Few things annoy me more than self-righteous sophomores who go trolling the internet with the express purpose of stealing the gem out of somebody else’s donut. The asinine response from “Guillotine Implier” to this popular little meme is one such, because it seems this troll in particular doesn’t even want us to celebrate everyone’s new found sweetheart, Volodomyr Zelensky.
However, it did lead to a brief and interesting FB discussion with a good friend of mine, which spawned this particular little ramble. He shared the above misinformed little tweet, and my response to it was “Nonsense!”
I then continued, pointing out that we as a species have *always* romanticized wartime figures, from the classic “Knight in Shining Armor” trope to putting fighter aces in movies and on postcards. It’s a vital part of keeping up morale in the face of an otherwise utterly insane and incomprehensible situation.
My friend countered by asking, “But should we have morale? Shouldn’t we all be mortified and ashamed? I think ‘morale’ perpetuates war in a way….”
This was a very good point, and got me thinking. What follows is an extension of the response I typed out on my phone.
Webster’s Dictionary defines morale as “the mental and emotional condition (as of enthusiasm, confidence, or loyalty) of an individual or group with regard to the function or tasks at hand.” For the purposes of this ramble, understand that I consider a number of positive emotions such as “romance” and “pride” a part of morale, and a key part of building it and keeping it.
My friend is not wrong. It’s certainly this romanticism of warfare that has lured young boys to their deaths by the millions for centuries. It is the promise of glory on the battlefield which has continuously kept the “everyman” fighting wars for the benefit of the wealthy and driven our youth to go to great extremes to put life and limb at risk. A teenage Andrew Jackson lied about his age to fight in the American Revolution, as did a sixteen-year-old Jesse James when he joined Quantrill’s Raiders during the War Between the States. During WWII, hundreds of young men crossed the borders of their neutral or occupied countries to join foreign armies or air-forces. I was appalled to discover how deeply entrenched this desire is even in today’s youth, when last week a group of my 8th grade boys started cheering the prospect of war and shouting that they’d just lie about their age when I informed them they were WAYYYYYY to young.
However, I asked my friend to consider how might things have gone differently if the British had been “mortified and ashamed” in 1940, or what would happen if the Ukrainians should loose their morale tomorrow? Originally, the Italian General and air theorist Giulio Douhet had asserted that the purpose of waging war upon a civilian population would be to shatter morale and force a surrender. Based upon this assumption, a frustrated Luftwaffe waged a harsh air-war upon the population of London in the summer of 1940, bombing the city into smithereens for 57 consecutive nights (more on the Battle of Britain can be found here and here). To Goering’s growing irritation, the London Blitz actually proved to have the opposite effect, bolstering English morale instead of crushing it and providing the added benefit of convincing a previously reticent America to strengthen our alliance with the English. Leaving England unbroken would, of course, prove to be an utterly decisive mistake on the part of Germany and would enable the Allies to launch D-Day – a feat which would have certainly been impossible had England not remained free. WWII would go on to repeatedly demonstrate that attacks upon civilian populations only builds morale and entrenches determination – instead of causing fear, it provokes rage, making heroes out of stand up comedians and warriors out of grandmothers. This is just one of many tactical mistakes which Putin has foolishly committed in the past week. Putin, like Guillotine Implier, should have paid attention in history class.
In wartime we all make heroes of ordinary men and women, romanticizing their exploits for the sake of elevating the best of man as a bulwark against the most abominable demonstration of our worst inclinations. It is a subconscious psychological survival technique designed to give us hope when we are staring into the abyss of destruction, death, and despair. Faced with the horror of Putin’s latest shenanigans, aren’t we all glad to find out that Zelenskys exist? Vlodomyr Zelensky, who when asked to evacuate replied, “I don’t need a ride. I need bullets,” and for his trouble has faced three assassination attempts already? That when confronting a villainous tyrant of Hitlerian proportions, we discover that heroes, too, will rise? That beauty queens and ballerinas will pick up weapons and stand next to Babusya and defend their homes? Aren’t we all rooting for the Ghost of Kiev – the first fighter ace since 1945 – even if he doesn’t actually exist? In this cynical world, exhausted by pandemic and divided by politics and race, in this world robbed of magic and heroism, doesn’t it do every heart a little good to see the old trope of the humble Everyman finding his heroic purpose in the face of evil and overwhelming odds? It is these actions, these stories of every day people committing heroic and romantic deeds which will (hopefully) help keep up Ukranian morale as their struggle deepens – and they’re going to need all the help they can get. It is stories like these, and our love affair with Zelensky, that has rallied world support and will encourage NATO aid for Ukraine.
My friend asked if it wouldn’t be better to view war with shame, and he is not wrong in this, either. Shame, too, has it’s place in war, however it is equally as dangerous and damaging as romance if wielded incorrectly. We treated our boys with shame when they returned from Vietnam, which was neither fair nor right. Being forced into war by the draft, not by choice, our young men who survived the horrors of jungle warfare described coming home as it’s own trauma. Instead of being welcomed and comforted they were met with scorn, condemnation, and cruelty.
The place for shame in war is not in the treatment of our troops but in the voting booth, when we vote out the bastards that drag us into unjust wars in the first place. It’s in the streets, when we lynch tyrants and tear down their monuments. Shame has its place as a driving force towards a better future, but so, too, do heroes and romance and morale in order to help us survive long enough to see that future. Our pride in our heroes serves to magnify our shame in others. Who is Putin now, when across from the shining figure of Zelensky? He has been reduced to nothing more than a petulant bully, stripped of all vestiges of respect or honor, exposed upon the world stage for the despot he is as he turns his own humiliation and frustration upon his own people, hurling them back into Soviet Era oppression which he himself had been an instrument of. Putin’s ultimate legacy will be an isolated Russia and a suffering population, both of whom he has set back DECADES as his actions threaten to throw up a new Iron Curtain and return the world to fears of cold war and nuclear attacks. His invasion of a sovereign, stable democratic nation is the act of a tyrant and marks him as utterly unfit to be leader of a free people. His actions have no place in the 21st century, but if he wishes to behave as a 20th century dictator, then let him meet a similar fate. Shame has liberated many a free people from the clutches of tyranny.
Put some seeds in your pocket, Putin.