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The marquee on the Anthem theatre reads "First They Came for... Ukraine"

The words, "First They Came For ... Ukraine," have been splashed above ads for upcoming concerts  in the Washington D.C. area for weeks. (Photo: RJ Eskow)

Ukraine Is Not a Stage for American War Fantasies

War fever is everywhere, but what the people of Ukraine need from the U.S. is every possible effort to bring Russia's brutal attack to an end.

Richard Eskow

War is not a performance. Ukraine is not a stage. The death and destruction aren't happening to so we can "take a stand" and feel better about ourselves. It is real, and we should all be thinking about how to stop it as quickly and effectively as possible.

That may seem obvious, but a concert promoter's marquee (above) and shopping-mall posters reflect a war fever that's become all too prevalent in the West.

The words, "First They Came For ... Ukraine," have been splashed above ads for upcoming concerts by the Lumineers, Tears For Fears, country singer Dierks Bentley and a host of other musical acts and comedians. The promoter behind the concerts and the posters is Washington D.C.-based I.M.P. Concerts. Its venues include the 9:30 Club, where the area's 80's punk scene produced bands like Minor Threat and Fugazi, as well as larger ones like the Anthem and the Merriwether Post Pavilion.

"The only [...] option—the one we should all be demanding—is a negotiated settlement that stops the killing."

There are many ways to condemn Putin's brutality and support the Ukrainian people. We should do that, just as we should condemn war crimes in Afghanistan and Yemen and support the people there. But why these words? Why "First"? The language is coarse and melodramatic and distorts the truth. The implication is that, in the age-old words of those who sell us war, "if we don't fight them there we'll have to fight them here."

That kind of talk produces an endorphin rush, the way a good rock and roll riff does. And it allows us to pretend that we are taking part in a great drama of survival. But it shuts down our ability to do the kind of clear thinking that will save lives. It makes the crisis about us, not the victims. We can all feel like we're in a great darkened auditorium, waving our cigarette lighters with thousands of like-minded souls. War fevers, like concerts, are a collective experience. And now, we're all so high on conflict that we can't find the exit.

But Putin's invasion doesn't pose a threat to Western Europe, and it certainly doesn't pose a threat to us here in the United States. It's not a "first." It's a singular horror that is brutal, cruel, and must be ended as quickly as possible.

We now know that Putin will not win the easy victory he imagined. So does he. That leaves only a handful of possible outcomes. The first is that the West uses Ukraine to wage a proxy war against Russia, wearing it down economically and militarily at the cost of Ukrainian lives. This approach, based on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, appears to be the favorite of the military-industrial complex.

As Anatol Lieven, Sarang Shidore, and Marcus Stanley write, "U.S. politicians and former government officials refer frequently to the possibility of making Ukraine 'Putin's Afghanistan,' indicating that many in Washington see a protracted conflict as a live option." (The fact that Afghanistan became "our Afghanistan" for twenty years seems to have escaped them.)

Wittingly or not, that's the kind of posture these signs encourage. They build emotional support for a brutal and protracted struggle—one in which American are are, in the words of a retired US diplomat, "fighting to the last Ukrainian."

Another outcome would be a rapid and unexpected escalation between the United States and Russia, perhaps after rising war fever in the United States leads to a no-fly zone and direct military confrontation. That's likely to end in nuclear war. That would threaten us here. In fact, it would annihilate us.

The only other option—the one we should all be demanding—is a negotiated settlement that stops the killing. That's what these groups are calling for, and it's the only realistic solution for Ukraine. As Lieven et al. conclude, "It is urgently necessary that the Biden administration and the U.S. Congress give their full support to a peace process that will bring about an early end to the war on terms that will safeguard Ukrainian sovereignty and independence."

Zelensky has already said he's willing to concede to many of Putin's demands, including territorial concessions and some neutrality for Ukraine. Putin undoubtedly had more in mind, but a face-saving resolution could be the best way to end the bloodshed. Unfortunately, some NATO states are already threatening to tie Zelensky's hands at the negotiating table, and the US won't give him authority to end sanctions against Russia. While they sing Zelensky's praises, they are depriving him of the diplomatic tools he needs to save his country.  

War fever is everywhere, and the heated rhetoric is having real-world consequences. Instead of defusing tensions, the US, Great Britain and Australia are accelerating plans to build hypersonic missiles that will trigger a new arms race and amplify the existential threat of nuclear war. White House reporters have become fervent advocates for armed confrontation between the US and Russia.  In many American circles it has become impossible to argue for diplomacy, even in privately. Most politicians won't even broach the subject.

Meanwhile, the conflict is causing severe shortages of fertilizer, as well as grain, which will trigger devastating food shortages in poorer parts of the world (and inflation in the wealthier ones). Sanctions, as well as war, are targeting the poorest of the poor.

We shouldn't care about Ukrainians because they're "first." We should care about them because they're human. And the way to help them live is through negotiation. But war has become a rush, a performance, a glittering show with lasers and smoke bombs. And if the spectacle isn't real, why stop before the encore?

As for the phrase on that marquee: most readers will recognize it from a poetic re-working of comments from the German pastor Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

To speak for the Ukrainians, we need to speak for diplomacy. This show must not go on.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Richard J Eskow

Richard Eskow

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a freelance writer. Much of his work can be found on His weekly program, The Zero Hour, can be found on cable television, radio, Spotify, and podcast media. He is a senior advisor with Social Security Works.

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