Russia’s Atrocities in Ukraine: What Does This Tell Us About Human Nature?

This week Embry and I watched the PBS Frontline program on war crimes committed by Russia against the Ukrainian people. The show focused on actions committed around Kyiv in the spring of this year. The documentary uncovered almost 1,000 war crimes against unarmed civilians, which it pointed out were only a small portion of the more than 20,000 war crimes alleged by Ukrainian authorities at the time– and that was over six months ago! The number of war crimes now is closer to 40,000 according to Ukraine. No action has of yet been taken by the United Nations or the International Criminal Court.

The PBS documentary showed evidence of targeted bombing of schools, hospitals, kindergartens, and countless apartment houses. Entire residential neighborhoods have been totally destroyed. Surveillance cameras picked up images of civilians being lined up, blindfolded, with their hands tied behind their backs and then shot in the head. Dead bodies were scattered in streets or thrown into pits. Ukrainian survivors interviewed talked about their young children being killed, women being raped, and horrors almost beyond belief. The program showed soldiers receiving medals, pinned on their uniforms by commanding officers who praised them for “killing Nazis.”

In the last several months the situation has worsened as Russia has targeted the infrastructure across the country leaving huge numbers of Ukrainian civilians without electricity or heat. No end to this madness is in sight.

Why is this happening? What is it about our human nature that permits this to go on? This time the villain is Putin. The same sort of senseless killing happened under Stalin. It happened in China under Mao, in Germany under Hitler, in Japan during World War II and by American soldiers in Vietnam (My Lai) and Iraq (Abu Ghraib), albeit on a smaller scale, and in Syria and Yemen. The list is very long. It happened in the South during the period of Jim Crow with mobs of white people cheering as a black body hung from a tree.

I cannot help asking why. The people doing the killing captured on the surveillance cameras appeared to be mainly young soldiers, many of whom had probably been drafted and did not want to be in Ukraine in the first place. Back in Russia they were not murderers or criminally insane. Most were probably just ordinary people, following orders, very afraid, and doing “what they had to do.” Our son, Andrew, spent almost six years in Russia during the Gorbachev years helping privatize the economy, and loved the Russian people. We have visited Russia twice for several weeks each visit and were welcomed by Andrew’s friends and others with opened arms. There is nothing wrong with the Russian people. The same could be said about the German people, who following World War II, are living in one of the more progressive countries in Europe and have tried to own up to their horrific war crimes. In 1962—only 14 years after World War II– I spent a summer working in Japan with Japanese and other American college students on an “experimental” dairy farm in the mountains and at the end of the summer spent a week at my Japanese best friend’s family’s apartment in Tokyo. His father had been a general in the Japanese Army. They could not have been nicer people. Yet the atrocities committed by the Japanese in Manchuria and other places were horrendous.

You get the picture: All is fair in love and war.

But what does this tell us about human nature? What is wrong with us homo sapiens? Why do these horrific actions happen?

If I were able to consult with my imaginary, wise guru who used to live in the apartment house Embry and I live in, I think he would say something like this:

Joe, what you have got to understand is that there is capacity for both good and evil in all of us. Every human being, no exceptions. Now I know that you will argue that this does not apply to Jesus who you Christians believe was God incarnate. And while I am not a Christian myself, I will grant you that there is something profound about this. What stands out to me is the essence of Jesus being about love and a profound spirituality that goes beyond human understanding and provides a pathway for us humans to try to keep our dark side at bay. A clue as it were as to how to become our better selves.

But the fact is we humans are not God. We are capable of doing very bad things, and the atrocities in Ukraine are just the most recent exhibit. There will be more.

I have thought about this a good bit. We humans are basically herd animals. I have concluded that this characteristic  is built into our survival instincts and has to do first and foremost with how we evolved as a species and moved up the food chain from being a delicious lunch for some wild beast to our roasting that animal over the coals. Our place in the evolutionary chain was not secured until we learned how to make weapons and, even more important, came together as clans and a little later as tribes. By definition, clans and tribes need a leader. No tribe can exist without one. A country is really nothing more than a very large tribe (of course, also consisting of smaller tribes), but the leader makes an enormous difference in what we humans do and how we behave. A leader that has gone to the dark side and allowed the evil part of his nature to dominate is a very serious threat to others who by instinct follow that person. Not everyone, of course, but enough that serious damage can be done. This explains why some of those young Russian soldiers who shot unarmed civilians in the head–and did not even want to be fighting in this hideous war–did what they did.

So blame Putin. He is the quintessential war criminal, as was Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, Mao, and many other terrible leaders who have encouraged horrific acts. This is where the flawed human nature part comes in. The cause of failure is our tendency to follow the leader regardless how bad that leader is. Of course, at the same time you have got to admire Zelensky and the courage of the Ukrainian  Army and the Ukraine people. They have stood up to Evil, fought back with vengeance and taken the fight to Putin. They are paying a huge price for this and in my book are heroes, but who knows when or how this will all end? It is all very sad.

I would thank the guru for his wise insight and admit that I continue to remain perplexed that we humans are the way we are. I would tell him that if we can’t as a species learn to do better in keeping our darker selves at bay—and stand up against the evil leaders as the Ukrainians are doing– that it is only a matter of time that our flawed nature will catch up with us. I would remind the guru that we humans are continuing to destroy our fragile environment at an alarming rate and that a lot of countries now have enough nuclear weapons to ruin your day and transform the Planet Earth to our idea of what hell must look like.

I would also say to the guru that there is hope. For Christians, Christmas is a time  to give thanks for a guiding light that for over two millennia has provided hope and a pathway for calming the evil spirits within us and connecting us to a mystery beyond our limited ability to fully understand or explain. But as to the specifics of how Putin’s war on Ukraine ultimately ends, I have to admit am just as lost for an answer as he is and just as sad.






Hard Work

Last week Embry and I volunteered to work at the Capital Area Food Bank, along with several other volunteers from our neighborhood church. We had no idea as to what we were getting ourselves into but showed up on time at the designated spot—a huge warehouse in Northeast DC in a remote, small industrial park, next to a railroad track. A couple of dozen others, mainly younger people (30-somethings), were there as well to help on our three-hour afternoon shift.

Our job was to join an assembly line of about 30 people standing around a conveyor belt, which carried empty boxes at a fairly fast clip, into which you dropped  nonperishable food items. When a box came to me, my job was to carefully place a carton of almond milk in the box, which by the time it got to me was about a third full. Embry had the identical task; and when a box had completed the entire loop, probably taking less than 10 minutes, the box was filled and ready to be sealed  with enough items to feed a single person (all seniors) for a week. (Larger boxes were available for families.) A spokesperson for the Food Bank said that the current population receiving food from the Food Bank in the District and three surrounding counties numbered more than a half million people.

I had never worked in a factory before or on an assembly line. But let me tell you: This was hard work! We did have a short break in the middle of the shift but were standing for almost three hours trying not to miss a box coming by on the conveyor belt that I swear was moving faster and faster as the afternoon passed. Several times when a box passed by me before I could place my container of almond milk in the box, I had to throw the container at the box before it reached the next worker. It was a near miracle that I got them all in. Others had similar experiences. Talk about stress: If you failed, the belt kept moving. If my throw had not made it into the box that went past me, some poor, old person would be missing a container of almond milk.

I wondered for a moment, could I have done this sort of thing for my entire life, day in and day out?

My first takeaway was how many people living in one of the most affluent metro areas in the nation cannot afford to purchase food. Another indictment of our wealthy but unequal nation. And the food was all in cans, containers, and boxes, nothing fresh, and nothing especially appealing to someone like me, who prepares “Blue Apron” three days a week. The second was just how hard the work is on an assembly line. There is no time for a break until the whistle blows and no room for mistakes. After a while, once you get the hang of it, I can see how it could become boring. Imagine standing up for eight hours a day doing the same small task (but an important task and no room for mistakes) over and over and over again. How could anyone stand this? Yet this is what goes on in factories.

This experience caused to me to think about what we call “blue collar” work in general. This is the work that is essential for human settlements to survive and flourish. Somebody has to grow and harvest food, and somebody has to transport it to stores, where someone will bag your groceries and charge your credit card. Somebody has to build the streets, roads, highways and rail lines that will allow this to happen, and the cars, trucks and trains that will transport it, and the buildings where people live and where people work. Somebody has to take care of sick people and old people. Somebody has to make things that we humans want and need to survive and to enjoy life. Somebody has to fix things that break. Somebody has to enforce the law, put out fires, collect the garbage and protect the country. These jobs are very important. Without them no country could  function. These blue collar jobs are what keep our country going. Without them we would be doomed.

So, the question is this: If these blue collar jobs are so important, how come they pay so little?  It seems that we pay the most to the people who if their job disappeared, no one would know the difference. I am Exhibit A, a former consultant. When I sold my company in 1998, did the seniors housing industry notice? Hardly. And what about lawyers? Good heavens, especially the Washington lawyer/lobbyist! Sure, these professional and white collar workers do have impact and are important. But essential? Doubtful in most cases. And the heavy lifting is done by people who do the work that no one else wants to do because it is too hard and often does not  pay enough to keep body and soul together—yet it is the sine qua non, without which we could not survive. Unions have helped in the past and seem to be trying to come back, but still, the challenge for equity in the work place is staggering.

No wonder there is unrest among the white working class. Why they see Trump as their leader and savior, however, remains a mystery.

“What is wrong with this picture?” of course, is not a question unique to the U.S. It is true in every country. It is the human condition on the planet Earth. Communism was supposed to be the alternative but turned out to be much worse than the capitalism we struggle with today.

My   experience of doing “factory work” a few weeks ago, however, gave me pause to reflect upon how hard this kind of work is and how easy so many of us professionals have had it, making a whole lot more money than we would  if we were doing the hard, essential work.

Life is not fair. It never has been.


Blogger’s footnote: While I never had the opportunity to work in a job that required a lot more energy than typing on a keyboard hooked up to a computer, as part of a research project, Embry and I had the experience of living in a blue collar neighborhood in 1970-1971 when I “hung out” with blue collar workers for a year. We both joined a bowling league, and I joined a fishing club. We spent hours every day on front porches, living rooms, and back yards talking with neighbors. Through this experience we gained great respect for people struggling to get by in a tough and unforgiving world. Some readers may have read “Hard Living on Clay Street,” a book I wrote, published by Doubleday in 1973, which is still in print, and in 2023 will mark its 50th anniversary.






Caste and Class in an Iconic Washington Apartment Building

Embry and I moved into an apartment house just over seven years ago. We love the place. It is only a block from where we lived for over 40 years; and when it was constructed during the 1930s, it instantly became one of DC’s finest buildings. It still is. There is a wide range of unit sizes and rent levels, and the building has large units, many with balconies, fireplaces, and fabulous views of  Rock Creek Park and Connecticut Ave. It also has all the amenities you would expect plus great service, an elegant  main entry  and terrific fitness center. It is a large building for DC—around 450 units—and while it has a good mix of ages, including a few young families, there are a lot of people our age, which makes it a NORC (“naturally occurring retirement community”). We could not ask for anything better.

So, what is the problem?

The “problem” is that the residents are almost all white people, financially secure, if not outright rich, and the staff are almost all people of color. We call them by their first names. They all call us Mister or Ms.

Well, you might say, what is wrong that? Isn’t that pretty much the way it is everywhere?

Exactly. That is the problem.

Having spent most of my adult life as a bleeding heart, progressive, with a consulting career involved in trying to help clients build affordable and seniors housing, I now find myself enjoying “the good life” in a segregated environment that when you get down to it is not all that different from the Jim Crow era I grew up in in an elite neighborhood in Nashville, Tennessee. Ok, I confess that I exaggerate. Our country is different in many ways from what it was when I was growing up, and we have made progress. We have had an African American president. People of color now run major corporations, go to elite colleges and universities, work for prestigious law firms, and have good jobs. So, sure, as a nation we are more diverse and more accepting of diversity than we used to be– but still not nearly enough. The income and wealth gap between the races doggedly continues.

But my question is why is this apartment house still a mostly segregated building and the surrounding neighborhoods still mostly white. Embry and I moved from North Carolina to DC in 1972 and have lived in the same neighborhood for over 50 years. That is a long time—almost two generations—plenty of time for changes to have happened. Yet in terms of racial diversity in our neighborhood, not much has changed. Most of our friends are white; and were it not for the various nonprofit housing boards I serve on and our neighborhood church, I doubt that I would have strong friendships with any people of color.

One argument regarding the reason for this defacto racial segregation has been that people of color can’t afford to live in these “desirable neighborhoods” or in  pricey apartments. That may have been true 50 years ago, but now there are lots of black and brown people that have management positions in private companies, have high level government jobs, work in professions like law and medicine, and have high incomes. Where are they living? Why aren’t they living here?

The invisible barrier of caste persists. Why is it so hard to overcome?

What makes this especially poignant is that most of my friends living here and in the surrounding neighborhood are, like me, bleeding heart liberals. We believe in racial integration. We believe that Black Lives Matter. We believe the United States can and should be a kinder and gentler nation. We are progressive Democrats, who have championed progressive causes most of our adult lives. Some of us were involved in our younger days in the civil rights movement. Yet here we are in a defacto segregated building as we edge toward the finish line, living in this comfortable environment of mainly white professionals. I can’t avoid wondering if we are not part of the problem. Are we the hypocrites that the Trump supporters say we are?

Sadly, the caste system is alive and well in Washington’s most desirable neighborhoods and apartment buildings, and I am part of it.

And  the class system is also alive and well. If there are working class, white people working here, I have not seen them. And certainly, none live here. The main barrier, of course, is financial. They can’t afford the rents. But even if they could, I suspect lifestyle and values would be a barrier to overcome. There may be Trump supporters in this building or in the greater neighborhood, but I have not met one.

We liberals in DC are labeled by many working class, white people as “coastal elites” — snotty, privileged, spoiled brats, who think we are successful because we are better than others when the truth is we had the luck of the draw to be born into families that could afford to send us to  private schools and summer camp. Of course, there are many exceptions of people who have pulled themselves out of the working class by their own bootstraps, but a lot more that have not been so fortunate. Many have been dealt tough hands, born into unstable families struggling to get by. They understand the  deck is stacked against them. The playing field is not level. And when they see us “elites” champion the cause of the minority population at the expense of themselves, who still struggle to get by, no wonder they are angry. They have benefitted from the caste system by having people to look down on. Now that this is changing, they are mad. If I were in their shoes, I suppose I would be too. That is why so many have flocked to Trump, who is a symptom, not the champion of the Great Discontent of the white working class.

I turned 80 this year and will not see the day when at a resident’s event, I will witness a room full of people of all shades of color or when the caste system will be a thing of the past.  My hope is that someday this will happen, that the invisible walls of caste and class will diminish. I am hopeful that at some point the vast gap between the privileged and the underprivileged will narrow to only a small opening. I doubt that this will happen in my children’s lifetime or even my grandchildren’s, but the fate of our country and our world will depend on it.