Politics

Respecting Russia: Only Fools Rush In

“Whoever will come to us with a sword, by a sword will perish.”

 – Aleksandr Nevsky, 13th-century Russian prince and saint of the Russian Orthodox Church

According to multiple news outlets (including The Daily Mail, RT, and The Huffington Post), NATO is amassing troops along the Russian border. The tension between the United States and Russia has not been this intense since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

By this point, we’ve all heard the sour grapes issuing from the Obama camp concerning Russia’s alleged electronic interference with our recent election. According to them, Russia is at least partially responsible for Mr. Trump’s forthcoming presidency.

But if Russia tried to hack the election for Mr. Trump’s benefit, its efforts fail to impress—Mrs. Clinton’s vote count outpaced Trump’s by a margin of three million. And if we’re expelling Russia’s diplomats because they hacked into some other facet of our national security apparatus, why haven’t we done the same to China’s diplomats?

Simply put, all of this hacking-accusation hoopla is a red-herring sideshow put on to distract, incite, and inflame the American public. Why is Obama actually stirring up a war with Russia? Who can explain the whys and wherefores of that man’s inexplicable choices? Precious little of what he has done over the course of his two terms has been logical or far-sighted.

Of true concern is not so much why this is happening, but what the consequences will likely be. And we have plenty of been-there, done-that testimony to reference if we wish to learn what happens to armies foolish enough to rush in to Russia.

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The sagas of ill-fated invasions inscribed upon the pages of recent Russian history are impressively intimidating, and ought to give pause to anyone contemplating a military mash-up with the Muscovites.

 

 

First let’s consider Charles XII of Sweden’s 1708 endeavor. Charles XII’s military strategy relied upon the swift movement of armies over unexpected terrain. This initially served him well; he scored many early victories and rapidly moved deep into Russian territory. However, Charles was foiled, in large part, by the scorched earth tactics employed by Peter the Great; in spite of suffering multiple defeats, Peter merely retreated further and further into the endless expanses of Russia, destroying anything the pursuing Swedish army might use to sustain itself, thereby decimating it. The Russian winter took care of the rest.

 

 

The next epic fail began on June 24, 1812 when little Napoleon crossed into enormous Russia. His goal was quick victory via massive onslaught. His strategy initially served him well; he scored many early victories, and rapidly moved deep into Russian territory. However, Napoleon was foiled, in large part, by the scorched earth tactics employed by Russian soldiers and civilians; in spite of suffering multiple defeats, Tsar Alexander I’s armies merely retreated further and further into the endless expanses of Russia, destroying anything the pursuing French army might use to sustain itself, thereby effectively chipping away at it, as the French could not maintain their ridiculously long supply lines. An early winter more or less took care of the rest.

And, finally, we come to the most recent example—Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the USSR. It began on June 22, 1941; note the similarity to the date of Napoleon’s invasion. The parallels pile on from there.

 

 

Hitler’s goal was quick victory via massive onslaught. His strategy relied upon the swift movement of armies over unexpected terrain. This initially served him well; he scored many early victories, and rapidly moved deep into Soviet territory. However, Hitler was foiled, to a great degree, by the scorched earth tactics employed by Stalin’s armies; in spite of suffering multiple defeats, the Soviets merely retreated further and further into the endless expanses of the USSR, destroying anything the pursuing German army might use to sustain itself, thereby effectively chipping away at it, as the Germans could not maintain their ridiculously long supply lines. An early winter helped take care of the rest.

 

 

If you’ve failed to see the pattern here, you’re clearly not the first. Although these are obviously oversimplifications of complex operations, they are accurate broad-strokes synopses, and even a child should be able to extract the moral of the overall story, which is something akin to: fool me once, shame on you, fool me repeatedly in the exact same way, shame, shame, shame on me.

It’s worth noting the exception to the rule—there has been one significant successful invasion of Russia, carried out by the Mongols nearly 800 years ago. However, if Obama is taking his cue from this isolated bit of history, he ought to step in front of a mirror and reassess his reflection; he resembles Genghis Khan about as much as Hillary Clinton resembles Mother Teresa.

Furthermore, one might argue that this example doesn’t really count, since a united Russia as such did not exist at the time. In fact, it could be argued that the consolidation and expansion of a defined Russian state was the key factor that eventually allowed for the reclamation of their sovereignty over not only their own territories, but several Mongol successor states to boot. It may have taken them 200 years to pull it off, but this only serves to illustrate my next point: Russian tenacity should not be underrated.

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In one of my many former occupational lives, I was once an online English as a Second Language instructor. I had students scattered all over the globe, including several in Russia. Hands down, they worked harder, and progressed more quickly, than anyone anywhere else in the world.

The nature of the lessons readily engendered the formation of a personal relationship, and I got to know my pupils well. As a whole, my Russian students impressed me as an incredibly tough and determined bunch. Most of them had endured remarkable hardships; they were experts at stretching meager provisions into multiple meals, working long hours on little or no sleep, and cracking jokes in lieu of cracking up.

Alexey is a perfect example. When I first began working with him about five years ago, he was a penniless early twenty-something living on his parents’ couch. He had few legitimate prospects, but dreams the size of Siberia—he wanted to be a chef on a cruise ship so he could see the world. Over the course of the years I’ve known him, I’ve watched with wonder while he’s clawed and scratched his way out of poverty and into this precise occupation. He’s overcome impossible odds and repeated setbacks—obstacles and disappointments that would’ve caused every American I know to give up and walk away.

This kid lived in an uninsulated basement and worked sixteen-hour days at a job he despised for two years to pay his way through a degree program in Norway—a country in which he knew no one, and was profoundly lonely. Over the course of his studies, he was forced to drop out of his program not once, not twice, but three times due to circumstances outside his control, including illness and ultimately death in his family. Each time, he devised a way to resume his education. When he’d finally obtained his degree, he waited another two years for an opening in his field, toiling away in the meantime as a barista—a job well below his qualifications—in order to pay the bills.

But now he’s sailing around the world doing what he loves, and considers his long period of struggle to have been entirely worth it.

And this type of tenacity is the characteristic Russian trait everyone who invades that land forgets to take into account. When Russians really care about something—something like defending their homeland, for example—they will gladly suffer every form of deprivation and degradation in order to achieve their aim. Because suffering is nothing new to them—indeed, they’re old pros at it. You can bomb them, starve them, poison them, and beat them black and blue, and all of it will be in vain, because they’ll keep fighting until they come out on top.

 

Russian soldiers wave their flag, made from tablecloths, over the ruins of the Reichstag.

 

But don’t take my word for it. Hitler’s eastern-front officers—a group perhaps better qualified to speak on this subject than anyone else in modern history—made some far more relevant observations.

For example, in volume III of his Kriegstagebuch, General Halder said: “It is becoming ever clearer that we have underestimated the Russian colossus … [Their] divisions are certainly not armed and equipped in our sense of the words, and tactically they are often poorly led. But there they are. And when a dozen of them have been destroyed, then the Russians put up another dozen” (170).

In his The Third Reich at War, Evans writes that General Gotthard Heinrici “returned again and again in his letters [to his wife] to express his amazement at the Russians’ ‘astonishing strength to resist … Their units are all half-destroyed, but they just fill them again with new people and they attack again. How the Russians manage it is beyond me’” (199). Evans also quotes a letter from a German officer to his brother: “The Russians are defending themselves with a courage and tenacity that Dr. Goebbels characterizes as ‘animal’” (403).

But Field Marshal Fedor von Bock probably put it best, and most simply, when he stated in Zwischen Pflicht und Verweigerung: “The Russians are unbelievably tough!” (229)

 

 

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So these are the people waiting on the other side of the border from our gathering NATO troops—troops that we say are being placed there in response to the buildup of Russian forces, which Russia describes as a response to the buildup of NATO forces.

Which side is “right?” Does it really matter when nuclear war looms as a legitimate possibility? In such a case, it would seem that what is truly right is the prevailing of cooler heads. Really, oughtn’t we to know better than to toy with worldwide annihilation?

Of course, Napoleon really ought to have known better, and certainly Hitler, too. Alas, they both seemed convinced of their own personal exceptionalism. One might argue that Mr. Obama suffers from similar delusions. Will Mr. Trump fall into the same trap? Only time will tell.

In the end, the overused, but never-disproven adage will almost certainly hold true yet again: Those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it.

On Those Who Yearn to Bern What You’ve Earned

Bernie2

Yesterday I saw the poster pictured above in the rear window of a parked car. I live in San Francisco, so it is by no means the first pro-Bernie Sanders poster I have seen. It was, however, the first time I had seen this specific version. It made me feel as though my head were about to explode.

I’m a pretty analytical person, and when I encounter things that don’t compute, it more or less drives me bonkers. This poster is a magnificent magilla of nonsensical sloganeering. It’s a simple enough message; it asks us to believe that voting for Sanders will “end inequality.” How is that absurd, you ask? Let me count the ways!

Let’s begin with the obvious, face-value logical fallacy. Strictly speaking, the poster should say: “Elect Bernie to End Inequality.” Simply handing in a ballot cannot “end inequality” in and of itself.

You’re probably thinking, “Pish posh, she’s just getting hung up on semantics.” Perhaps, but this is not the only problem with the poster. It makes several assumptions, some of which are quite far-fetched: 1). inequality exists, 2). it is problematic, 3). it can be solved, and 4). a politician/the government should solve it.

The poster does not specify which flavor of inequality Bernie Sanders will supposedly abolish, but his main campaign message seems to revolve around “income inequality,” so let’s assume this is the arena in which The Bern proposes to demonstrate his messianic powers.

Dictionary.com gives two particularly relevant definitions of “inequality”: “1). the condition of being unequal; lack of equality; disparity,” and: “4). injustice; partiality.” Obviously, not everyone in this country makes the same amount of money; in that sense, most people would agree that the first definition is fitting vis-a-vis “income inequality.”

However, the people who do the most complaining about income inequality act as though definition number 4 is most appropriate–as though the fact that we are all paid differing wages is due to some unjust aspect of our culture or political system.

But is that really the case? To answer that question, let us compare two vastly different jobs: that of a fast-food drive-thru cashier and a vice president at a major oil company. I’m choosing these jobs because I have an immediate family member working in each position, and I’m familiar with what they do.

The oil company VP went to university (a state school) on a scholarship. He kept his grades up the whole way through, and started working for the oil company as an entry-level accountant after graduation. He worked his way up from the bottom of the ladder–he put in 25 years of loyal service to the same company before he was promoted to vice president. During his tenure as VP, he has managed multi-billion dollar international projects and teams of employees numbering in the thousands.

The fast-food cashier never finished high school, although she did get her GED. She is over 50, and the only job she has had outside of fast food was truck driving. She has no special training or post high school education–her primary assets are her remarkable warmth and kindness, lovable personality, and sincere faith.

The VP invested many years in building up his education and on-the-job experience to get where he is today. The cashier has never really demonstrated any ambition to get further “ahead” than where she already is. The oil company exec works 60+ hour weeks, and often has to travel internationally, which takes him away from his family. The fast food employee works the same shift every day, and a set 35 hours per week, every week. The VP has a lot more responsibility on his shoulders than the cashier–if he makes a mistake, thousands of employees could be negatively affected, and millions of dollars lost; if the cashier makes a mistake, it is unlikely to make more than a few dollars’ difference to a handful of people, tops. Furthermore, oil is a commodity that, like it or not, is essential to our current way of life; fast food, on the other hand, is in no way necessary to our existence–indeed, one could easily argue that we’d all be better off without it.

Now, can you honestly argue that these two people deserve the same salary? How exactly would this work? Do we pay the VP fast food wages? Or the cashier executive wages? Do we split the difference?

If executives made the same salary as fast food workers, there would be no incentive for them to get the training required to become executives in the first place. And why on earth would they take on the increased risk of heart disease and other stress-related ailments if there weren’t an equivalent reward? No, if they’re going to earn fast-food money, they will only be willing to take on fast-food responsibilities. That’s how these things work. You generally get what you pay for–and, conversely, you give in proportion to your compensation. Even Uncle Joe Stalin understood this–he made sure skilled workers were paid more than their unskilled counterparts.

So why not raise the wages of fast food workers? Ah, this is one of my favorites. It’s a “solution” so universally beloved, and about which complete ignorance almost universally prevails, even though there is a mountain of evidence demonstrating the ill effects of hiking the minimum wage, and every Economics 101 course explains in simple English why this strategy will always fail. Let’s walk through the steps.

 

The supply and demand lines represent the labor market–the supply of workers and employers’ demand for them. They intersect at the equilibrium wage (W0), which is determined by market forces. When a higher minimum wage (W1) is imposed, supply and demand no longer intersect; the demand for workers shrinks, and the number of job-seekers (the labor supply) rises. The higher the minimum wage is, the greater the gap between labor supply and labor demand. The gap between labor supply (L1) and labor demand (L2) represents the unemployed.

 

Firstly, when the cost of workers, especially unskilled workers, goes up, demand decreases, and supply increases. In other words, when our fast-food cashier suddenly costs $15/hr, rather than $7.25/hr, her employer is going to look for ways to either replace her with a machine, reduce overall staff levels and have fewer employees do more work, or some combination thereof. The boss’s labor budget doesn’t double just because the minimum wage doubled. He or she will have to do more with less. People will lose their jobs, and/or full-time workers will be reduced to part-time status. Period. And the businesses that will be hardest hit are the small, local, family-owned businesses, not the major chains.

If a business can’t get by with half the number of staff or labor hours (and most can’t), they must raise their prices to accommodate the increase in the cost of production. Because all sorts of businesses rely on minimum wage employees at some point in the chain of production and distribution, prices of just about everything wind up going up right along with the minimum wage. This means that, for the minimum-wage workers who were lucky enough to keep their jobs, the wage increase doesn’t end up being an increase in real income, because the cost of living rises in lock-step with the increase in the minimum wage. So they may have more money after the wage hike, but it doesn’t go as far as it did before.

And if you don’t believe me, just look at what’s happened in Seattle since they passed their minimum wage hike. They’ve seen price increases, 15% surcharges at restaurants to cover increased labor costs, increased unemployment, and business closures. Furthermore, since everything costs more, the wage increase hasn’t been sufficient to allow welfare recipients to get by without government assistance, but it has made their incomes too high for them to qualify for help–so they are asking to work fewer hours in order to maintain their aid.

Clearly, it makes no sense to artificially raise the cashier’s wages. In fact, it would be shooting her in the foot. So maybe we should just take some of the money that the VP has earned through hard work and perseverance, and hand it over to the cashier, who has made no effort to acquire more skills to get a better job. Is that just? Sounds an awful lot like criminal theft to me.

And that’s the problem with the direct re-distribution of wealth. It commits a wrong (theft of property from its rightful owners–a violation of the 7th Commandment) in an attempt to achieve a virtuous end (alleviating poverty). As The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just … An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention” (1753, 9).

So yes, income inequality does exist, but I’m not so sure it’s a problem that needs solving–by the government or anybody else. Should we feed the hungry? Yes, indubitably. Clothe the naked? Care for the sick? Shelter the homeless? Obviously we should do all of these. But with stolen funds? Should we punish the rich for being successful and give away their stuff to people who have less stuff, just so they can acquire more stuff? Why?

Jesus taught us that we should detach ourselves from worldly possessions–the desire to redistribute wealth seems to me to be the diametrical opposite of this teaching. It betrays a worldview that places ownership of material things and the acquisition of possessions ahead of what is actually important–our spiritual growth. What the cashier needs, and wants most, is not a flat-screen TV or a nicer car–she wants to be closer to God. So, in that sense, she has everything she needs already. Giving her more “wealth” is irrelevant.

Why can’t we simply be content to be different, and accept that, in reality, we are not equal anywhere but in the eyes of God–which, after all, is the only place that really matters? Some of us are better singers, some more beautiful, others faster runners, a few are mind-bogglingly intelligent, and, yes, some have skills or circumstances that have allowed them to accumulate more wealth than others. Why is that no longer okay? What is the intrinsic evil in our simply being different from one another? And why are the very people who claim to celebrate diversity in the loudest and most insistent fashion trying the hardest to erase the colorful palette of human variation in favor of a drab gray conformity, all in the name of “equality?”

As for me, I’ll prefer the bright, beautiful, divinely created, infinite variety of human “inequality” to the artificially imposed monochromatic dictatorship of “equality” any time, anywhere. And that’s why I will never vote for the likes of I’ll-Bern-What-You’ve-Earned Sanders, or any of his ilk.

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