Being that 99% of anyone who reads this blog are Americans, what I’m about to say probably falls into the category of an unpopular opinion. Fortunately, the older I get, the less of a damn I give about holding contrary opinions. That’s what you get in exchange for the perennially sore back and occasional spontaneous additional aches and pains, I guess. It’s probably a more than fair trade.
In any case, my current unpopular opinion is that although it’s certainly unfortunate, I’m not losing any sleep about the two Americans who were captured in Ukraine and are now being held by the Russians. Before you start with the hate mail, hear me out – American citizens were warned off of traveling to Ukraine. The State Department withdrew its personnel from the country. The U.S. military is not taking an active role in the conflict.
The Americans in question, with full knowledge that they were going to be in an active war zone, beyond the operational reach of U.S. diplomatic and military support, decided to sign up to fight for Ukraine. Their decision, in many ways was heroic. They went where their conscience dictated, despite the personal danger in which it placed them. Doing so, of course, was as much foolish as it was heroic. That’s the catch, you see. Doing the heroic thing, by definition, meant that they accepted an awesomely high degree of personal danger.
Now that these men are in the hands of the Russians, the real weight of their decision has become obvious to them, their family, and those following along at home. I don’t wish these guys any ill, but the reality is they’re third country nationals caught out in someone else’s war. They’re strangers in a strange land. There’s probably a reasonable chance they’ll eventually be exchanged for someone the Russians want to fetch out of a deep dark hole somewhere at some point in the future. Maybe they’ll meet a different, less fortunate fate. For now, though, they’re just another pair of pawns in this new version of a very old game.
If you haven’t seen it, take a few minutes and watch Ukrainian President Zelensky address members of the US Congress. The man displays more leadership in ten minutes than the Congress has shown in the last ten years.
Weekends, especially those that are too snowy, cold, and unpleasant for much else, are good times to ponder. Some, I’m sure, are eager to fill in every moment of the empty hours with active distraction, but I’m happy to spend them reading and thinking over a good brew up.
I had some delightfully long stretches of time to do just that over the past weekend. There was a single thought, though, that kept coming back to me and that’s that whatever we think of as “peace” simply isn’t the natural state of the world.
Europe was lulled into thinking of the “long peace” stretching from the end of World War II to the kickoff of Russia’s most recent misguided adventure in Ukraine. That’s only possible when you forget that Russia has been waging a low-intensity war in Ukraine since 2007. The countries that used to be Yugoslavia fell into brutal genocidal war in the 1990s. Before that, when there was still an Iron Curtain, the whole continent held its breath and armed itself with increasingly powerful tools of war.
The Cold War itself raged, from one degree or another, across South America, Africa, and Asia for half a century. None of that even takes into account the “big wars” of the 20th century, the wars for empire in the Victorian Age, or Napoleon’s setting all of Europe on fire in his wars of expansion in the 19th century. The 18th century could hardly be called peaceful, having birthed revolutionary fervor in both the United States and France. You can carry this line of thought back through the long sweep of history until you run out of written records to consider.
It’s why I chuckle any time someone earnestly tells me that if only there was X, Y, or Z, the people of the world would all live together in peace and harmony. Maybe if they’re the last two people on earth. Maybe. But I see very little evidence to convince me that when societies, cultures, and civilizations bumping up against one another, “peace” isn’t simply a momentary rest between stretches of open, brutal war.
I’ve been swallowing news in big gulps since Vlad the Invader sent his wanna-be Red Army across the Ukrainian boarder. Cable, streaming, social media, and blogs, I’ve been trolling all of them for snippets of new and interesting information.
That’s one of the dangers of being a history guy… and one that’s spent a fair amount of his time concentrating on a combination of general war in Europe and the cold war. Throw in a hefty dollop of defense policy and global strategy and, well, it can be downright hard to tear your eyes away, for fear of missing whatever news happens to break while you’re looking somewhere else.
I won’t deny being keyed up by the flow of information available in the open-source environment. I’ve lost track of the number of “holy shit” moments. It would be entirely too easy to follow the rabbit hole down into something not entirely healthy.
Knowing that about myself, I’m going to try to step away a bit – even if it’s just for tonight. I’ll be doing my best to stay the hell off Facebook and Twitter and all the other sites and slip into a comfy chair with a good book. It’s 100% an effort to blow out a week’s worth of accumulated gunk from the darker corners of my head.
Taking a night off from the war is a luxury our friends in Ukraine don’t have. I might be tuning out the news for a few hours, but I’m sure it, and the overall state of this old, beshitted world of ours, won’t be out of my thoughts for very long.
1. Sanctions. There’s a small chorus out there arguing that the fairly dramatic sanctions regime imposed on Russia is only hurting Russian civilians, that it’s somehow “unfair,” or that it’s somehow an escalation of this conflict. I tend to come at it from a much different perspective. Russia’s wholesale invasion of Ukraine is a clear and present threat to the post-World War II free and democratic order in Europe. Under the circumstances, marshalling the full economic might of Western Civilization and arming the Ukrainian resistance with as much material as they can carry feels like the very least America and western Europe can do in response. I can assure you, a President Tharp would be far less ginger in how he approached the whole damned mess.
2. Saber rattling. The nuclear option. Vlad the Invader has put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert. Feels like the good old days of the Cold War when Soviet leaders threatened nuclear apocalypse any time world events didn’t go their way. If you didn’t live through those times, it happened a lot. Like all the time. If we caved in to Russian nuclear threats every time they stomped their feet in a fit of not getting their way, there would still be a wall in Berlin and an Iron Curtain across continental Europe. As the poet said, there are worse things in life than being dead.
3. Propaganda value. I’ve loaded down my social media feeds with images, memes, videos, and commentary on Russia’s war-making over the last week. One thing I’ve refrained and will continue to refrain from doing is posting any of the images of surrendered Russian soldiers. I instinctively recoil every time I’ve ever seen pictures posted of American troops in the hands of the enemy… and seeing what are almost inevitably young conscripts on what must be the absolute worst day of their life being put on display, while it may have a certain propaganda value, doesn’t sit well with me. Better to just march them off to confinement and confirm through the Red Cross that Ukraine is committed to treating its POWs with dignity and in accordance with the Geneva Convention.
I grew up in the 80s… not so very long ago in geo-political terms. Back there and back then, the Soviet Union was an Evil Empire run by faceless party bosses and apparatchiks in far off, shadowy Moscow. As a cold war kid, having Russia back as the Big Bad feels like the most natural thing in the world. It’s the way things ought to be.
Russia, in the guise of “first among equals” in the USSR, had a long history of intimidating, invading, and occupying its neighbor states if they strayed too far from the edicts issued from Moscow. The old countries of the Warsaw Pact and former Soviet republics, spent half a century or more under the heel of or at least under threat from the Red Army.
My Point? It’s mostly just a way of saying that the ongoing invasion of Ukraine doesn’t represent anything new under the sun. It’s Russia being true to form and returning to old patterns from the 20th century. The difference now is that the Warsaw Pact is long dead and the former Soviet republics have been independent for decades – many joining NATO as they are well aware the threat that an expansionist Russia represents,
Even as the United States and the USSR postured across the German plains, the post World War II global order kept the peace in Europe for the better part of three generations. Since the end of the Second World War, Europe has known an almost unprecedented period of peace. If history is a guide, that’s not necessarily the natural state of things in the region. Today, it seems, we’re closer to a general war in Europe than at any time since 1945… driven almost entirely by one man’s obsession to restore an empire that hasn’t existed in over thirty years.
It seems that we’ve gone back to the future in the worst possible way.
I went to work as a very small cog in our uncle’s great green machine in January 2003. America’s war in Afghanistan was already more than a year old by then. I worked every day from then until now as part of an organization “at war,” even if the rest of the country wasn’t. Even on days when it didn’t seem to be, Afghanistan was always in the background of everything.
I’m not a grand strategist and don’t intend to pass myself off as anything other than someone who has done some reading and existed, tangentially, on the far extremity of the fight for the last two decades. There are too many people whose real world experience and voices should be rightly amplified as we come to terms with the debacle that ends our benighted involvement in Afghanistan.
Having grown up seeing the grainy images of the fall of Saigon – taken three years before I was born – I never imagined I’d see an echo of that moment played out live on the weekend news. How we could so badly bungle this “final act” of the long war, how we could have squandered so much blood and treasure, and how it went to shit so very quickly can and should haunt this generation of bureaucrats, soldiers, and statesmen as an example of what happens when we get it exactly wrong.
These last couple of days have got me feeling some kind of way. I don’t recommend it.
I’ve been fortunate to visit Pearl Harbor twice. The first time was as a 20 year old college junior who snuck away from an Association of American Geographers conference for a morning tour. I was 20 years old and even though I was a history major and avid reader of all things World War II, I didn’t know a damned thing. I wasn’t in a mental place to be ready to understand what I was seeing. That’s made all the more pointed when I look now at the last American survivors of that attack 75 years ago. They were all in their mid-teens then.
The second time I got the chance to stand a few feet above the water of Pearl Harbor on the memorial that straddles the shattered hulk of the Arizona I was pushing 30. I’d done a lot more reading and lived another decade of life. It was enough to give me a far different perspective of that place and its history than my earlier visit. The slow, steady trickle of oil rising from Arizona. The leis floating on the next tide. The rusted out stubs of turrets still still defiantly holding their own above the waterline.
Pearl Harbor is an active naval base; still – maybe more than ever – the hub of America’s presence in the Pacific. It’s also a monument to a time very nearly gone from living memory when the the entire world went to war. More importantly, it’s a sacred space. Sanctified as Lincoln said of an earlier battlefield of an earlier war, by the “brave men, living and dead, who struggled here… far above our poor power to add or detract.”
You owe it to yourself, if you can, to find your way to these places where America poured out the flower of its youth in defense of liberty and giants walked upon the earth.
At this very hour 72 years ago the English Channel between the south of England and the Normandy coast was churned by the largest naval armada ever assembled. From the massive battleships to the tiniest landing craft, these ships carried the flower of Allied youth – the best trained and equipped army that was ever sent to war. All these brave souls knew their mission and more importantly they knew that if they weren’t killed in the crossing, a few short hours later the ramps of their landing craft would drop and they would face an enemy who was entrenched on the high ground and who had years to prepare his defenses.
On beaches named Sword, Gold, Utah, Juno, and Omaha, those ramps dropped and soldiers bled and still they fought on to overwhelm the German defenders. They established a toehold and then a beachhead in Occupied Europe. Then they fought through another fifteen months as liberators rather than conquerors.
That’s what our grandparent’s or great-grandparent’s generation did to ensure freedom and liberty weren’t extinguished… So when a student today, tucked comfortably on a college campus, says they need a safe space or a trigger warning or protection against micro-aggression, honest to God I can’t for the life of me understand what their pansy asses are whining about.
If I’m rolling my eyes I can only imagine what their long ago counterparts crossing the last hundred yards of open water into the teeth of hell might think.
The usual answer to that question, logically, is “at the beginning.” If time was an unlimited resource that might be the right answer here too. As it is not, the best I can manage in one sitting is to try racking and stacking the approximately 87,241 things that are banging around my head this evening.
At various points today I’ve pondered the issues of securing the boarder, the virtue of allowing 100,000 Syrians to take refuge here in the states, the war in the 21st century, national responsibility and imperial power, how much more “presidential” Mr. Hollande sounded this afternoon than did our own president, and how many of my countrymen wish to remain willfully blind to the real dangers abounding in the world in which we live. Any one of those could fill a volume – a blog hardly gives space to lay out the thesis.
Then there’s the other thing. The one that we usually leave unsaid. The one where just about anything we say out loud is bound to devolve into a shouting match between people who have diametrically opposing points of view on any subject that even sniffs of controversial. More importantly, before I delve into those waters, I have to ask the question of whether or not I have the energy to even endure being a third party to the argument.
You’ve caught me here on a Monday night, so the answer is an overwhelming no I do not. If push comes to shove, I’m not even going to try convincing you that my points of view are valid and worthy of consideration. I can only trust that you know your own mind as well as I know my own and that you’ve made whatever decisions you feel are best for you.
I’m never quite sure if anything that’s on my mind is worth saying out loud – or if any of it cuts through the rest of the electronic noise that assaults us each day. As you might have guessed, I’ve certainly got my opinions. Perhaps, on a night when my head isn’t particularly addled I’ll spell out some of the specifics and see if we can get a proper argument going.