What is “Unbelievable” Violence?

Yemeni capital Sanaa after airstrikes. Photograph Source: Almigdad Mojalli/VOA – Public Domain

As an academic whose career focuses on writing and teaching about children and war, the latest conflict in Ukraine should be tragically all too familiar. But, in one real sense, it is not. And I was, for a brief time, at a loss for words. My silence, however, was not for lack of compassion for the children of Ukraine; it is for fear that I might in fact contribute to perpetuating violence.

The kind of violence I fear perpetuating is one that values some children’s lives, namely those of Ukrainians, at the expense of others, namely the more than 450 million other children around the world who today live in conflict zones deemed to be worth little or no media coverage.

For weeks now, the ubiquitous mass media has implored us to react – because the events at hand are beyond tragic: more than one hundred Ukrainian children killed and 1.5 million having fled to other countries.  We are shown haunting images: a memorial of empty strollers in Lviv; a Romanian “toy bridge” that connects to the Ukraine.

Well, to say that Ukrainian children’s suffering is terrible and unacceptable is an understatement. But so too is the prevalent insinuation that their suffering is uniquely horrific and therefore worthy of unprecedented coverage.

Because of my role in facilitating open discussions on the topic, I can testify to the consequences trickling down to not just students but fellow academics. To hear a learned scholar describe what is happening in the Ukraine as “the worst catastrophe since World War II” is shocking.

I was dumbfounded on how to respond.  On the one hand, my heart goes out to all of Ukraine and its people, many of whom have suffered immensely; not to mention the 14,000 killed in eastern Ukraine prior to 2022, following the 2014 Maidan coup that brought NATO aspirants Petro Poroshenko and now Volodymyr Zelensky to power. On the other hand, what about the loss of Ukrainian lives qualifies it as a worse disaster than the millions who died in Vietnam, Rwanda, Iraq, the Republic of Congo, or the many other places of preventable conflicts since World War II?

Katharina Ritz, a Red Cross official, reminds us, “I think it’s not about Is it Ukraine or not? Now it’s Ukraine and Yemen and Syria and Iraq and Congo and so on. … We have to add Ukraine on all the crises, but we shouldn’t shift.”

One informed academic said that what is happening in Ukraine is “unbelievably violent” even when compared to protracted wars elsewhere. The Iran–Iraq war was cited as a time when children supposedly experienced bombings as a “fun time,” when parents brought them to the basement. “Maybe the Iran–Iraq war was not as violent [as the present war in the Ukraine],” I was told.

While I am loath to compare numbers, I am also not ready to forget the facts: Two million children were killed and an additional four million to five million were seriously injured during the Iran–Iraq conflict. WMDs were even used by then U.S. ally Saddam Hussein to terrorize civilian populations, without any condemnation or crippling sanctions. About the savage eight-year Iran–Iraq conflict, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger eerily remarked, “I hope they kill each other.”

Another respected scholar confides that sleeping at night is difficult because the recent events in Ukraine evoke traumatic memories of past relatives’ participation in war with Russians.

How does one console someone so traumatized? While the fear and pain are real, so too is the widespread psychosis that the definition of “real” violence is conditioned by relative proximity. Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.

That for most people, war rightly conjures up the image of direct and tangible violence, such as falling bombs and gunshot wounds, is understandable.  Equally harmful in armed conflict, however and yet unfortunately absent from the collective conscience of the mainstream, is cultural violence, specifically the use of prominent social norms to justify hegemonic, inequitable, and de-humanizing power relations.  Perpetrators of war rationalize their actions through the belief that the “enemy” is morally inferior.

In the case of the Ukraine war, one prominent social norm being weaponized, unwittingly or not, is that some children’s lives matter more than others in this world. Who can forget the 500,000 Iraqi children whose deaths were directly owed to sanctions under President Clinton? Who can forget the chilling remark made by then Secretary of State Madeline Albright: “The price was worth it.”

What is “unbelievable” violence? With the almost half-trillion dollar U.S. defense industry quietly supplying weapons and making huge profits; with shares of U.S. giant Lockheed up by around 16% since the invasion, against a 1% drop in the SP 500; and with UK’s BAE Systems, the largest player in Europe, up 26%, dare anyone say unbelievable violence is that which could have been avoided with diplomacy?  Or are the pending deaths of children everywhere now acceptable and worth it?


Heidi Morrison is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. She is the author of Global History of Childhood Reader (Routledge, 2012) and Childhood and Colonial Modernity in Egypt (Palgrave, 2015).