As I write this, in early April of 2014 A.D., the western free world is quietly struggling to come up with some unity, and a response to the new issue of Russia annexing Crimea. Quietly? Suddenly we live in a new world. As a diplomat for one of the former eastern block countries put it, on CBC radio: “The trust is gone.”
But still, quietly? It is only the quiet of fear.
As a young soldier, I knew something about fear. In my soldiering days I found a most instructive early account of a mass of soldiers being sorely afraid in the classical writing of Plutarch, Lives of the noble Greeks and Romans. As I recall, a Roman commander made the mistake of marching his legion across the sands of the near east. The legionaries were the finest foot soldiers in the world, well trained to fight in the meadows of Europe. They carried two javelins each. These must have been a little cumbersome, a little heavy, and of no use. As they marched under the sun, archers mounted on fine Arab steeds stayed out of reach. Four feet are faster than two; arrows defeat swords on open plains. The Romans suffered their way from watering hole to watering hole. Arrows, sand, sun… Arrows, heat, thirst… Fatigue, despair, arrows… Soon the issue was not: could they win a battle? What battle? It was: could they escape with their lives?
Perhaps, as they trudged, their bodies on automatic, they remembered sweet childhood days in Italy, listening to Aesop’s fables… There is a fable about a woodcutter who was approached by a lion who asked him for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The woodcutter told the lion he was too scary for his daughter, and so the lion must first remove all his claws, and then all his teeth. After that, with the lion defenseless, the woodcutter killed him with an ax.
As for the legionaries, all that was preserving them was their unity. And their swords. It was under the white flag of truce that an Arab entered the camp of the fatigued, despairing Romans. Talking to the commander, loud enough to be heard by the legionaries, he proposed the Romans lay down their weapons and depart in peace. Back in those days a desert enemy’s word was no better than the word of a 20th century Russian communist. The commander knew this, of course. Imagine his intimidation, though, when his soldiers started banging their swords on their shields as a message to him: Take the offer! It did not end well… Their problem, as Plutarchus knew, was that their minds had been fouled by fear. They couldn’t think straight; they daren’t let themselves remember Aesop.
In my own sweet sunny 20th century childhood I was privileged to read the story of the lamb and the wolf. You probably know it. A lamb and a wolf, some distance apart, find themselves drinking from the same stream. The wolf snarls, “You are stirring up mud into my water, I should eat you for that.”
The lamb innocently replies, “Oh no sir, you are upstream from me.”
The wolf snarls, “You insulted me at this very stream last winter.”
The lamb innocently replies, “Oh sir, that cannot be, for I am a spring lamb.”
The wolf cries, “If it wasn’t you then it was your father!” and he leaps! …. As Aesop knew, the wolves of this world will always find “reasons”; trying to argue about “reasons” is like chasing a rainbow. How strange then that in 2014 we seem overly concerned with addressing and repeating Vladimir Putin’s “reasons” for taking over part of Ukraine. At we least we know better than to name the Russian people or their government. The wolf is the authoritarian, Putin.
I suppose “everybody” knows Aesop’s fables. God knows human nature hasn’t changed in two millennia. Just last Friday the prompt for my Friday Freefall writer’s group was “everybody knows.” A lot of good humane pieces came out of that prompt, and my political-essay one, too.
If you are reading this in the future, safe and smug, in some dusty cyber library, you may be contemptuous, thinking, “What’s wrong with the people of 2014? Why couldn’t they just acknowledge that “troops without insignia” were in fact Russian troops on Ukraine soil?” The answer, my friend, is that fear was fouling our minds. We dare not see, not clearly.
In safer times we could indulge in false fears. I dimly recall that after the US bombed Libya, and again, after advancing into Kuwait, my leftist friends in the Women’s Center excitedly telling how they and their children were fearful of a third world war. While I no longer move in leftist circles, I am confident that no one is saying that now. This time we can’t get so excited: the issue is too grave, the fear too real.
Maybe next time we’ll have a contingency manual of sanctions prepared in advance so we don’t have to scramble so foolishly for so long, feeling so embarrassed, seeking viable sanctions. But then again, knowing human nature, preparing such a manual is as unlikely as being unified and firm.
April 4, Free fall prompt: Everybody Knows
Everybody knows that evil needs no excuse; we’ve all heard the story of the wolf upstream from the lamb that accuses the lamb of muddying the water. Everybody knows, from the days of communism, not to believe claims of jungle guerrillas: “We are only ‘agrarian reformers.’” Everybody knows that if it waddles like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck. Call a communist a communist. Yet if some Russians remove their army insignia, we claim to say they are troops without insignia. If Russia trumpets excuses for annexing innocent countries—along with encouraging beatings and midnight killings—then we will keep trying to address those reasons, and we’ll keep repeating them. Along with repeating “troops without insignia.” Let’s just stop it.
Maybe we can’t stop a bully, but we don’t need to feed him tea and cookies either. Let’s not be afraid to make value judgments. Let’s say, “I am not a lamb, but everyone knows you are a wolf.”
Under the blessed shield of NATO,
A shield held up by young men and women willing to be uncomfortable
~I depict my Friday Freefall writing class in my essay Freefalling Into Politics archived March 2014.
~Plutarchus knew about fear. He would show brave and famous people being sleepless and afraid in their tent on the eve of battle. I read the Lives of Plutarch because the cowboys in the Louis L’Amour westerns, who had to travel light, often carried Plutarch. (His Roman name was Plutarchus)