There is no denying that the Russians have committed a wide spectrum of war crimes upon a nation of innocent victims in Ukraine, and each new round of ghastly photos ignites another call for the perpetrators to be hauled off to The Hague to face charges in the International Criminal Court.
“Bloody murder” is in no way too extreme a description of what the Russians are doing in Ukraine. We may know nothing about the way these people died, who killed them or what specific role those aspects played in the Russian attack. We just know they are dead, violently dead in so many cases. Men, women, children, they have all fallen victim.
No one has ever fired a rocket or artillery shell innocently into a housing complex or maternity hospital or at a railroad station where people are waiting just to escape the violence. These soldiers will carry the burden from that act for the rest of their lives and beyond, one might hope. In some mystical hereafter, perhaps they will be expected to meet with their victims, who will plead, “Why did you kill me this way?”
No one with a soul has a problem understanding why these calls for war crimes trials are becoming more frequent. But no one with a sense of history and an understanding of how war crimes tribunals have worked over time believes there will ever be a day when Vladimir Putin is sentenced to prison for his crimes.
We have all seen the photos by now, and they story they tell, even without a narrative, cuts right into the heart and helps unleash that loud, long call.
But is it a call for justice or a demand for vengeance?
There is a difference, of course, with one attached to the noble thought that evil is always confronted by goodness and the other attached to retribution, about getting even, about payback against the people who offended you.
The Ukranian victim of a Russian execution (Associated Press photo).
My own concern is that while we are calling for justice on the surface, what we really mean is vengeance, because the images so strongly depict the cruelty of power over the innocent. If you have a soul, if you have any awareness, it is hard not to react by saying “Putin should hang for this,” or “Those Russian soldiers should be tied to trees and set on fire and have slow, awful deaths.”
But this is wrong.
It invites us into the camp of evil and asks us to sign up along with the other offenders. We might be able to understand why Ukrainian soldiers shot their Russian prisoners in the legs, or fired killing shots into the bodies of Russian soldiers who should have become war prisoners, protected under the Geneva Conventions.
But that doesn’t make it right. It just expands the head count in the army of evil.
I wish there were a chance for justice to shine its brightest light on the perpetrators of these crimes, some way for the people who are right to present some punishment for the people who are so wrong. But I don’t think that exists. That’s sad. But even here in America, where justice supposedly reigns supreme, we are not always very just. But we are frequently vengeful. And the thought that any justice would reach deeply enough into Russia to strip Putin of his position and call him to trial, that is dark fantasy.
It will simply not happen.
But there is a way to serve the cause of history in this conflict.
It seems in no way comparable to the violence that has claimed so many lives. But over time, it will be. After the bleeding has stopped and the dead are buried, maybe even after the most evil among the combatants have passed on, the world needs a clear record about what has happened here.
We don’t have that yet because there are still two sides in conflict, each with its own version of reality, quite black and white. You can tell that because even if you pursue an explanation from great distance, the answers are in no way complete or satisfying.
But we can begin creating that record with the forces that are already at work interviewing survivors and inspecting every aspect of the vast crime scene. If the United States government wants to provide a service beyond weaponry (And don’t get me wrong, that weaponry is crucial and God bless us for sending it) it should join other nations in financing the building of an objective record of what happened.
We need to commit to setting up truth tribunals everywhere that has felt this Russian assault. Who died? How? When? Then include the details of who these people were, these mothers and fathers and grandmas and grandpas and babies and lovely young men and women who are dead.
It will be a big and desperately sad record.
But it will give the world incontrovertible proof about what happened. We need that. It won’t send anyone to prison. But this should be done not for vengeance, not for revenge, but in the cause of justice.