No One Is in Control
Chaos, smoke, and fire in Ukraine.
Last night’s livestream was, at least for me, quite valuable. Very smart thoughts about where we are and where we are heading from Tom Nichols, Bill Kristol, and Charlie Sykes.
For the first time, we opened the show up to everyone, because this was an important conversation to share. Thank you to all of our Bulwark+ members who made this possible.
And if you’re not a member, I hope you’ll consider joining so that we can continue to keep most of our work public.
1. Fog of War
One of the most important parts of TNB last night was Tom Nichols hammering home how crucial it is to be skeptical of contemporaneous reports on the fighting in Ukraine.
For example, while I was writing this newsletter I saw the following claims:
(1) Russian morale is so low soldiers are deserting:
(2) Russia’s attempt to take an airfield outside Kyiv is not going well:
(3) But also, Russia has taken the airfield:
(4) Then there are reports that China is pushing Russia to start negotiating:
(5) But also that Russia is calling up 10,000 troops from Chechnya:
Maybe none of these reports are accurate. Maybe they are all true—or at least were true at some point. Once war begins, facts on the ground can change very quickly.
I don’t fault any of these reporters and I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to follow events. What I’m trying to impress on you is how impossible it is for anyone to fully understand what’s happening at this moment—even the people on the ground, in Ukraine.
So don’t let your mental framework for understanding the war settle become rigid based on contemporaneous reports. Be flexible in how you evaluate what is happening and open to the idea that reality might not map well to the reportage. Or that even when it does, reality can quickly change.
2. No Pasarán
With all of that in mind, I read this dispatch from Ukraine last night in which the reporter spoke with a number of young, modern, educated Ukrainians who are taking up arms to fight the Russians. And it broke my heart.
Especially this line:
Such sentiments lead to butchery. It is the cry of “No pasarán!” from the brave college student during the Spanish civil war, just before he is shot by the Germans troops.
However much I admire the spirit, environmental engineers with doctorates who live in a developed nation are unlikely to outfight professional soldiers supported by air dominance, artillery, an intelligence service, and armor.1
The refrain I keep seeing is: Look what the Taliban did to the United States.
And that’s valid, sort of.
But there are important differences.
The median age in Afghanistan is about 18 years old. In Ukraine, it’s 41. It’s an older country and “old” does not usually coincide with fighting strength.
One of the drivers of this disparity in median age is the fertility rate. The average Afghan woman has 4.3 children over the course of her life. The average Ukrainian woman has 1.2 kids.
At the risk of sounding callous: Historically speaking, societies in which a family might have, at most, one son to lose to a war have been much less tolerant of the costs of conflict. Maybe that will be different in Ukraine. But maybe not.
Then there are the tribal markers: The differences between Ukrainians and Russians are real—differences of language, religion, culture, history. But these differences shrink to nothing compared with the differences between Afghan Taliban and Americans. And the more stark the tribal differences between belligerents, the more willing insurgents are to perpetuate conflict.2
All of which is why I fear the Ukrainians will not be able to resist the Russian invasion, no matter how bravely they fight.
But here is the number I can’t stop thinking about: Even if Ukrainians could fight the same sort of insurgency against Russia that the Taliban waged against us, the cost would be ghastly.
Over the course of the Afghanistan war, at least 25 Taliban fighters were killed for every American casualty.3
Impose that ratio onto Ukraine and imagine what the butcher’s bill of even a successful resistance might be.
There’s one more thing that worries me: What if the Russians have been waging a restrained assault thus far?
“Restrained” is a relative term, of course. The Russians are committing an unprovoked assault on a peaceful nation.
But they do not seem to have moved with the ruthlessness they showed in, say, Syria. Here’s a high-level analysis from Rob Lee:
I have no doubt that many Ukrainians—not just soldiers, but men, women, and teenagers—are willing to die for their country. My fear is that they are going to be made to do so in a fight that is not remotely fair.
As the people who poured into Spain in 1936 discovered, fighting spirit only goes so far against superior force.
3. One Good Thing
Amidst all of this tragedy and evil, we have one thing to celebrate today: Ketanji Brown Jackson has been nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Ted Johnson has a beautiful piece about her, here.
I don’t know much about KBJ—as she is destined to be known—certainly nothing about her person or politics outside of what most of us have read. And yet, I don’t really care about any of that. Because regardless of how close her views are to mine, this is a special moment, a beautiful moment. A moment everyone in America can celebrate.
A nominee who comes from people most excluded from participation in our democracy—the franchise was tentatively extended to black men in 1870, to white women in 1920, and finally more fully to black women only in 1965—sitting on the highest court in the land is a symbol of the power, and potential, of the American idea.
No matter your politics or ideological leanings, we should all take pride in this beautifully American moment.
A thousand times yes. And KBJ’s nomination couldn’t come at a better moment. Because we all need some beauty and hope just about now.
The Russian army is not as “professional” as America’s—the enlisted ranks are short-term conscripts for the most part. But conscripts with training still have a large advantage over environmental engineers. And only a very foolish person would dismiss the effectiveness and professionalism of the Russian special forces.
Obviously with exceptions. See Ireland.
We’re only talking about Taliban fighters here. The ratio goes up if you include civilians.