By Richard C. Gross
“We must be the great arsenal of democracy. For us this is as serious as war itself. We must apply ourselves to our task with the same resolution, the same sense of urgency, the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice as we would were we at war.”
— Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president 1933–1945, in a fireside chat Dec. 29, 1940.
I’ve been watching the frighteningly realistic HBO World War II series, each 10 episodes, one with our Army liberating Europe from the Nazis, the other with the Marines slugging it out against the ferocious Japanese defending their captured South Pacific islands.
On one of those recent evenings, with artillery explosions, the harsh rattle of machine gun fire and the screams of men dying or wounded and fighting to live ringing in my ears, I suddenly thought of the horrific, unforgiving slash and burn war in Ukraine.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainians and their Russian invaders have died in fierce battles fought since February 24, 2022 as one side tries to save its country against extensive odds in both men and weapons in a war seeming without end.
Civilians, too, have perished.
“We will not surrender,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told his people July 28, 2022. “We will not give up. We cannot be intimidated. Ukraine is an independent, free, indivisible state. And it will always be like that.”
He’s kept his word.
He’s been able to do that with massive military and humanitarian assistance from the West, including $113 billion so far from America. Ukraine never could do it alone against a mighty Russia, which has the world’s biggest number of nuclear warheads, 5,977 as of last year, says the American Federation of Scientists. We have 5,428.
If not for the West and the fight for democracy at stake, the war would have been over long ago.
President Joe Biden has backed up Zelensky’s pledge not to give up, again repeating his promise during their Oval Office meeting last week to stay with Ukraine through the war.
“I’m counting on the good judgment of the United States Congress,” he said, referring to securing continual funding for the conflict. “There’s no alternative.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell chimed in with his backing in a statement, focusing on the geopolitical: “American support for Ukraine is not charity. It’s in our own direct interests — not least because degrading Russia helps to deter China.”
Zelensky told American editors that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said in a private meeting that his chamber “will be on our side — it’s not simple — that they will support” [Ukraine]. If he can control his far-right members, who have threatened to oust him unless he stops spending money.
Biden released $325 million worth of air defense gear that was paid for earlier and has asked Congress for another $24 billion, which many Republicans have balked at providing. Typical Republican move: to hold money hostage until the hard-right gets what it wants. Unless they cut taxes for the wealthy.
The devastation of Ukraine with bombs, artillery, mines, missiles and drones is reminiscent of photos of the ghostly leveled cities of Berlin and Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the year Germany and Japan unconditionally surrendered in May and August, respectively.
Zelensky wore his dark olive drab fatigues during his meetings with U.S. officials in Washington and when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly, displaying solidarity with his beleaguered troops. They now are on a monthslong counteroffensive to retake Russian-occupied territory seized in the current invasion and in 2014. Zelensky has traveled extensively pleading with the West for weapons and financial help to maintain his country’s battle for survival.
Now is not the time to stop the giving, regardless of the financial cost. Ukraine is fighting for all democracies, not only for itself. Zelensky has said as much in his urgent pleas. They recall Winston Churchill’s appeals to Roosevelt for weapons and for ships for supplies as Britain in its “darkest hour” stood alone against Nazi Germany while Hitler overran Europe, his sights on the island nation.
The U.S. proxy war against Russia’s Vladimir Putin is just as necessary as the Big War was against Hitler and Hirohito. The stakes are the same: for democracy, even as we face threats against our own frail experiment for freedom from a would-be dictator.
I don’t have to tell you who I mean; he has to be stopped. He’s no joke. He’s been telling us in no uncertain terms what he would do to restrict us, to go after us as “retribution” if he becomes president again, all for us rightfully wielding the law against him. We the people don’t need that scowling vengeance. But I digress.
The West largely has been supportive of Ukraine’s bloody battles, with some senior leaders allowing that the eastern European country, once part of the Soviet Union until its empire collapsed in 1991, is sacrificing for all of us its people and the cities and towns they live in.
“You and the Ukrainian people are holding the rules-based order in balance,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Zelensky before the former actor and comedian addressed Parliament last week. “You are on the front lines, not just of the fight for Ukraine, but in the fight for the kind of future we are all going to be living in,” The Washington Post reported.
“It is genocide what Russia occupiers are doing to Ukraine,” Zelensky told Parliament. “. . . When we call on the world to support us, it is not just about an ordinary conflict. It is about saving lives of millions of people. Literally, physical salvation.”
Ukraine’s population is estimated at 36.7 million, as of July, a decline of 7.45 percent since 2022. Russia’s is 143.4 million, as of 2021.
Biden has been very cautious about supplying Ukraine with the modern weapons it needs to fight the bitter war between two people who speak about nearly the same Slavic language. They include Abrams tanks, long-range surface-to-surface missiles and F-16 fighters. He’s correct to hesitate, fearing Putin will go nuclear in desperation if Ukraine attacks Russia with them. If so, then what?
But this is a just war, another “good” war against dictatorship, as was World War II. The West needs to give Ukraine all of its support and to help rebuild it with a Marshall Plan-like determination that cobbled Europe back together.
As for those HBO World War II movies, they are streaming on Netflix. The war in Europe, “Band of Brothers,” the title taken from Shakespeare’s “Henry V” at the battle of Agincourt against the French in 1415, was released in 2001. The war against the Japanese, “The Pacific,” was released in 2010.
Both dramatizations with their incredulous combat scenes recalled for me the much milder televised compilation documentaries of “Crusade in Europe,” released in 1949, based on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s memoir as wartime Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, and “Victory at Sea,” an NBC production focused on the Navy’s war in the Pacific that first was shown in 1951. I was a boy, wide-eyed at the devastation of war.
Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and the Pentagon, was the foreign editor of United Press International and the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.