UKRAINE: Hardship Tour – Lucian K. Truscott IV

 By: Lucian K. Truscott IV

There is a wonderful story in the New Yorker that you should definitely read: “How Ukrainians Saved Their Capital.”  By Luke Mogelson, it’s about the weeks he spent embedded with a battalion of volunteer medics called the Hospitallers in and around Kyiv and other cities in Ukraine.  It’s an amazing story.  The writing has the flat, matter of fact aspect of good war reporting – just the facts with little if any embellishment.  What descriptive flourishes there are emerge organically from individual scenes of the aftermath of shelling among the wounded and the dead. 

At one point early in the war, Mogelson is with a team of medics who have set up a “stabilization point” near an abandoned maternity hospital in the northern suburbs of Kyiv, which have been under heavy attack from Russian forces that arrived in the famed 40-mile convoy that had attempted to overrun Kyiv.  Ukrainian artillery and ambush patrols had held off the Russians, but the fighting was heavy.  Mogelson spent three days with the medics from the Hospitallers as they treated civilians and soldiers who had been wounded in the fighting.           

Listen to the way he recounts scenes that in any other context at all would be so extraordinary they would stop you in your tracks.  But this was war, and these were only a few of the scenes he would witness in the five weeks he spent in Ukraine.  Anastasia is a friend from the Hospitallers who he accompanied on a journey from Paris where she had been studying political science before the war.  Now she was a medic in a uniform on the front lines:

Most civilians had left the area, but not all. The first patients that Anastasia’s team received were adult siblings, a brother and sister, whose house had been hit. The sister had been sheltering in the cellar with her mother and had suffered only minor injuries; her husband had been in the yard and was killed. Her brother, who’d also been outside, was bleeding profusely from multiple shrapnel wounds. He cried in agony as Yuzik applied pressure bandages to both of his legs, and another medic gave him an I.V. with the opioid tramadol.

The sister sat on an examination table, waving off the medics who approached her. “I’m O.K.,” she said. “Don’t worry about me.”

“What about Grandma?” Yuzik asked.

“She’s fine—she was with me in the basement. My husband was killed instantly. If I’d been with him, I’d be dead, too.” She recounted all of this with the uncanny detachment of someone in shock. Her husband’s body was buried under debris. “I couldn’t move him,” she said. As Yuzik wrapped a roll of gauze around her ankle, her principal emotion seemed to be embarrassment at people fussing over her.

“You’re very tan,” Yuzik said, trying to distract her.

The woman laughed. “I like the sun,” she told him.

Anastasia helped load the siblings into the ambulance and accompanied them to the hospital. While she was monitoring the brother’s vital signs, she later told me, he became agitated, moaning and writhing. The sister patiently soothed him. “She was so calm,” Anastasia said.

That night, an eighty-four-year-old woman was delivered to the stabilization point with shrapnel wounds to her groin and abdomen. She did not cry out. When a medic commented on her grit, the woman said that she had also survived the Second World War.

Mogelson’s writing alone makes the piece worth reading, but like all good war reporting, it is his descriptions of the war that make it outstanding.  It is as if words that have been typed by someone who was there are more evocative than the photos that accompany the story, which in black and white capture some of the horrors he writes about.

I really want to make sure that you read the interview with Mogelson that accompanies the piece online.  For reasons I will make an attempt to convey below, it was this little scrap of the interview that caught my eye.  Here, Mogelson is describing the physical reality of being in a war zone accompanying the people fighting the war:

I was living with them at their base at St. Michael’s Monastery and going out on some of their rotations to the fighting in the suburbs north of Kyiv. I would also sometimes go out and do my own independent reporting, like in Kharkiv and Trostyanets, and then go back to the Hospitallers for longer periods. I had my bunk there, with my sleeping bag and my gear. Whenever I needed a place to sleep in Kyiv, I would just return to the church, reclaim my bunk, and have a delicious bowl of borscht for dinner.

You can almost see Mogelson’s wistfulness coming off the page.  He has returned from the war to his home in the states, and you can feel the affection that he has for the primitive conditions of where he stayed in Kyiv, for his bunk, for the comfort of a hot meal. 

Mogelson conveys the same feeling at the close of the piece, when on a sunny and warm day in Kyiv, he bids goodbye to his friend Anastasia:

On the quay, when I asked Anastasia if she would go east, she said, “I have to think about it. There is a high chance of being killed.” She was returning to Paris for a week or two. She had an academic article to write and wanted to pursue various ideas for advocacy and fund-raising. In the past month, she had sometimes struggled to readapt to the military culture, routine, and mind-set of the Hospitallers. She’d been one of the few medics who had refused to carry a Kalashnikov. In contrast to August, Yuzik, and Mamont, Anastasia was not fascinated by war or temperamentally suited to it. Like many Ukrainians, she had simply declined to run from it.

After going to Paris, Anastasia went back to Ukraine. When we last spoke, she was visiting her family in Kyiv. The Hospitallers were moving out of St. Michael’s. She planned to join them in the east

Mogelson is back home with his family, but you can hear in the closing paragraph a yearning for what he left.  He is here, and Anastasia is still there.  It’s the guilt of any reporter who has moved into and then moved out of a war zone.  You get to leave, and they don’t, even the ones like his friend Anastasia who is there by choice.  And in the case of writing about the war in Ukraine as I have, without ever being there, the guilt is even worse.  How can you capture what is going on without being there?  You can’t, but as a writer, you’ve at least got to try.

I remember the feeling when I came home from reporting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and much earlier, from Israel and Lebanon when I was writing about the war of terror being waged over there.  You know you have to leave the war you’re writing about.  As incredible a story as it is, it’s not your whole life as a writer.  But you don’t want to leave because you feel like you’re betraying the people who are enduring the hardship of the war you’re writing about, not only the people who died and the ones who are on the front lines as soldiers or as civilians caught up in the war, but everyone who lives in this country undergoing a war they didn’t start, they don’t want, but in which they are stuck. 

I remember returning to my home in Los Angeles from Iraq.  Less than 24 hours before, I had been in a place very much like Mogelson describes.  It was just a spot in a room where I had a bunk and a sleeping bag, where I could get something hot to eat, but it felt luxurious because all around me had been destruction – bombed out houses and office buildings and bridges and the pocked-marked evidence of fighting and sometimes the wounded and the dead.  And now there I was in the Hollywood Hills in a stucco-walled Spanish style home with a turret, with a big bed and a down comforter and hot food anytime I wanted it, and I couldn’t believe that I had been in this place where all of that was, if not destroyed, out of reach of the soldiers I had been with, impossible for the Iraqi civilians living among the detritus of the war.  I got on an airplane and flew away, but they were still there, sometimes dirty and unwashed and hungry but always fearful, because as Anastasia told Mogelson, “There is a high chance of being killed.”

Being in a place that is at war gives you the starkest proof there could be of the inadequacy of what you are doing, which is writing about it.  There is simply no way you can convey the terrible things you see, the terror you feel, the horrors experienced by those around you, by the soldiers, and in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, by the people of the countries those American soldiers had invaded.

When you return and sit down to write about it, as Mogelson has done so admirably in the New Yorker, every time you step into a hot shower, you remember being in a place where people can’t turn on a tap and wash their hair and stand under a cascade of hot water in their faces and over their bodies or even drink water out of a tap.

It’s impossible to bring the hardship of a war home with you except perhaps within yourself where it probably belongs anyway.  That is why except for those who fight wars or are victimized by them, war is just a hardship tour for everyone else.  The rest of the world is doing laundry, or going to a concert, or dining out at a candlelit table or even watching the news and sympathizing with those who are suffering. 

But it’s not the same.  It cannot be.  That’s the sadness and that’s the betrayal: to be a writer about a war is to be a visitor to hardship, not to live there.

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