Riddle me this. What do Antiochus IV, the Hellenistic Syrian King, England’s King George III, American Presidents Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin all have in common? None of them understood the limits of military power.
Antiochus thought he could change the Jews of Syria into good body-worshiping Greeks. King George expected Americans would remain his loyal subjects just as Lyndon Johnson expected to rapidly pacify what he called the “pissant” country of Vietnam. George W. Bush thought that by expending young lives and dismembering young limbs the overwhelmingly advanced American army could create mini-Western Democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just a few weeks ago, Vladimir Putin expected to quickly unite the Slavic Peoples and Orthodox Church congregations of Ukraine and Russia.
All were wrong. With the most modern weapons and best-equipped militaries of their time, they ultimately failed. It took thousands of bodies multiplied by more thousands of dismembered body parts to prove their folly. To this day, the leaders, at least those who are alive, won’t admit it.
Thomas Jefferson understood it. In his Declaration of Independence, he wrote that “Governments… [derive] their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, self-government is a God-given right which is granted directly to the People. The governmental theory popular from the ancient times of Antiochus until 1776, from the polytheism of Greece to the Christianity of Rome, was that the right to govern was given by the Creator directly to the king. Whether it was given by personal coronation as Jesus granted St. Peter, or indirectly as it was received by Henry VIII, the deity gave the right to govern to the temporal ruler. To disobey a king was to disobey God. Jefferson understood the falsity of that assumption.
At some point, whether in their initial resistance or decades later, the People will rise up and will chant, to paraphrase Patrick Henry. “Give me [self-government] or give me death!” When that happens, no army from the legions assembled by Antiochus to occupy Judea to the Russians and later the Americans assembled to occupy Afghanistan, can remain in control of land they conquered.
The same is true in today’s Ukraine. That government has been criticized as being “corrupt” and even hedonistic. It is even described by a few conservatives as a nation which does not deserve to be saved. While that is a description with which I disagree, it is nonetheless irrelevant. Jefferson wrote that God, by the “Laws of Nature,” gave the People the right to organize their government in a form “most likely to effect (sic) their Safety and Happiness.”
In other words, the people of Vietnam got the government the people wanted and, by their popular uprising, they demanded. The same was true in Afghanistan. Although these were autocracies we cannot politically support, in the view of their people, it was the type of government to which they attach their hopes for “safety and happiness.” Therefore, no army, no matter how powerful, will be able to “pacify” such a nation. They cannot be permanently conquered.
Why must someone always try?
So it is with Ukraine. It is what Putin fails to understand. Conquest ultimately fails. It does not matter whether it is the United States ruling Afghanistan or Russia ruling Ukraine. It can only be a momentary abnormality in the Natural Law that no government can survive without the consent of those placed under its rule.
That is why, no matter the power of his artillery or vacuum bombs, eventually, Putin will lose his war to conquer Ukraine. It is why Antiochus lost his war to turn Judea into Greece. It is why people were falling from helicopters in Saigon and why they dropped from cargo planes in Afghanistan. Too few leaders understand that government, like math, has natural and immutable laws which govern reality. No matter how powerful the conquering military, invasions such as Putin’s in Ukraine will eventually fail. American arms will help, but will, at best, only speed up the process. This is not just a lesson for Russia. It is a lesson for the United States and China too.
Conquest is contrary to natural law. That may ultimately give Taiwan some comfort.
Robert M. Levy is a resident of Southern Pines