The War Came To Us: Life and Death in Ukraine

Image of The War Came To Us: Life and Death in Ukraine
Release Date: 
July 18, 2023
Bloomsbury Continuum
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Christopher Miller learned Japanese, wanted to travel to sub-Saharan Africa with the US Peace Corps but ended up being the only American in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in 2010. Since then, he’s becoming a journalist covering the region for a number of publications including the Kyiv Post, Buzzfeed, Politico, and now the Financial Times.

This depth of time in a place has coincided with huge geopolitical change in the country, much of which Miller sees for himself. Before the conflict began in 2014, he describes a country in which he found friends and a community, yet it was also struggling with alcoholism, an economy that saw some people sell their hair to get by, and pervasive corruption. He writes that “graft, embezzlement, and extortion weren’t just products of rampant corruption. They were so deeply ingrained in Ukrainian politics and business at the time that the country could barely run without them.”

Not only did Miller learn the country’s languages but he travelled extensively; “within a few months, the map that hung on my apartment wall had pins stuck into dozens of locations.” Despite a partner living abroad Miller kept finding himself returning to Ukraine, explaining that; “I wouldn’t stay away from Ukraine for long. I was hooked on the place, its complexities, idiosyncrasies, and especially its people.”

Then in 2014 the Euromaidan protests and revolution happened, and Miller was right in the middle of it, dodging the truncheons of the riot police and the tear gas. He saw first hand how Ukraine found its voice as a nation and how Russia took advantage of the chaos of the change to seize Crimea and destabilize the eastern regions. Indeed, to those surprised by the 2022 full-scale invasion Miller interviews Ukrainians who are quick to remind him that “we’ve been at war since 2014.”

His access and insight into the east of the country is unique from a Western media perspective, and he paints a strange Orwellian picture of Donetsk as “a place rife with delusions, denials, rumours, fear, violence, braggadocio and propaganda, where nothing and everything was real.” Gunmen were constantly telling him to “tell the truth” when they really meant “tell our truth.”

Miller’s access to the grinding and unheralded conflict in the east means he’s exposed to the horrors of war. He observers that “death has a sweet, almost fruity scent to it” but cannot help but struggle to process “what fire-hot pieces of metal from an explosive are capable of doing to human flesh is unbelievable. They puncture, fillet, shatter, smash, and turn bodies inside-out.” He can be prone to cliché, for instance writing that “I watched from a table nearby, puffing on a cigarette and sipping a double whiskey neat while I banged out another dispatch on my MacBook” and explaining a journalistic decision by writing that “I liked to zag when everybody else zigged.”

The full-scale invasion and incidents like the massacres at Bucha alerted the world to Russian war crimes, but Miller had seen these long before. He’d picked through the wreckage of the Malaysian Airline flight MH17, shot out of the sky by Moscow’s allies. He’d visited morgues and heard stories of civilians being executed by the separatist militias and having their bodies dumped on the battlefield to be disposed by war. He’d spoken to the wife of a man who was killed and left in the boot of his car; they’d “placed Oleksandr atop a weight sensitive mine that was set to detonate when his body was moved.”

Less than a third of the book focuses on the current invasion, what he describes as “a fuck-up of historic proportions.” Sections on Mariupol rely on secondary reporting, and the short dispatches-like chapters can read like newspaper articles. The book is largely narrative over analysis, and one wants to know more about what Miller thought was the “why” behind so much of what he’d seen beyond the caricature of Putin’s autocracy, rhetoric about “Nazis” and romantic Soviet irredentism. He also could have included more personal reflections as to his time and connections to the country and its people, for example explaining how his relationship survived and developed despite the time and risks he took reporting on the war.