An Inhumane War: Ukraine, Animals, and Refugees


In February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described Russian operations against his country as “vile, cruel and inhuman”. Taking this humanitarian perspective, the media was inundated with this master signifier: ‘an inhumane war.’ Killing civilians, not taking care of the wounded and sick, not respecting the rights of prisoners of war, and using weapons of mass destruction are considered to be signs of a war that is out-of-control, bestial, and insane. But there is something much stranger – and more telling – about calling a war ‘inhumane’.

One immediate response calling into question this master signifier might be that, when we categorize one war as ‘inhumane’, we imply that there is another kind of war that might qualify as humane. Yet, how can one draw a line between the humane and the inhumane war? War is inhumane in its fundamentals, or so the liberal argument goes. In reality, there is another more important facet of this ‘inhumane war’ discourse.

Is the signifier of the ‘inhumane war’ unsettling because it is based upon the ‘forbidden’ presupposition that there is such thing as a humane war? Aren’t we all well aware that war as such is inhumane, animalistic, and represents a regrettable digression on our path toward reaching the noble goals of the Enlightenment? And so, the Geneva conventions, which purport to maintain the so-called dignity of man and to protect basic human rights, are nothing but an ill-fated attempt to retain the blasphemous idea of a humane war?

A Dark Truth

It is this awareness that feeds the hidden assumptions of the rationalist pacifist disposition which is exhibited in the correspondence between Einstein and Freud conducted prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. In this correspondence, sponsored by the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation and published in 1933, Freud writes:

War runs most emphatically counter to the psychic disposition imposed on us by the growth of culture; we are therefore bound to resent war, to find it utterly intolerable. With pacifists like us it is not merely an intellectual and affective repulsion, but a constitutional intolerance, an idiosyncrasy in its most drastic form.

Even when talking about psychological development Freud notes that “two of the most important phenomena of culture are, firstly, a strengthening of the intellect, which tends to master our instinctive life, and, secondly, an introversion of the aggressive impulse”. In other words, as the human subject develops, it moves further and further away from an impulse to war. For Freud, to reach a state of global social balance and world peace, man must take control over his instincts as the remnants of his animal nature. To realize humanity, then, would be to eliminate war.

Reflecting on Einstein’s question to him as to how long it might be before the rest of humanity became pacifists, Freud responded that it was impossible to say but concluded that “… we can be sure that everything that contributes to cultural development also works against war.” The assumption, for both Freud and Einstein, was that the more human life progresses, the less inclined to war it would be. But, can we be so sure about this today?

On closer inspection, it is not the pacifist rationalist justification that makes us feel uncomfortable with the now omnipresent master signifier of the inhumane war. Indeed, this justification, rather than being unsettling, alleviates our discomfort. It leans on two powerful phantasmal components, namely the notion that it is possible to overcome the animality in us and that in the future we will all live in peace In short, rationalist humanist pacifism plays the function of obfuscating and disguising a painful and unbearable truth.

The perversity of calling a war ‘inhumane’ is emphatically not the fact that the idea of the ‘inhumane war’ is obviously misguided as it is premised on the false presupposition that there is such thing as a humane war. It is the exact opposite; the conceit that a war can be anything else but humane. This is the painful and unbearable truth one represses by calling a war ‘inhumane’. War is not the act of the animal or beast; it is a particularly human construction.

Animals and War

Animals do not lead wars. Humans do. Animals are engaged in wars as human companions and as a part of the war machine. These included the traditional military animals, such as dogs, horses, camels, elephants, and pigeons, which have been used for transportation, as cavalry mounts, or in espionage throughout human history. There are also those employed in specialized military functions, for example, as living bombs. One of the earliest reports on thispractice comes from the Southern Song Dynasty of China (960-1279 CE), where monkeys were covered with straw, dipped in oil, and set on fire. They were then set loose into the enemy’s camp with the aim of causing panic and pandemonium. There are other examples such as dogs laden with explosives used by Soviets against German tanks during the Second World War. The United States too made us of animals during the conflagration, with its bat bombs and Project Pigeon.

More recently, animal-borne explosives have been used by insurgents in the Middle East. At times, such living weapons have been left wandering alone and, at others, they are ridden by suicide bombers. In the twenty-first century, sea lions, seals, and dolphins are in active use for bomb detection and for guarding ships against enemy divers. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Soviet military’s dolphin program was passed on to the Ukrainian Navy. After the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian dolphin program was taken over by Russia. Conflicting statements have been made regarding the fate of the ‘battle dolphins’. One claim is that the program was decommissioned prior to the annexation, with all military dolphins either having been sold or having died of natural causes. A counterclaim suggests that dolphins died patriotically after going on hunger strikes and resisting their Russian captors.

In war, animals either become warriors in human combats or turn into refugees, animals escaping their human captors to return to the wild or going on the run with their human masters. Given this reality, is it not the greatest of falsifications for humans to claim that it is his animalistic aspect that is the true culprit of war? It raises an interesting question: is killing the animal in us – in some sort of a rationalist pacifist exorcism – really a path towards freedom?

War is Human

While destructive instincts and aggressive impulses are part of both animal and human life, war and warfare are particularly social processes. War is not just about a capacity to kill, but a propensity to take up arms, tilting us toward collective violence. People fight and kill for personal reasons, but homicide is not war. War is a social phenomenon involving groups organizing to kill people from other groups.

According to the multi-year research of anthropologists, as reported by anthropologist R. Bryan Ferguson in the article War is no part of human nature, “the preconditions that make war more likely include a shift to a more sedentary existence, a growing regional population, a concentration of valuable resources such as livestock, increasing social complexity and hierarchy, trade in high-value goods, and the establishment of group boundaries and collective identities”. These conditions, claims Ferguson, are sometimes combined with severe environmental changes. He also notes that, once established, war has a tendency to spread, with violent peoples replacing less violent ones.

Delving deeper into the question of the human propensity to war often involves looking beyond our species to examine the experiences of our chimpanzee relatives. Following extensive research, Ferguson concluded that chimps, as a species, are not ‘killer apes’: “War is fostered by culturally specific systems of knowledge and values that generate powerful meanings of ‘us versus them.’” These social constructs, he claims, have no primate analogies. Moreover, from comparative case studies, he concluded that ‘war’ among chimpanzees is not an evolved evolutionary strategy but an induced response to human disturbance.

In this sense, war is not the expression of an uncontrolled animality in us, but rather a radical disclosure of humanity as it is. The more devastating the war, the more humane it is.

The Absurdities of Discourse

The falsification created by the humanist pacifist disposition produces absurdities such as this one: the more war is called inhumane – that is, animalistic – the more we try to humanize animals in war. Immediately after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, European animal protection organizations mobilized to supply Ukrainian animal shelters with food and medicines, evacuate Zoos, and resolve the legal issues on the borders so that people escaping conflict could take their pets with them. The media was full of stories of the loving relationship between humans and animals, highlighting the consolation and courage pets bring people in these times of war.

In the same way as organizations for the protection ofanimal rights – that is, human rights imposed on animals – organizations for the protection of refugees act in the name of ‘humanitarianism’. In short, both refugees and domesticated animals are taken as victims of the war in Ukraine.

The division between domesticated animals, including animals trained for war, and animals designated for elimination, insects, ticks, viruses, and wild beasts, matches the division between ‘our’ migrants and ‘foreign migrants’.

For instance, in Slovenia, a week after the outbreak of the war, a local newspaper reported on the same page two stories that counterposed each other in the most striking of manners. The first covered the arrival of Ukrainian refugees. It was reported that they are welcomed and taken care of by the government and the article ends with a call to Slovenian citizens to help Ukrainian families. The second piece reported on an accident on the highway involving a van carrying ‘migrants’. The driver fled the scene of the accident, leaving several people dead. At the same time and in the same place we accept Ukrainian refugees and ignore the fact that Slovenia has a barbed wire along its border with Croatia and that people coming from the Middle East are dying on a daily basis when trying to climb the wire and swim over the River Kolpa. The distinction between good and bad migrants was made clear by Prime Minister Janša who stated that refugees from Ukraine were “completely different regarding the level of culture…”Why? Because Ukrainians are Europeans, they are on the right side of humanism and Enlightenment, they are ‘us’ and not ‘them’.

The Dangers of Discourse

Inhumanity is part of human nature. There is something uncontrollable, wild, and brutal that determines us from within. But instead of adopting this strangeness in us as our inherent part, we tend to repress it. Comforting ourselves with the idea that the true source of inhumanity is somewhere else, we constantly project it outwards. We consider inhumanity to be something external to the human, something that is merely attached to us from the outside and that we can get rid of through the progress of culture. The fact that we call this inhumanity ‘animality’ is merely a symptom of this externalization: it is not us but the animal in us, which is ‘vile, cruel and inhuman’.

Yet, throughout the history of humanism, there are two main orders of objects delegated to the external place of ‘animality’: the first is animals, in general, and the second is people corresponding to the taboo figure of a barbarian, seen as uncivilized, half-animal, and half-human.

In our humanist minds, these two orders of objects merge in a series of prejudices and phantasmal equations. As the bearers of externalized inhumanity, both animals and ‘barbarians’ are represented in public discourse in two opposing ways: either we consider them victims or enemies. As externalized inhumanity, however, these two representations are but two faces of the same thing: one cannot pull them apart because this double role determines their very status in discourse. This is clearly visible in the discourse on migrants, which has spread in the West since the Syrian civil war and is, with the recent outbreak of the war in Ukraine, acquiring new contours.

It is not hard to predict in which direction the discourse on migrants will develop. Surely, the polarization of victim-enemy perspective on migrants will gain new features. On the one hand, there will be a growing split between openly considering the Ukrainian refugees as victims and the Middle Eastern refugees as enemies, revealing the hypocrisy of the previous humanist perspective on the Middle Eastern refugees, where the idea of the victim was only disguising the repressed view on them as enemies.

This polarization will not represent an outburst of racism out of nowhere – it will only mark a quantitative, not a qualitative change – for racism is inscribed in the humanist project itself. There is no humanist project without repressed otherness and externalized animality.

However – and this is a new danger – as soon as we will start to consider Ukrainian refugees as victims – and massive victimization is already going on in the media and the social media – we will externalize them, building a barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’. This might seem an obvious point, but a necessary consequence of such an externalization is that the repressed inner otherness is easily projected on this object. As soon as they are marked as victims, they will be also considered enemies, although nobody will dare to say it. Then, when somebody does ‘dare’ to say what is already inscribed, it will be likely used to gain traction for nationalism. If the discourse on the victims will grow, Ukrainians, who are now on the side of the human, might invisibly slip to the side of an animal, following the path of their Middle Eastern predecessors.