We are driving from Slovyansk to Bakhmut. A powerful camouflaged pickup rushes towards us. The driver, Sashko, smacks his lips curiously:
“When I grow up, I will buy one for myself!”
“When you grow up?! You are 35 years old,” I am sincerely surprised.
“I wanted to say that when the war ends,” Sashko laughs, “after the victory, when I return if I survive…”
In this somewhat funny caveat, a paradigm of thinking typical of many military personnel is hidden: not to plan anything serious in advance, to understand that there are thousands of “buts” for all dreams and plans for the future — and life can end at any moment. When a brother-in-arm dies, the first thing that usually comes to mind is his last voiced plans: go fishing, see children, make repairs in the apartment. Ordinary everyday things can be simply inaccessible, so conversations about the future among the military, indeed, sometimes resemble children’s ones, which begin with the words “when I grow up…” The life of civilians during war is also full of uncertainties but if they do not live in a near-front zone, they still have many times fewer “buts” than an average soldier at the front.
In movies and books about war, the heroes must definitely say what made them take up arms. In real combat conditions, such pathetic conversations are extremely rare because it seems that everything is obvious: we protect our land. “What can I say? If we do not fight, then they will come to our home, to everyone’s home, and do what happened in Irpin and Bucha. We are fighting not for a strange man. We are fighting for ourselves, each for our family. No one else will do it for us,” says Heorhiy, the commander of the anti-tank platoon, who was a contract serviceman until 2014, then remained in the army all the time and participated in the ATO-JFO. “I just want to return home, to my native Sevastopol,” says aerial scout Oleh who left occupied Crimea and worked as a designer in Kyiv until 2022. “When the full-scale war began, I realised that I would not be able to stay in the rear or go abroad, my conscience simply would not allow me, especially since I have a medical education,” says combat medic Anastasia. These simple answers reflect the opinions of the majority of those who are currently defending the Motherland.
Patriotic slogans, words of gratitude to the Defence Forces, and faith in our victory are often seen on social networks and heard in live conversations in the rear. This is quite natural for the country waging the war of liberation, but it sometimes causes frustration among the soldiers. It’s not PTSD or despair. Those who are called unbreakable, knights, and titans, are actually living people. And yes, many of them are tired of war. First of all, physically but morally too. This is because the terms of service for the mobilised have not been established. “Until the end of martial law” sounds pretty gloomy given that the war will be protracted and no one is seriously talking about its quick end today. Ihor Lutsenko, a politician and civil society activist in the past, and now a serviceman, shared a post on his Facebook that conveys the mood typical of a significant part of the front-line soldiers: “The state is obliged to give these people [mobilised] certainty in terms of their service and provide a fourth way out of the army except for the coffin, prison, and disability. And it’s not a matter of rest, it’s a matter of establishing basic justice and preventing the catastrophe we’re heading to. Get ready for mobilisation and help the army because everyone has to go through it.” These words are not “betrayal” or frustration at the goals of war, they are a request for justice. When one part of society has been directly participating in military operations for a year and a half, while the other continues to live a rather comfortable life, the voices of “illegal mobilisation” and “economic front” held by those who work and pay taxes sound increasingly brazen. Of course, it is not about maximalism or equalisation but rather about transparent rules of the game when a conscript has a clearly defined term of service. Such a scheme operated during the anti-terrorist operation when one was conscripted for a year. But today we have a different nature of war, and it is difficult for the command to dare to take a step when thousands of experienced fighters will be released to the reserve. They are to be replaced by newly mobilised people without combat experience. Such a turn of events can be extremely dangerous.
Often, fighters, after coming to peaceful cities, express dissatisfaction with how the rear lives. “In Kyiv and in Lviv, which I visited during my vacation, I don’t feel the war is ongoing in the country at all,” says Stepan who worked in a managerial position in one of the ministries until 24 February 2022 and has been serving as a sniper in a special forces brigade for the past year and a half, “I understand that peaceful life must be different. I am glad that restaurants and barbershops work. But look at how many perfectly fit men are roaming the streets. It is easily seen with the unaided eye that they are not in the army and are not going there. And it’s frankly annoying. Just like annoying questions about ‘when will it all be over’ or talking about the election. What kind of elections can be during the war?!”
War teaches one to tame one’s fear and to believe in one’s strength. This can be called a survivor’s achievement. Therefore, in the army, many people have a desire to do after the war what they were previously afraid of: open their own business, change their field of employment, complete a thesis, and solve problems in their personal lives. Sometimes such conversations arise between the military, but they are of the “when I grow up” nature. “Let’s be honest, this war will never end for us. There is a saying: you can come from war, but you can’t come back,” says National Guard member Oleksiy who never served in the army until 2022. “Even when the fighting abates, it will be necessary to maintain combat capability, to search for war criminals, to help those affected by the war. I decided for myself: I will sign a contract and stay in the army. It’s also more comfortable psychologically. There won’t be people next to me who avoid service or talk such nonsense as ‘”‘not everything is so clear-cut,” ready to put up with the Russians.” Similar opinions are expressed by those who were seriously wounded at the front but remain in the security forces – in those positions where it is possible to serve due to their health. Ihor was a sapper at the front but partially lost his hearing after a concussion: “Having gone through military medical commission, I went to the Territorial Center for Recruitment and Social Support, through which I had been drafted, and asked if I would be of use to them. They welcomed me. Now, I serve there in a ‘paperwork’ position. It is important for me to stay in the ranks, to wear a military uniform. I want to be useful for the common Cause that we all do. And somehow I don’t want to return to civilian life.”
There has been an opinion in Ukrainian society since 2014 that “boys and girls will return from the front and fix life in the country.” The military themselves are extremely ironic about such naive hopes. In fact, life at the front is disconnected from all relevant public discussions: people in the trenches do not talk about the probability of presidential elections, Nagorno-Karabakh, the sexist statements by Oleksiy Arestovych, or Andriy Kurkov’s dialogues with Masha Gessen. In war, everything revolves around two pillars: the fulfillment of the combat mission and the preservation of the lives of personnel. The rest of the time (and there is very little of it) is for ordinary chores and recovery. To integrate into a peaceful life, veterans will need time to understand the mechanisms of civilian life which they have fallen out of. And the longer the war lasts, the more time to realise this will be needed.
Author: Dmytro Krapyvenko, serviceman