the prisoners of war



We thus have a war in which, as much as the masters, those involved in it are prisoners of their words.

“We need to defeat the Russian Goliath”, with these words the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, defined the role of his country and his government in the war that this Friday will complete the first year of life and deaths, in his speech during the opening of the Berlinale, the German capital's International Film Festival, on the night of February 16th. And at the close of his ten-minute speech, he reiterated the image, echoing an expression from the Cold War era between capitalism and communism: "We are all the David of the Free World."

In this way, he explained the meta-discourse that accompanies the performance of his Armed Forces on the battlefield. Meta-discourse: the rhetorical reference that projects what happens in the real world into the field of ethical and even aesthetic values, in this case, the conflict that has been described as the bloodiest in Europe since World War II, despite the atrocities committed by all sides in the so-called Yugoslav Civil War between 1991 and 2001.

The rhetorical effort to frame the Kiev government's actions within a biblical framework evokes curious comparisons. In the sacred narrative for Christians, the shepherd David defeats the giant Goliath because he has behind him the strength of Jehovah, the Lord of the Armies of Israel, invoked by him. Volodymyr Zelensky, who projects himself as David, has behind him all the weight of the resurrected West: the United States, the United Kingdom, NATO and the European Union, which supply him with billions of dollars and euros in armaments. His rhetorical effort is to convince the world that, alongside the force of arms he continually implores, he has the superior force of reason and ethics, which gives him a historical and messianic dimension.

On the Russian side, the effort is no less. Vladimir Putin has before him the challenge of transforming the invasion of another country into a defensive gesture, which also requires a certain discursive caper. The reference sought is that of the Great Patriotic War, as it is described, since the times of the late Soviet Union, the costly resistance in terms of lives but successful to the then Nazi invader, during the Second World War.

The reference to the “denazification” of Ukraine is constant, projecting a historic and grandiose protection of the threatened “Motherland”, baptizing with colors of national heroism the occupation of the border zone of Ukraine, for the safeguard of its population, and also the re- annexation of the Crimean peninsula, which had already been Russian in the past, until the 50s of the XNUMXth century. To this day, no one has understood why then-Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev donated the territory to Ukraine.

It turns out that words are not neutral, they take their toll. David cannot lose to Goliath; not even the possibility of a draw is granted to him. If he didn't kill the giant, he would be demoralized before King Saul, before Israel, before his brothers and his father Jesse, and also before Jehovah. If Kiev does not “win the war”, as it is proclaimed today in the West, it will be nothing more than an adventure that has wasted billionaire resources and contributed to the devastation of a country.

On the other hand, Pátria Grande does not allow concessions either. Only victory guarantees its integrity. If Russia does not somehow “win” “the war”, it too will be nothing more than an unnecessary invasion that devastated a neighboring country and sacrificed the lives of thousands of its soldiers and civilians on the other side.

Thus we have a war in which, as much as you are masters, those involved in it are prisoners of their words. And for the moment they have no way of escaping this bowl they've gotten their hands into.

What does the word “victory” mean for Volodymyr Zelensky and his allies? Expel the Russians from the occupied territories from the beginning of the war on February 24, 2022? Reconquer the Crimea? Sink the Russian economy and overthrow Vladimir Putin? Any of these goals seems very difficult to achieve today. And for Vladimir Putin, what does the word “victory” mean? Russia does not seem to be in a position to occupy Ukraine, either politically, economically or militarily. Taking down Volodymyr Zelensky seems out of reach. Keeping the occupied territories as a buffer to protect Crimea, where it has military and naval bases? Even these latter goals come at a huge cost to the country's economy, which is beset by economic sanctions despite China's protective wing, even though it seems secretly critical of the war.

Of course, everything can change from one hour to another. But for the moment the possibility of stopping the killing in the short term seems very remote. We use the word because a war always involves the making of massive slaughter.

This reminds us of the ancient wisdom of the words of a very popular saying in our Brazil: “old monkeys don't put their hands in bowls”.

*Flavio Aguiar, journalist and writer, is a retired professor of Brazilian literature at USP. Author, among other books, of Chronicles of the World Upside Down (Boitempo).


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