“War is both the product of an earlier corruption and a producer of new corruptions,” said the American sociologist Lewis Mumford after World War II. In the present conflict, those corruptions include temptations to moral degradation on the part of both soldiers and civilians.
The case against Russia is clear. If there ever was provocation on the part of Ukraine, it was minuscule compared to the damage that the Russian military has heaped upon its neighbour.
However, the justice of the Ukraine’s cause must not whitewash everything its soldiers and government does. Still less should it fuel hatred by onlookers who warm their hands at a bonfire of righteous indignation.
I was struck by a vivid article from Quentin Sommerville, a BBC journalist reporting from the frontlines at Kharkiv. There were heart-breaking anecdotes about children wounded by Russian artillery. Sommerville ended his report with this interchange with a Ukrainian officer:
Lying in the snow are a dozen or so frozen Russian corpses. The men lie like wax figures, some with hands reaching out, their matted beards frozen stiff in the cold.
The guts of one are spilled across the forecourt. There are blood-red footprints around his corpse. Their weapons have been taken, and I ask Uta, one of the officers, what will happen to the bodies.
“What do you think will happen, we will leave them for the dogs,” he says with a shrug.
This is war. Brutal indifference is what we expect from a tired soldier. But it is astonishing that the BBC journalist also allowed the Ukrainian officer’s words to pass without comment. Human dignity is not suspended in war. The enemy is still a human being. Anyhow, in this ghastly conflict, the dead Russian soldiers were likely to be terrified 18-year-old conscripts who thought that they were just participating in exercises on the border.
The Ukrainian officer can be pardoned. He is hungry, fearful, defiant, weary, and angry. But civilians snug in their warm beds are also claiming a right to treat the Ukraine’s enemies as sub-humans. And this is deplorable.
For instance, far from the front lines, a private cosmetic surgery hospital in Munich, Iatros Clinic, announced on social media that it would turn away patients from Russia and Byelorussia:
We strongly condemn the invasion of the Russian army with the help of the Belarusian government. Russia is not only attacking Ukraine militarily without any justification; this country is threatening Europe; this country is threatening our freedom and democracy. Therefore, from now on and until further notice, we will not accept Russian and Belarusian citizens. … There will be no exceptions.
Just the Covid-19 virus or Mr. Putin makes no exceptions; we will make no exceptions … Our solidarity is with the Ukrainian people and our measures are the consequences of the military invasion of the Russian army!
Other Germans had more sense and Iatros’s virtue-signalling was strongly criticised. “All our citizens have the same rights. Everyone has the same, untouchable dignity. Guaranteed by the basic law. There are no first or second class people!” said one person on Facebook.
The Ukrainian government is under enormous pressure – but if it is fighting to protect democracy and human rights, it still has to treat its captives with all the dignity they deserve.
And some of their tactics are not above criticism. The Ukrainians have been holding regular press conferences in which captured Russian soldiers are paraded before the media. They identify themselves and their military unit and express their contrition for participating in the invasion. They describe themselves as “cannon fodder” exploited by commanders to attack “peaceful people defending their territory”.
For the Ukrainian government, this is powerful propaganda. It could help to move Russian public opinion against the war.
But much as we might sympathise with the Ukrainian cause, is the exploitation of POWs for propaganda purposes ethical? Does it violate the Geneva Conventions?
“Any public appearances can put prisoners of war at risk when they are returned to their home country, and also prove problematic for their families whilst they are detained,” says Amnesty International. “Article 13 of the Third Geneva Convention explicitly states that prisoners of war must be protected at all times, particularly from public curiosity. It is duty of the detaining power to ensure these prisoners’ rights are properly respected from the moment they are captured.”
Andrew Stroehlein, of Human Rights Watch, tweeted that “although it may seem in some videos that POWs are free to speak as they wish, they are held captive by another military force, and it’s almost impossible to judge from one video the conditions they face.”
Russian violations of the Geneva Convention are enormous and evident: indiscriminate bombardment, cluster munitions, wanton destruction of property, attacks on civilians …
Outrage at these barbarities must not corrupt our own moral sense. In The Washington Post a journalist wrote a very balanced article pointing out that Ukraine is pushing the envelope of the Geneva Convention on treatment of POWs. The appalling comments beneath suggest that some Americans are in danger of corrupting their democratic ideals.
- In the bigger picture, Ukraine is violating the law by getting a parking ticket, while Russia is violating the law by killing innocent Ukrainian civilians.
- Russia is bombing maternity hospitals and somebody cares about treatment of prisoners who likely shot at civilians?
- Really????? The Russians gun down innocent families and bomb children’s hospitals, and you dither and clutch your pearls over whether “it’s right” to have Russian prisoners in a press conference? The left always brings a soup ladle to a political knife fight, while the fascist right-wing brings an AK47.
- I don’t see why Ukraine should worry about POW rights, given that Russia is deliberately killing innocent children. Ukraine needs to use every conceivable tool it can find.
In his memoir of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell wrote: “All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.” That was in the 1930s. Nothing has changed.