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Thoughts on Ukraine

It’s going to be horrific. This will not be a thrilling TV victory or even a quick defeat followed by a sullen occupation. Cities will be reduced to rubble and hundreds of thousands of people will die.

Ten years ago, I started following the war in Syria with the goal of understanding who was fighting whom and why. I eventually found the answer, at the cost of seeing too many images of dead children: lifeless drowning victims who had almost reached safety, rows of tiny victims of poison gas, small ash-gray bodies destroyed by aerial bombardment, emaciated infants starved by siege or frozen in winter cold, bodies heaped together after being set upon by men with knives, children held in prisons where systematic torture and rape are the order of the day. This is what you too can expect to see if you continue paying attention to Ukraine.

I understand the urge to turn away, but don’t shrug off this one as just another foreign war. What happens today and tomorrow in Ukraine will shape the global order of the next century. Prices of oil will rise and fall on the short term, but this war will determine where you can travel to, who you can do business with and what places missionaries can serve for a long time to come. It will determine whether we enshrine the rule Countries willing to break the law can do whatever they want as de facto international law. Whether we spend trillions of dollars over a few decades on defense budgets rather than on improving society. Whether the church’s seeds in two countries will continue to grow, or whether we will add new names to our martyrology.

Another dispiriting lesson of the last decade has been that the urge to do nothing and hope for the best is almost impossible to resist. The people who advocated our disastrous disengagement from Syria don’t even realize they were wrong. We should have done more, and we should have acted sooner. But after 20 years of terrible decisions by presidents from both parties, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Study a topic long enough, and eventually you at least learn to separate the well-informed experts from the cheerleaders, and the voices of prudence from people who never change their minds. Perhaps I’m wrong this time and the voices of caution have it right, but everything I see tells me that important things are at stake and we’re not doing enough. We tried talk, and hopefully we’ll have that chance again. But now outcomes are being determined by guns and bombs, and yet we’re still more concerned with stating clearly what we won’t do than on accomplishing what must be done. There are wiser, more knowledgeable and more experienced people than me. You should probably listen to them. But it seems to me that if it takes planes in the air and boots on the ground to honor the security guarantees we made to Ukraine in 1994, so be it.

Let’s skip past the part where you say, “Oh yeah? How would you feel if it was your child over there?” directly to the part where I say: It is my child, an enlisted serviceman with an MOS in combat arms in a unit that regularly deploys to Eastern Europe. This could end horribly for him and my family. Before he becomes personally involved, I would prefer for well-armed Ukrainians to reduce the equipment of the Russian army to scrap metal.

A recent appearance in the media I follow are images of Russian and Ukrainian servicemen who have been killed, mostly physically fit young men who look good in a dress uniform. My son looks a lot like them. Direct involvement may come at an awful price. But the price of standing on the sidelines forever as the free world shrinks and inertia and decadence consume us is also appalling. That too is not the future I want for my children.

No matter who you are, there are things you can do. No matter who you vote for, your party has a tacit or avowed pro-Putin wing. Maybe it’s a handful of elected politicians, or maybe it’s a powerful block of prominent voices and party leaders. You can speak up and refuse to prioritize hating Democrats/Republicans/liberals/conservatives over commitment to democracy, here and abroad. You can tune out people who promote cynicism or stoke outrage, or who just got it wrong one too many times without realizing it. You can practice arguing with people as fellow citizens who have valid reasons for what they believe, even as you disagree with them.

Just because this war has entered the phase of bullets and missiles doesn’t mean that the time for thoughts and prayers is over. Figuring out just what to pray for is more difficult than you’d think, however. Praying for a peace that gives legal cover to acts of aggression and conquest seems as inappropriate as consecrating a war that will demand more lives, civilian and soldier alike. But all else being equal, the world is better when bombs stop falling, and so the formula I eventually found that I could pray for was this: for the people of the afflicted nations to have peace, freedom and safety; and for some nations to have better leaders, and other nations to have better friends.

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