The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump is wrong about war. Russia’s failure in Ukraine shows why.

The remains of a missile are seen near a railway station in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, on April 8. (Handout obtained by Reuters)
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Right-wingers have long claimed that the U.S. military should not be hobbled by humanitarian considerations or even the laws of war. During the Vietnam War, when U.S. aircraft dropped more bombs than during World War II, many conservatives fumed that we were fighting with one hand tied behind our backs. “Bomb them back into the Stone Age,” Gen. Curtis LeMay demanded. Most of the public supported 2nd Lt. William L. Calley, the only perpetrator of the infamous My Lai massacre (when U.S. troops killed more than 500 civilians) to be convicted by a court-martial. He served only three years of house arrest.

More recently, former president Donald Trump has been an enthusiastic advocate for war crimes: He endorsed torture, vowed to “bomb the s--- out” of terrorists, suggested killing terrorists’ families and said that the United States should steal Iraq’s oil. Trump did not order the U.S. military to carry out war crimes — the military would never have done so — but he did pardon members of the military accused of war crimes. Since Trump left office, Republicans have been loudly complaining that the U.S. military has become so “woke” that it can’t win wars.

By right-wing lights, Russia should have the world’s greatest army. The Russian military, after all, is as illiberal, or “un-woke,” as it is possible to get.

In Ukraine, the Russian military is deliberately targeting civilians with artillery, air and missile strikes and summary execution, torture and rape. The Russian strategy is to raze any towns that refuse to surrender. When the Russians take over towns, they launch a reign of terror. My Post colleagues report that investigators in Bucha have “uncovered evidence of torture before death, beheading and dismemberment, and the intentional burning of corpses.”

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The Russian soldiers are even following Trump’s advice to make war pay for itself. They have not been taking Ukraine’s oil because it’s still underground, but they have been avidly looting anything they can get their hands on, from washing machines to flat-screen TVs. Naturally, they have been helping themselves to whatever liquor they find.

The Russian high command has as little regard for its own soldiers as it does for civilians who are in their path. Rest assured, Republicans, there is no “diversity training” in the Russian ranks. There is, instead, brutal hazing of conscripts that includes “robbery, torture, and sexual assault.” In 2019, a Russian private was so badly abused that he snapped and killed eight fellow soldiers. The Russian army also deals with simmering tensions between ethnic Russians and other ethnic groups, particularly from the Caucasus, who form gangs that prey on fellow service members.

Yet, despite the Russian army’s lack of wokeness and its proclivity for war crimes, it is not, in fact, a capable military force. Although Russia has a much larger and better-funded military than Ukraine, its combat performance has been abysmal. The war is not yet over, but, as the Associated Press noted, “Russia’s failure to take Kyiv was a defeat for the ages.”

How do you explain this, Republicans?

There are many reasons the Russians are losing this war — in particular the valor and skill of their Ukrainian adversaries — but I would argue that a big part of the explanation is the Russians’ very lack of “wokeness,” meaning their disdain for civilized norms of behavior.

The brutalization of Russian soldiers, combined with the corruption of their officers, detracts from unit cohesion and therefore from combat performance. No doubt the abuse inflicted on Russian soldiers by their comrades makes them more willing to abuse civilians, but this, too, undercuts the professionalism of the Russian military.

Investigators exhumed 21 of at least 67 bodies suspected to be lying in a mass grave in Bucha, Ukraine, April 8. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

Soldiers engaged in rape, looting and murder are distracted from their primary task, which is to close with, and destroy, the armed forces of the enemy. There is a reason Viking-style marauders gave way long ago to professional, disciplined armies obedient to the chain of command and bound by the laws of wars. It’s not just because disciplined armies are more humane; it’s also because they are more militarily effective.

Professional armed forces, such as the U.S. military, occasionally commit abuses, but they try to limit “collateral damage” to the extent possible not just because that is what international law demands but also because that is what military success requires. The Russians in Ukraine are learning what the Soviets learned in Afghanistan and the Nazis in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union: Indiscriminate violence simply generates more domestic and international opposition, thereby creating more enemies than you eliminate.

There are only a few examples in the modern era when a “scorched earth” strategy worked — and that was when the invaders had overwhelming numerical superiority and could cut off the defenders from outside support. Those conditions applied in Chechnya but not in Ukraine — or even in Syria. The Assad regime, after all, still hasn’t been able to snuff out a rebellion seven years after Russia’s intervention.

So spare me the caterwauling about the “woke” U.S. military. The U.S. military’s “wokeness” — its commitment to the humane treatment of soldiers and civilians alike — is actually a major source of strength.