Courage Under Fire

English philosopher G. K. Chesterton said, “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms: it means a strong desire to live, taking the form of readiness to die.” We have seen courage displayed many times in Ukraine over the last month, and none more remarkable than in Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

President Zelenskyy recently spoke to the US Congress. Here is a crucial part of his speech:

“Right now, the destiny of our country is being decided, the destiny of our people, whether Ukrainians will be free, whether they will be able to preserve their democracy. Russia has attacked not just us, not just our land, not just our cities; it went on a brutal offensive against our values, basic human values. It threw tanks and planes against our freedom, against our right to live freely in our own country, choosing our own future, against our desire for happiness, against our national dreams.”

When I first heard President Zelenskyy’s speech, I immediately thought of this similar speech from one of my favorite movies, Braveheart:[i] 

History books didn’t record the actual words of Sir William Wallace back in the early 1300s, but my imagination tells me he must have said something similar to the terms of this clip to inspire his army.

Ukraine President Zelenskyy has likewise been inspiring his troops and the world with his videos deep in the heart of Ukraine as Russian invaders close in around him. He had my admiration and my support early on when he showed courage under fire with his response to the US of safe passage out of Ukraine: “I don’t need a ride; I need ammunition.”  

Since the war began, I have watched the daily news about the war. I have been shocked at what I have seen: the brutality of the Russians against the civilians of a free country, the bravery of the Ukrainians who have stayed to fight against overwhelming odds, the suffering of the 6.5 million refugees (and counting), mostly women and children, who have been forced from their homes with few worldly possessions, and the outpouring of support from the rest of the world.

I have debated what the appropriate response should be, knowing there must be a fine balance between resistance and escalation resulting in the next world war. Could economic sanctions successfully compete against military might and destruction? At first, I doubted it. We have tried economic sanctions before with less-than-ideal results. But I then realized that America’s revolutionary war began as an economic boycott against England’s taxation. The military war began when England sent troops here to put down those financial weapons the colonists were engaged in. And the Continental Army only had to win enough battles to convince England that the cost was not worth it.

Perhaps the odds of Ukraine winning a war against the military might of Russia are similar to the odds the colonists had against the military strength of England back then. But coupled with the economic war, I give Ukraine a fighting chance (pun intended). And the difference today is most of the world is participating in economic sanctions against Russia and Russian leaders. According to the Brookings Institution, thirty countries have imposed more than 2,500 sanctions on Russian targets. Borrowing a military term, Putin characterized the economic sanctions as “economic blitzkrieg,” Sharlyn Alfonso, from CBS’s 60 Minutes, described it this way: “Never before has such a large modern economy been cut off so quickly from most of the world.” Adding to the government sanctions, over 400 companies have stopped operations or pulled out of Russia in just three weeks since the war began. Wouldn’t the closing of 850 McDonald’s be enough to get the Russian people to revolt against their leader?

But seriously, are the sanctions working? Ms. Alfonso recently interviewed Daleep Singh, the Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics, the White House official responsible for coming up with the economic sanctions against Russia. In response to whether the sanctions are working, Mr. Singh said: “Russia is now on the fast track to a 1980s style Soviet living standard. It’s looking into an economic abyss, and that is the result of Putin’s choices, and I can see from his reaction that’s where it’s headed. The best projections I see out there right now are suggesting that Russia’s economy is going to be half of its size before this invasion.”     

While I hope the economic sanctions will ultimately cause Putin to realize the war is not worth the costs, it is hard to watch the daily atrocities against the innocent people of Ukraine. I recently read an article by former news correspondent Eric Weiner who warns of “learned helplessness,” which results from too much exposure to negative stimuli beyond our control. Learned helplessness can affect us mentally, often leading to low self-esteem and depression, and even drug abuse and physical illness. To prevent the effects of learned helplessness, Mr. Weiner suggests we limit (but not eliminate) our consumption of the news and don’t ignore the brutality of the war but focus on its humanity. Seek out positive stories of heroic resistance and acts of moral beauty. With that in mind, here are just a few:

  • Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova held up a sign during a news broadcast that said, “NO WAR. Stop the war. Don’t believe propaganda. They are lying to you here.” In a video posted online before the protest, a woman who appears to be Ms. Ovsyannikova said, “What is happening now in Ukraine is a crime, and Russia is the aggressor country. The responsibility for that aggression lies on the conscience of only one man, and that man is Vladimir Putin. Now the whole world has turned away from us, and the next ten generations of our descendants will not wash away the shame of this fratricidal war.” Her protest has now been seen online by over 2.6 million people. Sadly, she has since been arrested and could face up to 15 years in jail.
  • When Sharon Florio wanted to give her community a way to voice their support for Ukraine, she placed a sign, and some chalk outside her storefront, and the community quickly began writing positive messages on the store’s brick wall. Florio said, “I think it’s wonderful. I love seeing parents explain it to their children. It brings an awareness that not everyone’s as comfortable as we are right now.” 
  • Ukraine defied Moscow’s demand that its soldiers lay down its arms in besieged Mariupol. “There can be no question of any surrender,” in Mariupol, responded Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov praised the city’s “heroic defenders,” saying their holdout had helped thwart Russia elsewhere. “By virtue of their dedication and superhuman courage, tens of thousands of lives throughout Ukraine were saved. Today Mariupol is saving Kyiv, Dnipro, and Odesa.”
  • When Russia invaded her home of Ukraine, Maria decided she had to help defend it, even if it meant leaving her fiancé behind in Chicago days after getting married. So she married on Saturday and left Monday morning for Ukraine. “People are running out of there, and she is running in,” said a friend at the wedding. Her American husband intends to follow her as soon as he receives his passport.
  • Once in Romania, many Ukrainian refugees have nowhere to go. So one Romanian family has taken matters into their own hands. They have sent cars to pick up refugees at all hours of the day or night, help them cross the border into Romania, and take them to a summer camp owned by the family. The refugees stay there for a few days, and the family then sends them on to more permanent safe houses. This family has helped over 600 refugees in the past two weeks alone.  
  • Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, in Chicago for a joint speaking engagement, made an impromptu visit to a Ukrainian Catholic church in a Ukrainian neighborhood in the city. In a bipartisan show of unity, and with blue and yellow ribbons on their jacket lapels, they walked side by side to place bouquets of sunflowers, Ukraine’s national flower, at the base of a statue.


President Zelenskyy’s speeches remind me of another excellent wartime speech—this one given by Winston Churchill to Britain’s House of Commons during World War II. The film Darkest Hour[ii]captures it in this scene:

I hope you will join me in supporting the Ukrainians who have been forced from their homes in the only way I can—with my credit card.

I close with two of my favorite quotes that fit these difficult times:

  • Edmund Burke: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
  • William Gladstone: I look forward to the time when the power of love will replace the love of power.

[i] Braveheart:

  • Production Companies: Icon Entertainment International, The Ladd Company, and B.H. Finance C.V.
  • Director: Mel Gibson
  • Screenwriter: Richard Wallace
  • Starring: Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, and Patrick McGoohan
  • Release date: May 24, 1995

[ii] Darkest Hour:

  • Production Companies: Focus Features, Perfect World Pictures, and Working Title Films
  • Director: Joe Wright
  • Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
  • Starring: Gary Oldman. Lily James, and Kristen Scott Thomas
  • Release date: December 22, 2017

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