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Is Defending your Country Dumb?
Ukraine today, WWII Europe, the Will to Power and the nihilism of doubters
My friend and #1 Kvetch fan Richard Hanania says: self-defense is for cucks.
Gandhi had put the same message slightly differently to Churchill:
“invite Hitler and Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island with its many beautiful buildings, you will give all this but neither your minds nor your souls.”
I’ve always scoffed at Gandhi’s grotesque pacifism, but Richard is a smart man. He literally wrote the textbook on the political economy of foreign policy. He is a wonderful one for calling out a naked emperor. So I wanted to write out exactly why I disagree with him.
There are countless examples of smaller foes beating out larger. Cultures seem to universally valorise defenders: every small warrior nation from Greece to Georgia to Israel to Finland has its national ethos wrapped up in fabled resistance against larger aggressors. That doesn’t make it right (slavery was as natural as water for 99% of human civilization), but it’s something.
I think Richard believes that this valour is a kind of false pride. Leaders take a defensive posture at the expense of civilian lives and conscripted men. They’d typically be better off surrendering - fewer deaths, less suffering.
I find it funny that Richard has taken what might be called a “feminised” position on the subject (more on this later, and also see my conversation with him on feminisation). It’s also an argument that sounds like it might come from an Effective Altruist: a Spock-like detachment divorced from human emotions.
My response to Richard can be summarised as follows:
Resistance has worked many times, the future is unpredictable and the circumstances of war are reflexive.
There are many shades of resistance from ferociously violent to non-violent subversion. The French were submissive compared to other nations (hence “humiliation”).
Historical examples of resistance have a range of outcomes, even if we just take Europe in WWII, limiting our ability to predict outcomes.
It’s hard to know from the outside and we must defer to the local populations, who exhibit a revealed preference.
Surrendering does not obviously have better outcomes for civilians than a defensive war.
In this Kvetch I cover:
Frenzies of voluntary self-sacrifice
Resistance can work
Krupp sinking Bluecher
When should a country defend itself?
USSR and Finland - 1940
Russia and Ukraine - 2022
The Will to Power
The Feminisation of Richard Hanania
1. Frenzies of voluntary self-sacrifice
I’ll start with an example that supports Richard’s argument. In The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz laments the wanton destruction of the Warsaw Uprising and some of Poland’s finest minds who had resisted the Nazis and then resisted the Soviets, to no avail:
Alpha, walking with me over the ruins of Warsaw, felt, as did all those who survived, one dominant emotion: anger. Many of his close friends lay in the shallow graves which abounded in the lunar landscape. The twenty-year-old poet Christopher, a thin asthmatic, physically no stronger than Marcel Proust, had died at his post sniping at SS tanks. With him the greatest hope of Polish poetry perished. His wife Barbara was wounded and died in a hospital, grasping a manuscript of her husband's verses in her hand. The poet Karol, son of the workers' quarter and author of a play about Homer, together with his inseparable comrade, the poet Marek, were blown up on a barricade the Germans dynamited. Alpha knew, also, that the person he loved most in his life had been deported to the concentration camp at Ravensbruck after the suppression of the uprising. He waited for her long after the end of the War until he finally had to accept the idea that she was no longer alive. His anger was directed against those who had brought on the disaster, that terrible example of what happens when blind loyalty encounters the necessities of History. Just as his Catholic words had once rung false to him, so now his ethic of loyalty seemed a pretty but hollow concept. Actually, Alpha was one of those who were responsible for what had happened. Could he not see the eyes of the young people gazing at him as he read his stories in clandestine authors' evenings? These were the young people who had died in the uprising: Lieutenant Zbyszek, Christopher, Barbara, Karol, Marek, and thousands like them. They had known there was no hope of victory and that their death was no more than a gesture in the face of an indifferent world. They had died without even asking whether there was some scale in which their deeds would be weighed. The young philosopher Milbrand, a disciple of Heidegger, assigned to press work by his superiors, demanded to be sent to the line of battle because he believed that the greatest gift a man can have is the moment of free choice; three hours later he was dead. There were no limits to these frenzies of voluntary self-sacrifice.
This is bleak - Miłosz believes these people died for nothing. Not only did they die for nothing, but it was clear at the time of sacrifice that there was no point. Milibrand died merely to exercise free will, with no eye even to changing the outcome. Miłosz implies it would have been better for these people to have lived to fight another day. I think Richard and Miłosz have a point here. But Poland was a focal point of savagery for both the Nazis and the Soviets, and is an unusual case. Here the gears of history really did grind over her. I do not think it applies more broadly.
2. Resistance can work
Firstly, let’s start with the idea that the conduct of an occupied nation can matter - before, during, and after occupation.
Consider two opposite examples (from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem): the Hungarians and the Danes, who represent respectively frictionless occupier support and effective resistance.1
Eichmann's assignment was clear. His whole office was moved to Budapest (in terms of his career, this was a "gliding down"), to enable him to see to it that all "necessary steps" were taken. He had no foreboding of what was to happen; his worst fear concerned possible resistance on the part of the Hungarians, which he would have been unable to cope with, because he lacked manpower and also lacked knowledge of local conditions. These fears proved quite unfounded. The Hungarian gendarmerie was more than eager to do all that was necessary, and the new State Secretary in Charge of Political (Jewish) Affairs in the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior, Lászlo Endre, was a man "well versed in the Jewish problem," and became an intimate friend, with whom Eichmann could spend a good deal of his free time. Everything went "like a dream," as he repeated whenever he recalled this episode; there were no difficulties whatsoever…. (Eichmann's "dream" was an incredible nightmare for the Jews: nowhere else were so many people deported and exterminated in such a brief span of time. In less than two months, 147 trains, carrying 434,351 people in sealed freight cars, a hundred persons to a car, left the country, and the gas chambers of Auschwitz were hardly able to cope with this multitude.)
The story of the Danish Jews is sui generis, and the behavior of the Danish people and their government was unique among all the countries of Europe - whether occupied, or a partner of the Axis, or neutral and truly independent. One is tempted to recommend the story as required reading in political science for all students who wish to learn something about the enormous power potential inherent in non-violent action and in resistance to an opponent possessing vastly superior means of violence... When the Germans approached them rather cautiously about introducing the yellow badge, they were simply told that the King would be the first to wear it, and the Danish government officials were careful to point out that anti-Jewish measures of any sort would cause their own immediate resignation. It was decisive in this whole matter that the Germans did not even succeed in introducing the vitally important distinction between native Danes of Jewish origin… What happened then was truly amazing; compared with what took place in other European countries, everything went topsy-turvy… riots broke out in Danish shipyards, where the dock workers refused to repair German ships and then went on strike. The German military commander proclaimed a state of emergency and imposed martial law, and Himmler thought this was the right moment to tackle the Jewish question, whose "solution" was long overdue. What he did not reckon with was that - quite apart from Danish resistance - the German officials who had been living in the country for years were no longer the same. Not only did General von Hannecken, the military commander, refuse to put troops at the disposal of the Reich plenipotentiary, Dr. Werner Best; the special S.S. units (Einsatzkommandos) employed in Denmark very frequently objected to "the measures they were ordered to carry out by the central agencies" - according to Best's testimony at Nuremberg. And Best himself, an old Gestapo man and former legal adviser to Heydrich, author of a then famous book on the police, who had worked for the military government in Paris to the entire satisfaction of his superiors, could no longer be trusted, although it is doubtful that Berlin ever learned the extent of his unreliability. Still, it was clear from the beginning that things were not going well, and Eichmann's office sent one of its best men to Denmark - Rolf Günther, whom no one had ever accused of not possessing the required "ruthless toughness." Günther made no impression on his colleagues in Copenhagen, and now von Hannecken refused even to issue a decree requiring all Jews to report for work… The night of October 1 was set for their seizure and immediate departure - ships were ready in the harbor - and since neither the Danes nor the Jews nor the German troops stationed in Denmark could be relied on to help, police units arrived from Germany for a door-to-door search. At the last moment, Best told them that they were not permitted to break into apartments, because the Danish police might then interfere, and they were not supposed to fight it out with the Danes. Hence they could seize only those Jews who voluntarily opened their doors. They found exactly 477 people, out of a total of more than 7,800, at home and willing to let them in.
This shows the extent to which resistance was possible and could change the outcome. Should the Danes have acquiesced more out of fear? Should the shipyard workers not have rioted because they would have been put down by the Gestapo anyway? The alternative to sudden French defeat need not have been the attrition of years of trench warfare. Nor did it need to be superb submission and collaboration at every level, as essentially occurred in France. It could have been surreptitious subterfuge. This is not a fine point - the Italians (fascists!) did this. Perhaps my favourite bit in the whole of Eichmann is Arendt’s description of Italian fascist sabotage of Nazi extermination of their Jews:
The sabotage was all the more infuriating as it was carried out openly, in an almost mocking manner. The promises were given by Mussolini himself or other high-ranking officials, and if the generals simply failed to fulfill them, Mussolini would make excuses for them on the ground of their "different intellectual formation." Only occasionally would the Nazis be met with a flat refusal, as when General Roatta declared that it was "incompatible with the honor of the Italian Army" to deliver the Jews from Italian-occupied territory in Yugoslavia to the appropriate German authorities.
Mussolini really was the virile king of the south.
But back to our noble Danes, the key here is not just that resistance was possible but also that it was reflexive - it changed the occupiers too:
Politically and psychologically, the most interesting aspect of this incident is perhaps the role played by the German authorities in Denmark, their obvious sabotage of orders from Berlin. It is the only case we know of in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had met resistance based on principle, and their "toughness" had melted like butter in the sun, they had even been able to show a few timid beginnings of genuine courage.
None of this could have been known in advance. The Danes chose to resist and opened new paths that would have been closed to them otherwise.
Krupp sinking Bluecher
I’ve used an example of non-violent resistance above because violence itself is not obviously a useful distinction here.
A nice small example of violent resistance happened in Norway. Norway was an easy enough target for the Third Reich (although in another counterfactual, the British Navy may have prevented its takeover with less faffing about).
Despite the Nazi fait accompli, buried within its conquest is a glowing act of heroism. We underestimate the difference one dude with a rusty old canon can make (from William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich):
“Here stood the ancient fortress of Oskarsborg, whose defenders were more alert than the Germans suspected. Just before dawn the fort’s 28-centimeter Krupp guns opened fire on the Luetzow and the Bluecher, and torpedoes were also launched from the shore. The 10,000-ton Bluecher, ablaze and torn by the explosions of its ammunition, went down, with the loss of 1,600 men, including several Gestapo and administrative officials (and all their papers) who were to arrest the King and the government and take over the administration of the capital.”
The guns and the fortress' armaments were over 40 years old and of German make.
Should this overwhelmed little fort not have resisted, because it was futile?2
It’s impossible to quantify the impact of this on the broader war - I could believe anything from zero impact to some wild counterfactual where these dead Gestapo agents swung the outcomes of parts of the war or just killed more people. One can quickly hang oneself on the fractal and impossible twine of causality. But what is war if not an infinite number of small military and economic events swinging events one way or another?
3. When should a country defend itself?
So when should a country defend itself? I doubt “never” is Richard’s answer. So perhaps by some pre-determined calculus? The same calculus that had commentators predicting a Ukrainian downfall within days in 2022 or a sustained French defense in 1940? War is unpredictable and upsets are the norm. Of course everyone is running calculations in real time: that is the nature of war and diplomacy. The aggressor acts at the estimated optimal time having regard to all forces in play. Overwhelming force on either side is often the stablest equilibrium: where there is more uncertainty there is a higher likelihood of someone rolling the dice.
French vs Greece and Yugoslavia
Richard objects to me calling the French defeat humiliating - it’s the guys who died futilely resisting who are the real cucks.
The submissive French came out on top vs e.g. the resisting Yugoslavians and Greeks (from Tony Judt’s Postwar):
In eastern and south-eastern Europe the occupying Germans were merciless, and not only because local partisans—in Greece, Yugoslavia and Ukraine especially—fought a relentless if hopeless battle against them.
In Greece, two-thirds of the country's vital merchant marine fleet was lost, one-third of its forests were ruined and a thousand villages were obliterated. Meanwhile the German policy of setting occupation-cost payments according to German military needs rather than the Greek capacity to pay generated hyperinflation.
Yugoslavia lost 25 percent of its vineyards, 50 percent of all livestock, 60 percent of the country's roads, 75 percent of all its ploughs and railway bridges, one in five of its pre-war dwellings and a third of its limited industrial wealth—along with 10 percent of its pre-war population. In Poland three-quarters of standard gauge rail tracks were unusable and one farm in six was out of operation. Most of the country's towns and cities could barely function (though only Warsaw was totally destroyed).
The Nazis administered France with just 1,500 of their own people. So confident were they of the reliability of the French police and militias that they assigned (in addition to their administrative staff) a mere 6,000 German civil and military police to ensure the compliance of a nation of 35 million…. Contrast Yugoslavia, which required the unflagging attention of entire German military divisions just to contain the armed partisans.
Civilian deaths during the war in Yugoslavia were 1.4 million out of a population of 15.5 million (9%!); in Greece 430,000 out of a population of 7.3 million (6%); in France 350,000 died of 41 million (<1%). Who stuffed up?
The trouble is it’s not exactly clear that these losses were attributable to resistance alone: in Poland the objective was genocide and enslavement. The subjugation of Greece and Yugoslavia as extractive colonies in the Third Reich may have been as devastating over time. Perhaps in this case Greece and Yugoslavia simply went down with a fight, like that Italian guy who shouted at his ISIS captors "I'll show you how an Italian dies!” before they shot him. And the difficulties in Yugoslavia did cause Germany grief, delaying the invasion of the USSR by enough time to throw the Germans into winter. Just another example of the strange indeterminacy of war.
USSR and Finland - 1940
The Soviets were delighted to walk into Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1940. Their leaders were sent to gulags in the east where they died and mass deportations ensued. It’s estimated that Estonia alone lost 60,000 people to deportations.
Finland said no. The Soviets were outraged at Finnish obstinacy and launched an invasion that was shockingly rebuffed. Should the Finns have conceded? Allowed tens of thousands or more of their compatriots to be sent off to the East into slave labour without a fight? On the math it’s not obvious: the Finns lost ~26,000 men to the Soviet loss of ~127,000. Seems plausibly fewer than would have been deported.
Who in Finland lost out to this defensive posture? Defensive mobilisations are usually popular - the higher morale of defenders is one of the reasons attackers usually bank on a 3 to 1 ratio to win. It’s the Soviets throwing their grunts under the bus by sending them to Finland. Despite a much more significant Soviet force, the Finns kept their sovereignty and prevented occupation after conceding some territory.
Russia and Ukraine - 2022
Let’s look at Ukraine today. Ukrainian men have been stopped from leaving and conscripted into the fight against Russia. There is no doubt that Ukrainians are suffering atrociously. Let’s leave aside moral blame and the costs imposed on Russia - would Ukraine and Ukrainians have been better off submitting? Even if the men wanted to fight (forced conscription suggests this is not universal), is that itself a selfish act where their women and children and elderly necessarily pay the price? Should Ukraine have done what the Baltics did to the Soviet Union and submit to the new Russian Empire? Or are they following the Finnish model, nobly and somewhat successful resisting against a larger foe?
4. Richard’s nihilism
It’s hard to imagine a world that took this idea seriously.
Should Israel have submitted in 1948 when invaded at once by the combined Arab armies? Or during the surprise attack on Yom Kippur in 1943?
Should the Taliban have done exactly as the US commanded? Or submitted to the much bloodier Soviet invasion? They won both in the end.
If the world operated under the Richard principle, how much of Europe should acquiesce to Russia’s request for occupation and integration? Presumably at least all former Warsaw Pact countries. But why not France and Germany and Britain? Why not US? After all, better than a nominal risk of nuclear war?
This approach begins to resemble philosophical nihilism - it ends up meaning nothing, and is unable to inform decisions. So the strong should be able to do whatever they want to avoid bloodshed - but that’s kind of what we have now? The strong basically do exactly what they want - up to a point. At which point there is conflict and bloodshed? If the US were able to zap any individual instantly for disobeying a US order we would all be living the fevered schizophrenic dreams of the US Defense Department, and same for Russia. But they’re not able to, and so there still exist zones beyond that level of acquiescence that give rise to resistance.
In the magical world where resistors stop resisting, the aggressor simply keeps going, no?
A country’s response also matters. Are the invaders welcomed in with cheering crowds in an Anschluss? Is it a more ambivalent “re-unification” like Russia’s occupation of the Crimea in 2014, a territory that’s significantly Russian populated and broadly supportive of Russian unification? If Ukrainians had in fact welcomed in the Russians - as some Russian propaganda had forecast - then they shouldn’t fight to repel them. The fact that the country has largely mobilised against the Russians shows they should have. What they should have done is weirdly informed post hoc by what they did do. Deferring to the defender’s judgement may be best given the complexity and non-determinacy of war. Very hard to tell Ukrainians now that Ukrainian national identity is fake and they should succumb to the Russians.
5. The Will to Power
The same logic can be applied to all actions. Riots, coups - what’s the point in resisting? And inversely, what’s the point in launching one? Because you might just lose! But of course this is a crazy proposition. The odds may be stacked against you but you and your compatriots and your leaders just may be able to exert your will onto the world, to wrap its power-fabric around you and shift it to your cause.
Importantly, the mindset itself can be self-fulfilling: sometimes it’s important to believe in the wildly implausible or the outright mystical (love of nation!) in order to actually realise those dreams in this world. Otherwise why do anything ever? As Theodore Herzl said with respect to the establishment of Israel: “if you will it, it is no dream”.
Of course, Ukraine in 2022 is not Ukraine, Hungary, Greece, Yugoslavia, Finland, or France in 1940. Reasoning by analogy is tough here - there is a broad spectrum of potential outcomes.
Even in the case of Warsaw: was it obvious it was all futile? The Soviets had refused their British allies airspace to antagonise the Germans or support the Poles. Maybe it was inevitable. But it’s always much easier to say in hindsight.
My conclusions are unsatisfying: it’s hard to know the outcome in advance. There are moments where individual or collective resistance can change the course of history. History is in part the story of individual men and women thwarting the will of tyrants or bending history to their will.
Resist passivity, resist futility, embrace the Will to Power.
Richard - I still like you even though maybe I wouldn’t want you in the trenches resisting invaders beside me!
6. The Feminisation of Richard Hanania
A couple years ago I was having a conversation with a couple of young professional women. We were considering the event of a Chinese invasion of Australia (I don’t recall how we got onto this…). One was horrified at the idea of fighting, saying something like “I would just immediately surrender, no way would I want anyone to fight or die”. The other one said, “I really like China anyway - I’ve spent lots of time there with my family.”
Needless to say I was horrified at this revealed pre-fabricated fifth column. It never even occurred to me that this kind of person existed.
I chalked it down to two things: 1. An underrated Chinese immigrant sentiment shared by the second speaker and 2. A female perspective. I guess women may just be less keen on war? (I’m not sure this is right by the way: Queens have been at least as bloodthirsty as Kings and mothers also raise warrior sons). So it is with immense pleasure and satisfaction that I see the very publicly anti-feminisation Richard Hanania, Scourge of Gender Studies Departments Everywhere, argue for the feminised case.
I could just be completely wrong and dramatically overestimate the average Australian male’s desire to fight in defense of his country, but I’d be surprised and it’s much more fun to imagine Richard furiously arguing the feminised case.
7. Genghis Khan
Funnily, in a brief exchange with Richard as I was writing this, he suggested defiance against, say, Genghis Khan would be permissible. I’m not sure exactly what criteria Richard had in mind, but this a hilariously terrible example (from Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World):
The Mongols promised justice to those who surrendered, but they swore destruction to those who resisted.
Admittedly, they may have been a little loose with the idea of justice:
Before the plundering began, the Mongol warriors followed a similar procedure toward the enemy population in each hostile city. First, they killed the soldiers. The Mongols, dependent on cavalry, had little use for an infantry trained to defend fortress walls, and, more important, they did not want to leave a large army of former enemies blocking the route between them and their homeland in Mongolia.
Anyone who was useful - broadly defined - would be deployed accordingly. “Those who did not qualify even for these tasks, the Mongol warriors slaughtered and left behind.”
Along with the useless, the rich and powerful were also pre-emptively killed (a tradition with a long history across cultures, even leading up to the Soviet massacres of Polish elites at Katyn):
In Genghis Khan’s conquest of central Asia, one group suffered the worst fate of those captured. The Mongol captors slaughtered the rich and powerful. Under the chivalrous rules of warfare as practiced in Europe and the Middle East during the Crusades, enemy aristocrats displayed superficial, and often pompous, respect for one another while freely slaughtering common soldiers. Rather than kill their aristocratic enemy on the battlefield, they preferred to capture him as a hostage whom they could ransom back to his family or country. The Mongols did not share this code. To the contrary, they sought to kill all the aristocrats as quickly as possible in order to prevent future wars against them, and Genghis Khan never accepted enemy aristocrats into his army and rarely into his service in any capacity.
And given Genghis Khan’s success, perhaps resistance here was the most futile of all (check out my conversation on Genghis Khan with Razib Khan (no relation)).
There is a third way, not quite facilitation and not quite resistance:
in Rumania even the S.S. were taken aback, and occasionally frightened, by the horrors of oldfashioned, spontaneous pogroms on a gigantic scale; they often intervened to save Jews from sheer butchery, so that the killing could be done in what, according to them, was a civilized way.
Apparently the officer shot without giving warning shots first. As he gave orders to fire on Bluecher, Birger Eriksen, said: “Either I will be decorated, or I will be court-martialed. Fire!” He was decorated in the end.
It’s funny how this is the mirror opposite of Stanislav Petrov, who despite (incorrect) system warnings of incoming American missiles didn’t fire. Yes it’s not quite symetrical - one was an existential question and the other less dire - but still. Both are remembered as heroes (rightly), for near-opposite processes.
Honour is granted less by process and more by history. And the victors write and rewrite history.