is a pattern when atrocities happen.  

Civilians get targeted particularly in two circumstances:


[a] When guerrilla fighters hide in the civilian population; and civilians are suspected of being lookouts and spotters if not non-uniformed troops. This was also the pattern of widespread US killing of civilians in the Vietnam war; and for incidents of US troops going on rampages in Iraq and Afghanistan, in what they perceived as houses from which hidden roadside IEDs were triggered; or in revenge for green-on-blue shootings by ostensibly allied local troops.


[b] By snipers in urban warfare with no-man’s-land fronts; where high-rise buildings provide protected places very close to dangerous ones; combined with civilians living in the war zone.


Russia atrocities were most publicized for the Kyiv suburbs in the early weeks, and in the siege of Mariupol from March to May. The former, especially the town of Bucha, fits [a]; the latter exemplifies [b].


[a] Russian troops expected an easy conquest of Kyiv and a rapid end to the war. In the early days reportedly they were more polite or friendly to locals. but became increasingly frustrated and angry as they bogged down; all the more so with lack of reinforcements or even food. Russian poor logistics, and inability to defend against attacks on their supply convoys, made soldiers both paranoid and hungry.  They began looting civilian homes for food, putting them in an elemental contest among the hungry. As in previous wars (graphically reported by Loyd for the Bosnia wars of the 1990s), this puts soldiers and civilians into close and abusive relations, spilling over into beatings and executions.


Ukrainian resistance to the Russians in this phase was largely guerrilla war, playing the part of Taliban vs. US, avoiding head-to-head battles but attacking logistics convoys; the difference being in this case that the guerrillas had high-tech man-portable anti-tank missles.


Russians’ perception of civilians as enemies was probably accurate in many cases. News coverage from early February up through the early days of the Russian invasion was full of photos of civilians being trained to use arms. The Ukraine government announced that weapons were being distributed to the entire population. 3.04.22 AP:  "Ukrainian leaders called on the people to defend their homeland by cutting down trees, creating barricades in cities, and attacking enemy columns from the rear. In recent days, authorities have issued weapons to civilians and taught them how to make Molotov cocktails... a video message recalled guerrilla actions in Nazi-occupied Ukraine during WWII." 



Retrospective accounts emerged later: 3.06.22 LATimes "... rifles were handed out to all who were able, and homemade bombs were bottled." 3.23.22 WSJ "In a war of ambushes and skirmishes, mobile Ukrainian forces have used their knowledge of the local battlefield and sought to hit Russian forces on weak points, striking armored columns on main roads and undermining their ability to fight by disrupting supplies... Tens of thousands of ordinary citizens recently have joined territorial battalions and need body armor, helmets [an official said] ... Russian troops in many places have looted stores and homes for food, according to authorities and accounts from witnesses." 4.05.22 WSJ "Civilian Volunteers and Ukraine's Secret Weapon.... When Russian troops were massing across the border, Ukrainian civilians met during weekends to learn how to administer battlefield first aid and how to handle a weapon... they have helped build barricades, patrol roads and even attack Russian convoys and capture enemy soldiers."


5.09.22 WSJ "Civilians Helped Win Kyiv Battle... Ukrainian villagers helped in their own way, calling in artillery strikes on a lifeline Russian had mapped out for its assault on the capital.... villagers shared tips and Google map locations with authorities, turning the highway between the Russian border and Kyiv into a big logistical defeat for Moscow... 'Everyone here was doing all the could to get Russian troop movements across to our boys,' a homemaker said, who had called in soldier locations... [Her] own house was shelled in the exchanges... "The capital's Kyiv Digital app, which once helped people pay parking tickets.. was reconfigured to help users spot Russian movements and give them to the armed forces... [and] explained how to drop pins on Google maps to send to security services, and reminded users to delete their messages or prvent being caught by Russian troops... In mid-March, Russian servicemen broke into the house of [a woman} who had been sending the types and numbers of Russian armor to a Ukrainian police officer, her father. She was detained on March 24 and hasn't been heard of since."


Similar patterns were reported for other battles, such as the port city of Mykolaiv in the south: 4.16.22 WSJ "With communications jammed, Ukraine relied on an ad hoc civilian network to report report Russian positions, and inflicted heavy losses on an attempted assault... [The mayor said] 'All people who can carry a gun are ready to defend ourselves.'"


Some of the “unarmed civilian victims” of Russian atrocities were probably guerrillas. Others were suspected of sending information about Russian positions to Ukrainian forces.


After the withdrawal of Russian forces from central Ukraine at the end of March, a burst of atrocities stories filled the news. 4.06.22 WSJ  "Mayor Helped Resist, Then Was Slain...  The lifeless body [of the mayor of Motyzhyn, a small town west of Kyiv] was found in a shallow grave, her hands bound. Her husband and son lay next to her, dead... The 50-year-old mayor held together her village, cut off and near the fighting at the front [since February 27]. She delivered food and medicine. And she was a leader of the resistance, part of an undercover effort to send Russian troop positions and movements to her country's military... Residents said Russian aggression against locals surged as the Russians came under attacks from Ukrainian artillery and ambush teams... The head of the village's volunteer defense force moved in with [the mayor's family] after his house was damaged by shelling. He and her husband would head out on scouting missions... and she shared the information with Ukrainian forces via cellphone messages. Ukrainian army scouts visited the house for updates...   On March 18, a Ukrainian ambush team sneaked into the village and destroyed a Russian armored vehicle and truck with antitank weapons. The Russians responded with fury. The next day, they launched what they called a clearance operation through the village... Russian soldiers took away [the mayor and her husband], telling [her son] they would bring them back soon. [Her son] called the head of village resistance and warned him to destroy his SIM card to prevent the Russians finding it and identifying him. In the evening, the soldiers returned and took away [the son]."


Most attention was focused on Bucha, in the western suburbs of Kyiv. 4.04.22 AP "Russians Accused of New Atrocities. Reports of Tortured Bodies, Civilian Executions in Kyiv Suburbs Promote Outrage from Ukraine, Western allies. President Considering Stronger Sanctions. America's 'secondary sanctions' would target countries that continue to trade with Russia....


"Bodies with bound hands, close-range gunshot wounds and signs of torture lay scattered in a city on the outskirts of Kyiv after Russian soldiers withdrew from the area... One resident said that Russian troops went building to building and took people out of basements where they were hiding, checking their phones for any evidence of anti-Russian activity before taking them away or shooting them..."


4.10.22 AP  In Bucha "... at the beginning the Russians kept pretty much to themselves, focused on forward progress. When that stalled they went house to house looking for young men, sometimes taking documents and phones. Ukrainian resistance seemed to wear on them. The Russians seemed angrier, more impulsive. Sometimes they seemed drunk... Residents of Bucha, [now] as they venture out of cold homes and basements, offer theories... Some believe the house-to-house targeting younger men was a hunt for those who had fought the Russians in recent years in separatist-held Ukraine and had been given housing in the town. By the end, any shred of discipline broke down. Grenades were tossed into basements, bodies thrown into wells. Women in their 70s were told not to stick their heads out of their homes or they'd be killed.... At first [a 63-year-old woman said], they said they had come for three days. [They stayed a month, leaving on March 31.] Then they got hungry. They got cold. They started to loot. They shot TV screens for no reason. They feared there were spies among the Ukrainians... her nephew was detained after being spotted filming destroyed tanks with his phone. Four days later, he was found in a basement, shot in the ear.... Days later, thinking the Russians were gone, she and her neighbour slipped out to shutter nearby homes and protect them from looting. The Russians caught them and took them to a basement.... Suddenly the soldiers were called away, leaving her and her neighbour shaken but alive."


Another story emerged months later, from a town east of Kyiv: 5.27.22 WSJ On March 19, a 21-year-old farmer, walking to feed his pigs ..."caught the eye of a Russian patrol. They asked if he had been giving away their positions to Ukrainian forces.. 'Is that why we keep getting hit with artillery?' he remembered one of them asking as they searched him for tattoos that might give him away as a combatant. They scrolled through his phone to see if he had sent photos of Russian troops. ... He and a friend were taken to a nearby cellar, where they were beaten.... As days wore on, more civilians were brought in. A 25-year-old math teacher said she was watching in a nearby village as Russian forces trundled along the main road. Her father said he made an inventory of their equipment, peeping over their garden fence, as his daughter relayed the information to a friend in the military... On March 25, Russian soldiers broke into her family home and searched through her phone. She admitted sending information to Ukrainian forces... She was covered with bruises when she arrived at the boiler room. She upbraided the captors for invading Ukraine. 'She asked why they came here to ruin our peaceful lives. You should have seen the Russians' faces. From them on, until she was led out days later, the Russians left her alone and treated her with respect....


"On March 27, the Russian assault on Kyiv was being hampered by insurgent attacks on supply lines and frustrations were boiling. The Russians took [the math teacher and another] away. Nobody has heard of them since....


"Days later, a Russian soldier appeared to be intoxicated, and said he needed eight bodies... He gave them a shot of vodka and asked [the interviewee] to choose who among the other prisoners would die. He refused and told the soldier he wouldn't be able to live with himself. He volunteered to be next.... The Russian soldier pulled him out of the boiler room and led him to a nearby cemetary and told him to get on his knees. A shot rang out but the bullet went past his ear and hit the ground. The Russian pulled him up, telling him he never wanted him to talk that way again.... The next day the Russian soldier returned at 5.30 a.m. and said they were leaving. They listened for the troops' engines to start and fade into the distance.... Twelve prisoners were left in the boiler room. When they walked to the nearby graveyard, they found 6 of those who had been led away to execution were still alive."


Yet another retrospective story from a small village in northern Ukraine, a family sheltered in the cellar of a bombed-out house with 5 Russian soldiers.  5.17.22 WSJ  "Soldiers seized villagers' phones and lined them up in front of a garage while checking their identification. [A young man] was let go after confirming he wasn't military... When his family opened the door leading down to the place where they used to store beet-root and potatoes, they found five Russian soldiers. The intruders invited them in... Elsewhere, residents said Russian soldiers threatened them and looted their homes. But in the cellar, an uneasy accommodation was reached. The Russians [whom they guessed] were tank technicians, sometimes brought food and toiletries apparently looted from the homes of Ukrainians. [One of the Russians did all the cooking] -- 'I think they were afraid we would poison them.' The family ate Russian military rations with them, sometimes contributing potatoes and preserves from their stockpile... On March 30, the soldiers appeared downcast. [until now they had assumed they were winning; next day they retreated] The family followed them out of the cellar and saw a column of Russian vehicles preparing to depart... The five Russian soldiers said goodbye and wished the family the best. 'If you had come as guests, I would say goodbye-- but not like this,' the older man said. 'You are my enemies.'"


These detailed accounts show, paradoxically, that not everyone is killed, even in situations of anger, suspicion, and prolonged strain, where all the power is on one side. Or not paradoxically: as shown elsewhere (Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory ch. 3; Explosive Conflict) face-to-face killing is psychologically difficult; the emotions have to be intense and social supports have to be aligned to carry it off.


[b] Snipers and no-go zones in urban sightlines.  Loyd's [1999] eye-witness account of the wars in Bosnia explains why some fraction of civilians stay: some are reluctant to abandon their homes and possessions; unwilling to live as refugees; some discovering they can survive dangerously, especially if the lines are slow-moving or static. But they have to venture out for water and scavenge for food; often they have to cross no-man's-land, in sight of snipers who have warned them off the streets. And both snipers and civilians are tired, strung-out and careless; snipers often don't shoot, at other times shoot unexpectedly. Taking chances becomes a routine.


4.08.22 WSJ "In early March... Russian troops halted in their advance on Kyiv... Telling local residents they were worried that somebody was reporting their positions to Ukraine's military, Russian soldiers ordered people to stay off the street... But for a 68-year-old superintendent of a home for special-needs children... the only way to get to work was straight into a Russian military no-go zone... A sniper shot him in the road in front of a shrapnel-riddled green gate... By the time the Russians retreated, 17 corpses lay on the street... [A woman] who took charge of a kindergarten where several hundred locals had sought refuge in the basement, went to search for fuel for a generator when... she bumped into two tanks. 'Are you f-ing crazy? There's a sniper here,' she recalled the tank commander warning her. He siphoned fuel from an abandoned car and gave it to her. 'If my grandfather knew I was here, he's turn in his grave,' she recalled him saying; his grandfather was born in northern Ukraine... Russian troops established a curfew, telling locals to stay indoors after 4 p.m., and placed snipers in the town's tallest buildings. Locals said they smelled alcohol on the breath of Russian soldiers at checkpoints...


[Weeks later] "Russian forces were getting bogged down.  Ukrainian army detachments worked secretly in Bucha and other Russian-occupied areas. Special-forces units lobbed grenades at Russian posts, helped guide artillery strikes, and fired small arms from high windows. The Russian soldiers began to scrutinize the local population more fiercely. 'They saw a spotter in every person who lived on the fifth floor' [said a resident]. 'They saw a commando in each of us.' ... On March 10, special Russian units swept through Bucha's residential sectors, destroying doors with fire axes and storming homes, trying to root out the cause for their continuing troubles... Russian troops forced men of fighting age to strip to the skin, and scanned their bodies for military tattoos and the shoulder bruises and trigger-finger calluses that betrayed recent use of weapons... men began disappearing, their dead bodies reappearing on the street days later with their wrists fastened behind their backs.... In the afternoons, as curfew set in, Russian snipers ascended to positions in high-rises trangulated on the intersection of (main streets). 'They told us, 'you can't cross along the road... At all. You can't go anywhere. If you set foot on the sidewalk or the road, you will be immediately killed.' People desperate to flee still made a break for it along the road [out of town]. The first killing was a woman on a bicycle. 'First I heard a shot, then I saw her' [a resident said]. 'How could a grandmother on a bicycle interfere with anyone?'"


In Mariupol and other cities gradually taken by the Russians over a period of two months, bodies piled up in hastily excavated graves [4.23.22 WSJ]. These were not necessarily mass executions; a lot of people died, some shot by snipers; some killed in the house-by-house artillery war as the remaining Ukrainian army sheltered in deep tunnels under an abandoned steel factory. Some of these soldiers, too, made periodic forays above ground for water and food in a live battle zone. Grisly mass graves would also be the result of Russian forces cleaning up the streets after victory.


We can add a third pathway to civilian atrocities: when they are hit by indiscriminate long-distance shelling and bombing of urban targets. The psychology of such attacks is not the emotions of face-to-face confrontation; but cold technical attitudes of destroying an ememy whom we never see. The American airmen who dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima never mentioned anything except the technical details of performing their mission. It was the same with the British pilots who fire-bombed Dresden; no doubt with the Russian artillerists who destroyed Grozni, capital of Chechnya. It is the same attitude as the US officer in Vietnam who said "in order to save [the town], it was necessary to destroy it." The technology of modern weapons of mass destruction makes no distinction between civilians and military; they are all in the path of high-powered modern war.


If we hope to avoid atrocities, we need to think more clearly about the overall pattern.


[4] Polarized perception and historical amnesia

Public figures and commentators refer to almost everything the enemy does as "barbaric" and "brutal." These words do little to explain it.  From an ideal, peaceful standpoint, all fighting is brutal. On calmer reflection, we cannot accurately say that everyone of enemy nationality are barbarians. If some of them commit atrocities, there is a causality of who, where, and when-- a causality that appears to be universal. As polarization declined after several months of war, news reports began to mention incidents where Ukrainian troops accused Russian-speaking residents of being spies for the Russian army, mirroring accusations in the other direction. 5.01.22 AP "Ukraine Cracks Down on 'Traitors' Helping Russian Troops." 6.03.22 WSJ "Security Officers Hunt Kremlin Backers, Spies." 


At the beginning of any war, everything is simplified to innocent good guys and despicable bad guys. This is polarization. We forget everything that our side may have done in the past that isn't wonderful; and remember nothing but the worst about the other side.


The tendency to idealize our allies at the beginning of war leads to overlooking things that later come to light. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, both among government officials and from the mafias that sprung up in all the ex-soviet states in the transition to capitalism. Suddenly, since February 2022, the US and other western states have shown their support by offering (in lieu of their own troops) billions of dollars to the war effort, with little effort to account for what is done with the it. This sets up the likelihood of discovering in future years the kind of corruption of military aid that characterized the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. This aspect of polarized perception is a time-bound process. Fitting the 3-to-6-month pattern of declining enthusiasm, warnings began to appear in the US  about blindly throwing money at an ally with a history of corruption (6.14.22 WSJ). Zelensky was elected president in 2019 on a platform to overcome corruption; before the war broke out, he was regarded as unsuccessful. His public leadership in the war-- especially his highly-publicized on-line appearances calling for aid from the rest of the world-- elevated his standing (84% high or medium trust, in Ukrainian-controlled areas); but this did not extend to the rest of the Ukrainian government (62% little or no trust in parliament: 6.30.22 WSJ). They think corruption is still there. 


As the period of naive enthusiasm wanes, some people around the world will see the Ukraine war in a more realistic light. Some will press for the benefits of peace, over the costs of vengence. Some will argue that no agreement ever holds; that all aggressors are Hitlers; that no war ever ends in a compromise. That is not the universal lesson of history. To go no further with examples, WWI could have been ended in 1916, when the costly stalemate was recognized and negotiations proposed by all the major participants except France, with Woodrow Wilson offering to mediate; a cabinet coup in England replaced the war-weary Prime Minister with one determined to press the war onwards; resulting in a victory that laid the grounds for WWII. We need better judgment about whether we are in 1939 or in 1916. And about everything else that gets fogged over in the polarized atmosphere of war.


The next few months of summer/autumn 2022 may be coming up to a switching-point. Either a cease-fire will be established, along with negotiations for a settlement; or the war will be futher escalated, by an all-out campaign to retake everything that Russia has conquered since 2016. Costly as the damages of the war have been so far, they will be dwarfed by the costs in lives and livelihoods if the war is allowed to escalate, potentially for years to come, and with global entanglements yet unseen. Above I noted that after hopes for a short decisive war are dashed, a long attrition war can be carried on as long as participants' resources last. If one or another of the participants is a poor country, it is their rich allies who can choose to keep the war going indefinitely. A now-ignored example is Syria, where a multi-sided war has been going on for 11 years, sustained by arms flowing in to all sides; resulting in three-quarters of the population turned into refugees. In Ukraine, to date, about a third of the population are refugees, either internationally or internally displaced (6.03.22 NYT).  This may not even be the worst-case scenario for continued escalation of war in Ukraine.



Dates and details on Ukraine war from Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times

Randall Collins. 2022.  Explosive Confict: Time-Dynamics of Violence. Routledge/Taylor&Francis.

--- 2008. Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory. Princeton Univ. Press.

Anthony King. 2021. Urban Warfare in the Twenty-first Century. Polity Press.

Danilo Mandic. 2021. Gangsters and Other Statesmen. Mafias, Separatists, and Torn States in a Globalized World. Princeton Univ. Press.

Anthony Loyd. 1999. My War Gone By, I Miss It So. Grove Press. [eyewitness account of wars in Bosnia and Chechnya, 1993-95]

James William Gibson. 1986. The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam. Atlantic Monthly Press.

David Lane. April 2022. "What Caused Russia to Invade Ukraine?" [includes maps showing the many changes in Ukraine borders; zones of different language-speaking populations; and recent policy to make Ukrainian the exclusive language]


Sunday, July 3, 2022


 Beethoven started going deaf in his late 20s.  Already famous by age 25 for his piano sonatas, at 31 he was traumatized by losing his hearing. But he kept on composing: the Moonlight Sonata during the onset of deafness; the dramatic Waldstein Sonata at 32; piano sonatas kept on coming until he was 50. In his deaf period came the revolutionary sounds of his 3rd through 8th symphonies, piano and violin concertos (age 32-40). After 44 he became less productive, with intermittent flashes (Missa Solemnis, Diabelli variations, 9th symphony) composed at 47-53, dying at 56. His last string quartets were composed entirely in his head, left unperformed in his lifetime.


Handel went blind in one eye at age 66; laboriously finished the oratorio he was working on; went completely blind at 68. He never produced another significant work. But he kept on playing organ concertos, "performing from memory, or extemporizing while the players waited for their cue" almost to the day he died, aged 74. 


Handel age 42

Johann Sebastian Bach fell ill in his 64th year; next year his vision was nearly gone; he died at 65 "after two unsuccessful operations for a cataract."  At 62 he was still producing great works; at 64 he finished assembling the pieces of his B Minor Mass (recycling his older works being his modus operandi). At death he left unfinished his monument of musical puzzles, The Art of the Fugue, on which he had been working since 55.


Can we conclude, it is more important for a composer to see than hear?


Beethoven could hear neither music nor conversation; but he spoke to others, reading their words on scribbled notes. Companions described him as humming and howling to himself while walking in the countryside, returning to his piano to work out the fingering-- it was his "Appassionata Sonata". Meeting Carl Maria von Weber, whose revolutionary opera Der Freischutz created a stir, Beethoven embraced him enthusiastically with the words "So you're the very devil of a fellow I've been hearing about!"  He could hear the music in his head by reading a score-- like all classical composers, who "auditioned" each other's music from their scores. How else would you know whether to have an orchestra perform it? Hence the importance of seeing: reading a score, envisioning how to write down the music in one's head. It would be near fatal for a composer to be blind.


There are famous blind creators, chiefly in literature.


Milton went blind at age 44; already a notable poet and political controversialist, he went on to compose Paradise Lost (written age 50-55) and Paradise Regained (published at 66, the year of his death).


William H. Prescott was nearly blinded in a college roughhouse; went on to travel seeking original texts from the Spanish conquests of America, listening and writing with the help of amanuenses; publishing The History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843) and Conquest of Peru (1847) when he was 47-51 years old. Without eyesight, he developed a phenomenal memory, and a prose style voluminous and eloquent.


Gibbon wasn't blind, but his method of composing was to form in his head his sonorous rhythmic sentences (his stately "periods" as his contemporaries would say): "cast a long paragraph in a single mould, to try it by my ear, to deposit it in my memory, but to suspend the action of the pen 'til I had given the last polish to my work." [Saunders p.15]  In this way he composed the most literary of all histories, the six volumes of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (2 million words, written during age 35-50).  This comes to some 300 words per day, a do-able process.


Milton and Prescott are similarly stately writers of vivid material, readable even for the sound alone. They are writers whose prose or verse had "music", as the 17th century would put it.  Like Beethoven, they could compose in their head. (And by the way, Milton's father was a composer.)


Among blind poets there is famously Homer, although is it thought that "Homer" was the brand-name of a guild of blind reciters; the formulaic epithets for heroic characters and wine-dark seas were memory-hooks for oral performance handed down over the decades.


There is a Japanese equivalent, blind reciters of The Tale of the Heike, the epic samurai history of the twelfth-century wars between the Heike and Genji clans. In the fourteenth century until it was written down in the fifteenth, Heike Monogatari was recited by blind monks wearing Buddhist robes, accompanying themselves on the biwa or lute, called "biwa hoshi"  or "biwa monks".  Its enormous length (the English translation is 700 pages) was held in memory by poetic/musical forms, in this case the thirty-one syllable waka, ancestral to haiku and other forms, an early hybrid between poetry and prose. [Tyler xxiv]


There are no famous blind painters, to my knowledge; whether painters were deaf no one seems to have regarded as a fact worth noticing.


My point is not the pathos of difficult lives, nor the triumph of overcoming it. Deaf or blind creators in different fields provide a natural experiment, evidence for what kind of the skill -- including social skill-- is the specific ingredient of creativity in music, and what are specific to other fields.


Music without texts (folk music and the like) is hand-to-ear coordination. With instrument ensembles, it becomes also hand-to-eye coordination.


Playing an instrument is a bodily skill; the whole body may go into the rhythm; the movements of fingers on strings and keys; of arms scraping bows over strings or beating drums; of fingers on stops and valves coordinated with lips and mouth and lungs that is the playing of wind instruments. Opera singers are trained players of their own body cavities and the tensing and relaxing of muscles. All this while keeping an eye on the score, or at least having memorized it. Complex music-- AKA classical music -- is the coordination of instruments and players:  a social skill, a social invention. The symphony orchestra was no less an organizational innovation than a factory of workers operating machinery.


Participants in these humans-with-instruments combinations -- composers, players-- practice hand-to-eye-to-ear coordination. When composers are deaf, they can continue to coordinate hand-to-eye and thus generate the social follow-through that is music creation. When composers go blind, they mostly stop composing.


And yet there are a number of blind performer-composers in popular music: Stevie Wonder [blind from birth; Motown contract at 13; his own song albums from 21], Ray Charles [glaucoma as child; studied music at a school for deaf and blind; recorded famous songs in his late 20s], Blind Lemon Jefferson [partially sighted from birth; street singer; gospel and blues recordings in his late 20s]. All were soloists-- singers accompanying themselves on keyboard or guitar; in recordings and performances, sometimes provided with backup musicians and studio directors. All were composers of relatively short songs (3-minutes-plus), in the standard sonata forms of repetitions-and-variations of 20th century popular music. More or less autonomous as performers, they could compose short forms without seeing texts.


Written scores are more central for longer and more elaborately coordinated classical music. In the era before sound recording, composers could only keep up with the music of their peers and rivals-- if they didn't hear it in person-- by circulating their scores. Music publishing coincides with the development of classical music.


Composers were generally performers themselves. Beethoven, who began by improvising dramatically on the piano, continued to perform in his deafness, eventually giving it up, as he gave up orchestra conducting. For him, playing and conducting were bodily habit, that kept for a while its momentum; although he could no longer hear the instruments nor the audience reaction. Handel, who had made his early reputation as the greatest organist and harpsichord player of his time, ended his lengthy stream of operas, oratorios, and concertos when he went blind. That he could continue to play implies that he could rely on memory and muscle skill, but that these alone are not enough to compose new music--- that which enters the repertoire of further musicians by creating written scores.


Music composing, at least in the classical era of large instrumental ensembles, is a cyborg skill. Instruments, performers, composers, all on the same page-- literally.


Writing and reciting, at least for poets and writers of sonorous prose, is a skill of training the inner and outer ear; they create and perform, much less with the eye, combining words on the rhythm of their inner music. (We speak of a writer "finding their voice")


Paradoxically, composers need eyes more than ears; writers need ears more than eyes. But it is no paradox at the level of the blending of inner and social skills that make up what we call creativity.




Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music. 1996.

Chambers Biographical Dictionary. 1986.

Dero Saunders. 1952. Introduction to Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Royall Tyler. 2012. The Tale of the Heike. Viking Penguin.