An Inhumane War: Ukraine, Animals, and Refugees

Bara Kolenc

May 1, 2022

In February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described Russian operations against his country as "vile, cruel and inhuman". Taking this humanitarian perspective, the media was inundated with this master signifier: ‘an inhumane war.’ Killing civilians, not taking care of the wounded and sick, not respecting the rights of prisoners of war, and using weapons of mass destruction are considered to be signs of a war that is out-of-control, bestial, and insane. But there is something much stranger – and more telling - about calling a war 'inhumane'.

One immediate response calling into question this master signifier might be that, when we categorize one war as 'inhumane', we imply that there is another kind of war that might qualify as humane. Yet, how can one draw a line between the humane and the inhumane war? War is inhumane in its fundamentals, or so the liberal argument goes. In reality, there is another more important facet of this ‘inhumane war’ discourse.

Is the signifier of the 'inhumane war' unsettling because it is based upon the 'forbidden' presupposition that there is such thing as a humane war? Aren't we all well aware that war as such is inhumane, animalistic, and represents a regrettable digression on our path toward reaching the noble goals of the Enlightenment? And so, the Geneva conventions, which purport to maintain the so-called dignity of man and to protect basic human rights, are nothing but an ill-fated attempt to retain the blasphemous idea of a humane war?

A Dark Truth

It is this awareness that feeds the hidden assumptions of the rationalist pacifist disposition which is exhibited in the correspondence between Einstein and Freud conducted prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. In this correspondence, sponsored by the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation and published in 1933, Freud writes:

War runs most emphatically counter to the psychic disposition imposed on us by the growth of culture; we are therefore bound to resent war, to find it utterly intolerable. With pacifists like us it is not merely an intellectual and affective repulsion, but a constitutional intolerance, an idiosyncrasy in its most drastic form.

Even when talking about psychological development Freud notes that "two of the most important phenomena of culture are, firstly, a strengthening of the intellect, which tends to master our instinctive life, and, secondly, an introversion of the aggressive impulse". In other words, as the human subject develops, it moves further and further away from an impulse to war. For Freud, to reach a state of global social balance and world peace, man must take control over his instincts as the remnants of his animal nature. To realize humanity, then, would be to eliminate war.

Reflecting on Einstein’s question to him as to how long it might be before the rest of humanity became pacifists, Freud responded that it was impossi