Liberalism, Nationalism, and War
Member Discussion: What is happening in Ukraine is about all of us.
I want to share a special piece with you today: “Why Ukraine Fights,” by Tamar Jacoby. Tamar has been living in Ukraine during the war and she has put together a deeply-reported, longform essay about the emergence of a Ukrainian national identity. Let me promise you something up-front: This piece is going to make you smarter and help you see around corners. Because you can’t understand war without understanding the cultural identities of the combatants.
But I’m going to make another promise: Tamar’s piece is going to challenge you, too.
War makes us retreat into abstractions. We want to believe that the side we think is in the right is pure and good. We want to believe that every spear-carrier on the side we think is wrong is evil.
That’s not how war works. War is a corrupting force which pushes against the just and unjust alike. If you took nothing else from Will Selber’s account of his time in Iraq, it should be that.
So when you read Tamar’s piece you’ll see a lot of parts of Ukrainian nationalism that are unalloyed goods. Other parts of it are complicated. For instance, she reports that the Ukrainian Ministry of Education has recommended the removal of Russian literature from classrooms—even Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which is the greatest novel ever written.
To be candid: Some of the Ukrainian nationalism looks—to me—fairly illiberal.
But you can’t understand this illiberality outside of the context of war. Because Russia’s invasion has not been a “territorial dispute.” It has been a parade of war crimes. Not just the intentional targeting of civilians in the city theater in Mariupol. Not just the torture rooms and mass graves in Bucha. But the literal kidnapping of thousands of Ukrainian children whom Russia has relocated to their interior and placed with “foster families” for the purpose of re-programming them and turning them into Russians.
I ask you: What would the American response be to such a depredation? Would it be entirely consistent with liberal ideals? I doubt it.