Would you sign a rocket? Would you like to see your message heading for the heart of Vladimir Putin’s war machine, roaring out of the sky towards a Russian tank on the battlefields of Ukraine? Would you sleep easier knowing that a shell fired in the fight for freedom had carried your name, and that in your own little way, you had done your bit?
If your answer is yes, here’s another way of asking the same question. Would you like your name to be on the missile that kills a frightened conscript in his early 20s? Would you like to think that it was your shell, with your message, that had killed a young father?
They sound very different; yet they are, of course, the same question. Such are the moral dilemmas of war, in which decent people feel they have no choice but to do terrible things.
The Sign My Rocket initiative was launched last summer to raise money for the defence of Ukraine by encouraging outsiders to sponsor artillery shells, bombs and missiles
This isn’t a hypothetical issue. Almost a year into the war in Ukraine, one of its most extraordinary developments has been the success of a fundraising drive called Sign My Rocket.
The initiative was launched last summer by Ukrainian IT student Anton Sokolenko, to raise money for the defence of his native land by encouraging outsiders to sponsor artillery shells, bombs and missiles.
At first, he hoped to raise £3,000 — enough for a drone. But such has been the success of his campaign that he is already close to raising £1 million.
Visit the Sign My Rocket website and you’re invited to choose your weapon, from a simple shell to a MiG-29 fighter jet, with a sliding scale of prices.
Then you type in your message. The Ukrainian soldiers will write it in permanent marker on your weapon of choice, and send you a photo or video as proof.
Some people may find this very unsettling. But they don’t include the former assistant head of Finland’s military intelligence, Martti Kari, who signed a rocket with the words ‘Merry Christmas from the Kari family!’
Nor do they include one of Finland’s most acclaimed writers, Sofi Oksanen. ‘This year,’ she tweeted proudly, ‘the money I would have spent on fireworks went to this kind of rocket to defend Ukraine from Russian aggression’, along with a picture of some rocket shells.
It’s easy to see why such an initiative would be popular in Finland, where people remember their underdog struggle against Russian imperialism in the Winter War of 1939-40. But would ordinary Britons be happy to sign a rocket?
Indeed they would. As Mr Sokolenko reports, there have been almost 200 orders from Britain, asking for a wide variety of messages. ‘London Says Hi,’ reads one. Another, painstakingly decorated with the Union Jack, is inscribed: ‘Rest in Peace Queen Elizabeth II 1926-2022.’ A third, more prosaically, carries the message: ‘My Dogs Luke and Leah P*** and S*** on Putin’s Face.’
Two U.S. soldiers writing Easter greetings to Hitler on a bomb in southern Italy, March 1944
Moving or macabre? Stirring or sick? The truth is that it’s all of them at once.
Today, many people recoil from the idea of sponsoring a missile with a personalised message. To mock the enemy, even in a just cause, challenges our sense of decency. Yet writing insulting messages on shells and missiles is nothing new.
Indeed, perhaps the most famous British example took place during the war to recapture the Falkland Islands from General Galtieri’s Argentine dictatorship.
A few weeks into the conflict, the Sun ran a front-page image of a British missile emblazoned with the headline ‘Stick This Up Your Junta’. The newspaper had ‘sponsored’ the missile by promising to pay for HMS Invincible’s victory party when the war was over.
So as its lead story boasted, ‘the first missile to hit [General] Galtieri’s gauchos will come with love from The Sun’, complete with the painted message: ‘Up Yours, Galtieri’.
Not everybody found this amusing. War correspondents reported that many of the men in the Task Force thought it a ‘sick thing to do’. Even the Invincible’s onboard newsletter printed letters from appalled sailors.
In this case, the issue was that the missile had been signed by a civilian.
Many of us are uneasy at the idea of spectators decorating instruments of death, given that they’re risking nothing themselves. But what about when soldiers and sailors do it? After all, signing missiles is just as old as warfare itself.
In the ancient world, soldiers would carve jeering messages into the lead bullets fired from their slings. The British Museum holds an example from Athens in about 87 BC: a lead slingshot, inscribed with the mocking word ‘Dexai’ — ‘Catch!’
The most graphic examples were found in Perugia in Italy, where Mark Antony’s wife, Fulvia, was besieged by their rival Octavian during one of Rome’s civil wars. ‘Prepare your anus, Lucius Antonius, you baldy,’ reads one.
‘I seek Octavian’s anus’, reads another. ‘I seek Fulvia’s clitoris,’ boasts a third.
In the centuries that followed, the popularity of such disobliging messages seems to have dwindled. But with the deadly new technology of the 20th century, they became popular once again.
A little girl sticking ‘Wings for Victory’ stamps on to a 500lb bomb case in Trafalgar Square
During World War I, for instance, British soldiers drew caricatures of Kaiser Wilhelm II or chalked ‘Here’s one for you, Fritz!’ on shells bound for the German lines.
It was during World War II, though, that the idea of scrawling messages on bombs really caught on, especially among American aircrews. Look through photograph archives, and the taunting slogans jump out at you.
‘Run, Rommel! Run!’ scrawled a pilot on the deadly cargo of his B-25 bomber in North Africa in 1942. ‘Have You Heard This? It’ll Kill Ya!!’ reads another message painted on a U.S. bomb destined for the cities of Japan.
Again, the obvious difference between this and Sign My Rocket is that the Americans themselves were doing the fighting.
But we’re deluding ourselves if we think that our grandparents and great-grandparents weren’t just as bloodthirsty as the Greeks or the Romans. Indeed, even I had a jolt when I saw one picture taken in London in March 1943.
The occasion was the Wings for Victory Week, organised to raise more than £100 million for the
Royal Air Force, ending with a public rally in London’s Trafalgar Square.
In the photograph, a group of civilians are inspecting a pair of deadly-looking bombs bound for Germany. The bombs are being covered with ‘Wings for Victory’ stamps — and the people putting them on are little children, almost visibly trembling with excitement.
No doubt many people today would find such a scene deeply unsettling. Allied bombs killed around half a million German civilians, some of them younger than the children in the picture.
Yet in a total war, everybody had become a combatant. And as ghastly as it sounds, there was a ruthless honesty about that scene in Trafalgar Square. For at its most basic, brutal level, war is a fight to the death. Kill the enemy and you win: it’s as simple as that.
What, then, of Anton Sokolenko’s Sign My Rocket?
I can readily understand why many people find such an idea horrific. No decent person should glory in slaughter.
As cruel and hateful as Mr Putin and his cronies are, many of his troops are conscripts, who have no idea why they’re in Ukraine at all. They aren’t all evil, just as not all Germans were wicked during World War II.
Yet the tragedy of war is that it leaves little time for distinctions. And, as in World War II, the basic moral issue is clear.
The Russians are the aggressors, waging a campaign of bestial savagery. The Ukrainians are fighting in defence of their homes and families, just as our ancestors fought against the Nazis a generation or two ago.
To paraphrase Churchill, their only policy must be to wage war, and their only goal must be victory. But victories are only won by bullets, and by killing the enemy.
That is, and always has been, the nature of human conflict. So, as cold-hearted as it sounds, every Ukrainian shell that finds its mark, whether signed or not, is a step closer to victory — and to peace.
And whatever the messages on those shells, there is no doubt about their true author. Whether they are in English or Ukrainian, they were all ultimately written by the same man.
And that man — the author of so much misery, the cause of so much suffering, the destroyer of so many lives — is Vladimir Putin.