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Of Ticks, Terrorists, and the Strength of the Small, in Ukraine, For Example

An earlier version of this essay, “Can Ukraine Harness the Power of the Small to Survive Russia’s Attack?” appeared in History News Network, June 5, 2022, https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183298

Sometimes, the small can prevail—with strategic deployments of their strengths

Ticks would not fare well in direct combat with people. So the little insects hide under hair or in little corners of the larger mammal. They attack their prey quietly and often unnoticed. Disease-bearing ticks carry even smaller menaces, including Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and over a dozen other pathogens.

Covid-19 is another agent of destruction out of view. Much as we might like to swat these insects or microbes, they can skirt our defenses or attack without detection. Their hazards loom over humanity not despite their size, but because of their small stature.

  In modern times when the big seem all powerful—billionaires, megastars, and even companies accepted as too big to fail—those tiny agents of destruction offer reminders of the power of the small.

A bleak fate has seemed to await Ukraine in the face of invasion by superpower Russia, unless they can use the powers of the small. This is what George Washington and Ho Chi Mihn have in common. They both used their advantages, including flexible adaptability and elusive maneuvering, to avoid direct confrontation with enemies of much greater strength.

The fledgling United States and the Vietnamese Communists used the tactics of small wars with no clear fronts. Hiding allowed waiting for opportune moments to attack before slipping back out of view. These tactics resemble those of terrorists who would have no chance if confronting a larger force directly. Such foes engage in “methods of combat not sanctioned by the Rules of War,” as the US Marine Corps wrote in its Small Wars Manual (1940), a description that would serve as rationale for the Corps’ own often-ruthless practices. Total war is the terrorism of well-armed powers able to destroy on large scales, while terrorism is the total war of the least powerful if they can avoid direct engagements, attack the big guns at their most vulnerable points, and wait for each next opportunity to use their strengths.

The small have surprising powers, but these are no sure bet.

Native Americans generally fought with small-wars approaches, achieving some defensive victories, but overall, they succumbed to defeat against the much larger forces of the US. The Seminoles are the exception that proves the rule with their elusive attacks and retreats steadily further south on the Floirida peninsula. They never won in three wars and countless small raids from the 1810s to the 1850s against their neighboring superpower, but they are the only undefeated Native American nation.

The Palestinians present an example of a people in steady retreat even before the formation of the state of Israel. After subordination to the Ottomans and then the British, they lost territory to immigrant Jews through fighting, land sales, and diplomacy, culminating in Israeli independence in 1948. Palestinian defeats in battle, leading to refugee camps, military occupation, and exile, encouraged many, especially in the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Hamas, to adopt terrorist tactics. This tempting tool of the weak led to morally outrageous assaults on Israeli civilians and widespread criticism. Palestinian civil society condemns these appeals to righteous anger, and the turns to terrorism have actually undercut Palestinian hopes. While both sides suffer, Palestinians share another challenge with Ukrainians. Just as many supporters of Israel’s expansion with settlements in the West Bank deny Palestine’s distinct identity among Arab countries, so Russian President Vladimir Putin does not recognize Ukraine’s distinct identity, as he brashly claimed last July. 

Similarly, the Ukrainians have little hope in direct confrontation with their more powerful neighbor, but the methods of small wars offer a chance for their endurance in the face of overwhelming odds. Ukrainians were able to enlist just these strengths effectively in the first weeks of the war. While Russian munitions and tens of thousands of troops stretched toward the capital, Kyiv, Ukrainians from within their hometowns and cities attacked the lumbering and extended supply lines, surprising the invaders. Russian big weaponry wreaked its version of terror, but they could not stand up to the small-war tactics of the versatile defenders. Phase I of the war in the north-central parts of the country, advantage Ukraine.

The Russians are now engaging in a strategy similar to one waged by the British Empire against the rebellious Americans. When they could not quell the forces of sedition in northern colonies, they effectively gave up attempting conquest of those territories in favor of trying to secure the rest of the British North American colonies, although British attempts to isolate the rebellious north ended with their defeat at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. In the same way, Russia is, at least for now, abandoning efforts to conquer the capital in order to try taking over the Donbas region in the east. The Russians are using their strength of arms to implement advantage Russia, with no qualms about unleashing not only wholesale destruction but also recruitment of Russian-leaning separatists in that region to engage in their own small-wars attacks. The shelling of Mariupol has left over 90% of that city’s buildings destroyed, with casualties high and climbing. After that city fell, the Russians now have in their sights on Severodonetsk, the last Ukrainian-held city in the Donbas.

These indiscriminate attacks point to another frequent—if grim—advantage for the small. Sympathy for Ukrainians, already high from being the victims of an unprovoked invasion, has soared around the world in the face of such brutal destruction. Ukrainians seek military aid to counter the munitions advantage of their invaders. Those anti-aircraft rockets and rifles will be only the tip of the spear of the nation’s strengths. The Russians hoped that their show of force would result in quick victory, but their very abilities to pound their opponents cruelly will sow dragon’s teeth that could turn on them with the strengthening of their victims’ morale and the growth of outside support. And the military strength of Ukraine will continue with their small-war tactics from looking for weak points in Russian supply lines and “sniping … from every angle,” as retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute put it. Ukrainian strength in the “legs” of flexibility will have a fighting chance against the arms of Russian might.

The big question is whether Ukrainian moral and tactical advantages can endure and prevail. Will their moral authority shine as with the American Patriots fighting for what historian Gordon Wood has called the democratic “destruction of aristocracy” with an unleashing of “people and their energies” or will they be viewed less favorably as terrorists? And will the small-wars tactics prove as effective as the Vietnamese Communists’ people’s war against munitions-rich Americans or as ineffective as Native Americans against that same type of American firepower in its pre-twentieth-century versions?

These are the contending forces in this unpredictable war, while civilians suffer, with more than a tenth of the Ukrainian population already fleeing the nation and millions more displaced in their own homeland. Russia has amplified its military strengths with the power of the unpredictable. Putin leaves politicians and experts worldwide guessing and afraid that any more direct involvement of other nations will spur escalation beyond Ukraine, possibly including the use of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Ironically, the traditional doctrine of deterrence, with the chilling threat of mutually assured destruction, has actually encouraged Russian aggression. If this distortion of deterrence continues, the war will be stretched long with abundant supplies of arms flying to Ukraine and with Russia preventing other nations from entering the war directly because of its nuclear threats. Meanwhile, Russian attempts at conquest through utter destruction will in turn bolster sympathy for Ukrainians.

The defenders will be short-term victims while in the long term they will possess what psychologist William James calls the strength of “invisible molecular moral forces… stealing in through the crannies of … bigness & greatness … like so many soft rootlets or like the capillary oozing of water” against the strength of major powers. However, he warns that the strengths of the small generally only emerge “if you give them time.” Short-term supplies of arms will allow long-term strengths to become effective.

Or Putin may become trapped by his expectation for swift victory and even by his own language. Russia’s big supply of weapons is leading to more brutal attacks, while Putin will not even call this a war but a “special military operation.” This public relations disaster could combine with the economic and diplomatic defiance of Putin’s policies to encourage the Russian leader to adopt a brazen claim never used by the US in Vietnam: declare victory and withdraw. Pressure on Putin to make this choice may be the clearest path to ending the bloodshed, and a path with more potential to let peace last than Henry Kissinger’s proposal for Ukraine to give up territory to Russia.

While Ukraine’s fate hangs in the balance, its greatest strengths, like those of lowly insects and microscopic pathogens, rests with its readiness to use the strengths of the small.

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Campaign Watching

The Outsiders Within: Obama, Romney, and the Tradition of Defying Tradition

Before You Vote, consider this likely pitch from the next popular politician: Vote for me!—I’m an outsider!

Americans have a tradition of defying tradition.

Dear Once and Future Voter: Who are the insiders you are hoping to overturn? Consider the case of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, two candidates for president in 2012 who are members of groups traditionally considered outside the American mainstream….  Read whole essay here….

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What's DAT?

Attention, Our Effective Intelligence

Everyone has their own particular brain capacity.  From an early age, we are good at some things rather than others, and attracted to particular fields.  Do you like detail work or big pictures?  Are you good with numbers or with words?  You probably had a favorite subject in school; and if you are lucky, when a first job did not suit you, you found one that did—one that well suited your native capacities.  Psychologists measure our brain capacities with numbers, our IQ or intelligence quotient, which puts a big emphasis on logical reasoning abilities.  But our full capacities are a whole congress of talents for figuring things out, from mathematical puzzles and chess moves to basketball plays and social interaction.  In the whole theater of life, some steps are smarter than others.

Education is the widely recognized setting for upping our intelligence game, with more knowledge and more skills; classrooms are important for learning all kinds of things from better writing to the subtleties of mitosis or financial accounting.  Education is a great social step for sharpening our native intellectual capacities.  But there is another personal step that anyone can take without spending a dime on tuition.  Pay attention.  Yes, paying attention is like pressing the power button on our brains.  Imagine a powerful computer that’s turned off; now imagine a powerful brain with great capacities but no attention: powered off.  Attention is effective intelligence.  No matter your native endowments, add the sharp focus of attention to any project large or small, with interests fired up and mind drilling down on every implication and detail, and you’ve got intelligence to the max.  Find what captures your attention, and you’ll find yourself capturing more of the world.

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Campaign 2016

1-2016 Election Quake I: Five Expected Surprises in Cultural Trends and the Media

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post, November 22, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-j-croce/2016-election-quake-i-fiv_b_13144442.html

Huh?—a year and half of campaigning, two leading candidates with the highest disapproval ratings in American history, a Republican Tsunami—how’d that happen?  Get ready, America, for four years of Donald J. Trump’s stern reverse smile. 

Few anticipated the results.  Even Republicans and Trump himself seemed surprised on election night.  Commentators have been wringing their hands for not anticipating the way voters actually voted, and observers from major media stars to people at diners and around water coolers were already calling the campaign unprecedented.  And yet, contemporary history and the current state of the media provide clues about how we have arrived at this surprising election.

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Campaign 2016

2-2016 Election Quake II: Five Lessons from Recent History

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post, November 21, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-j-croce/2016-election-quake-ii-fi_b_13126268.html

The Trump Phenom and Republican sweep have roots that go even deeper than the inaccurate polls.  The recent past tells the story of the rising strength of sentiments that would lead to this election quake. 

An air of shock and awe still hovers around the election results.  Donald J. Trump declared war on the federal government, on big business, on military and foreign policy leaders, on words that work in campaigning, even on his fellow Republicans, and of course on Democrats.  Few expected these results, from respected polling professionals to Republicans themselves—even as that party benefitted in Congress and state houses.  Recent history shows that these surprises have been building for years.

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Campaign 2016

2016 Election Quake: Ten Expected Surprises

Get ready, America, for four years of Donald J. Trump’s stern reverse smile….

Commentators have been wringing their hands for not anticipating the way voters actually voted, and observers from major media stars to people at diners and around water coolers were already calling the campaign unprecedented. 

See all Ten Expected Surprises as published in History News Network, November 20, 2016. Now that may just be too many surprises at once!  Here below, you can take these surprises in chunks, five at a time:

1-Election Quake I: Five Expected Surprises in Cultural Trends and the Media

2-Election Quake II: Five Lessons from Recent History

 

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Campaign 2016

Constant Growth: The Elephant (and the Donkey) in the Living Room

A shorter version of this essay was published as “An Economy That Grows Anger,” in the Huffington Post, September 24, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-j-croce/an-economy-that-grows-ang_b_12173172.html

On this web page, scroll down to see a revised version of this essay, expanded with more economic data and historical examples, and published as  “Both Parties Back Economic Growth–But Are They Wrong?” in History News Network, October 2, 2016, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/163991.

We’ve got a well-informed Democrat defending a crazy system and a crazy-sounding Republican brashly calling for undisclosed changes. The elephant (and the donkey) in the living room—the unasked question for both Republicans and Democrats—is whether constant growth can be sustained? In medicine, that’s called cancer….

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Campaign 2016

Trump: In the Tall Shadow of Andrew Jackson

Originally published in the Huffington Post, July 1, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-j-croce/trump-in-the-tall-shadow_b_10777918.html

The Trump Phenom—how’d that happen?  Take a look at history…. “Indian Fighter,” general, and slaveholder President Andrew Jackson has been bumped to the back of the $20 bill, but his leadership style and outlook on the world lives.  His contemporary is Donald J. Trump.

Businessman-turned-politician Trump thrives despite the type of comments that have ended many campaigns. Trump’s style on the stump, and his call to “make America great again,” have roots in the American tradition represented by Jackson. Both “Old Hickory” and “The Donald” have inspired deep commitment among their followers for being tough and for saying out what they believe with ideas that have defied the conventional wisdom of their time.

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the United States of Distracted Attention

ADHD: Contesting the Human Normal

An earlier version published as “There’s a Way to Lower the Incidence of ADHD. We Should Try It.” History News Network (January 31, 2016), http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/161839

With some cultural changes reducing the enormity of distractions, prevention can become a realistic part of the response to ADHD, and an upgrade on living for everyone else too. After all, prevention is easier and more effective than cure, and then we can reserve use of pharmaceutical remedies for severe cases. Continue reading

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Values Questions

The Gritty Peace of Northern Ireland

Welcome to Belfast, the British Isles City of Broad Shoulders. This was the place where the “unsinkable” Titanic was built, so they clearly have a taste for daring experiments. This city was also a center of The Troubles, a too-polite phrase for the state of war between Protestants and Catholics from the 1960s to the 1990s.

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