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Are you willing to go fight?
If you want to do absolutely everything you can to support Ukraine in its defense of their country, I have a suggestion: volunteer to go fight. The application can be downloaded from the Ukrainian Embassy’s Facebook page.
If you are not from the U.S., here is the list of every Ukrainian embassy and consulate in the world. And here is a direct link to the application. You just need to certify that you are not a convicted criminal, and then send a copy of the application and a scan of your passport to the email address listed.
As of today, fighters who joined the Ukrainian International Legion are on the ground in Ukraine.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this the past few days, as Ukrainians around the world fly home to defend their country from Russian aggression. I’ve seen stories about everyone from PhDs and professors to handymen and carpenters, safe from the violence engulfing their country, deciding to leave their ex-pat lives in the EU or wherever they may be and travel home to go fight.
Meanwhile, last week, the NY Times podcast The Daily ran a piece about civilian Ukrainians signing up to join the national defense force. They interviewed two men who did, leaving behind their loved ones to escape across the borders into the EU — and they also spoke to one young man, 23 years old, who didn’t want to go fight.
This man, whose name is Tyhran, was born in Crimea, a place he had been forced to leave when he was 16 years old when the Russians first annexed the territory in 2014. He went to Kyiv, where he built a life as an illustrator. He hoped one day to work for Pixar. I don’t know if this matters, but he is also gay — and when the NY Times interviewed him about why he was now trying to escape the fighting, to essentially ignore Ukraine’s mandate that all men age 18 - 60 stay behind to fight, the fact of being gay very much seemed to play into Tyhran’s mind. That and he had just been through a bad breakup.
When the NY Times asked him why he didn’t want to fight, he essentially answered that his life had been hard enough. He’d already had to leave his home once, now he was doing it again. He was gay. And… he didn’t want to fight.
This, to me, is the key exchange between Tyhran and reporter Lynsea Garrison, who interviewed him for the podcast:
Garrison: Do you think it’s unfair that they’re not letting men pass the border right now?
Tyhran: It is my sincere opinion, yes. I think it’s unfair. Maybe I will receive many judgments. I think if you want to go — I mean, there is people who are motivated to go to the army and understand what they are doing, protecting. But I’m not understanding when government is forced you. I mean, I can’t imagine myself doing military stuff just because I have no experience in it. I’m afraid of holding gun. I’ve been always — all my life… My parents were always against the violence, and they were against buying me any weapons.
I’m making donations to support Ukrainian army. I do anything I can do. I’m illustrator. I’m trying to draw some motivational posters. And just because — I’m sorry — I have a penis, I cannot leave. So why should I just be not able to cross the border?
As I listened to this with my partner in the car a few days ago, all I could think was: that’s wrong. You are not doing everything you can do. In this moment, what is needed are men to go fight. Not fight with words or motivational posters or Facebook likes, or by donating money, though the Ukrainian government is also asking for money so that they may arm these men. But what is needed of Ukranian men right now is that they go fight. This is a moment where history asks something of you — not a moment where you get to write your own story however you wish. Whatever previous story you had, it is now changed.
At the border, Tyhran tried to cross into Poland. Amid a sea of women and children and old men trying to make the crossing, he stood out as a young man in his 20s. Why was he there? Soon, the women in the group started yelling at him. They yelled one word: “Shame.”
There are many events in life which clarify things: a sickness, a death, a serious accident, a job loss, a marriage ending, the birth of a child. Most of us in our lifetime will come to these moments and they will help us along the path toward figuring out what is important. What really matters.
But it has been a long time since we have come to a war that is anything like this close to our experience.
My son is half Russian. His mom is here in the U.S., but she was born in Moscow. Now, it’s not clear if she can ever go back. Her parents, my son’s grandparents, live in Moscow, but have left the country — and if you are wondering where they stand in all this, I will say only that, as should be especially obvious to any American, a people and their political leaders are not the same thing.
Then there is my partner, who is Czech. For her, and for her entire family still in the Czech Republic, there is nothing strange in the fact of Russian tanks rolling west and little that is comforting in NATO re-affirming their commitments to defend NATO countries. Many Czechs have memories long enough to remember when those tanks rolled into Prague. And they remember being left on their own when it happened.
But even without personal connections to Russia, Ukraine, or the war, we can still feel the closeness of this conflict. We feel it every time Volodymyr Zelensky talks about freedom from oppression, about the Ukrainian peoples’ right to exist, to determine their own fate, to live free from autocracy and terror. Zelensky will go down as a world-historical example of an extraordinary war-time leader — and he knows his audience. For those liberal ideas and that spirit of defiance is close to our hearts.
So this war has clarified some things.
It has clarified, or should, what is important in a liberal society, and what it might take to defend it. If you are not sure what those things are, far be it from me to educate you here —
But beyond those liberal, societal values, it should clarify what you personally would be willing to do in defense of your country, if it is a free one. Every time I see reporters or arm-chair generals asking stupid questions like, “Do you support a no-fly zone,” I think the real question should be, “Are you, personally willing to go fight, or do you prefer to send these pilots to go fight in your stead, to go shoot at and be shot at by Russian pilots and anti-aircraft guns? Are you, personally willing to go to war, or send your kids, or do you just want the outcome that feels good without any sacrifice of your own?”
Zelensky has risen to this moment in a way no one could have ever expected, perhaps not even himself. His own life is at risk, and his family’s lives, and his entire country. Everything. And he is there, staying, showing the entire world what it means to have courage, and so are the people of Ukraine.
It reminds me of a time in graduate school. We were reading and debating the virtues on display in the Illiad, and our professor asked a provocative question: “Is the highest possible bravery possible without the conditions of war?” I don’t remember the whole conversation that ensued. Some thought yes, it’s possible, while some thought no, but I do remember the “yeses” were rather unconvincing.
When the podcast about Tyhran and the Ukrainian volunteers ended, my partner turned to me and told me she was glad her son was only 16. He would not be asked to go fight, yet. And I, similarly, expressed that I was glad my son, 11, would not yet be asked to fight.
But I am 40. An able-bodied man, more than capable. I don’t have any combat experience, though I’ve used and handled more different types of weapons over my life than many of the Ukranians now volunteering for service (this is America, after all). So if this were my country being attacked? I would do everything I could to bring the women and children in my life to safety. I would kiss them goodbye and then I would go fight.
Absolutely no question.