A Most Fundamental Struggle
"Who will be strong and stand with me?"
In the midst of World War II, the Oxford don and author C.S. Lewis wrote a small, satirical book entitled "The Screwtape Letters" in which he explored the deep issues of evil and temptation though the light and amusing medium of imagined correspondence between Screwtape, a senior devil resident in "headquarters", and his apprentice-devil nephew, Wormwood, then engaged in a worldly assignment to corrupt an otherwise good man. The book is a classic and contains many of Lewis' most enduring and endearing quotes, including: “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”
In this the "modern" world of today, with all its complexities and technicalities, worries and challenges, it is all too easy to become distracted and spend all our attention on what author Richard Carlson called "the small stuff." But every now and then, something happens that shifts our view from myopic to keenly perceptive. The "scales fall from our eyes" and we see things as they truly are, not as we would have them be. That time is now.
Today, every day, we are witnessing in real time and in full color, the elemental and everlasting struggle between good and evil. Most of the time, in our sanitized and politically correct society, we avoid any discussion of the topic, particularly the concept of evil, with its religious and moral associations. But despite our semantic obfuscations, real evil exists. And it is now on public display on a scale too great to be ignored.
Today, 4,635 miles away, the (possibly unwilling) army of a megalomaniacal dictator is in the process of subjugating an independent, sovereign nation by brute force, in flagrant violation of all precepts and norms of international law. Innocent lives are being lost every day as this force, driven solely by one man's obsession with recreating the "glory" of a former modern empire, conducts a cynical campaign of terror and intimidation intended to break the spirit of a free people who did nothing to invite this aggression. That army's tactics include bombing civilian infrastructure, hospitals, schools, theaters, apartment buildings, and laying siege to entire cities with the intent to starve their civilian residents into submission -- a medieval practice that has long been outlawed -- and the use of weapons such as thermobaric or "vacuum" bombs, which cause damage too horrendous to put in print. If this is not evil, what is?
The world watches and offers tepid response. We admire the bravery of the Ukrainian people as they fight against odds insuperable by traditional means, except their courage. We talk and dither, debate and procrastinate, afraid to invite further aggression on the part of the aggressor. All this as the leaders of China, a nation which poses a far greater threat to world peace, watch and ponder their next move.
Haven't we seen this movie before? And didn't it have a very bad ending? Have we learned nothing from that experience?
On September 1, 1939, the army of another megalomaniacal dictator with ambitious dreams of conquest invaded a neighboring, independent and sovereign nation whose military was not powerful enough to defeat him, and subjugated it within a month. That dictator assumed that the great powers of the world would not organize and act to intervene in time to stop him -- and he was right. Today's dictator seems to have made the same calculation, with likely similar result. The first dictator's actions sparked a world war that lasted six years and cost the lives of tens of millions of people. The full consequences of the second's actions have yet to be made clear.
I have no great solution to offer, only the advice that every boy or girl who's ever spent time in a school playground knows all too well -- bullies must be confronted and opposed or their bullying behavior will not end. If history has taught us anything, it is that appeasement does not work. Nor do hollow threats or rousing rhetoric. Much as we wish it to be so, it is not possible to simply watch from afar, reluctant to take affirmative action which might offend the bully, relying instead on indirect half-measures that hurt innocents of many countries without distracting the bully from pursuit of his goal. The bully has already offended the world's peace and stability. The world simply cannot afford to sit idly by.
It is said that in order to fight effectively against something, you must identify it and call it what it is. Putin's unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine is evil and must be resisted by more than just the Ukrainians alone.
By their actions and indomitable attitude, the Ukrainian people and their leaders have won the world's respect. They seem to embody the determined spirit memorialized in song from Les Misérables:
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
Ukraine was enslaved once, as part of the former Soviet Union. Putin desires to re-establish that empire, and in doing so extinguish the flame of freedom that has burned brightly in Ukraine for the past 31 years. Ukraine needs, and has asked for, help in this struggle. In response, the world equivocates.
Perhaps this is because the world is much more dangerous today than it was when Lewis wrote his little book. The specter of mass destruction and the possible annihilation of all life on earth though use of nuclear weapons is stark reality. Even the acronym for the strategic military doctrine which has so far prevented nuclear conflict -- mutual assured destruction (MAD) -- baldly proclaims the absurdity of it all. Putin, now faced with the reality that his invasion of Ukraine has not proceeded as planned, has resorted to threatening use of nuclear weapons, threats which the world cannot afford to ignore.
But neither can the world ignore the reality of his aggression and its threat to world peace should it remain unchecked. The world must step up to this bully, or we risk history repeating itself with potentially more disastrous consequences. Imagine what the dictator of the 1940s could (and likely would) have done with the weapons of the 2020s.
While the world is a more dangerous place, the verities remain. I am not naive about the consequences of nuclear conflict. My hometown of Plattsburgh, New York hosted a Strategic Air Command base during the Cold War. At the time, we all know that, if and when the base siren sounded, we could be vaporized at any moment, as that base was a primary target for Soviet ICBMs which were always pointed at us like a technological Sword of Damocles. But it did not prevent the ultimate and peaceful end of the Cold War; it should not now be allowed to be used as a tool for one single man to hold the entire world hostage.
Lewis dedicated his little book to J.R.R. Tolkien, who is said to have held the belief that in the end evil cannot prevail over goodness, because evil is a denial of the only true and fundamental reality: God. We must remember that God works through human hands. John Stuart Mill, in an 1867 inaugural address at the University of St. Andrew, fittingly said:
“Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing. He is not a good man who, without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name, and with the means which he helps to supply, because he will not trouble himself to use his mind on the subject.”
The path forward is starkly dichromatic: Ukraine will either fall once again into the darkness imposed by one man's obsession or be supported in its effort to sustain the light of liberty.
Time is not on Ukraine's side. Will the world be?