JOHN DERBYSHIRE How About Show Trials For Enemies Of The People Who Want U.S. Embroiled In This Ukraine-Russia Mess?
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Earlier: "A Riddle, Wrapped In A Mystery, Inside An Enigma"—Why Do American Elites Hate Russia?

Adapted from the latest Radio Derb, available exclusively at

Back in 2005, I sat at dinner next to a gentleman of some age. We got to talking, and he told me he had been a bomber pilot in World War II, had served on thirty-odd missions over Europe, including the firestorm-bombing of Dresden in February 1945.

I asked this very pleasant and personable old gentleman whether, in all the time he served on bombers, he and his comrades ever spoke about the morality of mass aerial bombing of German cities. No, he said, it never came up. Not even once? No, he replied emphatically, not once. Did he himself ever think along those lines? No, not at all. Did he think that perhaps one or two of his comrades might have thought about such issues?

His response:

Possibly, but I doubt it. Nobody was thinking like that, nobody I knew anyway. It was a war. They were the enemy. Our missions were very dangerous—I was lucky to survive so many. Some of my friends were killed or captured. We just wanted to end the war, and one way was to bomb the enemy into submission. Which we did—and a good thing too.

That recollection was prompted by news of atrocities in the Russia-Ukraine war. There have been atrocities by both sides, the reports tell us: Russian soldiers torturing and killing Ukraine civilians; Ukrainian soldiers torturing and killing Russian soldiers.

There's an asymmetry there of course. The ordinary instinctive morality we bring to these events tells us that for soldiers of one side wantonly to kill civilians of the other side is more flagitious than soldiers killing soldiers. Since Ukrainian military personnel have no access to Russian civilians, we look on the Russian atrocities as worse.

There's the fox-and-rabbit asymmetry, too: the fox running for his dinner, the rabbit for his life. A total victory for Russia in this war might mean the extinction of Ukraine as any kind of independent nation; a total victory for Ukraine would leave Russia much as before. That great "Because we live here!" clip from Red Dawn has been getting some Twitter time.

"Tell me what's the difference between us and them."

"Because we live here!"]

And then there's my dinner-table companion from seventeen years ago. Ordering your uniformed personnel to slaughter tens of thousands of unarmed civilians is certainly atrocious; but what if it can be plausibly argued that by doing so you will greatly shorten the war, sparing unknown numbers of fatalities, both military and civilian?

That was the argument for nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I don't see how you can say unequivocally that it was a bad one.

This is the calculus of war. You may not like it; I'm not keen on it myself. If you're going to bring forth opinions about some war, though, you have to engage with it.

When hostilities are actually underway, there is the further complication of distinguishing truth from falsehood. Truth is proverbially the first casualty in any war, and Russia-Ukraine is not likely an exception. This war has many spectators all over the world, including the combatant countries. Of course propagandists for both sides seek to influence them. Lurid atrocity stories are part of that.

Our emotions play a part, too. If you are emotionally invested in one side or the other, you will believe or dismiss atrocity stories accordingly. There's plenty of that on social media. I'm neutral here, with an open mind, content to wait for postwar researchers to dig out the truth where they can.

None of that is to say atrocities don't happen. They are part of warfare and always have been. The Chinese idiom căo jiān rén mìng (草 菅 人 命)—"to treat human lives as if they were grass"—was first written down twenty-two centuries ago and was probably in oral circulation long before that. I doubt it will ever go out of circulation.

But when I said I was neutral, I meant neutral as to the truth or falsehood of the atrocity stories. When it comes to assigning blame for a war, everybody has an opinion. Here's mine:

Russia had a legitimate beef with the government of Ukraine. There were issues between the two countries that needed resolving: mainly NATO, and some disgruntlement among Russian-speakers in East Ukraine. Ukraine’s President Zelensky seems not to have been very adroit or helpful in dealing with those issues. Perhaps he couldn't spare the time from padding out his Swiss bank accounts [The Comedian-Turned-President Is Seriously in Over His Head, by Olga Rudenko, NYT, February 21, 2022].

All right: but none of that rose to the level of requiring a military solution. There were avenues the Russians could have explored to resolve things peacefully—with NATO, with the EU, with mediator nations not involved in the disputes—even with the USA, perhaps.

Russia did some of that, but they certainly didn't exhaust all possibilities before turning to the military option. The February invasion of Ukraine was an act of wanton aggression, with no good justification.

That's my opinion. The blame falls on Russia.

Out there among the serious, well-informed commentariat there is another very common opinion. The blame, say these pundits, or some large portion of the blame, falls on us, the USA We've been poking and prodding the Russian bear for twenty years, using NATO as our main prod, when we should have been trying to help Russia and establishing friendship with her.

There's much truth in that. Our foreign policy in regard to post–Cold War Russia has been quite sensationally stupid. We should have been striving by any means we could think of to win Russia's trust and friendship. To do so would have been of huge benefit to us, to them, and to our children and grandchildren.

One of the best expositions of this was given seven years ago by, like my 2005 dinner companion, an Air Force veteran: political science professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago.

In the summer of 2015 Prof. Mearsheimer delivered an address to the university's Alumni Weekend. Title of the address: "Why is Ukraine the West's Fault?," The University of Chicago YouTube Channel, September 25, 2015. Yes, this was seven years ago, and the topic was already up for discussion. This followed the Crimea crisis of the previous year. Here's the closing 55 seconds of Prof. Mearsheimer's address.

[Clip.]  When I give this talk, many people in the West think that there's sort of a deep-seated immoral dimension to my position because I'm blaming the West and not Putin, who certainly has authoritarian or thuggish tendencies—there's no question about that. But I actually think that what's going on here is that the West is leading Ukraine down the Primrose Path, and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked.

And I believe that the policy I'm advocating, which is neutralizing Ukraine and then building it up economically and getting it out of the competition between Russia on the one side and NATO on the other side is the best thing that could happen to the Ukrainians.

What we're doing is encouraging the Ukrainians to play tough with the Russians. We're encouraging the Ukrainians to think that they will ultimately become part of the West because we will ultimately defeat Putin and we will ultimately get our way. Time is on our side!

And of course the Ukrainians are playing along with this. And of course the Ukrainians are almost completely unwilling to compromise with the Russians, and instead want to pursue a hard-line policy. Well, as I said to you before: If they do that, the end result is that their country is going to be wrecked; and what we're doing is in effect encouraging that outcome.

I think it would make much more sense for us to neutral … to work to create a neutral Ukraine. It would be in our interest to bury this crisis as quickly as possible.

It certainly would be in Russia's interest to do so; and most importantly it would be in Ukraine's interest to put an end to the crisis.


Prof. Mearsheimer, I should say, is not as much of an isolationist as I am. He doesn't believe, as I do, that we should have left NATO in March of 1991, the week after the Warsaw Pact dissolved itself.

It would have been sensible at that point for the Europeans to unite for common defense, with all the uncertainty about where Russia was headed. NATO, preferably under a different name, could have been the basis for that.

It just wasn't sensible for us, the United States, to continue being involved at the formal treaty level.

That aside, I didn't find much to disagree with Prof. Mearsheimer about. If realists like him had been steering America's post–Cold War foreign policy, today's world would be a safer and better place. Instead we got what the great H.L. Mencken called "World Savers"—ideologues, moralists, and missionaries.

And there was nothing party-political about our misfortune. Our foreign policy was nuts under Uniparty Democrats and Republicans both.

I really hate to say it, but sometimes show trials for Enemies of the People don't seem like such a bad idea.

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him.) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. He has had two books published by com: FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle) and FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT II: ESSAYS 2013.

For years he’s been podcasting at Radio Derb, now available at for no charge. His writings are archived at

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