“A Very 21st Century War…”
This week, a new generation saw war in Europe for the first time. Children in England will be acutely aware that not too far away from countries that many will have visited for holidays, a nation full of young people just like them will be waking up in fear.
War in Europe is an experience that has shaped generations before, from the ‘baby boomers’ growing up in the aftermath of World War Two to the ‘millennials’ who watched the siege of Sarajevo on BBC Newsround. We all hoped this spectre had been consigned to history.
I know how keenly young people will feel the negative karma from the invasion of Ukraine. If there is one thing that came out of the “Big Ask” survey run by the children’s commissioner, Rachel de Souza, last year, it is that children care passionately about the world around them, especially other boys and girls. Their empathy is off the scale – which is a good thing.Children today are a generation who feel connected across the world through social media. Whether it is through the Champions League, the Eurovision Song Contest or parkour videos on YouTube, children in England and Ukraine have a set of shared experiences and cultural reference points.
Consequently, we should not hide what is happening, but support children in understanding it. We must remember that they can find solace in being part of a wider community that is comprehending and responding to these events. Ultimately, these experiences may help them to find their voice, a sense of perspective and become empowered members of a more altruistic society.
One interesting aspect, apart from the obvious scenes of horror, to emerge from the last few days is a sense of just how differently this war is being conducted. In addition to the visible weaponry, an invisible subtext is being played out. A prime example was Vladimir Putin’s blanket switch-off of Ukraine’s internet – disabling the entire country and its infrastructure under a virtual shroud of darkness whilst his army marched on Kyiv.
However, via the medium of social media, one of the Ukrainian ministers made a direct appeal to Elon Musk for assistance. The entrepreneur responded positively and within hours the Ukrainian network was back up and running thanks to the power of Musk’s Starlink programme – which is operational from space.
Effectively, the resources of one individual counteracted the third most powerful country on the planet thanks to an exchange over Twitter. It seems almost paradoxical at first impression and then the reality dawns – the platform for this appeal single-handedly reached its desired target but also raised awareness of Ukraine’s plight to millions of people. In other words, it is brilliant in its conception and simplicity. This was, in its own way, a genuinely seismic moment which not too long ago would have been more akin to a far-fetched James Bond plot – albeit with the roles of protagonist and antagonist reversed.
Another unlikely hero is the Ukrainian leader, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who prior to becoming the president of his country in 2019 was a comedian and actor. His defiance and ‘front-line’ leadership will win him a place in the history books and potentially a Nobel Peace prize as well, although it may be posthumous if reports of his impending assassination by Russian mercenaries are to be believed. He continues to act with enormous courage and integrity in the face of aggression and intimidation.
It goes to show that just as Shakespearean texts stand the test of time thanks to the enduring traits of their characters, the same is true in real life. For every individual like Macbeth who is seduced by ambition and power, there is an alter ego like Banquo who retains nobility and virtue.
Whilst grounded in timeless humanity, with all the emotive hallmarks of human suffering, this is a very 21st century war…with not just an estimated seven million families displaced from their homes but also multi-layered logistical, technological and financial implications for citizens far beyond Eastern Europe – and that is before one considers the nuclear threat. Let us hope that Charlemagne’s adage of “the pen being mightier than the sword” still holds true and that a diplomatic resolution to the conflict may yet be achievable.
1st March 2022
Pic 1: Olena Kurilo, Ukrainian teacher who became the image of war after the Russian invasion
Pic 2: Elon Musk & Vladimir Putin
Pic 3: Volodymyr Zelenskyy in combat uniform
(With thanks to Rachel de Souza, Children’s Commissioner, for use of some of her words in the introduction to this piece.)