Lessons of the Ukraine War
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the Ukraine war and what we can learn from it. I don’t mean learn in a military sense though. There are lots of others talking about that. This post is about the lessons the war teaches us about our own nations and culture, how we view the world, and ourselves as individuals.
What We Got Wrong
Most of us, myself included, got Ukraine wrong, and not just wrong, but badly wrong. Ukraine was supposed to have died under the Russian boot. Kyiv was supposed to have been taken in a few days, the Ukrainian leadership deposed and fled, and the Ukrainian people were going to shrug their shoulders and welcome the return of the Russian empire. America and Europe were going to let Russia restart its imperial ambitions, and the Russian military was to be an unstoppable bear that would easily swat aside the smaller, weaker, more liberal and European Ukrainian army.
Even top experts got all of it wrong. If we could get all of that wrong, then what does that say about our understanding of the world, what is possible, impossible, and what else could we be wrong about? It should also make us question some deep underlying philosophical views we hold of the world.
A Lesson of Two Ages
Ok, I’m going to get philosophical here but bear with me because it will explain a lot of my thinking. Kierkegaard, a 19th century philosopher, wrote there are two types of ages that cultures go through: an age of Passion, and an age of Reflection. Kierkegaard considered his own age (the 1840s) a Reflective age as opposed to the earlier Passionate age of the French and American revolutionary period.
In a Passionate age people are in touch with their individual passions and purpose in life and will take action to fulfill their purpose, while in a Reflective age people find themselves lost in thought and think in abstractions. They never come to any real decisions of what they want and have difficulty taking action. They don’t commit. They find themselves always searching for more information before they are willing to commit and take action, but they never find enough. They are always calculating.
While the individual finds themself always seeking and never taking action the entire society finds itself stuck as well. It finds itself always doing the “sensible” thing and it feels compelled to put down anyone who wants to do something different from what society has deemed sensible.
“So the present age is basically sensible, perhaps knows more on the average than any previous generation, but it is devoid of passion. Everyone is well informed; we all know everything, every course to take and the alternative courses, but no one is willing to take it. If one person eventually were to surmount his own reflection and act, a thousand reflections from outside would immediately create opposition to him, because only a proposal to consider the matter further is received with rising enthusiasm, and a proposal for action is met with indolence.
Ultimately the tension of reflection establishes itself as a principle, and just as enthusiasm is the unifying principle in a passionate age, so envy becomes the negatively unifying principle in a passionless and very reflective age.
In contrast to the age of revolution, which took action, the present age is an age of publicity, the age of miscellaneous announcements: nothing happens but still there is instant publicity. An insurrection in this day and age is utterly unimaginable; such a manifestation of power would seem ridiculous to the calculating sensibleness of the age.”
Kierkegaard, Two Ages: A Literary Rreview
Kierkegaard had a parable he used to describe the differences between a passionate and reflective age. Imagine a frozen lake with a treasure sitting in its center on thin ice. A crowd gathers and from the crowd a skater goes out onto the ice. The skater glides towards the treasure over the thin ice and skates around to take it, risking his life because he may fall through. In a passionate age the crowd will cheer the skater and call him brave and will say he should be admired. In a reflective age the crowd will call him a fool for risking his life and cry that he should return because it isn’t safe and it isn’t worth it.
I think one of the reasons we failed to predict how well Ukraine would fight (but certainly not the only one) was because we are so used to living and thinking in a reflective age that we couldn’t see that the virtues of a passionate age, exemplified by the Ukrainian people and particularly president Zelensky. Russia, on paper, should be winning. Our analytical minds looked at what was on paper: Russia is larger, more populous, has far more and greater weapons, and is richer. Why wouldn’t we have assumed Ukraine had no hope?
We failed to understand there is more to a nation and a people than the data on paper. One man really can make a difference in this world and through courage and will overcome what all the greatest reflective thinkers say are impossible odds. President Zelensky, a former comedian, became the greatest war leader and hero of a righteous cause since World War 2. His decision to stay in Kyiv and rally his people to fight for their nation went against all the odds and we are now seeing what was once thought impossible: Ukraine could win against the Russian Empire. But it wasn’t solely Zelensky. The Ukrainian people have been showing courage and strength of will since the Maidan revolution in 2014 that ousted their pro Russian leader.
Of course American and European weapons are helping, but they only started to arrive after Ukraine proved it would fight, and it would fight well with courage and without hesitation. The odds of winning were at their lowest when the invasion started and they chose to fight anyway. Since then their will to fight has drawn western weapons. We’re rewarding a people who took a leap of faith.
Ukraine is proving that the calculating and risk adversity of a reflective age may not be as intelligent and wise as we think. Maybe taking action against what seem like impossible odds isn’t as foolish or as hopeless as the voices in our heads and our pros and cons lists and our endless hours of data analytics and informational analysis tell us. Courage and will power can not be quantified on paper and now we’re seeing just how potent those two powers are at overcoming tremendous odds.
We should all learn from this. As a culture we should think about how acts of courage and heroism that may seem ill-advised and even foolish may be worth trying anyway. Maybe they aren’t as foolish as they seem, and maybe, just maybe, you as an individual are stronger and more resourceful and more intelligent and more courageous than you think. Maybe you’ll find a way to succeed as you go along. None of these qualities can be quantified on paper.
I don’t mean that collecting data, analyzing the world, and considering the world through a rational, quantifying lens is bad or useless though. What I’m saying is no matter how much data you collect, no matter how good you are at analyzing that data, you will still miss something. Would foreign policy experts have gotten this war right if they had focused more attention on how Ukraine had changed as a society and how it revamped its military since 2014? Maybe. But we all have a finite amount of time and attention to devote to data collection and analyzing. We will never get everything we need to make a truly rational decision purely based on data. We have to listen to our instincts and take a leap of faith sometimes.
Zelensky decided to skate right up to that hole in the ice. I guarantee he didn’t have some far seeing plan on how the war would progress. He hadn’t gamed everything out in his head and performed a better analysis of the situation than anyone else. He took a leap of faith and figured it out as he went along.
The Liberal Democratic Project Isn’t Dead
In April of 2022, President Biden described a conversation he had with Chinese leader, Xi Jinping.
“He doesn’t think that democracies can be sustained in the 21st century, in the second quarter of the century, because things are moving so rapidly, so incredibly fast that only — he doesn’t say “autocracy” — only autocracies are able to handle it. Because democracies require consensus, and it takes too much time, too much effort to get it together. And by that time, the event, the circumstance has gone beyond your ability to fix it.”
The 2010s were an era of creeping authoritarianism, weakening democratic institutions, the rise of anti-democratic leaders, and a helplessness on the part of pro democracy advocates to push back.
The number of countries that are democratic has been falling since an all-time high in 2012, and the decline is accelerating. Meanwhile we just have to look around and see the growing power of totalitarianism within China and Russia, and the failing of democratic institutions in nations such as Hungary, and the popularity of anti-liberal parties in nations like France, Italy, and Israel.
Ever since the US invasion of Iraq any American foreign policy devoted to the promotion of democracy and liberalism abroad has been viewed with deep suspicion. America’s unambiguous, and full support of Ukraine’s fight against imperialism and totalitarianism is cleansing international liberalism of the shame of the Iraq war.
What we’re seeing are two things: a newly energized movement of international liberalism no longer held back by the shame of the Iraq war, and a growing realization that yes, democracy and freedom does still in this age require force to keep it safe. Democracy won’t just happen–it must be fought for, and totalitarian empires must be fought. We may be seeing the end of America’s, and the liberal democratic project’s isolationism. Democracies around the world should be more assertive in defending and promoting their ideals and Ukraine may be the start of our society relearning that lesson.
One of the criticisms right-wing thinkers have of liberal democracy is that it makes its citizens weak, bourgeois, only caring about what is comfortable and secure, and no longer or willing to sacrifice for greater ideals. Nietzsche described the people who would come to populate liberal democracies as “Last Men.” The Last Men would look at the potential for greatness within them, and merely blink.
But what liberal democracy doesn’t take away is our freedom to choose what we want to devote ourselves to. We don’t have to be jaded, dour, realpolitik nihilists. Being a citizen in a liberal democracy does not automatically make you a weak person who values bourgeois comforts and no longer cares about greater ideals. You don’t have to be a Nietzschean Last Man. Liberal democracy gives you the power to choose not to be like that–to sacrifice and fight for a greater ideal.
Ukraine is a liberal democracy and its citizens are proving that every day. Meanwhile both the US and Europe are showing themselves willing to make sacrifices and put resources towards defending the project of liberal democracy. Those sacrifices are tiny compared to what Ukrainians are sacrificing and they are tiny compared to what Americans and Europeans sacrificed during the two World Wars, but they are proving that Xi Jinping and Putin were wrong. Liberal democracies are more willing to make sacrifices for their ideals than authoritarians assumed.
And the citizens of a liberal democracy, when roused in anger, will fight just as hard and sacrifice just as much as any citizen of an authoritarian regime. People who freely choose to fight for their ideals and beliefs will always fight harder than those who are compelled and forced. That is a hidden strength of the citizens of liberal democracy–their freedom means that when they do choose to fight, they will fight with a ferocity that authoritarians never expect.
Hard and Soft Generations
President Zelensky is 44. The commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, is 49. As far as national leaders go they are young. I couldn’t find any data on the age of Ukrainian soldiers, and I doubt we’ll get any for a long time (don’t think Ukraine is particularly concerned with demographic statistics right now), but I think it’s safe to assume it’s primarily made up of younger generations.
This army screams Millennial/Gen Z.
These are the people beating the Russian Empire. Right now the most heroic defenders of liberalism and democracy in the world are Ukrainians. They know what they are fighting for and they are the most clear-eyed believers of liberalism and democracy of any nation on the planet right now. They are the example we should all follow. Let Ukrainian warriors and their life affirming fight to defend those values serve as a lesson of what is important in life and our own future as nations and a global community.
While Russia invades, murders, rapes, tortures, and blasts propaganda about how masculine and powerful it is you’ve got plucky, loveable Ukrainians beating the shit out of them, then having a dance party.
The war is being fought, and won by the most westernized, European, democratically supporting generation of young people in Ukraine’s history. They have proven their mettle. Don’t let anyone, including yourself, tell you the youth of today aren’t capable of being as tough as any previous generation.
I think there is a tendency for younger generations to internalize the idea they are softer than their elders. Throw that idea away. Ukrainian youth are showing every day that generations aren’t made weak or strong. We’re the same species we were 100 years ago or 1000 years ago. The challenges we face in life reveal our inner strength. You have that same strength in you as someone from 100 years ago, but you have to believe you can overcome the challenges you face. Otherwise you will feel your will drain and you will see only failure in the face of life’s challenges. Ukraine is facing down the largest country in the world–an ancient empire of vast resources and manpower–and it’s winning because its leaders believed they could and helped instill that belief in their citizens.
You’re tougher than you think. You’re more capable than you think. This is true at an individual level, but it is also true at a national level. Let Ukraine serve as an example of just how powerful a nation can be when it believes in itself, unites under the banner of liberalism and democracy, and has the will and courage to face impossible odds.