Expat Chronicles: When War is Just a Short Plane Ride Away

Growing up in the United States, war was mostly an abstract concept to me, something that happened far away, seen mostly through someone else’s lens. There hasn’t been a war on American soil in 157 years. There hasn’t even been the hint of a threat of war on American soil, at least the kind of war that involves enemy troops marching on your hometown, raining bombs on your head, and forcing you to evacuate.

Compare that to the rest of the world. With few exceptions, there has been constant warfare somewhere in the world over the past century. Numerous wars have been waged in Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America. Some have involved the U.S., but never U.S. soil.

The World Population Review lists 20 countries that have been at war this decade alone, broken down into civil wars and terrorist insurgencies, with at least 1,000 casualties. Three have had at least 10,000 casualties: Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Yemen.

Now you can add the Russia-Ukraine conflict to the mix. This isn’t a civil war or a terrorist insurgency. It’s an old-fashioned invasion by one country (Russia) into another (Ukraine) with the purpose of grabbing land, installing a new government, expanding an empire, and feeding the ego of a tyrant (Vladimir Putin) with delusions of grandeur. It’s an old familiar tale, updated to the digital age.

I won’t go into the particulars of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It’s a never-ending news story, told by people much better equipped to tell it than I can.

What I will say is this: For the first time in my life, a shooting war between two different countries is within a short flight of where I live. It takes a little more than three hours to fly from London to Kyiv, Ukraine. That’s about how long it takes to fly from Charlotte, my hometown, to San Antonio. It’s about the same distance as New York to Minneapolis, or Los Angeles to Kansas City. Only three countries separate Ukraine from the UK: Poland, Germany, and the Netherlands.

I won’t try to inflate what this all means. The UK is in no clear and present danger, at least to my knowledge. Life is as it always has been since we moved to London four-plus years ago.

But other European countries are probably feeling a little nervous right now. You have to remind yourself that this is a continent where war is more than an abstract concept. Europe has been through two world wars in a little more than a century. Numerous civil wars and border clashes have taken place over the decades. The Yugoslav Wars involving Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia were fought less than 30 years ago.

It wasn’t that long ago that much of eastern Europe was controlled by the Soviet Union. People who live in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Latvia and eastern Germany have a not-so-distant memory of it. I imagine they don’t view Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an abstract concept.

Europe is comprised of more than 40 countries, most with their own distinct languages, cultures, values, histories, and political systems. We’ve visited 10 of them since moving over here (not counting Scotland and Northern Ireland), and none is exactly the same. It’s not like the United States, where you can drive for days and days and weeks without running into anything that is much different from the day you started, other than the weather and geography.

The U.S. spans across North America, is bordered by two big oceans to the east and west, and friendly neighbors to the north and south. It is isolated from the rest of the world. Europe is not.

You sense an uneasy tension over the goings-on in Ukraine. London is home to a number of Russian oligarchs, who have more influence over British politics than you might imagine. It’s not hard to imagine them being targets. Russia supplies much of Europe’s oil. Putin is making threats against NATO, of which the UK is one of the more prominent members. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is urging NATO to do more, Europe to do more.

There has been a call to provide more military equipment to Ukraine, more armaments. You wonder when calls will go out for a bigger military presence, including boots on the ground. Putin is practically drawing a line in the sand and daring NATO to cross it.

The other day our youngest daughter, 10 years old, asked us a series of questions about the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which they had talked about in her school. She wondered why Russia invaded Ukraine. She wondered if Russia would invade the UK. She couldn’t understand how this kind of thing happens.

I told her the truth as I saw it. Countries invade other countries to gain more power, more resources, more wealth, more influence. Sometimes they are motivated by greed. Sometimes they are motivated by fear that if they don’t expand, they will shrink. Some just invade other countries because nobody is stopping them, so why not?

I told her Ukraine was far away from the UK, and there was nothing to worry about. Then we showed her the map, and she saw only a few countries separating the UK from Ukraine. But I told her it was still a long way away. About 2,500 kilometers, or 1,550 miles. More than halfway across the United States.

What I didn’t tell her is that it’s a pretty short flight.

Her history class has recently studied World War II, so she knows about the bombs that dropped on London during the blitzkrieg, some not far from where we live. I told her it’s highly unlikely Russia would try anything like that today, because the full force of Europe and much of the world would come crashing down on Russia’s head, and Russian leaders are not that stupid.

Even though they seem pretty goddamn stupid.

Then I told her that just in case, just in case…we are American citizens. We can always fly back to that big country between the two big oceans, where that hasn’t been a war in more than 150 years, where we’ll be safe. The first part is true. I’m never sure about the second part.

I keep following the news. There seemed to be progress on peace talks yesterday, but then Russia started bombing the crap out of Kyiv today. Every day brings a new shift in the pattern. Russian airstrikes have landed close to Poland. Some folks have called for NATO forces to be sent to western Ukraine.

War is not an abstract concept. It’s real and bloody, deadly and cruel. Much of the world knows from experience. They know how loud a bomb is when it lands close by, and how ravaged the bodies are as they lie in the rubble, motionless.

It never ends.

Photo: Al Jazeera

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