Johnny get your gun … and go to Ukraine?
Just three days after Russia’s shocking invasion of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky established a foreign “international” legion for volunteers from abroad.
Calling the act of volunteering “key evidence of your support for our country,” Zelensky struck a defiant tone as Russian troops and tanks initiated their attack. A Ukrainian government travel website even has its own page to guide the prospective legionnaire through the process.
Within 10 days Ukraine reported it had received 20,000 requests to join, many of whom were American veterans. One U.S. Navy veteran, upon arriving in Lviv, stated “we’re here to help the people.” Another veteran, with training and combat experience as a medic said “it’s the kids, man. I just can’t stand by.” Another Army veteran posted a Twitter video of himself next to destroyed Russian tanks, claiming the village had been liberated from terror.
To listen to these ex-soldiers, the common thread is a sense of moral outrage at Russia’s invasion, and rightfully so. What is troubling by its omission, however, is any qualifying acknowledgement that their own country also violated the sovereignty and lives of other nations, the consequences of which caused many orders of magnitude more harm than Russia has. These veterans fought in those wars. It seems there will be no reckoning on that point.
What is unfolding is something unique to the times and to the American experience. These veterans deciding to travel to Ukraine to fight appear to be an invocation of the American telos: the ultimate end or purpose of the nation. To be a shining light in a world of darkness.
From my own perspective, however, I believe their genuine spirit of goodwill and sacrifice has been manipulated and misdirected by forces — whether it be in the media or Washington establishment — that want more direct U.S. intervention in the Ukrainian war. Regardless of these veterans’ motivations or the contradictions involved, however, there are many reasons fighting for Ukraine as a mercenary legionnaire is not a good idea.
As stated recently by Kelley Vlahos in RS, President Biden was quick to frame the Russian invasion in starkly Manichean terms: as a battle between good and evil, between democracy and autocracy. These are terms that resonate deeply with Americans, especially those who typically join the all-volunteer military. As one Army veteran itching to fight for the legion said, “it’s a conflict that has a clear good and bad side.” The explanation for this commitment to fight for the “good” can be understood from several angles.
First, the deeply religious heritage of the United States has played a role. The late historian Samuel Huntington noted in his last book Who Are We? that America is by a large margin the most religious Protestant country in the world. The Bible, with its themes of good versus evil and right versus wrong, has undoubtedly animated our leaders and citizenry since 1776. Additionally, many of us who joined the military in the last two decades genuinely felt that we were on the “good” side of a global war with transnational terrorists, that our leaders would do what was right and just.
Unfortunately, despite the failures of that war and unquestionably disastrous consequences, many Americans plainly still do not see the proverbial plank in their own country’s eye. The widely cited Cost of War Project places the body count for the U.S. War on Terror at 900,000 lives. As stated so succinctly by ex-State Department foreign service officer Peter Van Buren, “if we do it, it is moral. If they do it, it is evil.” If these legionnaires are openly subscribing to universal principles of right and wrong that transcend borders, countries, and nationalities, their act of volunteering, given their experiences, could possibly be seen as a symptom of cognitive dissonance. “This time we will actually help the people” might be their unconscious reasoning.
Or, as summarized via an excellent Rambo analogy by Hannah Gurman in RS, their service could also be seen as a “moral reckoning with their past.” We get back, then, to the idea of American telos. No matter the past, regardless of the War on Terror, or Vietnam, or any other debacle, the American idealist vision, and by distillation the motivation of its veterans to be avatars of justice and goodness, must continue its march forward. This could be called pathological altruism.
One might say the arguments I make are a form of whataboustism. Why not just address the fact that Russia is killing innocent people and support those who act to stop it? The reason has to do with the narrative and who is constructing it for public consumption, and why.
As stated in the detailed research in Manufacturing Consent by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, the media and the powerful have for many years been in the business of designating “worthy” and “unworthy” victims. A victim of an enemy state? Worthy. Victim of the United States or its clients? Unworthy.
For example, after Iraq ceased to be useful to the United States following its war with Iran in the 1980s, the word “genocide” was used 132 times in the mass media in reference to Iraqi treatment of Kurds from 1990 to 1999 as well as making front page news 24 times. Compare this to only 18 uses of the same word and one front page news story during the same time period in reference to sanctions against Iraq, which killed an estimated several hundred thousand children.
While the White House has largely held back on more escalatory rhetoric (Biden’s regime change “gaffe” notwithstanding), hawkish rhetoric from both sides of the congressional aisle, and the media’s portrayal of the current war, should leave no doubt about what type of shaping operations are underway.
The Ukrainians, as a U.S. client, are deemed worthy. On March 1, Republican Senator Roger Wicker called for the United States and NATO to impose a no-fly zone. He even insinuated American pilots conduct “close air support” missions, striking Russian ground targets. And several high ranking members of both parties called for the transfer of Polish MiGs to bolster Ukraine’s air power. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) curiously called the warplanes “defensive.”
Fortunately, cooler heads in the Biden administration prevailed and sidelined both of these requests. But amid passionate floor speeches about the global fight against authoritarianism, the Senate just passed a measure to expedite weapons to Ukraine and the House approved a bill to investigate war crimes in Ukraine, perhaps to build an even further case for more U.S. assistance in the war.
On the media front Steven Portnoy, a CBS News correspondent, recently asked the White House why the U.S. wasn’t readying for a world war after news reports of atrocities on the ground outside of Kyiv this week. Perennial neoconservative Eliot Cohen of the Atlantic penned an opinion piece arguing that because he believes Ukraine is winning the war the West needs to double down, to “pile on,” and help them finish the job. Author Anne Applebaum, also in the Atlantic, has declared Russia part of a world war against democracies. Things have come a long way (the wrong way) since Manufacturing Consent was initially published in 1988. This is why the veterans rushing to become legionnaires should take pause.
They had a front row seat to the lies, deception, and message-shaping operations of the last 20 years that resulted in catastrophe for the United States, its military, and the world. Whether it was the decades -long obfuscation uncovered in the Afghanistan Papers or smaller lies like Russian bounties on U.S. troops, smoke and mirrors to justify bombing Libya in order to protect civilians, or trotting out generals for damage control, this ride never ends.
Similar, overlapping factions that sold the previous and current wars and interventions are also now creating a narrative that the defense of Ukraine against Russian aggression is a paramount national interest of the United States. Given the circumstances, one might ask why the war in Yemen doesn’t receive the same rating, or are the victims of that conflict, targets of a Saudi-led coalition receiving U.S. military assistance, not “worthy.”?
Ukraine has not officially responded to requests for how many foreign fighters have joined their ranks or are engaged in fighting. Despite Russia’s initial failures, it is clear Moscow intends to remain for the long fight, especially in the eastern half of Ukraine.
Unless the legionnaires want to officially join the Ukrainian Army, they will need to think more critically about the nature of their service. Volunteers could be in legal jeopardy if captured, as mercenaries are not considered covered by the Geneva Convention. Despite the sound moral premise these volunteers hold as reasons for fighting, recent history and the media’s narrative should dissuade the more level-headed from picking up arms.
If the last two decades of their lives are any indication, what begins as a campaign to liberate, protect, or free victims of tyranny can result in even greater misery and destruction.