Firefighters extinguish a fire after a Russian rocket attack on an...

Firefighters extinguish a fire after a Russian rocket attack on an apartment building in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, on Monday. Credit: AP/Pavel Dorogoy

There are times when language fails to rise to the challenge before us, when words seem inadequate to the task.

Such is the monstrosity unfolding in Ukraine.

What's happening there is — choose your adjective. Incomprehensible. Bewildering. Horrific. Heartbreaking. Inhumane. Unnecessary. Cruel. Insane. Sadistic.

All true. All sadly insufficient.

For what are words when we're watching the slow destruction of a nation, and its human toll, in real time?

Missiles that rip apart the fabric of life. Neighborhoods there one day and gone the next. Buildings transformed from vibrant repositories of humanity to lifeless hulks of twisted steel and blasted cement. Families obliterated in an instant. Roads made impassable by bomb craters and smoking skeletons of military vehicles. And worst of all, desperate rivers of humanity flowing from one scene of slaughter only to enter another.

The mind reels, and the spirit seethes, a deep-seated rage rising from a place within us we might not have visited recently, a primal fury turned partly toward ourselves at the renewed recognition that humans can do this to one another.

Exacerbating that is the helplessness so many of us feel about what's happening to the Ukrainians, a helplessness inflamed by the West's adoption of a slow game to combat the depravity of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Intellectually, we accept the need for this slow game.

We want to control the conflict and keep it in Ukraine … as people die and cities crumble.

We want to manage the war carefully, act temperately, speak cautiously … as people die and cities crumble.

We don't want to provoke Putin into pushing any of his nuclear buttons … as people die and cities crumble.

We listen to experts say Putin is losing and cannot win no matter what, that this will be his downfall and the end of Russia as we know it, that a curtain is falling on the post-World War II epoch, if only we're patient and see the course through … as people die and cities crumble.

We're holding back fighter jets and sending defensive weapons and bleeding Russia via economic sanctions … as people die and cities crumble.

We watch Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy inspire millions of us with his rhetoric and resolve, and we tell ourselves that Ukraine has the leader it needs to bring it through this nightmare … as people die and cities crumble.

It's utterly frustrating but totally understandable, which only makes it more frustrating.

Because we know that time might be an effective strategy of war and an ally of a peace process, but not of peace itself. And it leaves us watching more bodies being lowered into mass graves. And more people being killed in bread lines, which they're standing in only because store shelves are empty, if the stores are even still intact.

And more attacks on schools, hospitals, cultural centers, homes, shelters, maternity wards, hostels. On a theater with the Russian word for "children" written clearly outside, twice, as a beseechment to bombers. On lines of refugees trying to flee.

We console ourselves that Russians, too, are leaving their own country, the freethinkers, the opposition, the artists, the academics. We send money and goods to ease the suffering for Ukrainians still alive, but the suffering continues.

And we watch our leaders bicker about who didn't vote for which bill and who is blocking which initiative and who is not tough enough or smart enough or empathetic enough.

But casting blame doesn't help the Ukrainians and jockeying for votes in the next election doesn't help the Ukrainians and braying for TV cameras doesn't help the Ukrainians. And it's a sickening feeling because each of us knows that all that we can do to help Ukraine is nowhere near enough.

Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.

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