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War and the west: everything's forever till it's not

This opinion piece is almost 2 years old

TFN editor Graham Martin reflects on three weeks of war in Ukraine and civil society's response

Never say it can’t happen here.

If living through the past 15 years or so has taught us anything, it’s surely that.

In truth, the ground began to crumble under our feet with the erosion of the relative social peace and post-war economic consensus in the 1980s, but many pretended it wasn’t happening, happy to glug the idiotic post-Soviet ‘end of history’ snake oil, so beguiled by the shortlived Blair bubble that they began to believe that vast, illegal wars were a crusade of liberal virtue.

Things have accelerated since the economic crash of 2008 – since when we have been living through what for many of us was previously the preserve of fiction, dystopian on the one hand (environmental collapse, global pandemic) and grittily realist on the other – the horrible, humdrum, life-shredding grind of ideologically enforced austerity.

Events can move rapidly – and, as we have seen very recently, what seemed unthinkable one day can engulf us the next. I can remember speaking to a Yugoslav student in Glasgow’s George Square during a demo against the first Gulf War in 1991.

It always stuck with me – he was explaining the tensions that were just beginning to rip his multi-nation state apart. Shamefully, I don’t know which Yugoslav nation he belonged to. What struck me was his faith in the idea of Yugoslavia – people were talking about arming back home, but he didn’t believe it would come to that.

I remember thinking about him a few years later as I watched footage of Gorazde and Srebrenica.

The Ukraine war has been talked about routinely as the biggest European conflict since World War Two – we seem to have erased our memories of the Balkans cauldron. But I’ve thought about it since the Ukraine crisis started. I have been to and travelled in that country three times. I have friends in Kyiv, who I have been in touch with. What has struck me most is how similar their disbelief has been to that Yugoslav student. On 24 February, my friend Oleksandra sent me a message saying: “I cannot believe this is our reality.”

Of course, this is very west-centric. Huge parts of the world have been living with the horrors of war, displacement and colonial butchery for the past 200 years – as war, violence and exploitation are baked into a system that has allowed us to live in relative social peace.

But as imperialism manifests in tanks and rockets and geo-political plates heave - pulling, distorting and smashing Ukraine in the process - it cycles closer to us. This is a time of huge danger. War could come to us in the most destructive, complete and final manner possible.

What can we do? What would we do? For the latter, I commend the principles of the Kyiv Declaration (page 10 of this month's magazine), produced by the leaders of civil society in Ukraine. We must give this – and them – out utmost support.

At home, we must ramp up meaningful solidarity – and we must push to make this a welcoming place for refugees to come to. It really isn’t just now, if they even get here. They get caught a shamefully, deliberately dehumanising process – and this is powerfully outlined by Ewan Aitken on page 28.

And we can get our act in order. Times are tough for the sector right now – but are they so tough we want to be associated with the global arms industry? There’s a debate to be had about this – and we hope to start it here (pages 12-14).

Above all, we need to work for peace in whatever way we can. Work for peace, but don’t think the worse will never happen. Let that be a spur to all efforts.

As all that is solid can melt into air, all that is alive and that you love can be consumed in an instant.

There’s a book about the Soviet collapse by Alexei Yurchak, and its title is apposite here: everything was forever, until it was no more.

Graham Martin is editor of Third Force News.

This editorial appears in the latest edition of TFN magazine - read the rest here.