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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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Cultural Life, Popular Culture and Cultural Politics

Two Cheers For Steve Levitsky

On Tuesday, February 19, students, professors, and community citizens filled the better part of the Stetson Room to hear Steven Levitsky. He is Professor of Government at Harvard University and coauthor with department colleague Daniel Ziblatt of the best seller, How Democracies Die (2018).  Levitsky’s presentation lived up the dramatic intensity of his book.  He provided a keen analysis of our present political weirdness: in the words of Stephen Stills, “somethin’ happenin’ here; what it is ain’t exactly clear” (Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth,” 1967, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gp5JCrSXkJY).  Levitsky provided a lot of clarity.  

Levitsky is worried about the erosion of democracy. Having studied democracies around the world, in health and in decline, he sees erosion in American “democratic norms” (100). The central agent of democratic decline, he suggests, is the sharpening polarization of political views.

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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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Popular Thinking in Political Life, Recent American Politics

The American Dream After COVID-19

This piece is featured in the August 2020 edition of ORIGINS: Current Events in Historical Perspective, and can be read in its original format here.

The COVID crisis is prodding a rethink of the American Dream—but actually, it has always been about more than acquisition of more material goods. The dream for ever-more goods has been a driver of so many ills, including class and racial inequalities, eroding nature’s health, and temptations to use military force. It’s not time to say goodbye to the American Dream: Keep the dream of opportunity, but now with less extra baggage.

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Campaign 2020

Evangelicals, Donald J. Trump, and the Making of the Tribune in Chief

This piece was originally published with the History News Network on April 19, 2020, and can be read in its original format here: https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/175092

A look at the history of Evangelicalism helps to explain the appeal of Donald Trump as a leader outside any establishment, in his blunt speaking style, and in his lack of deference for high learning. For many voters, these count for more than questions about his own religious commitments. Critics of President Trump could learn from his appeal and speak out more plainly about the power of privilege in contemporary society. Schooling on his style could be done without the ridiculing, but with more connecting to average citizens.

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After Election Quake 2016: Republicans in the Driver’s Seat

A Less-Kind and Less-Gentle Grand Old Party

Originally published through History News Network on December 23, 2018, and can be read here: http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170700

 

The death of George Herbert Walker Bush symbolizes the end of the Republicans as the GOP, the “Grand Old Party.” He dipped his toes into the new Republican Party that emerged during his leadership, but that new party was not his cultural home. He was in that party, but not of it.

George H. W. Bush as Federalist 

Despite the Republican Party nickname, the Democratic Party is far older. That old party began in opposition to the grandeur that the Federalists brought to American politics in the first years of constitutional democracy in the 1790s. The Federalists endorsed the constitution, ratified in 1789, as a structure to institutionalize power to the people—once duly refined and enlarged, as James Madison insisted. The Federalists presented themselves as the rightful custodians of governmental power, the best-educated citizenry, the new world equivalents of old world aristocrats. As the son of a Senator and raised with a spirit of public service, Bush could have been at home with the Federalists.

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Clues from the Past, Recent American Politics

Two Cheers for Pragmatic Democracy

Originally published by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History on March 16, 2018: https://s-usih.org/2018/03/two-cheers-for-pragmatic-democracy-guest-post-by-paul-croce/

With democracy pragmatic style, complete realization of ideals is always out of reach—and that means both constant self-correction and, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “agitate, agitate, agitate”

Once upon a time, marketplace thought and practice was associated with the work of accountants and the policies of cold-hearted politicians.  In 1978, Irving Kristol wrote Two Cheers for Capitalism to retrieve the reputation of free markets for their intimate role in democratic freedoms.  The rest is history, the history that is of the surge of marketplace conservatism.  From Ronald Reagan’s 1980 call to “get the government off the backs of the people,” to Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America in 1994, to the current president’s eagerness to deregulate business, marketplace thought and practices have moved from margin to mainstream.

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Popular Thinking in Political Life, Recent American Politics

Waking From the Dream of Total Victory in the Contests for Public Truth

This essay first appeared in Civil American, Volume 3, Article 1 (January 19, 2018), https://www.philosophersinamerica.com/2018/01/19/waking-from-the-dream-of-total-victory/

Can academics support the democratic struggle not just to critique fake news, but also to engage the public in the stories that make those false facts appealing?

The Oxford English Dictionary named “Post-Truth” its Word of the Year for 2016.  The dictionary cites “appeals to emotion or personal belief,” which have gained more influence than “objective facts … in shaping public opinion.”  The sober scholars of the OED spotlighted this word not to glorify this way of thinking, but to call attention to a disturbing trend.  In 2005, Stephen Colbert had already identified “truthiness” as the posture of public figures who “feel the truth” even in the face of contrasting facts and reasons.  The particular items of recent history are new, such as the claim that Democrats have been managing a ring of pedophiles out of the Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria in Washington, DC, but fabricated news has always been the exaggerating cousin of political spin.  The multiplication of media outlets appealing to diverse clusters of people has made it particularly difficult to sort out corrupted truths from authentic stories.

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The Uses of History

Historians, the Columbos of Our Cultural Life

Similar versions of this essay have appeared in:

History News Network, August 27, 2017, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/166629,

The Huffington Post, August 28, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/59a48a7ae4b0d6cf7f404fa5,

and in Society for US Intellectual History Blog, September 16, 2017, https://s-usih.org/2017/09/historians-the-columbos-of-our-cultural-life-guest-post-by-paul-croce/

You don’t have to like the people you study and teach, but as with the TV private investigator Frank Columbo, get to know them.

The death of Thomas Haskell is sad news and a loss to the field of history.  James Kloppenberg, a friend of Haskell’s since their days together as fellow PhD students in History at Stanford University, offers a fine tribute to his great work by highlighting the twin peaks of historical insight that Haskell practiced, “To Understand and to Judge,” https://s-usih.org/2013/05/to-understand-and-to-judge-kloppenberg-on-haskell/.  On first reading Haskell’s Emergence of Professional Social Science and “Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility,” I found orienting understanding of modern American cultural and intellectual history, about how we think and how we feel.  These lessons are also good reminders that as historians, we don’t have to like what we learn.  Learning the worlds of our study is the mission of the historian.

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Popular Thinking in Political Life, Recent American Politics

What We Can Learn from Fake News

An earlier version of this article appeared in History News Network, July 23, 2017, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/166400 , and in The Huffington Post, July 25, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/what-we-can-learn-from-fake-news_us_597764e7e4b0940189700cd0

FakeNews

Fake news has both producers and consumers. While it is important to make corrections, the political problem is not the untruths themselves, but the capacity for the fakery to seem likely. For that, it is important to check in on the consumers of fake news to figure out how the untruths appeal. What made them likely stories? Mow down the latest false facts and more will soon sprout until we address those stories and the reasons people believe them.

False facts provide clues about the stories that make the fakery seem true.

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