War veteran Illia Titko: “My “blood formula” has now been changed forever!”

Illia Titko near Popasna, Luhansk Oblast, July 19, 2016

Illia Titko near Popasna, Luhansk Oblast, July 19, 2016 

Op-ed, War in the Donbas

This book review is an introduction to the war memoirs entitled – Blood Formula, Talia, 2019 – written by a Ukrainian serviceman and combat veteran. He was mobilized from September 2015 to October, 2016, when the war “was continuing into its second year… By that time, the first and second “waves of conscription had already been demobilized, but for us everything was just beginning.” The author of this book is Illia Titko, from Kalush, Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast.

It should be noted that his mobilization was an assignment for which he volunteered. As a senior engineer in his company, it was his job to inform fellow workers when they were conscripted into service, and on one occasion, in 2015, he realized that he himself could no longer be a bystander.

Illia Titko writes his book from the perspective of an ordinary citizen soldier who served his term in the army, a man who continued to maintain one foot firmly in the civilian world, even though his new environment was a war zone, and “war is when your entire world is turned upside down”. Therefore, it is very easy for ordinary readers to follow his adventures and to identify with the writer. For example, he speaks of his first assignment as a period of “temporary” duty as deputy commander of the battalion. He exists “temporarily” in the army, although he is very conscious of the fact that he will be a veteran until the end, because his memories and experiences are forever tied to his comrades-in-arms.

For example, Titko comments on the daily ritual of mealtime:

“Initially it reminded me of civilian excursions “into nature”. The big difference was that rather than a benign adventure into the wilderness, for us soldiers it meant a rude awakening of constant danger. The impression of contentment after a good meal on a warm day was replaced by a feeling of stress welling up inside us, and a constant vigilance, because at any moment we might need to reach quickly for our weapons.”

The book’s title – Blood Formula – is a reference to the visceral, physiological changes in the human organism as it experiences intense stress.

“We set our course for the front. And while it was still far off in the distance, I could already feel the chill of fear knotting my stomach.”

The book includes many detailed examples of incidents that are now a contingent part of service in the Ukrainian army. For 13 months, Titko lived at front-line positions near Popasna, Luhansk Oblast, in eastern Ukraine. Additionally, he engages in the difficult work of self-reflection and search for meaning in wartime conditions. He writes, for example, the following:

“I got to know my men. I became familiar with the territory. I would study enemy positions with interest and trepidation. I tried to understand this enemy, and resisted the feeling of fear within me that I experienced as a civilian, but encouraged the firm control of a soldier who must come to terms with the fact that there’s a war. And, the reason for this war can be seen in those not-too-distant trenches and observation posts, in those individuals formerly known as our “brothers”, who have metamorphosed into inhuman animals and enemies.”

On her Facebook page, Titko’s daughter, Olena Kusmirchuk, summarizes her father’s book in the following way:

“In this book, you’ll find reflections, insights, self-analysis, stories of military exercises and training, as well as the difficulties of adapting to military life.”

In her introduction to the book, she writes:

“My dad… made the decision to write this text because all these emotions need some form of expression; otherwise your memories can destroy you from the inside out.”

To live one’s life as a true human being, without lies or insincerity, is a notable accomplishment, a victory for which the author is to be commended, even under circumstances when military service became infected with “powerful apathy and treacherous inertia”.

In his own words, Illia Titko attributes this victory to the “images that rescued me”, namely images of his ancestors, starting with his own father.

“I invoke all the experience of earlier generations. It must be there somewhere, hiding within my genes! Surely, I can find the answer within the billion cells in my body, microscopic in size, but molecules that are gigantic in meaning and connection. They are saturated with the mystery of ancestral experience… And then, an insight came to mind from my long-gone school days. It was a clear memory of a phrase from Taras Bulba: “Ostap had fallen asleep. In the depths of his soul and in all his vulnerability he cried, “Father! Where are you? Can you hear me?” “… My son, I do hear you!” This short, powerful image became for me a liberating mantra that could pull me out of an immobilizing and treacherous apathy.”

Titko’s insight reminded me of a phrase by G.K Chesterton about Christianity:

“Christianity seeks for God with the most elementary passion it can find; the craving for a father, the hunger that is as old as the hills. It turns the whole cry of a lost universe into the cry of a lost child.”

That “elementary passion” kept Titko going throughout his military service.

“If you can tap into your sub-conscious experience, you can easily adapt [to unfamiliar military life]; if you’re unable to do this, the ensuing moral crisis might be catastrophic.”

Before the war, Illia Titko worked as “chief engineer of a company that made technical equipment for the petroleum and petroleum-chemical industries”. Since he was forced to learn his army duties from scratch, I thought an alternate title for his book could have been From Nothing at the Zero Line. Although I was expecting the title – Blood Formula – to be a play on words on the currently popular Steinmeier Formula of peace negotiations, Titko’s actual reference to a change in the composition of one’s lifeblood under stress is much better. What he has written is something others can now relate to, especially civilians looking in on military service from the outside.

“Benefitting from the wealth of wisdom and strength of my ancestors, I was able to overcome despair and additionally the limitation of my own comfort zone. Consequently, my “blood formula”…has now been changed forever.”

When the time for his demobilization came, he wrote that “the main thing is that I fulfilled all my duties and obligations”. He was then able to return home after serving in the front lines for 13 months, far away from “my native and (temporarily) distant western Ukraine”.

Illia Titko at a presentation of his book

Edited by: Christine Chraibi

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