Fight or Flight? Are We Still Willing to Die for Danzig?
First we had Disease. Now we have War screaming out from our screens. Some already predicted Famine is around the corner. The disruption of the world’s granary made it even nearer. Death has stalked our private lives for the past 2 years. It is now unleashed in Ukraine. Technically, the four Horsemen are loose. War brings out the most basic of human reflexes. Ever wondered whether you would fight, or flee to a safer place? In this article I explore if and how our moral compass has changed over time, and hence, are we still willing to “Die for Danzig“?
Disclaimer: regardless of real or perceived threats/insults, the Ukraine war boils down to one sovereign nation state invading another. This has been objectively banned as a legitimate war aim since the foundation of the UN on the 25thof April 1945. I know enough people on both sides, and no-one I know wants this. Hopefully rationality, legality and humanity will prevail sooner rather than later.
Waiting for the world to burn
Some names, words and pictures live in our collective unconscious. They call up instant emotions and atavistic reactions. Crimea, Sevastopol, Katyushas, Chernobyl, are some such words. They shaped the world as we see it. They reminds us of bitter and futile wars of the 19th century, bombastic military inadequacy and miscalculations, inhumane suffering and even pointless heroism. These names shaped more than the European vision of modern warfare. Without these names, no Florence Nightingale, no modern military medical services, nor their legacy, the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention. These names are forever linked to disaster as much as to our very vision of humanity’s greater good.
Every so often, we think we learnt and know better. Every so often, we realise we don’t.
The 2022 Russian offensive in Ukraine started with disbelief at a new war in Europe, continued with disbelief at the fierce reaction of the Ukrainians. Disbelief. But not really shock. As if we are all waiting for the world to burn. If you think the war matters, you cannot wait for mainstream media or governments. They publish, comment, react 12 hours after social media live streams. By then, memes, pictures, videos have already been shared and commented at nauseam. If you don’t think that this war matters, then you don’t listen to any of it anyway. Reality just feels that little bit more disjointed than it already did. Either way, we need to understand the choices we, as individuals, have been left with and be prepared for them.
The underlying creed of cost/benefit analysis is now obsolete
With the ground-rock certainties and beliefs of the last few decades gone, nothing yet came to replace them. President Macron called out “a new era”. Great. But there is no explicit vision of what this new era should be, except rearm, rebuild walls and re-dig the Cold War trenches. Apart from Putin, no-one really wants this. But it is where we are heading by default. Back to 1981.
The international system of the past 30 years seems to melt away. It gets replaced by old reflexes and the chequerboard calculations of the MAD doctrine. We were warned of the invasion. We disbelieved it. Afterall, most analyses relied on what can be called a cost/benefit analysis. In layman terms: what is in it for me? From a cost-benefit perspective, Putin seemed to have so much more to lose in international credibility, support, economic and military costs. For Zelensky, the logical path seemed — like for Ghani of Afghanistan — to accept the invitation to settle in Berlin, Munich or London, and “lead the opposition” from there.
Instead, when Putin sent his tanks, Zelensky donned a Kevlar jacket, and asked “for ammunition, not a ride”. He decided to fight, not flee. He denied the cost/benefit analysis. The basic creed is now obsolete. That is what the Ukraine conflict did.
Are we moving into a new era, where the moral compass is more than just what-is-in-it-for-me?
The Rule of Law versus a “Rules Based” international order
If you are a sharp listener, you noticed that some new language crept in to justify the sanctions taken against Russia. The European leader von der Leyen clearly statedthat the underlying model that will follow is a “rules based” international order. Charles Michel repeated the claim in the exact same term. That is why Europe supports Ukraine versus Putin: he is a threat to a “rules based“ international system. If it is reason enough to go to war, what is it?
A “rules based” international order is a system in which international relations are organized around shared guiding principles. Practically speaking, decisions and agreements may be agreed on the basis of a common ideology and shared goal. It does not sound that bad in principle, yet this can legitimise the absence of legal due-process (think of the exceptional rules implemented during the Covid crisis, as an example). The basic idea is to federate good will, and move forward.
The alternative is Rule of Law. With Rule of Law, you follow rules laid out legally and legitimately through a legal process, validated in a democracy through a vote. Without the sanction of a vote, there is simply no legality.
“Rules based” order versus “Law based” order, the debate is one of legality versus pragmatism. Reducing it to one of formality versus efficiency is to underestimate how it will shape our decisions.
Let’s take some rather precise examples to understand the dilemma.
Lessons from history: second Irak war, a coalition of the willing
1945 set a new starting point for international relations. The 1930s, WWII, showed the need for a solid international system. The pre-war League of Nations had failed to prevent war in China and Spain. However, the new system put in place showed soon enough its limits. Whether the General Assembly or the Security Council, we had, we have serious functional issues. Votes were block-based, and would cancel each other out in case of aggression. So, when North Korea invaded South Korea, it was only blind luck, and the boycott by the USSR representative, that the UN could actually vote for the first and last time an active intervention.
Fast forward to 2003. Following on from the terrorist threat, the US government wanted to bring war to Irak for supporting the Al Qaeda group. Because the arguments used were extremely tenuous, and the consequences of an invasion alarming, it was clear that no Security Council vote supported it. This meant a veto to the war supported or led by the UN. So, the US and their allies gamed the system by simply not triggering a vote. The invasion passed on to a “coalition of the willing”.
Whether you think the second Irak war was justified or not, it was clearly not within the “Rule of Law”. What if it would have been? After all, we do have set laws as rules of engagement today. Do we follow them?
The Geneva Conventions, just guidelines?
Check how many pictures, videos and interviews of Russian prisoners of war, fighter pilots, etc. have been shared on social media and published on mainstream media. Each and every single one of these interviews or videos are actually a war crime, as defined in the Geneva Convention “Treatment of the POW” Part II Art 13 Paragraph 2.
How about weapons which damage is disproportionately injurious, such as laid out in CCW 10/10/1980-protocol III? The Western media were rightly shocked by the use of the inhumane thermobaric ammunition on Ukrainian cities. Do note though that the Western allies also used thermobaric weapons in the first Gulf War (as then demonstrated on CNN), and more recently to pound Al Qaeda mountain refuges.
The Geneva Conventions was once an intangible red line. The reality is that it has become little more than a guideline.
If there are no red lines anymore, what are the rules to follow and what are the ones we can ignore? If we were not consulted, on the system or the decisions, do we still owe any system anything? What does it mean when it comes to life and death situations such as Ukraine? What is the right thing to do? Fighting or fleeing? And why?
Reactions to Zelensky’s courage reveal underlying expectations: people want leaders, not managers
With no major system shake-up in the past decades, it is only logical and natural that most governments and institutions end up headed by apparatchiks, as in, people born and bred within the system. Such personnel simply knows better how to make it work and are technically well suited to run it. It is also symmetrically true that it pushes any system into a self-replication and ultimately necrosis, indeed like the USSR in the 70s. Its most direct effect for us citizens is that these apparatchiks can only become split from reality. The most indirect effect is that optimisation overtakes creativity. Basically, we are structurally, and logically, driven into intellectual and political management rather than in leadership — out of principle.
Then, out of nowhere, the President of Ukraine dons a Kevlar jacket and helmet, distributes Kalashnikovs to the people, shares recipes for Molotov cocktails. He goes into the bunkers and walks the trenches. He survives direct assassination attempts. And the global crowd goes: “Fuck Yeah”!
That means that there is an underlying psyche, underlying expectations, that go far beyond a straight-up cost/benefit calculation.
Could there be a replacement to the loss of implicit trust in institutions?
A few months back, I highlighted the erosion over the past years of the implicit trust in institutions, systems and authorities. Last week, I saw, read, listened to actions and reactions which show that there is hope, and that, under the right circumstances, trust can be reignited. Implicit trust is not gone, it is dormant. It is just lambent. Implicit trust can be reignited if you are not afraid to get burnt while poking the coals.
Maybe we are again willing to Die for Danzig!
What about you?