Americans need to unite as 'one tribe' to reject authoritarianism

Americans need to unite as 'one tribe' to reject authoritarianism

I have been following the story of the Russo-Ukrainian War with equal parts fascination and trepidation.

A modern European country invading one of its neighbors?

Soldiers rolling in on tanks in a three-pronged attack?

It seems more fitting for an old black-and-white World War II documentary, not an event one can follow on Twitter.

And this war is scary.

One can see a path toward significant loss of life. We can see a Vladimir Putin-led Russian military attempting to subdue a pesky Ukrainian force one-fifth its size.

Then we see the international community making his task harder by providing aid to Ukraine.

And finally, a frustrated and unhinged Putin might retaliate with a nuclear strike.

The Russian invasion gave me a reason to re-read Sebastian Junger's Tribes. Junger, an author and war correspondent, weaves a compelling narrative using strands from anthropology, current events, and his own experiences in and around war.

Junger argues that the wealth and technology in modern society allow us to live lives where we don't need other people.

This sounds, on the surface, like a good thing. But Junger argues that we did not evolve to live such individualistic, disconnected lives. We evolved to live communal lives where we work together toward common goals.

As a result of being so disconnected, we, as a society, are dysfunctional. We are more often mentally ill. As wealth rises, the rates of depression and suicide increase. We are also sick politically.

Junger notes what we have all seen – a fractured society where people treat people with different viewpoints with outright contempt.

He provides evidence for these ideas by relying on his experience in and around war.

Modern American soldiers have the highest rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and trauma than soldiers of the past. Even as wars have become less deadly, mental illness has still risen.

Mental illness has also risen amongst military personnel who served during wartime but were not directly involved in combat.

Junger's explanation for this is that military personnel come from an environment where everyone is pulling together to one that is fractured. "[I]t makes one wonder exactly what it is about modern society that is so mortally dispiriting to come home to," he writes.

People miss the contexts in which adversity or a common enemy brought them closer to each other. Junger gives examples of Londoners who say they are nostalgic for the Nazi Blitz and a survivor of the AIDS epidemic who said he misses those days.

It is not that Londoners want to be bombed or people want to see their loved ones contract a terrible disease. It was the sense of community helping each other as bombs fell or the feeling of brotherhood while marching to destigmatize AIDS.

A clear morality tale
Sebastian Junger's tribes entered into my consciousness when I thought of this war as a way of uniting us as Americans.

Vladimir Putin's turn as a modern bad-guy dictator is Oscar-worthy. Hundreds of his opponents have been murdered. He illegally annexed Crimea, a region belonging to Ukraine. Russian assistance provided to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, in the form of bombing civilians, has been called a war crime by the UN. He has sent tanks into Ukraine, with an endgame not yet entirely clear.

And what of Ukraine?

This country has embraced democracy and has a growing economy. They have expressed interest in joining NATO. Indeed, Ukraine's success and interest in NATO are some of the reasons why Putin felt the need to invade the country.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy leads Ukrainians – a charismatic comedian-turned-lawyer-turned president. Zelenskyy can be seen chatting with CNN in the middle of a street in Kyiv, saying, "I need ammunition, not a ride, " responding to calls for him to evacuate the country.

It seems as if this story not only has a clear bad guy, but people we can all see are the good guys. We as Americans should be able to express clear support for President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people.

But there is a problem.

There are elements on the right holding a candle for Vladimir Putin:

  • Conservative media personality Dinesh D'Souza says Joe Biden is more of a threat to America than Putin. Get that? A democratically elected president is more of a threat to America than a warmonger invading another country.
  • Steve Bannon praised Putin on his radio show. Talking with military contractor Erik Prince, Bannon said Americans should support Putin because he is "anti-woke." "The Russian people still know which bathroom to use," Prince replied, commenting on the push in America to allow transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice.
  • Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly praised Putin calling him "talented" and "savvy" with "lots of gifts." Pompeo's praise came before the invasion. However, he has yet to condemn Putin's actions or modify his earlier comments.

As for his former boss, Donald Trump?

Trump has praised the invasion, calling it peacekeeping.

"That's the strongest peace force I've ever seen. There were more army tanks than I've ever seen. They're gonna keep peace all right. Here's a guy who's very savvy. … I know him very well. Very, very well."

The warm sentiment towards Putin isn't just a few lone voices at the top of the GOP or on the far right.

A January poll showed that Republicans view Putin more favorably than Biden, Harris, or Pelosi.

It is astounding for a group of people in the US to view a warmongering autocrat from another country more favorably than their own democratically elected leaders.

An opportunity
So we have a megalomaniac dictator who has jailed or killed rivals, committed war crimes, and aided another dictator in suppressing their population by bombing civilians. Now his tanks are rumbling through the streets of a sovereign country.

This is an opportunity for Americans to come together against a common enemy. We could become, for a moment in time, one tribe.

As the president said during last night’s State of the Union address:

[Putin] thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. He thought he could divide us at home, in this chamber, and in this nation. He thought he could divide us in Europe as well. But Putin was wrong. We are ready. We are united, and that’s what we did. We stayed united.

We did it before when we condemned Osama Bin Laden, Slobodan Milosevic, and Saddam Hussein. There was significant disagreement about the Iraq War, but no one was rooting for Hussein.

And yet, here we stand in America with Nick Fuentes asking for “a round of applause for Russia” and getting cheers of "Putin!" "Putin!" during a white nationalist conference at which Georgia representative Marjorie Taylor-Green spoke.

Meanwhile, the international community is rallying around their shared concern for the plight of the Ukrainians. Democracies - at least the leaders of democracies - have become a tribe of sorts, understanding the threat of Putin and working together to combat it.

The European Union has offered asylum to Ukrainian refugees and pledged military aid. Singapore has imposed trade sanctions. Sweden and Finland pledged weapons and military aid. And the Biden Administration pledged $350 million.

This is along with a coordinated effort by the EU, UK, US, and Canada to remove Russian banks from the international banking system.

These actions are first and foremost to help the Ukrainian people.

But they have the indirect effect of bonding these democracies closer together in friendship.

Maybe us everyday folks can see a lesson here.

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