The war in Ukraine is on everyone’s mind. How could it not be? The victims look so like us. So European. When victims are wrapped in head scarves, burkas, or turbans, we grieve, but when they look like the family down the street, we grieve more deeply. Perhaps the threat of nuclear winter contributes to our angst.
Like many Americans, I’ve been playing catch up to understand the ramifications of and the lead-up to this apparent assault on an innocent people. But if my lived history has taught me anything, it is to question my assumptions. From afar, it is easy to worship President Zelensky’s adroit camera persona, apparently incredible leadership, and the sheer determination of the Ukrainian people. But how many of us were duped into seeing righteousness in the Vietnam War (remember the domino theory?) or Operation Iraqi Freedom and Iraq’s amassed weapons of mass destruction?
The documentary, Winter of Fire, (available on Netflix & Youtube) is the story of Ukraine’s most recent (of many throughout history) attempts at freedom and sovereignty. In just 93 days, what started as peaceful student demonstrations in 2014 became a violent revolution. Watching the film unleashed a storm of questions.
How would this historical event have played out had someone like Ammon Bundy and his People’s Rights followers been there to organize his private militia to fight the Yanukovych (Russian) regime? What separates the passion of the student demonstrators in Ukraine in 2014 from the passion of Americans who are equally passionate about their vision of personal freedoms and legitimate governance? To my dismay I actually caught a glimpse of a rowdy Ukrainian demonstrator wearing a buffalo-horn hat, conjuring visions of our infamous January 6th uprising at the Capitol.
I reflected on America’s anti-war protests of the 1960s and 70s. This period of protest was divisive and threatened our national fabric. But in the final analysis, it contributed to America’s messy retreat from a misbegotten and poorly fought war. As played out in the documentary, Ukraine’s 2014 uprising was much like our youth-initiated anti-war protests. The stark difference was how casually the Yanukovych administration resorted to bloodshed and brutality against the peaceful protesters. Picture the Tiananmen Square Massacre lasting for three of the coldest months of the year. So far, the 1970 Kent State Massacre is perhaps the closest America has come to blatantly turning its military might against civilians. That event, in addition to focusing the spotlight on the democratic right of peaceful protest, has been credited with turning the tide of national opinion and pressuring the government to disengage from Vietnam. Yes, there have been other police state aggressions in America, the Black Wall Street Massacre is just one example. The birth of our nation was a long-term massacre from the beginning. We are far from a perfect union.
Might Russian aggression unify our polarized country? Is America past the point of reunification? Where we to experience, on our own soil, the degree of misery, displacement, and bloodshed that is happening today in Ukraine, (or for that matter in the Western Sahara, Ethiopia, Sudan, and other war-plagued African nations) how would this nation of molly-coddled, personal freedoms-oriented, “patriots” respond? How is peaceful protest possible amongst a nation of gun-slinging belligerents?
Ukraine has shown the world many times over the power of unity against a common enemy. In the spring of 2014, Ukrainian citizens set aside religious and philosophical differences. Ordianry people sacrificed their lives for the hopes of a better future for their nation. A new society was born of mutual respect. The conflict ended with Yanukovych fleeing to Russian. The Ukrainian Parliament scheduled an election in May. The new government signed the long-awaited agreement with the European Union.
History will reveal the right and wrong of today’s battles. Effecting change requires knowing and agreeing on what changes you want to see. This requires a degree of compromise. It is crucial to control emotions and act within the law. Could America rise to these challenges? Would we?