For America, World War II was Pearl Harbor, island hopping in the Pacific, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge. As bloody and horrific as those events were, they pale in comparison to what Europe experienced. In six years of war, the continent was leveled. Tens of millions of people were killed in the most novel and horrific ways. Many countries endured the brutality of military occupation. The trauma of that war is still present today in Europe in a way that is foreign to the United States. It is passed down from generation to generation. (The same thing is true of Ukraine and Russia. The Soviet Union lost 27 million people—15 percent of its population—in just four years. Every family lost many, many loved ones, and the trauma of that war is alive and well, thanks in part to Putin’s propaganda machine.) If you could make the images coming out of Ukraine black and white, it might be hard to tell the difference between September 1939 or June 1941. The fact that there is a land war happening again, in Europe, less than a century since the last one, and using a lot of the same language, has been extremely triggering for Europeans (as well as for Russians and Ukrainians). For Europeans, as some of the continent’s officials have told people in the Biden administration, “this is our 9/11.”
Putin is determined to see this matter through—all the way through. There is no way he stops now, and the more the Ukrainian people stand up to him, the more they mock him, the more determined he will be to crush them. He will not be humiliated by “Little Russians,” by residents of a country he doesn’t believe is real. He will not be vanquished by a Ukraine he thinks is a puppet of his mortal enemy, the United States. And because he has more troops and more firepower, he can have his way, even if it won’t be as easy as he initially thought. It’s why absolutely no one should discount the possibility that Putin might make good on his threat to use a nuclear weapon. He is that angry, and he wants it badly enough. It is existential for him now. As Russian TV host Dmitry Kiselev threatened on his Sunday night show, Russia is fully willing to fire 500 nuclear warheads at NATO countries. He explained why Russia would do this. “The principle is: why do we need the world if Russia won’t be in it?”
Earlier this week, I was on Morning Joe, and one of the other guests, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, said that he believes that, in the end, Ukraine will triumph. Good will conquer evil. For a moment, I was dumbstruck. Everything he had said on the show until then was so rational and honest, so deeply grounded in grim reality. And yet, somehow, he managed to shoehorn this cloying little bromide in there: Ukraine is vastly outgunned, a no-fly zone is not possible, Russia will eventually get the upper hand—but Ukraine will win, eventually, because good conquers evil.
What a perfectly American sentiment, I thought, born of the privilege of having never been invaded or occupied, of joining world wars long after the opening shots have been fired and then claiming the victors’ podium, of wearing nice little blinders that allow you to believe that progress is inevitable, linear, and irreversible. How nice it must be, as a white man in America, to never have to experience the consequences of the moral arc of the universe collapsing under the weight of the universe’s capacity for injustice, of evil getting away with absolutely everything.