The Language of War

, 28.03.2023
Ukraine in Focus

The issuance of an arrest warrant for Putin by the International Criminal Court on March 17 is important not only because it signifies the beginning of justice but also because it legitimizes and confirms hundreds of thousands of testimonies of Russia’s brutality. This is a relief but also a problem. As art critic and journalist Kateryna Iakovlenko reflects in her article in Apofenie: “[G]enocide has already become a part of our reality – Ukrainians are dying every day from the blatant cruelty of the occupiers. Those who lived through it – who survived it – will not have the final say in calling this genocide by its proper name, but rather people in distant international courts.” Thus, she poses the question: “Does the meaning of words depend on their inherent nature or the power structures that control the vocabulary apparatus?”

The power structures include not only the International Criminal Court and other decision-making bodies but media as well. Ruslana Koziienko, who studies the border and migration politics, argues in Allegra that the language of “privilege”, that European media reproduces in reference to Ukrainian refugees who received a warm welcome, is misleading. According to Koziienko, this language not only does not reflect the situation on the ground but it also “does not communicate the complexity and strain of the conditions displaced people from different regions face and instead, reproduces the faulty, simplistic narratives, which, in turn, pit those people against each other”.

Meanwhile, direct witnesses of Russia’s war might never have the privilege to tell what they see. In his heartbreaking essay for the collection “You’re being heard, speak up!”, a collaboration between the Lviv BookForum and Ukraiinska Pravda, philosopher, journalist and a president of PEN Ukraine Volodymyr Yermolenko talks about experiences that will never be told: “For most of its recent history, Ukraine has been in the role of the one who did not have time to tell. In the role of the driver in the seat of a car that in a moment will be shot at a checkpoint in Bucha. In the role of a family that, together with their house, will be blown up by an enemy missile - only instead of wings, their limbs will be torn off and their stomachs torn open. In the role of a soldier who has just told you a story from his childhood, which you laughed at for a long time, and the next moment his spine will be broken by a hit”. His point is that there will always be an experience that will be silenced forever. There will be no one left to talk about the most atrocious things: “We only know what is being uttered, and what is uttered is usually only part of the story”.

For those alive, the language is now reduced to the most basic form of communication. The writer and scholar Oleksandr Mykhed notes in the same collection that “the language of war is direct, like an order, which cannot be interpreted ambiguously or require clarification. We speak more clearly, simply, in chopped phrases, saving each other's time and saturating the conversation with information. No crying. No rhetorical questions”. The language of war is about urgency and the attempt to record the most important: “Doctors on the battlefield, in the absence of a marker, recommend writing the time of the tourniquet placement on the affected limb directly on the forehead of the wounded comrade in his own blood. Parents write names, addresses, and phone numbers on the backs of young children with markers. In case they get lost. Parents or children. In case they are killed. Parents or children”.

The more Ukrainians try to find the right words to express their unprecedented reality, the more they realize that their reality is actually not so unprecedented. Writer and professor Ostap Slyvynsky, writing for the same collection, recalls his pre-war fascination with the stories about Balkan wars as if they were supposed to prepare him for today. Yet, in contrast to the early 1990s, when people in Sarajevo were writing and talking in “empty space”, Ukrainians have the “acoustics that have never been seen before in our history”. His Bosnian friend Nermina wrote to him: "You’re being heard, speak up.” This abundance of means of communication, as well as international audiences’ willingness to listen encourages Slyvynsky to use the moment to “find a form, return to the line of words” no matter how hard it is.

Not only Balkan experience of war but Ukraine’s own experience of a bloody 20th century can help to make sense of and find the right words for the current tragedy.  Literary translator Uilleam Blacker points to two communal experiences that Ukrainians are drawing on as they process the current war. For New Lines Magazine, he explores the Polish trauma of Katyn and the consequences of the impossibility of mourning, arguing that “The problem of the impossibility of mourning the dead of Russia’s 2022 invasion will be an acute one in Ukrainian society for decades to come. The Polish experience of harnessing the political and creative power this experience affords is instructive,” and points to examples of cases in which this creative power is already manifesting itself: writers, poets, human rights activists. And he notes in The Jewish Chronicle that “young Ukrainians today increasingly turn to the great Jewish writers of the past from Ukraine to help understand their own cultural history and identity and now, tragically, to help them understand the past year”. While the fate of Jews was silenced by the Soviet regime up until the 1980s and 1990s, Ukrainians today are rediscovering the rich and diverse Jewish artistic heritage. He is optimistic that Ukrainians can garner the experiences of violence and process their collective trauma through references to their own Jewish compatriots, such as Vasily Grossman and Isaac Babel.

Such appreciation of diverse experiences is valuable not only to enrich our understanding and language of the war but also to start building a more inclusive society where no one’s experience is silenced. This constitutes a core of philosopher Vakhtang Kebuladze’s social contract theory, in which inclusivity or the engagement of people of different religions, languages, and ethnic backgrounds, is key to building a more just state. At the same time Ukrainians work towards putting their experience into words, they are also focused on what that will mean for the postwar future.