The end of the Age of Fragility
The war in Ukraine has exposed the moral infirmities of the West.
It is not the most pressing question to emerge from Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine, but I have nonetheless found myself wondering – what will happen with the word ‘erasure’ following this war? Ukraine’s heroic president Volodymyr Zelensky used the e-word last week. Russia, he said, is out to ‘erase our history’. The Putin regime and its marauding forces want to ‘erase our country, erase us all’, Zelensky cried, aptly, given the vigour and bigotry with which Putin has mocked and violently undermined Ukrainian sovereignty. Putin clearly sees Ukraine as a joke nation that can casually be erased from the map.
Zelensky’s impassioned, existential words got me thinking: which woke warrior here in the mercifully war-free West will dare to misuse the word ‘erasure’ now? ‘Erasure’ is a key buzzword in the PC lexicon. There’s trans erasure, LGBT erasure, the erasure of black women with ‘kinky hair’. Only erasure here doesn’t mean ‘the removal of all traces of something’. It certainly doesn’t mean a foreign power using brute force to extinguish your most basic rights. No, it means a gender-critical feminist turning up to your campus and saying ‘If you have a penis, you are a man’. It means EastEnders not having enough bisexual characters. It means being asked ‘Can I touch your hair?’. It means attending a museum or some other public institution and seeing that its Pride flag doesn’t include the shade that represents your femme-boy demisexual identity. All of this is very seriously described as ‘erasure’. Even as bombs fall on Kharkiv and Kyiv, threatening to erase people and infrastructure, designed to erase a nation’s identity, still time-rich, experience-poor activists in the West seriously believe they are being erased by mean tweets and differing opinions.
It remains to be seen which woke midwit will be the first to say out loud that having to walk past a statue of a long-dead Brit with iffy beliefs feels ‘erasing’ at the same time as statues and buildings and people in Ukraine are being erased by Russian bombs. But we already know for sure that the war in Ukraine is raising questions not only about the Putin regime’s criminal behaviour and Ukraine’s right to self-determination, but also about the West. The war in Ukraine is an incredibly confronting moment for Europe. It reminds us that history is not in fact over. That unresolved questions of power and territory lurk just beneath the surface of politics. That war is not the faraway phenomenon we thought it was. More fundamentally, it implicitly issues a challenge to the unseriousness, the smallness, of what passes for public life in the 21st-century West. It asks us if we are ready for the violent return of history. The answer, right now, seems to be No.
Over the past few weeks, the contrast between the frivolousness of the woke West and the seriousness of threatened Ukraine could not have been more stark. On the very day Russia launched its invasion, the UK Ministry of Defence’s LGBT Network (why?) announced on Twitter that it was having a coffee morning to discuss pansexuality and asexuality. Yes, as Ukrainians hid from Russian tanks and planes, a part of the actual MoD was sipping lattes and chatting about folk who feel a ‘romantic, emotional and / or sexual attraction to people regardless of their gender’. Not to be outdone, the head of MI6, Richard Moore (he / him), used the occasion of Russia’s bombardment of Ukraine to issue a ‘series of tweets’ on LGBTHM2022 – that’s LGBT History Month 2022 for those of you not abreast with the alphabet soup.
As everyday Ukrainians pull together and arm themselves with guns and petrol bombs, Britain’s military top brass have rather different concerns. Such as why you should avoid using words like ‘manpower’, ‘strong’ and ‘grip’. They ‘reinforce dominant cultural patterns’, according to a recent internal report authored by UK national security adviser Sir Stephen Lovegrove. Apparently you should also check your white privilege and use gender-neutral language wherever possible. And let’s not forget the campaign for ‘vegan uniforms’ in the British army. Last week, as Ukraine burned, it was reported that the Ministry of Defence Vegan and Vegetarian Network (again, why?) is agitating for animal-friendly clothing and boots, excluding things like leather. Well, you wouldn’t want to be wearing the skin of a dead animal as you kill a human being, would you?
The ridiculousness of all of this is thrown into sharp relief by the crisis in Ukraine. Imagine if the Ukrainian military and the network of armed citizens who have joined it to fight against the Russians shared the eccentric obsessions of British military officials. Imagine if they policed each other’s speech on the frontline, warning their comrades not to say ‘Kill that bastard!’ or ‘Fuck the Russians!’ on the basis that these are gendered and / or racialised slurs. Imagine if the brave armed citizens said, ‘Sorry, I can’t wear this bullet belt because it is made from leather’. Imagine if manoeuvres had to be interrupted every now and then for a coffee and a chat about why asexuality is a legitimate identity that deserves its place on the LGBTQIA2s+ spectrum. The consequences would be dire. Their foreign oppressors would exploit their frailty and wipe them out.
So, wouldn’t that happen to us? How would a military that has within its ranks people worried about wearing leather and terrified of causing offence with manly words like ‘strong’ and ‘power’ fare against an enemy like Russia that is actually strong and powerful? Not well, I’d wager. Of course this goes far beyond the adoption of woke sensibilities by military officials. Our armed forces have also shrunk themselves physically. The British army is the smallest it has been for 400 years. Cuts have reduced Britain’s fighting forces to around 72,000 men and women. The British army says technology is now more important than ‘manpower’ (a word you’re not even allowed to use). Drones and robots will allow the military to become ‘leaner and more agile’, said one senior army officer last year. So we have fewer soldiers, and the ones who are left are increasingly woke, and they’re implored to be ‘compassionate’ (the British army advertised for ‘snowflake’ recruits in 2019, claiming that it needed their ‘compassion’). What could possibly go wrong…?
The war in Ukraine seems to be waking up Western European leaders to their own dangerous delusions. It is shaking some from their luxurious conceit that we inhabit a post-war, post-nationhood world in which everything is mostly fine and dandy, give or take the ‘climate emergency’ and all of that. So Germany has started to make unprecedented moves to bolster its military forces. Some German greens are even wondering if the fantasy of living in a non-nuclear world has been firmly shattered by the Russia-Ukraine war, and if it might now be time to resuscitate all those shutdown nuclear power plants. No doubt British officials are also looking at whether their decimation of the military and their capitulation to anti-nuclear greens has been wise, given that war and energy and other historical questions are not as neatly resolved as we thought they were.
Yet even as all of this happens, we need to ask ourselves how we got into this situation. How we arrived in a world in which defending people from supposedly offensive words is considered more important than defending our borders. In which we seem to have so little need for the virtue of ‘strength’ that we’re willing to blacklist the word itself for being gendered and stereotypical. This is where the Ukraine war really confronts us. It interrupts, violently, our post-Cold War conceits. It upends our belief that history, in Europe at least, is largely settled, and now we can concern ourselves with petty things like pronouns and sexual identity or with purposely overblown, mission-creating projects for the technocratic elite, like the ‘climate emergency’. This conceit has impacted on almost every facet of public life in recent decades, nurturing the delusion that ours is a post-war, post-borders, post-everything continent, in which the highest aim of public life is either to manage the public or validate individual identities. Those bombs in Ukraine have shattered this Western arrogance and decadence by reminding us that history lives.
For too long, we have lived in an apolitical vacuum, supposedly separate from world events and historic momentum. We exist in a state of blinkered comfort, convincing ourselves we can outsource all the difficult stuff. Energy production has been outsourced, largely to Russia and China, so that we don’t need to sully our green virtue by burning coal or building nuclear plants. Even war has been outsourced, not only in the sense that we now do battle with competing powers on other people’s terrain – such as in Syria, where Western proxies battled Russian proxies – but also in the sense that even our physical fighting is increasingly done by private companies. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Western allies deployed mercenary forces, well-paid private contractors, to fight the enemy. You couldn’t ask for a better snapshot of the self-deceptions of the West than the fact that our leaders believed they could designate war, the defence of our way of life, to profit-driven non-state actors.
The impact of this misguided sense of being separate from history, forcefielded from time and conflict, cannot be overstated. Not only has it led to the depletion of military power and the outsourcing of energy production – it has also contributed to the Age of Fragility, to the cultivation not of strength but of vulnerability among younger generations. These new generations have been told that nationhood is a meaningless idea, that struggle is the stuff of black-and-white footage from the Forties, that history is an already done deal, expressed in offensive statues and dusty tomes, and not something you yourself make or contribute to. This has inexorably led to the elevation of the vice of fragility over the virtue of courage. New generations, convinced that history itself is a historical phenomenon, have been enticed to focus on the self over the nation, on their own bodies and identities and pronouns over their communities, on me rather than country. In the alleged absence of history, the self is all that’s left.
In the Age of Fragility, cultivating vulnerability has become the chief aim of almost every major institution. Schools, universities, even workplaces promote the idea that we are weak, at risk of mental ill-health, even of PTSD, and that we require constant official guidance and validation. The promiscuous use of the phrase PTSD to describe everything from being offended on Twitter to hearing a disagreeable speaker at your university captures the extent to which the delusions of post-history comfort have frazzled our minds and morality: PTSD was once seen as something suffered by those who sacrificed almost everything in defence of the nation; now it is something that can apparently be triggered when someone refers to you as ‘he’ when you consider yourself to be a ‘she’. Once, it took war to hurt us; now it only takes words.
In these circumstances, it isn’t surprising that, a few years ago, a poll found that large numbers of millennials said they would dodge conscription in the event of a world war. Thirty-nine per cent of Brits aged between 18 and 40 said they would hide away from the responsibilities of fighting for their nation in a world-consuming war. This is the price we pay for nurturing fragility and self-obsession. Perhaps it is time to bring back national service, to train every young adult into the warrior ethos. This would help young people to feel a real part of the nation they live in, to discover the joys of strength over weakness, and to develop the resources required to stand up for our friends and allies when they are under attack. ‘We shouldn’t get militarily involved in Ukraine’, many people are saying. I agree. That would cause more problems than solutions and it would escalate the crisis in Ukraine by introducing yet more external geopolitical interests. But there is something else too, and we cannot ignore it: the question of why we seem to lack the people and the resources, ‘the right stuff’, to get involved in Ukraine if it were a good idea to do so.
No, the war in Ukraine will not resolve the moral infirmities of the West. Packing youths off to fight against Russia will not transform them from cancel-culture aficionados into real-life John Rambos. Those dreaming that war in Europe means the West will magically recover the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ ethos of old need to think again. Our problems are too entrenched, and they require domestic debate and transformation not romantic gazing at brave youths in a faraway land. But what Ukraine has done is confirm that history is coming violently back to life, and that, morally, politically and physically, we are not prepared for it.
Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy
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