What should we make of the “evolving” war in Ukraine? Should President Biden be congratulated for sending Ukraine more military and related aid, including increasingly advanced munitions? Or is Biden leading us into World War III? These are legitimate questions because American weapons are killing Russian soldiers every day. Pundits suggest that if Putin continues to suffer losses, he will turn to chemical or nuclear weapons. Or might he do something else to slow or stop the flow of arms into Ukraine?
What is the difference between giving Ukraine a lethal drone and a F-16 fighter? Or a nuclear submarine? Or a missile with a nuclear weapon on it? If the U.S. gave Ukraine the capability of launching a raid on Moscow, would the U.S. or Ukraine be responsible for the death and destruction that followed?
These are complicated issues. The war in Ukraine would already be over if the U.S. had not resupplied Zelenskyy’s forces. Tragically, Russia may have won the war, but the dying would be over. Instead, hopes for a quick end of the war prompted by Putin “realizing he made a mistake” have proven naïve. I know, I had those hopes.
Now I wrestle with how to reconcile hatred of Putin with the idea of the U.S. being at war. Morally, as President Biden tells us, Putin must be stopped. But the war in Ukraine is now a conflict in which the U.S. is all but a direct combatant. And that might be an understatement. I wonder whether U.S. service members might be lending a hand in flying the drones that are killing Russians.
Ukraine is yet another war that the U.S. entered without a formal declaration of war. The public did not demand that the U.S. get involved. Rather, the president and his advisors decided getting involved was the right thing to do. Democrats and Republicans eventually followed his leadership.
Today the debate in Washington is not over whether we should aid Ukraine, but whether we should aid them more. A vote in the House of Representatives for more weapons passed 361 to 69, with only 54 Republican votes and 15 Democrats voting no. (Want to see a vote where AOC (D-NY) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) voted the same way? This was it. By the way, Andy “Handgun” Harris voted for the bill.)
While I am OK with where we are today, I am nervous. Because Putin is a growing threat to world peace, I welcome Ukraine’s success in fighting back. But, less than a year after getting out of Afghanistan, the U.S. is moving towards direct involvement in another war. Will this “proxy war” evolve into another Afghanistan, or Vietnam?
To date, U.S. service members are not dying, but recall that for the last year or two of the war in Afghanistan, there were very few U.S. casualties. With the benefit of modern military technology, the U.S. was able to wage war in Afghanistan with few casualties. To date, we are waging war in Ukraine with no U. S. casualties. How much longer is that likely to continue?
Much will be written about the war in Ukraine in coming months, most of it an attempt to decipher the thinking of Vladimir Putin or to document the courageous leadership of Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people. Less will be written about the complicated and unresolvable ethical issues raised by the modern rules of war.
In six months, after the mid-term elections are over, the war in Ukraine may still be raging. By then, the U.S. is likely to have made several more gifts of arms to permit Ukrainians to continue the fight against Russia. As the 2024 presidential race gets underway, will Democrats run on their record in Ukraine? Will Republicans criticize them for not arming Ukraine enough or not engaging in direct combat? Or will Republicans, like Trump, blame Biden and the Democrats for leading the country into war and suggest that had Trump won the 2020 election, the war would never have happened?
If the above sounds to you like a murky, confusing, or useless debate, we agree. I cannot see a “right” answer emerging from the discussion or any answer clarifying the “modern rules of war.” The “rules of war,” surprisingly don’t provide an answer. As published by the International Red Cross, the rules “outlaw” things such as torture and killing civilians but don’t define what constitutes being in a war.
I wonder how many sitting members of Congress think the U.S. is currently at war in Ukraine. Isn’t it bizarre that a country can be at war and not be certain that it is?
J.E. Dean is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, birds, and other subjects.