To the people of Ukraine:
You have been at war for a year now, and death must have touched virtually every family in your country. Your struggle reminds me of Sarajevo, where I first experienced war as a journalist in 1993. The Bosnian Serb army had besieged the beautiful Bosnian capital and ordinary citizens—many just teenagers—learned to use the tools of war to defend their families and homes. The situation was both noble and tragic; inspiring and sad. It made me want to be Sarajevan. It made me want a great cause in my life that would require me to put others before myself. You seem to make yourself immortal when you do that; you seem to make yourself impervious to pain and fear and doubt. The reality is much more complicated, of course. But over and over throughout history, ordinary people defending their homes and families have found themselves capable of feats they never could have imagined.
My father was a refugee from two wars. In 1936 he and his family fled Madrid when the fascists came in under General Francisco Franco and then fled again when the Nazis invaded France. It looked like fascism was going to take over the world, but some people knew better. Czech leader Tomas Masaryk, watching Hitler’s rise in the 1930s, commented famously, “Dictators always look good until the last five minutes.” All of Western Europe’s authoritarian regimes have collapsed since World War Two. (Franco lived to old age, but Spain reverted to a democracy within months of Franco’s death, and a left-wing military coup rid Portugal of fascism a few years after the retirement of Antonio Salazar.) Of the Eastern Bloc countries, only Russia and Belarus have slid back into authoritarianism. Europe is an overwhelmingly democratic continent because there are people everywhere who were and are willing to risk their lives defying evil.
Those brave people included British, Canadian, and American soldiers who sustained casualty rates as high as 90 percent storming the beaches of Normandy during World War Two. With the help of resistance fighters in France and other occupied countries, they went on to crush the Nazi regime and eradicate fascism in Central Europe. The Ukrainian resistance is a direct descendent of these heroic citizens who helped allied forces. When Hitler shot himself in his bunker in the last days of the war, he knew that soldiers and freedom fighters from the world’s oldest democracies were closing in on him.
Like Hitler, Putin will fail in his endeavor—not only will he fail, but it will eventually destroy him. As a result, other dictators around the world will take note of the fact that smaller countries often win wars against invaders, and that invading a supposedly weak neighbor will probably end in failure. History is filled with inspiring examples. The Ottoman Empire invaded Montenegro over and over in the 1600s, outnumbering the Montenegrins by as much as 12-to-1. Each time, these mountain people drove out their invaders—often inflicting high casualties. Hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, Irish rebels threw off English rule in the years after the Easter Rising of 1916. Around the same time, American workers defeated the combined might of the U.S. government, corporate power, and the National Guard to implement crucial labor reforms that form the basis of today’s society.
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Freedom is one of the few things that, throughout history, people have regularly been willing to die for. That can make invading a free society very costly. But a fight for freedom will not succeed without leaders who are willing to make the same sacrifices as everyone else. (“Officers eat last” is a staple of the U.S. Marine Corps—meaning, ordinary soldiers take precedence when food is scarce.) And without leaders who are willing to make the same sacrifices as everyone else, ordinary people will have little reason to believe that the society they are fighting for will be a fair one.
Finally, all free societies accord full rights and respect to women. A cause that sidelines women will probably fail for lack of popular support. Not only do women confer a kind of moral legitimacy to political causes, but women’s social networks are often lateral rather than hierarchical—a huge asset for any underground movement. During the 1912 labor riots in my home state of Massachusetts, a frustrated official complained, “One good policeman can handle ten men, but it takes ten policemen to handle one woman.” Within weeks, the strikers forced the U.S. government, the textile industry, and the National Guard to concede to their demands.
Because of your success against Russian forces, China may hesitate to attack Taiwan, North Korea may think twice before declaring war on South Korea, and Russia may abandon claims to the Baltic countries. Western leaders clearly understand that the fight for Ukraine is a fight for peace and stability in all of Europe—if not the world. They have remained united in their commitment to providing advanced weapons and ammunition, as well as tactical training by some of the West’s most elite special forces. President Biden clearly wants to send Ukraine the maximum amount of military aid without triggering a catastrophic backlash by Putin. As the war continues to go in Ukraine’s favor, many Americans hope that he will choose a moment to provide enough arms for a decisive victory against Russia.
Humans are the only species where a smaller individual or group can defeat a larger one—otherwise, the world would be dominated by fascist mega-states, and freedom would not be possible. But that is not what the world looks like. Smaller countries like Ukraine can stand up to the powerful dictatorships and fight them to a standstill—particularly when they have access to advanced weapons and tactics. If Ukraine remains free, other countries will remain free as well, because fascist leaders around the world will be forced to understand that power does not always triumph.
In fact, as often as not, it fails.
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