Zelenskyy channels Shakespeare: 'being brave is our brand'

Bodies unburied in the street, summary executions, mass graves, rapes, snipers picking off civilians like pigeons – the Russian army’s atrocities in the Ukrainian town of Bucha have appalled the world. These are war crimes, said US President Joe Biden, and Vladimir Putin is a “war criminal”.

He is right and the charnel house scenes ought to extinguish smouldering sympathies amongst “conservatives” for Putin and his self-justifying arguments for the “special operation” – demilitarisation, denazification, de-woke-ification and so on.

Even if Russian authorities eventually admit that their troops were responsible for the slaughter of civilians, they might attribute these horrors to rogue elements. But after deliberately shelling the elderly and women and children sheltering in Mariupol and other cities, that won’t wash. The Russian troops have reverted to form. They are following the playbook they used in Grozny and Aleppo – and in the last days of World War II – bombing and bombing and bombing, with scant regard for civilian casualities.

Aghast at Russian aggression, the West sees in Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy an heroic underdog, valiant, intelligent, and inspiring, a Winston Churchill for the 21st century. “Being brave is our brand,” he says.

Yet – especially given his career as an actor – perhaps a better analogy is Shakespeare’s Henry V. This play has some of the most powerful patriotic rhetoric in the English language – “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” – and tells a tale of an exhausted, sick, starving army fighting for its survival against a larger and heavily armed army. Henry wins the battle of Agincourt, of course, and praises God for his astonishing victory: “O God, thy arm was here; /And not to us, but to thy arm alone, / Ascribe we all!

Powerful stuff – enough to make every Briton puff out his chest with pride at being British – just as Zelenskyy’s speeches have energised his people and persuaded legislatures around the world to support him with arms. Admittedly, one mustn't press the analogy too far. As a matter of historical fact, Henry was more like Putin than Zelensky. He was invading France on a war of conquest. It's the heroic underdog of the Battle of Agincourt that we remember, not the greedy king of the Hundred Years' War .

But Shakespeare uses Henry V to remind us of what we repeatedly forget – that “war is hell”. War drives both the “bad guys” and the “good guys” to commit atrocious crimes.

Early in the play, Henry lay siege to the port city of Harfleur. After skirmishes in which he loses some men, he terrifies the governor with promises of “heady murder, spoil and villany” if he does not surrender.

If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds …

And he justifies his inhumane threats thus:

What say you? will you yield, and this avoid,
Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroy'd

In other words, resistance confirms your guilt.

In our more orderly peaceful times, we tend to believe that international law and institutions erase man’s cruelty. They don’t.

At another point in the play – which is historically accurate – the tide of battle turns and Henry’s rear is threatened. In desperation he commands that thousands of French prisoners be killed, lest they join their comrades. In short, by today’s standards, Henry V was a war criminal. In fact, the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, once presided at a mock trial of Henry for war crimes at Agincourt and awarded damages to the estates of the prisoners.

If Henry V, one of England’s most admired kings, dirtied his hands in the muck of war, it’s only reasonable to expect that Ukrainians will eventually do the same. In fact, it is already happening – though by no means on the scale of the Russian atrocities.

  • A video which appears to show Ukrainian soldiers torturing captured Russian troops by shooting them in the legs.
  • A video which appears to show an unarmed Russian prisoner shot dead by Ukrainians.
  • Ukraine is using facial recognition technology from the US to identify dead Russian soldiers. It then notifies their relatives across the border in Russia. In other circumstances this would be called a violation of privacy and psychological terrorism.
  • Several “traitors” have been arrested and even executed by Ukrainian authorities. According to the London Times, Ukrainian security forces have “come under scrutiny for carrying out a “campaign of terror” against opponents of the Ukrainian government. Scores of people have been arrested, from members of pro-Russian parties to those who post blogs in support of the invasion.”

These do not establish a moral equivalence between Ukraine and Russia. As far as war crimes go, these are the equivalent of shoplifting a Mars bar from a 7/11, while the Russians have blown up the store.

But Ukrainians are enraged – justifiably -- about the invasion, the destruction, and the atrocities. Ukrainian journalist Evgeny Spirin witnessed the aftermath of the slaughter in Bucha. He was quoted in British media about what he thought of the Russian troops: “They must cease to exist. They must all be destroyed, each and every one of them, turned into dust, into mud, into clay, all of them.” We cannot be surprised if we discover that some Ukrainian troops have committed war crimes. War is hell and it turns men into beasts – even men fighting for a just cause.

Again, this is not an argument for moral equivalence. The heroism of Zelensky and the Ukrainian people is beyond doubt. The future security of Europe depends upon their resistance. But it is necessary to recognise that men can be stretched to the breaking point. And if that happens in Ukraine, we must still stand with them against Putin’s mad empire building.


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