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Ukraine War: ‘This Time It’s Different’

As Biden sends troops to Eastern Europe, have we memory-holed the last two decades of US strategic folly?
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Well, here we go:

President Biden is considering deploying several thousand U.S. troops, as well as warships and aircraft, to NATO allies in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, an expansion of American military involvement amid mounting fears of a Russian incursion into Ukraine, according to administration officials.

The move would signal a major pivot for the Biden administration, which up until recently was taking a restrained stance on Ukraine, out of fear of provoking Russia into invading. But as President Vladimir V. Putin has ramped up his threatening actions toward Ukraine, and talks between American and Russian officials have failed to discourage him, the administration is now moving away from its do-not-provoke strategy.

Today my second son turns 18. My other son is 22. Nothing quite focuses one on the meaning of war like having to face the possibility that one’s flesh and blood might have to fight it. The last time the US faced a major war of choice — Iraq — I had only one son, and he was two years old. I was 100 percent behind that war, because as I have written about many times since then, I was so enraged by 9/11 that I wanted America to lash out at anybody in the Muslim world. I was eager to believe every damn lie the US Government told to convince people like me to support the war.

This time? Where’s the antiwar march — I’ll be there.

What an abstraction war was back then. America had won the Cold War, and spent the 1990s as the world’s only hyperpower. I thought we could do whatever we wanted to do. Make anything happen that suited us. Do you remember that chapter in All Quiet On The Western Front, when the German soldier Paul returned to his hometown on R&R, and goes to the village cafe, where everybody cheers for him and gasses on cheerfully and patriotically? Meanwhile, Paul gets that they will never, ever understand the horrors that he has experienced. Well, at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, and up until 2005, I was like those cafe patrons. Years later, talking to an Iraq War veteran friend, I asked him what it was like to have civilians come over to thank him for his service. He said that he knows they’re doing it out of a good heart, but he was sick and tired of hearing it, because they have no idea what soldiers like him have been through. For example, he was sent home for R&R for a couple of weeks, and in his absence, a battalion colleague who took his place was killed by an IED. What does hearing “thank you for your service” in McDonald’s mean when you have to deal with that kind of memory? I asked my friend, a Rush Limbaugh-listening conservative, what he thought about the war now (this was 2011). He simply said, “What a waste.”

In my hometown, there was a Louisiana National Guardsman who saw some combat. When he came home, he refused to go inside a church. He told his wife that he had done things that God would not forgive. He could not tell her what they were. I remember this man as a child. He was younger than I. I can see him now, in my mind’s eye, as a little boy on the baseball field, attending his brother, who played on my team. Our government sent him to Iraq for no good reason, and ordered him to do things that wrecked him inside. Things he wrongly believes that God cannot forgive. This is what war is.

I’m not a pacifist. Sometimes we have to go to war. It is at times a necessary evil. But even if justified — say, Ukrainians defending their country from invasion, it remains evil in its effects. Timothy Patitsas, an Orthodox Christian ethicist, has this to say about war in an interview about war and personal trauma:

DR. PATITSAS: You can’t do ethics of war with your mind in the first place, nor even with your heart, shall we say. Rather, starting with your body, from your duty to protect your loved ones who are forced by circumstance into combat, you must not deny that they return from war wounded through no fault of their own. They have changed, and some of them will struggle terribly in trying to re-enter society. Everything begins there. Putting the intellectual sins first misses the point of everything, because if on paper you can justify a war, then supposedly these intellectual sins aren’t involved and it won’t hurt you. From our eastern Orthodox perspective, just to witness combat is already a terrible burden on the soul. Whereas the mere fact that a particular war can be proved intellectually to be the lesser of two evils—and therefore unavoidable—doesn’t resolve anything. It is still individuals who kill or at least experience those images and passionate feelings, and it is individuals who have to be cleansed, as St. Basil the Great says when he has soldiers who kill in battle refrain from receiving Holy Communion for three years.

RTE: So you are saying that war remains evil, even when justified. Is killing in war then murder?

DR. PATITSAS: Some early Christians called it that, but St. Basil does not agree, and his penance for a soldier is not the same as the penance for a murderer. So, the motives outlined in the West’s just war theory do apply in the East as well when you are distinguishing types of killing according to logical criteria. Killing in war is ethically distinct from murder. However, the fulfillment of the just war criteria is not sufficient to inoculate us from war’s evil; it still hurts us.

I imagine there are plenty of Russian mothers and fathers who worry about what launching a war on their Ukrainian brothers and sisters will do to their sons. I also imagine that it is much more difficult for them to speak out for peace. But what’s our excuse? Are we Americans simply prepared to accept the leadership of the US national security bureaucracy, both Pentagon and civilian, which has led us so poorly these past twenty years? As Col. Andrew Bacevich recently wrote, we Americans have done nothing to hold the officer class responsible for the Afghanistan debacle responsible. Our politicians and senior generals keep praising the military, but none of these cheerleaders are trying to figure out why its leadership has failed so badly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and impose consequences for those failures. This same leadership class — Joe Biden has been in the most elite ranks for the past twenty years — is now stumbling towards military confrontation with Russia. Meanwhile, they are busy waging war on political and religious conservatives in their own ranks. I suppose Job One for Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley is to make the Donbass safe for genderqueer furries, or whatever the hell fad they’re following this week.

These are the kind of unaccountable fools who have the power to send our young men and women into a combat zone to risk death for … what? I recall how people like me used to think back in 2002, that fateful year in which the US Government built up for the attack on Iraq. When people like Pat Buchanan said it was folly to expect Iraqis to be able to handle liberal democracy, because they had none of the culture required to sustain liberal democracy, people like me responded with lines like, “So you think that Arabs don’t deserve democracy? Don’t deserve freedom?” It was absurdly disingenuous, and used racial categories to dismiss a vitally important point about the likelihood of US failure in Iraq. And, as it turned out, the Buchananites and other realists were 100 percent correct about that. But it took a decade or so, a trillion dollars, and the cost of thousands of American and Iraqi lives to figure out what was obvious to the realists before the first US soldier landed in Iraq.

These are now the same kind of people who have concluded that the US should send troops to the region to try to intimidate Russia. And if you object, they say that you must hate the Ukrainian people, or hate freedom, or be Putin’s useful idiot. Y’all, this was the same exact strategy they followed twenty years ago to convince us dupes to support this foolish Iraq War plan! But this time, they say, it’s different. I don’t believe it, and I hope you don’t believe it either.

Putin is not a benevolent leader, and Ukraine doesn’t deserve to be invaded and brutalized by Russia (though as Michael Brendan Dougherty pointed out five years ago, and reiterated this morning, the Ukrainian state is not a spotless lamb). Note well that the roots of this crisis include the 2008 statement from President George W. Bush saying that Ukraine and Georgia ought to be invited into NATO. The same moralistic crusader and strategic genius who launched the war of choice on Iraq, and set out to build liberal democracy in Afghanistan, also laid the groundwork for the crisis we face today. There is relatively little popular support in the US for involving ourselves in Russia v. Ukraine hostilities — which should surprise exactly no one, given that our country has been at war for two decades, suffered much, spent much, and accomplished little or nothing. Where are the generals who paid a price for their failures? 

I hope and pray that my sons would have the courage to take up arms in defense of their country. I also hope and pray that they both understand that the civilian and military leadership of the US at this moment in time does not have their best interests at heart, and is not worthy of trust and confidence. The last twenty years cannot be memory-holed, no matter how much the natsec class would like us to.

A friend texted me over the weekend to say that is son, around the same age as my boys, is in the Army, and received notification that he is headed to deployment in a NATO country that borders Ukraine. Unlike twenty years ago, I now have the perspective of having raised two boys into adulthood, and have skin in the game, so to speak, that I did not have when I was in my mid-30s, and spouting off about the importance of projecting US power into the Middle East. We were a hyperpower then. We were less powerful than we thought, and in any case, we no longer are. The troops being moved towards the Ukraine theater are no sons of mine, but they are somebody’s boys, and husbands, brothers, even fathers. My own brother-in-law deployed to Iraq with the Louisiana National Guard, and though he came back, he did not come back unscathed. War is evil. Even just wars, necessary wars — I remind you that I am not a pacifist — introduce evil into the hearts of those who fight them. We should only wage war as a last resort. For America, this is folly.



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