The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

War and the Meaning of Nationhood

Posted on | March 1, 2022 | Comments Off on War and the Meaning of Nationhood

Once upon a time (he says, as if speaking of a mythical ancient past, but in fact speaking of his own youth) students were taught to think deeply about the nature of government, what constitutes a nation-state, and what purpose such a geopolitical entity is intended to serve. This is (or at least once was) the first lesson of political philosophy, and this teaching was developed in historic context, through the study of early empires, Greek city-states, etc. One cannot understand government, in its present forms, without contemplating the origin of the nation-state, which derived from earlier kingdoms, and every kingdom can be traced back through the mists of distant time to some tribal warlord or barbarian raider whose name, if we know it at all, we know only because his feats were celebrated in songs that survived long enough to be committed to writing. Hence, the legend of King Arthur, who might have been a local chieftain who defended some part of the island against Saxon raiders in the so-called Dark Ages after the Romans evacuated Britain.

Whether or not King Arthur actually existed, he almost certainly bore little resemblance to any of the Hollywood versions of his legend, but this is irrelevant to political science. The point, as we were instructed in our youth, is that the nation-state is forged by military power, of whom the earliest kings of any particular nation were the leaders. Originating in the violent exercise of military power, then, the state claims a monopoly on the use of force, which it wields both to defend itself against foreign threats, and to maintain peaceful order among its subjects.

We are prone, in peaceful times, to forget this basic lesson of political science, and surely the Ukrainians weren’t thinking about it when they elected the popular comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy as their president.

When I saw the protest poster above — “If Russia stops fighting, there will be no war. If Ukraine stops fighting, there will be no more Ukraine!!!” — it immediately carried me back to those classrooms where my teachers remarked on the origins of nationhood in war. Various intellectuals have sneered at this over the years, dismissing the eminence of European royalty by depicting them (however truthfully) as the descendants of savage warlords. We are supposed to be so much more sophisticated than our ancestors that we are not awed by legends and myths, you see. Yet is it not the case that our own national capital is named for a Virginia farmer who, being appointed general of the Continental Army, organized victory over the British and then became our first president? So the unity of military power and political authority was maintained even in our representative government.

“We the People,” etc., but there would be no United States and no Constitution were it not for the military victory that established our national independence. And as we behold Ukraine, fighting for its existence against Russian aggression, we are reminded of this truth.

Everyone is now praising Zelenskyy as a latter-day Churchill, after he drew a standing ovation from the European Parliament, but he must either find some way to organize victory, or else perish under the Russian boot, and accomplishing this would seem to require a miracle.

Once upon a time (he says, again speaking of his own youth as if it were an antique legend) American boys were taught about historic heroes, and urged to emulate their example — Davy Crockett at the Alamo, Alvin York in the Argonne Forest, and so on — because our elders, having recently won a World War, and being then engaged in what one of our presidents called the “long twilight struggle” against Communism, were conscious that their sons might be called upon to fight for our country.

We too easily forget all this, but then we look to Ukraine, and we know that if by some miracle they survive, they will never forget.



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