Robert Brewer

Pictures At An Exhibition: Etude For World War III

Reporter: What will be the weapons of World War III?
Albert Einstein: I don’t know. But the weapons of World War IV will be sticks and stones.

Alexander Ermochenko’s photograph for Reuters.  She’s insouciant.   Apparently not a care in the world and in another time, another place, she might have been on the French Riviera  near the shops and hotels of Nice, in a tiger print bathrobe, her thumb flicking ashes from the cigarette tilting on her fingertips.  The picture could be an Alfred Eisenstadt slice of life, made in the same street reportage style, capturing the same signature moment we know well: that sailor on Broadway, bending the nurse backwards, kissing her in the middle of Manhattan at the end of World War II, only this time she accompanies a young man and a child in broken akilter tableau in the cityscape rubble of Kyiv during what many say is the start of World War III.

If they are right, then Einstein was wrong.  We do know the weapons, we’ve known them for the last 100 years: tanks and guns, and planes, anti-tanks, and anti-planes, same as any war, same as parents and grandparents escaping Stalin’s persecution, arriving on these shores early in the Great Depression, in an era also featuring the rise of authoritarian regimes.  They lived here freely, although like most of their generation, without economic success.  They huddled near a kitchen stove, gaslit fire under the kettle, the lucky ones had a chicken inside the cauldron with yellow chicken feet sticking out.                           

“Grandma, why does the chicken still have its feet?

“That’s how I know it’s a chicken,” she says.

In that interregnum to World War II, Hitler had his Sudetenland.  Today Putin has his Crimea.  At least no one can point to a similar world class exercise in self delusion: Neville Chamberlain waving that ephemeral slip of white paper and proclaiming he’d achieved peace in our time.  Many people today don’t know the name Neville Chamberlain.  You say Chamberlain, many people say Wilt.

Efrem Lukatsky for Reuters.  A tank turret, along with its 25 foot cannon, has been blown from the metal carapace it rested upon.  The dog nearby, probably healthier two weeks prior, has a coat raggedy and mangled, along with introspective eyes that makes me think it saw the explosion and knows it is one lucky canine.  It can’t understand how or why it escaped injury, knows only that it did, and looks to the photographer for a sign things are OK, and might even get better. Just not yet.

Felipe Dana for AP, Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine

Her face comes from the painting by Vermeer.  The Girl With The Pearl Earring.  Photographers know everything is in the eyes.  A background blurry, hands out of focus, no matter.  If the eyes are sharp the picture succeeds.  We can see she wants to be somewhere else, joining other people, hoping others join her but it doesn’t happen.

Sometimes, still images are insufficient.  Videotapes clog the media outlets.  Tamala is a befuddled evacuee: “I have one question,” she says among the ruins.  “Why?” 

Newsreel: Videos show the Bernaul-T command and control air defense radar system was allegedly turned over to Ukrainian intelligence by Russian troops.  Roughly 1 in 11 people have left Ukraine in just five weeks. 

CBS News  March 31, 2022 carries a prepared statement by Jeremy Fleming, Chief, Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).  “We’ve seen Russian soldiers short of weapons and morale, refusing to carry out orders, sabotaging their own equipment, and even “accidentally” shooting down their own aircraft.” 

She has on a thick black parka, hair pulled back, choking on her words.  She could be in a Jean Genet play or one by Ionesco, only this is not a play, this is war, “This is just a nightmare.  A girl died on my floor.  What can I say?  Are you kidding? I hugged her.  Two minutes passed.  And she passed.”

A boy with thick shocks of hair on his head cries for his father in a children’s hospital.  “Baba, baba.”  He clings to a toy truck.

An elderly woman wears a fur coat offering protection from cold but not from trauma or loneliness.  “I’m in a nightmare.  My house has burnt down.  My husband has burnt down.  There was shooting.  I crawled.”

Okhmatdyt Children’s Hospital: Six year old Milana watched her mother die when a Russian missile hit their house near Hostomel.

He’s written two books on Stalin and is nearing the completion of a third.  The moderator interviews him on TV.  “The early 1990’s caught Russia in a weak moment.  It was just a matter of time before Russia would return to its status as a great nation,” he says.  His TV appearances seem fewer in number these days.  Maybe people realize there are gaps in his research.

It must be the movie theater they blew up that makes Russia a great nation.  Stupid people inside, laughing at Movietone cartoons so blow them up.  Or that shopping center they destroyed; great nations destroy shopping centers, that must be what the author means.  Or it could be the maternity hospital they torched.  It surely marks you as a great brave nation when you blow up a maternity hospital.  Then there’s the gypsy girl on the highway.  She has a tank in tow and she giggles at the camera.  A gypsy girl stole a tank from a great nation. 

Newsreel: Reports of rape and 40,000 children per month forcibly abducted from Ukraine and resettled in Russia.  What else but acts of a great nation, perhaps by order of a State Department of Rape and Forcible Abduction or the natural evolution of Stalin’s attitude: people should  “understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometers through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle”.  Uncle Joe also gave us:   “We lecture our soldiers too much; let them have their initiative.”[1] 

Writer Hugh Martin quotes the poem “Winged and Acid Dark” by Robert Hass wherein, after concluding his pleasure, a Soviet soldier “pries her mouth open” and spits in it.[2]

Newsreel: What’s The Latest With Russia’s Dance With Default AP May 3, 2022 or Should Great Nations Pay Their Bills?

The Rule: You repay with the same currency you borrowed.

Borrow dollars = Repay the debt in dollars.Russia had a debt payment due of $564,400,000, but to conserve foreign currency reserves, sought to pay the debt in rubles.  “That’s default,” opines a representative for Standard and Poor, the bond rating agency.  “The debt must be paid in the currency in which it was borrowed.  Interest on Russia’s dollar denominated bonds must be paid in dollars.”

Newsreel: Bloomberg News “Russia Dodges Default for Now as Investors Get Dollar Funds.”

          President Obama Slams Russia in Farewell Address.
            What Does Russia Make The World Wants To Buy?
The President: “Nothing.”
Sign Over the Delaware River Bridge Connecting New Jersey With Pennsylvania:
Trenton Makes The World Takes
Sound of the Movietone projector, sproket holes of film appear on the wide screen. 
Theater lights turn up.

[1] Andrew Roberts, Stalin’s Army of Rapists, Daily 24 October 2008

[2] Hugh Martin, See The Lady, Cincinnati Review July 7, 2021

Robert Brewer was a linguist and translator for the US Naval Security Group. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Connecticut Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Proud To Be: Writing By American Warriors and elsewhere. He has work forthcoming in War, Literature and the Arts. He is a member of the Syracuse Veterans Writing Group.