Originally posted at TomDispatch.
The name of the game in Ukraine seems to be escalation, not just in the fighting
(with a major
Russian offensive expected soon), but in weaponry, too. Only recently,
after initially refusing, President Biden agreed
to send advanced American M-1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine (partly to push Germany
to dispatch its own advanced Leopard 2 tanks and other European countries
to do the same). And that, sadly enough, represents just another step up the
ladder to… well, who knows quite what.
The Ukrainians are now demanding
that the U.S. (and so, as with those tanks, other NATO allies) supply its
air force with F-16 jet fighters. In an unsettling analog to the German tank
accord, the Polish government seemed to agree to deliver some of its F-16s
to the Ukrainians, with one proviso: that NATO (that is, the U.S.) agree
to do the same. In Washington, those planes had been considered a “red
line” not to be crossed and not so long ago President Biden offered
“no” to the very idea — as he had, once upon a time,
with those tanks, too. In other words, in a phrase now in use at the Pentagon,
the idea. As it happens, sentiment at the Pentagon already seems to be shifting,
suggesting that the president’s F-16 position may soon prove to be so
yesterday. Only recently, in fact, the U.S. agreed
to send Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bombs that would double the range of
that country’s rocket batteries, though like the tanks and possible
planes actual delivery remains in an undefined future.
Here’s a question to consider: Once promises are indeed made to deliver
those F-16s, what can Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky demand next?
It’s worth recalling that, in 1994 in a remarkable move, the Ukrainians
returned to Russia the massive nuclear arsenal left there when the Soviet
Union collapsed. It had briefly made the new nation into the third-largest
nuclear power on Earth. The Ukrainians did so, however, only after the
Russians agreed “to refrain from the threat or use of force against
the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.” No
small irony there, right?
Is it too farfetched, then, to imagine that, once those F-16s are assured,
Zelensky could begin demanding tactical nuclear weapons? After all, Russian
President Vladimir Putin and his confederates have already muttered more
than once about using such weaponry against Ukraine.
I know, I know, that’s certainly one wild jump too far, except that
so much has proven unnervingly too far in the first major European war since
World War II ended. As TomDispatch
regular Andrew Bacevich, author of the remarkable new book On
Shedding an Obsolete Past: Bidding Farewell to the American Century,
suggests today, perhaps nothing is inconceivable when what’s at stake
is “civilization” itself (as defined in both Moscow and Washington).
~ Tom Engelhardt
Tanks for Nuttin’
By Andrew Bacevich
“To defend civilization, defeat Russia.” Writing in the unfailingly bellicose
Atlantic, an American academic of my acquaintance recently issued
call to arms. And lest there be any confusion about the stakes involved,
the image accompanying his essay depicted Russian President Vladimir Putin
with a Hitler mustache and haircut.
Cast Putin as the latest manifestation of the Führer and the resurrection
of Winston Churchill can’t be far behind. And, lo, more than a few observers
have already begun depicting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as the
reincarnation of America’s favorite British prime minister.
These days, it may be Western-supplied missiles downing “kamikaze
drones” rather than Spitfires tangling with Messerschmitts over southern
England, but the basic scenario remains intact. In the skies above Ukraine
and on the battlefields below, the “finest
hour” of 1940 is being reenacted. Best of all, we know how this story
ends — or at least how it’s supposed to end: with evil vanquished
and freedom triumphant. Americans have long found comfort in such simplified
narratives. Reducing history to a morality play washes away annoying complexities.
Why bother to think when the answers are self-evident?
A Case of Whataboutism?
Not that donning the mantle of Churchill necessarily guarantees a happy outcome
— or even continued U.S. support. Recall, for example, that during a
visit to Saigon in May 1961, Vice President Lyndon Johnson infamously anointed
South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem the “Churchill of Asia.”
Alas, that exalted title didn’t spare Diem from being overthrown and
murdered in a CIA-facilitated coup slightly more than two years later. U.S.
complicity in bumping off South Vietnam’s stand-in for Churchill marked a
critical turning point in the Vietnam War, transforming an annoyance into
an out-and-out debacle. An appreciation for such ironies may help explain
why Zelensky’s preferred anti-Nazi isn’t Winston Churchill but Charlie
All of that said, defending civilization is an honorable and necessary cause
that deserves the support of every American. Where things get sticky is in
deciding how to frame such an essential task. Put bluntly, who gets to choose
what’s both honorable and necessary? In the editorial offices of the
Atlantic and similarly Russophobic quarters, the unacknowledged assumption
is, of course, that we do, where “we” means the West and, above all,
the United States.
Timothy Snyder, a self-described “historian of political atrocity” who teaches
at Yale, subscribes to this proposition. He recently weighed in with 15 reasons
the World Needs Ukrainian Victory.” Those 15 range widely indeed. A Ukrainian
victory, Snyder asserts, will (#1) “defeat an ongoing genocidal project”;
(#3) “end an era of empire”; and (#6) “weaken the prestige of tyrants.” By
teaching an object lesson to China, it will also (#9) “lift the threat of
major war in Asia.” For those worried about the climate crisis, defeating
Russia will also (#14) “accelerate the shift from fossil fuels.” My own #1
is Snyder’s #13: a win for Ukraine will “guarantee food supplies and prevent
Put simply, according to Synder, a Ukrainian victory over Russia will have
a redemptive impact on just about any imaginable subject, transforming the global
order along with humanity itself. Ukrainians, he writes, “have given us a chance
to turn this century around.” Again, let me emphasize that what gives me pause
is the “us.”
That Professor Snyder along with the editors of the Atlantic (and
similarly pugnacious publications) should focus so intently on the unfolding
events in Ukraine is understandable enough. After all, the war there is
a horror. And while Vladimir Putin’s crimes may fall well short of Hitler’s
— whatever his malign intent may have been, stalwart Ukrainian resistance
has certainly taken genocide off the table — he is indeed a menace of
the first order and his reckless aggression deserves to fail.
Whether Ukrainian bravery combined with advanced Western weaponry will, however,
have more than a passing impact on world history strikes me as a dubious proposition.
Granted, on that score, I may be in the minority. Along with causing immense
suffering, Putin’s war has unleashed a tidal wave of hyperbole, with Professor
Snyder’s 15 reasons but one example.
As someone who makes no pretense to being an “historian of political atrocity”
— the most I can muster is to classify myself as a “student of American
folly” — my guess is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will have about
as much lasting impact as our own invasion of Iraq, its 20th anniversary now
Bold to the point of recklessness, George W. Bush and his associates set
out to alter the course of history. By invading a distant land deemed critical
for this country’s national security, they sought to inaugurate a new
era of American global dominance (styled “liberation” for propaganda purposes).
The results achieved, to put it mildly, were different than expected.
However grotesque, Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine seem almost modest by comparison.
Through an invasion and war of choice (styled an anti-fascist crusade for
propaganda purposes), he sought to reassert Russian dominance over a nation
the Kremlin had long deemed essential to its security. The results achieved
so far, we can safely say, have proven to be other than those he expected.
When the Russian president embarked on his war in 2022, he had no idea what
he was getting into, any more than George W. Bush did in 2003. Admittedly,
the two make odd bedfellows and one can easily imagine each taking offense
at being compared to the other. Still, the comparison is unavoidable: In the
present century, Putin and Bush have been de facto collaborators
in perpetrating havoc.
Some might charge me with committing the sin of whataboutism, pointing an
accusing finger in one direction to excuse iniquity in another, but that’s
hardly my intent. There’s no letting Putin off the hook: his actions
have been those of a vile criminal.
Civilization at Risk?
But if Putin is a criminal, how then are we to judge those who conceived
of, sold, launched, and thoroughly botched the Iraq War? With the passing
of 20 years, has some statute of limitations kicked in to drain that conflict
of relevance? My own sense is that the national security establishment is
now strongly inclined to pretend that the Iraq War (and the Afghanistan War
as well) never happened. Such an exercise in selective memory helps validate
the insistence that Ukraine has once more conferred on the United States the
primary responsibility for defending “civilization.” That no one else can
assume that role is simply taken for granted in Washington.
Which brings us back to the nub of the issue: How is it that this particular
conflict puts civilization itself at risk? Why should rescuing Ukraine take
priority over rescuing Haiti
Why should fears of genocide in Ukraine matter more than the ongoing genocide
the Rohingya in Myanmar? Why should supplying Ukraine with modern arms
qualify as a national priority, while equipping El Paso, Texas, to deal with
of undocumented migrants figures as an afterthought? Why do Ukrainians killed
by Russia generate headlines, while deaths attributable to Mexican drug cartels
Americans from drug overdoses annually – are treated as mere statistics?
Of the various possible answers to such questions, three stand out and merit
The first is that “civilization,” as the term is commonly employed in American
political discourse, doesn’t encompass places like Haiti or Sudan. Civilization
derives from Europe and remains centered in Europe. Civilization implies Western
culture and values. So, at least, Americans — especially members of
our elite — have been conditioned to believe. And even in an age that
celebrates diversity, that belief persists, however subliminally.
What makes Russian aggression so heinous, therefore, is that it victimizes
Europeans, whose lives are deemed to possess greater value than the lives
of those who reside in implicitly less important regions of the world. That
there is a racialist dimension to such a valuation goes without saying, however
much U.S. officials may deny that fact. Bluntly, the lives of white Ukrainians
matter more than the lives of the non-whites who populate Africa, Asia, or
The second answer is that casting the Ukraine War as a struggle to defend
civilization creates a perfect opportunity for the United States to reclaim
its place at the forefront of that very civilization. After years wasted wandering
in the desert, the United States can now ostensibly return to its true calling.
President Zelensky’s astutely crafted address
to Congress emphasized that return. By comparing his own troops to the G.I.s
who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and quoting President Franklin Roosevelt
on the inevitability of “absolute victory,” it was as if Winston Churchill
himself had indeed reappeared in the Capitol to enlist Americans in the cause
Needless to say, Zelensky skipped past the distinctly un-Churchillian lapse
in that tradition signified by the presidency of Donald Trump. Nor did he
mention his own flirtation with Trump, which included
assurances that “you are a great teacher for us.”
“America is back,” Joe Biden declared
on multiple occasions during the first weeks of his presidency, and the Ukrainian
president has been only too happy to repeatedly validate that claim as long
as the flow of arms and munitions to sustain his forces continues. This country’s
disastrous post-9/11 wars may have raised doubts about whether the United
States had kept its proper place on the right side of history. With Zelensky
signaling his approval, however, Washington’s participation in a proxy
war — our treasure, someone else’s blood — seems to have quieted
One final factor may contribute to this eagerness to see civilization itself
under deadly siege in Ukraine. Demonizing Russia provides a convenient
excuse for postponing or avoiding altogether a critical reckoning with the
present American version of that civilization. Classifying Russia as
a de facto enemy of the civilized world has effectively diminished the urgency
of examining our own culture and values.
Think of it as an inverse conception of whataboutism. Shocking Russian
brutality and callous disregard for Ukrainian lives divert attention from
similar qualities not exactly uncommon on our very own streets.
As I began work on this essay, the Biden administration had just announced
to provide Ukraine with a handful of this country’s most advanced
M-1 Abrams tanks. Hailed in some quarters as a “game
changer,” the arrival of relatively small numbers of those tanks months
or more from now is unlikely
to make a decisive difference on the battlefield.
Yet the decision has had this immediate effect: It affirms the U.S.
commitment to prolonging the Ukraine War. And when credit earned for
sending tanks is exhausted, the editors of the Atlantic backed by
professors from Yale will undoubtedly press for F-16 fighter jets and long-range
rockets President Zelensky is already
Consider all of this, then, a signature of America in our time. Under
the guise of turning the century around, we underwrite violence in faraway
lands and thereby dodge the actual challenges of changing our own culture. Unfortunately,
when it comes to rehabilitating our own democracy, all the Abrams tanks in
the world won’t save us.
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Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars: The Untold
Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch
regular, is chairman and co-founder of the Quincy
Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new Dispatch book, On
Shedding an Obsolete Past: Bidding Farewell to the American Century,
has just been published.
Copyright 2023 Andrew Bacevich