It was a dead hand in the snow. It belonged to a Russian soldier lying dead in a gas station forecourt outside Kharkiv in Ukraine along with 11 other dead soldiers. He’s probably still there.
The camera lingered on the hand, half-closed, the nails of the index and middle finger filthy while the thumb is turning black, perhaps from long contact with the snow on the ground.
The skin is pallid like a fish’s belly but wrinkled and almost scaly. He is wearing a dark coat but the rest of him beyond his left forearm is covered by snow.
The camera lingers on the hand without warning, except for the initial standard “graphic content” notice on the tweet from Quentin Sommerville, a Scot whose latest brilliant BBC report is visually shocking. Sommerville walks around the scattered corpses just as the Ukrainian soldiers have done to remove weaponry. The footprints are still red with recent blood not yet rusted.
We can see the faces of those who fell sideways as they died. One Russian’s green, almost floral, camouflage, inappropriate for snow, is “beautiful,” a Ukrainian soldier notes. The dead are Chechens brought in by Russia. Such is the Ukrainian contempt for the invaders that the bodies, Sommerville says, will not be buried but left for dogs to eat.
We are seeing scenes of atrocities in Ukraine, photos and footage that have not previously been permitted in war zones. What effect does that have on us and our view of warfare?
“A dead hand” is lighthearted newsroom shorthand for editors and writers who drain the life out of a story. I will never hear the words again without shivering. I wish I had never seen the dead Russian hand.
I don’t know the man’s name, have no idea of his age or whether he was dragged young into the war by a Russian military notoriously vicious to its own soldiers, and can’t imagine what thousands of Russian families would think if they saw that anonymous hand on TV. Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich wrote a book, “Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War,” about young Russians conscripted to fight in Afghanistan and sent home in sealed zinc coffins. Are these the new zinky boys?
Russians do not necessarily know that President Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine, seeing only the obvious signs of local economic disaster, closed stores, sinking rubles, less to buy and sell.
Wars have always been sanitized for Canadians. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has not been, partly because social media is ratlike. Photos and videos of war on the ground move under, around, and over restrictions so that we can now see and hear every last sickening thing.
There exist photos of the German dead in World War II that few have seen, small-town Nazi mayors who took poison before the Allies arrived, and bug-eyed beaten SS prison guards expecting death. They were taken by the American artist and photographer Lee Miller who never recovered from what she saw and photographed.
I used to assume that people would turn against war if they saw what it did to human bodies. The U.S., the most bomb-happy nation on Earth, has been bombing away since World War II, in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Syria, Kuwait, Iraq, on and endlessly on.
Americans didn’t see what they had done beyond a few chaste glimpses of a very few murdered villagers in My Lai. American corpses were never shown. Ukraine has changed that stance. Is the reason more than technology, more that we casually assume now that there is nothing we can’t see?
We can watch men live on Facebook confess to murdering women. On Pornhub I can watch a woman being sexually tortured. We can watch a woman, Sarah Everard, in London briefly caught on a passing car’s dashboard camera talking to the policeman about to rape and strangle her, then dump her body.
Most wars are unjust. As Sommerville says, the invasion was “part of the Russian playbook perfected in Syria.” He walks through Kharkiv, empty, lightless and nightmarish in the extreme.
“This is what Russia does to cities. It bombards them. It besieges them. It surrounds them.” He shows us an x-ray of a little boy’s skull with a chip of shrapnel and then the boy, his face dotted with wounds, in the interior hospital corridor where he has been placed to avoid exploding windows.
This isn’t new. But we haven’t seen it on our phones before. I often find myself pointlessly pinching paper photos to enlarge them. I am now pausing the video and enlarging the dead hand again.
Does this make war even more intolerable? Not at all. I want the Russian invaders crushed.
There is a way to stop this, which is to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine which means a NATO-Russia air war, which may well mean nuclear war. Unthinkable.
But do these terrible photos which made me bloodthirsty make me think nuclear war might not be so bad? And that these photos therefore should never have been shown?
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