Our European continent seemed to have forgotten war. But Bellona never really left its soil, despite the generous Utopians who believe that Europe—i.e., the European Union—has been at peace since 1945. The experience of the Irish, the Serbs, and the Croats stand out as persuasive exceptions to the claim.
The Ukrainian crisis marks the return of war to the consciousness of the West in a vivid and brutal way. The magnitude of the symbols, the immensity of the territories at stake, and the massive influx of refugees fleeing the fighting no longer make it possible to circumscribe the confrontation within reasonable limits. It’s getting more and more difficult to protect ourselves from it and to reassure ourselves that, after all, all of this is of little concern to us and will only be a bad moment for the handful of poor people unfortunately caught up in a localised turmoil.
War returns to our lives—inseparable from the eternal cycle of human life marked by sin. It reminds us of some obvious facts, which are not to everyone’s taste. Thus, sitting in her comfortable rattan armchair by Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the French novelist and editor Geneviève Brisac published an article in the columns of the famous newspaper Le Monde, to protest vigorously against the impudence of war, which, and I quote, “brings back the old stereotypes:” gender stereotypes, of course. “Brave men, weeping women”—what a horror.
So, from the very first days of the conflict, Ukraine—an Eastern European country that is supposed to be the vanguard of the defence of Western progressivism against reactionary Russia—took a measure that was as backward-looking and discriminatory as can be. Men between the ages of 18 and 60 were banned from leaving the country. How can such things be possible in 2022, at a time when Europe should be shining a beacon of progress and awakening people’s consciences to the equality of sexes, or rather, of genders, even in its easternmost bastion?
Since Thursday, February 24th, Ukrainian men have been forbidden to leave the country because they have to fight. To defend their homeland. This is called general mobilisation. And that, in Ukraine, is considered to be a man’s job.
As a consequence of this iniquitous decision, the women take care of the children. They convulsively hold their little ones close to them, provide them with love and indispensable human warmth, the only barricade against a world collapsing underfoot, where everything seems lost. The child then finds, for a moment, an extension of the first space of asylum: his mother’s womb. The child feels an archaic reflex of a power that totally exceeds the petty life of Ms. Brisac, spent on the terrace of the Café de Flore.
Ms. Brisac must surely be offended to see the cohorts of Ukrainian refugees pouring into Poland or Hungary. The overwhelming majority are women and children, who have left their men to fight, and who know that their mission is elsewhere. They are protecting their children, and it is up to us to protect them. In Polish railway stations, the inhabitants leave pushchairs at the disposal of exiled mothers to relieve their tired arms. The defence of the widow—the single woman—and the orphan is one of the foundations of Western Christian anthropology. It is the privileged locus where our concept of human dignity has been expressed for centuries. In this modern display of ‘widows and orphans,’ there is indeed a reason to cry scandal.
A few months ago, an article in the French regional press gave voice to a group of young Afghan refugees—mainly men—who were playing volleyball on a beach in Loire-Atlantique. They expressed their sadness at having left their families, wives, and children behind: “I can’t help but feel sad when I think of my family, my wife, and my two-month-old son who are still in Kabul,” explained one of them. No gender stereotypes in this case. No men staying to fight; no women fleeing the war in tears, but certainly a scene that would have been welcomed by Ms. Brisac for deconstructing gender stereotypes.
Today, the web is flooded with photos that we no longer thought possible in 2022. Farewell photos, where a young man in uniform bends down to kiss the lips of his beloved, whom he is not sure he will ever see again. Family photos, where a father hugs his still young children, who learn that defending the fatherland is a duty that surpasses all others. Pictures of trains pulling away, handkerchiefs being waved, and tears being shed. There is no Instagram fashion behind these photographs. Francesco Malavolta, a regular contributor to the UN’s International Organisation for Migration, says he is struck by “the sheer number of women, elderly people and children” he has seen arriving every day, “while the men have to stay behind and fight for their country.” If his publications show so many mothers and babies—and sometimes fathers saying goodbye— “it’s not to touch people, but because that’s how things are on the ground,” he insists.
For a moment, these poignant photographs bring us back to all those tears that have shaped our millennial history and our imagination. How many paintings, how many pages have depicted the moment of departure, the call to the front and the solitude of the beloved? How many songs have celebrated the wait of the wife anxious about the man gone to the front?
“Wars sweep away progress and take us back to the world of before,” laments Geneviève Brisac.
Here is the problem with progressives of her kind. This is not about a world of the past, an obscurantism from which we will eventually be delivered by means of re-education and propaganda financed by European funds. On the contrary, it is an intangible part of human nature. It is something inscribed in the heart of man and over which the upheavals of time and history, whether we like it or not, have no hold. War plunges us into the depths of darkness inflicted by man; but it also allows us to resurrect eternal forgotten truths. Among them, with all due respect to Geneviève Brisac, is the reality that women are the sanctuary of life. And we should be thankful for that.
Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).