By Al Lehmann
When Robbie Burns turned up a mouse’s nest with his plough and subsequently recorded the incident in his poem To a Mouse, he offered his readers a profound truth: “The best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, and leave us naught but grief and pain for promised joy.”
If “gang aft agley” seems a bit weird, it’s merely Burns’s Scottish dialect at work, saying “often go astray.”
This truth seems to have been unfolding in Ukraine over most of the past year.
One might wonder just what “joy” Putin has been seeking. To be received as a conquering hero? To be the saviour of a lost Russian ethno-nationalism? To re-establish the Russian Empire under himself as a twenty-first century Tsar? Whatever it was initially, even with the Ukraine as mouse, the plan has gone astray.
Back near the beginning of November, BBC News reported American estimates of around 200,000 military casualties (killed and wounded) on all sides in Ukraine. A further 40,000 or so civilians have been killed, directly or as “collateral damage.” How do we deal with numbers like that?
Presumably parents, children, spouses, and even friends of the dead and maimed feel the bitter injustice of it all, that in order to promote a different political order these victims were expected, however randomly, to bear the agony and loss such facts entail.
If we might imagine Putin as a “wannabe” Stalin, he may be reflecting on that former dictator’s bleak comment that, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” In other words, those lives were essentially meaningless in the “grand scheme of things.”
Meanwhile, arms manufacturers are doing a brisk business. Five of the world’s top ten largest defence contractors are American, and sales are up. France, Britain, and even Israel are selling weapons to Ukraine. Financially (and other considerations aside), what could be more profitable? Life and possible death are powerful motives for buyers, and selling at high margins weapons that will likely be blown apart or used up (and therefore needing to be replaced) has got to be rewarding from a cash perspective.
Despite unexpected losses, Putin seems to have doubled down on Russia’s invasion efforts. His military’s objectives to cripple Ukraine — energy infrastructure in particular, but also transportation assets, residential buildings, industrial plants, utilities, and so on — have racked up an estimated repair/replacement bill of $127 billion and counting.
One must wonder what winning such a war might look like. R. Cobb once created a cartoon featuring two haggard-looking men hunched over a small campfire in a catastrophically demolished landscape. One says to the other, “There’s a rumour going ‘round that we won…” Oh, the bitterness in irony!
One can easily imagine Putin touring an utterly smashed Ukraine, perhaps victorious after several years of pommeling the country into submission and blowing it to smithereens, staring at the rubble and destruction, celebrating that he has “won.”
An old joke supposedly emblematic of Russian character featured a peasant, jealous of his neighbour who had just bought a new cow. When the first peasant rubbed a magic lamp, the genie that appeared offered to give him a cow just like his neighbour’s. “No, no!” the peasant replied. “I want you to kill my neighbour’s cow.” Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?