‘Here is hell’: The Moods of War, Through Music

Photo: Future Publishing/ GettyImages

Here in Ukraine, whether on a war-time road trip, in a front-line soldiers’ mess, or in a city café, sometimes a popular American song comes on the radio—sending people into a strange silent meditation: Is this really happening?

By Joe Lindsley

LVIV—Yesterday at the Café Facet in Lviv, Twisted Sister’s “We’re not gonna take it” came on the speakers. As an American, I am sick of music overplayed on the radio in the USA. It’s always felt empty to me. But here in Ukraine, I found meaning in it.

I looked around me: people were tapping their feet, some singing softly and politely but seeming like they wanted to scream, some mouthing the words fiercely.

“We’re not gonna take it, no, we ain’t gonna take it”

Listen here: open.spotify.com

The little café is like a village train station, where everyone, facing each other, can join in a single conversation. Gathered were some of the top volunteers helping the victory effort—but also people I didn’t know.

Listening, the staff and customers all had instant solidarity. Maybe even the little dog sniffing the black and white tile floor looking for crumbs, snapping at anyone who got in his way, was also thinking, 'I ain’t gonna take it."

As I know from nearly every conversation—every conversation—these past days, we all know someone who has died in Bakhmut or somewhere on the front. The death toll is staggering, more than we can all imagine. As the saying goes, Moscow sends its possessed, dispossessed, prisoners; Ukraine is sending its Olympians, poets, and philosophers.

“At the beginning of the war, I looked forward to victory,” a woman mourning the death of a soldier friend, told me. “Now,” she said, “I don’t want to think of it. I can only think of the people we have lost.”

In the war, there’s fierceness and romance, nobility and heroism, sure, but every bit of this is still hell. Yes— death is for all. It’s just more often, intense, and comes earlier here. And that is indeed hell.

I have a friend, a Ukrainian warrior fighting in Bakhmut who before the 2022 full-scale invasion was a civilian with a growing IT company. I texted him asking what he wanted the world to know about the situation in that besieged Donbas town.

“That here is hell,” he replied. “Pure hell. Tons of casualties from both sides. The main point is - [R]ussians are set to kill every single man in Ukraine and destroy completely our culture and memory.”

Ukrainians and foreign fighters, aided by brave volunteers, are putting up a hell of a fight, as Russia indeed seeks to erase the memory of Ukrainian identity. Just look at Putin or Putin-double’s visit to Mariupol, smiling and pretending Russia has saved the city it has actually destroyed.

This makes so many people here want to cry out at the evil absurdity like Kafka in one of his novels. I recall another overplayed American radio song I never liked: “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes, whose meaning is now forever compelling to me.

On a war-time road trip from oft-bombed Mykolaiv to Kyiv, through the unlit highways, I was traveling with three great friends—a Ukrainian from Nikopol, another from Lviv, and a French volunteer often in the danger zones. We were not a quiet bunch—always exchanging good-natured insults, jokes, dreams, stories about women, war, life. Really, we rarely stopped talking.

Then as we drove through the lush fall fields, the road lined with trees like Tuscany, which our French friend said reminded him of southern France, that furious tune, “What’s Up,” came on the radio … and in the gloaming greenery we fell silent.

Listen here: open.spotify.com

Watch the road-trip scene here:

Perhaps you have had those moments: listening to a song, looking out the window or windshield at the passing country, feeling alive but also outside of space and time.

“And so I wake in the morning
And I step outside
And I take a deep breath
And I get real high
And I scream from the top of my lungs

This song was written from real emotion and for the first time I could understand it, riding in the car through the lush steppes of central Ukraine with three friends in the time of war. In the war, things that were once ridiculous become poignant and vice versa.

The three of us simply sat in silence listening, and looking, while our Nikopol friend drove on, also unusually silent. What is going on? Truly. Is this real, this whole year of Russia's full-scale war?

We stopped at a totally dark gas station. Inside, by candlelight, the women behind the counter cooked hamburgers for us, truckers, and soldiers.

What’s going on?

I think of all the deaths and horrible injuries.

What’s going on?

I think of the Americans who are callous to this tragedy...

What’s going on?

We all think of life and death and history on this planet.

What has ever been going on?

We only find the meaning in the moment, with the people with whom we can connect and trust.

“… trying to get up that great big hill of hope … for a destination.”

Steady, steady to victory, because Ukrainians and free people and the world over are not going to take it, as Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni made passionately clear this week when she said, “Let’s call a spade a spade … If we stop, we allow the invasion of Ukraine. The word invasion does not mean peace.”

Joe Lindsley is the editor of UkrainianFreedomNews.com. You can listen to his daily reports from Ukraine on Chicago’s WGN Radio here.