‘It’s going to be a long war’

Islanders Write returns with eyewitness accounts of what’s happening in Ukraine.

From left, Joshua Hammer, Doug Liman, and Bob Drogin kicked off this year's Islanders Write forum. -George Brennan

The video showed a woman who looked like she could be a grandmother. Instead of knitting a baby bonnet, she was crafting a cover for a grenade. In the next scene, she showed off a stash of Molotov cocktails — on standby should Russian troops come to her neighborhood.

There was nervous laughter from those seeing the image.

“I don’t know how to reach her,” film producer Doug Liman told a crowd gathered at Featherstone Center for the Arts at the opening of Islanders Write. “I don’t know if she survived.”

Islanders Write is back from what the writing forum’s stalwart Kate Feiffer termed the “writers’ block” of the COVID-19 pandemic. Islanders Write, hosted by The Times, continues Sunday and Monday with more than a dozen writing forums. The workshops are free. 

On Saturday, an eager crowd, many wearing masks as the pandemic lingers like tequila-induced hangover, listened intently to Joshua Hammer, a long-form writer for Smithsonian and GQ, among others; and Liman, known for his film work on the “Bourne Identity” franchise, on their visits to war-torn Ukraine. Bob Drogin, a retired newspaper bureau chief and editor for the LA Times, moderated the forum.

The theme was “Covering the Russian Invasion of Ukraine,” but often drifted well beyond the coverage into the politics and prospects.

Hammer spoke about the two magazine pieces he wrote on the war after making two separate visits. One, early on, was written for Smithsonian, about sparing the artwork of Ukraine from the devastation of war. Hammer focused on the Bohorodchany Iconostasis, which he described as a beautiful work of art that has become “a symbol of the Ukrainian resistance.” His other long-form story was done for GQ, and took a decidedly different approach. Hammer wrote about the mercenaries who are joining the Ukraine forces in an attempt to stave off the Russian invasion. He focused his piece on Michael Young, an ex-Marine from Oregon, who decided to join the fight.

In answer to a question from retired editor Drogin about how Hammer’s writing withstood the “butchers” (editors can say that), Hammer said his Smithsonian words were mostly untouched, while he described his interactions with his GQ editors as “a bit of a conflict.” While Hammer hoped the story on the mercenaries would lead somewhere dramatic, it didn’t. There were a series of “misfires and misconnections,” as he put it. While he was with him, Young and the other mercenaries were doing some training of soldiers and “dangerous humanitarian stuff” in places away from the frontlines like Donetsk and Luhansk.
“I thought it was dramatic enough to sustain the narrative,” Hammer said. “My editors felt it was more Joel Cohen than Francis Ford Coppola, and so there was a lot of undercutting of the narrative, I thought, to lower the expectations of readers and made it less compelling. So that was quite heated at moments.”

Hammer, who lives with his family in Germany and was previously a bureau chief for Newsweek on five continents, felt it important to go and chronicle what was happening so close by in Europe.

“I think we all ask ourselves, we war correspondents, what’s my real motivation here? How much is this a desire to illuminate for the world the horrors of what we’re observing … and how much of it is a selfish, self-gratification of being in the heart of things or elevated sense of danger? I can only answer it’s a combination,” Hammer said. “Of course, it’s incredibly exciting even just to be crossing the border in Ukraine … I could feel this electricity in the air, and you have the occasional bomb warnings going off — people are scurrying, and there’s this surreal, Twilight Zone–World War II combination going on before your eyes, and it’s ubelievably intense. Every person you meet is caught up in drama one way or the other. Am I going to give up my job and go to the frontlines? Am I going to flee the country? Everything is gravitas.”

Liman’s path to Ukraine was more spontaneous, and definitely unplanned. He was in his apartment in New York City at the time, following the media reports of what was happening in Ukraine. “I basically got invited on a Tuesday night by somebody who used to work for the CIA and knew these mercenaries who were flying over,” Liman said. Liman was asked if he knew someone who might want to join the trip. “I said, ‘That’s the kind of thing I might do.’”

Like Young, the ex-Marine, the contingent Liman went with included ex-Navy Seals and other mercenaries ready to go join the resistance. Liman showed photos of trenches dug by the Russians, and the aftermath of a battle that showed what he called “tourists” stepping up to look inside tanks with dead bodies inside.

Liman went during the time of Passover. “How can I sit comfortably in my apartment in New York talking about people fighting for their freedom when I have the opportunity to go see it for myself? I’m also aware that I am attracted to dangerous environments. My really close friends made fun of me going … The reality is it probably lies somewhere in between. In that exact moment, with Passover coming up, I really felt like people needed to bear witness. The thing I came back with is I had such an appreciation for the people.”

Liman shot photographs and videos from Kyiv, which has become a symbol of Ukraine’s resolve. His videos showed a glimpse behind the scenes — the contrast of a man playing music for Liman that he produced as they drove through a city ravaged by war and desolate. One of his photos showed a swarm of people in a Kyiv square. Liman thought at first he was witnessing a food crisis, but would learn that a newly issued stamp was being sold that day, and Ukrainians wanted one. “[The stamp] said in Ukrainian: Russia go f yourself … They’re all waiting in line to buy this stamp. These people have nothing, they’re in the middle of a war zone — I showed you what Kyiv looked like — and they’re all just trying to get one of those stamps.”

He also told a story about the mercenaries purchasing a $2 million tank for $25,000 from desperate and corrupt Russian soldiers.

While the forum was geared toward learning more about coverage, the crowd gathered focused their questions on trying to get answers from the perspective of two men who had visited Ukraine.


On Vladimir Putin:

The reports of Putin’s health, like the death of Mark Twain, are greatly exaggerated. “Putin appears to be very healthy, unfortunately,” Drogin said.


On media coverage:

It’s been a mixed bag, but the panelists agreed that overall the media coverage has talented writers producing good stories.

Hammer pointed to work by the New Yorker’s Luke Mogelson and Joshua Yaffa. He also praised Andrew Kramer’s early coverage for the New York Times.

While some of the coverage has been “brilliant,” Drogin said, he doesn’t believe we’re getting a complete picture, pointing out that Ukraine is not releasing data on deaths. “I don’t think we’re getting much of a sense of what it’s like,” he said. “We don’t have access to Russian troops.” 

Liman said it was media coverage that helped spur his interest in going to see for himself. “The media is helping Ukraine,” he said.

Meanwhile, social media is playing a big role in how the world learns about this war, with Twitter and TikTok being the most dominant places to keep up with what’s happening in real time. Some of that coverage has been criticized as putting soldiers in harm’s way, because the posts can be easily traced.


On U.S. resolve:

Drogin reminded the audience that while the U.S. and NATO are not sending troops, they are supporting Ukraine with money and supplies. The next big crunch will be in October, when the money runs out. He said he expects that the isolation wing of the Republican Party will ask why money is being spent there when there are so many problems at home.

“I’m definitely worried,” Liman said of the U.S. interest in the war. “It’s not like other conflicts we’ve been in where you can ask, What are we doing there? This is Russia invading a vibrant young democracy … I hope it’s ingrained in our DNA that we don’t waver.”

Hammer said once the war moved from an existential threat to Kyiv to Donbas, interest waned. “I think that the war has its dips of attention span,” he said.


On the war’s length:

“It feels like a stalemate,” Hammer said. “My sense from covering other wars like Bosnia is that at some point both sides become — if the war drags out long enough and the casualties become unsupportable for both sides, that is what really compels people to sit down and make deals. I would assume this is going to go on for months, years perhaps … At some point, barring some breakthrough by one side or the other, they’ll be forced to sit at the negotiation table.”

Hammer said he believes the Russians will end up occupying Donbas.

“It’s going to be a long war. The only question is which side is going to tire first,” Drogin said.

Drogin reminded the audience that not everyone sees the war in Ukraine the way the U.S. does. “Congress is so far backing this war, but the America-firsters, the pro-Putin wing of the Republican Party, if you will, I think will make an issue of this before the midterms,” he said. “This is really about the coverage of this war. I think the image here in the States is this is a ‘plucky little nation led by Churchill in a T shirt’ and fighting the big regional bully. That’s not the way this war is seen in large parts of the world.”