The New York Times recently carried an interesting article entitled, “They Are Russians Fighting Against Their Homeland. Here’s Why.” The article describes a group of Russian citizens who are fighting on the side of Ukraine against Russian soldiers. They concluded that Russia was in the wrong to invade Ukraine and, therefore, decided to fight on the side they believed was in the right. They also oppose the dictatorial regime of Vladimir Putin and believe he should be ousted from power. They have formed a special fighting unit within the Ukrainian army called the Free Russia Legion.
Not surprisingly, the Russian government is not looking kindly on what it considers to be traitors to the homeland. According to the Times’s article, “Last week, the Russian prosecutor general’s office filed a suit with the country’s supreme court to have the Legion declared a terrorist organization.”
No doubt U.S. officials, who are assisting Ukraine in its war against Russia, consider the Russians fighting with Ukraine to be “patriots” for following their consciences and fighting on the side that they believe is in the right.
But there is also no doubt that the U.S. government’s position would be the same as Russia’s position if American citizens did the same thing. In other words, suppose the U.S. started a war with Russia. Suppose that some Americans believed that the U.S. was wrong to initiate the war and decided to join the Russian side. There is no possibility that the Pentagon and the CIA would consider those American citizens to be “patriots.” U.S. officials would be taking the same position as their Russian counterparts. They would be designating their citizens to be terrorists or traitors or both.
In fact, there is also little doubt that U.S. officials would take that position today if any American had the temerity to join the Russian side against Ukraine, notwithstanding the fact that the U.S. is not formally at war against Russia. As soon as that American returned home, he would quickly find himself either in a federal penitentiary or at the U.S. torture/indefinite detention center at Guantanamo, Cuba.
The fact is that when it comes to war, every citizen is expected to fight on the side of his own nation, even when his nation is in the wrong. A citizen is free to conclude that his government is in the wrong, but he is not free to join the side that he believes is in the right. If he does, he will be harshly punished and likely executed when hostilities end.
That, of course, was also the position of the German government during World War II. German citizens were expected to support their regime and its troops, even if they felt that their government was in the wrong. Anyone who got caught even criticizing the regime was punished.
That’s what makes the story of the White Rose so remarkable. I wrote about the White Rose in my 1996 article “The White Rose: A Lesson in Dissent.” I consider it to be one of the most inspiring stories of courage in history. You can also learn about it in the great movie Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.
Hans and Sophie Scholl were brother and sister who were students at the University of Munich during World War II. They were Christians. Concluding that their government was in the wrong, they and a few others began secretly publishing pamphlets called “The White Rose,” which exhorted the German people to rise up against their own regime and oust it from power.
Not surprisingly, the Hitler regime did not look kindly on them. After they were caught, the regime quickly organized a tribunal to determine their guilt. Three days after their arrest, they were executed.
Actually, the United States had an episode similar to that of the Free Russia Legion. Prior to the Mexican War, U.S. officials offered Mexico a sum of money to purchase the northern half of Mexico. Mexico declined the offer. Not willing to give up, President Polk ginned up a war with Mexico, with the aim of taking control over the lands that Mexico had refused to sell.
A group of U.S. soldiers of Irish descent in the U.S. military concluded that their adopted country was in the wrong and that Mexico was in the right. Thus, they decided to switch sides and began fighting on the side of Mexico.
Not surprisingly, U.S. officials reacted in the same way that Russian officials are reacting toward those Russian soldiers fighting on the side of Ukraine. When the U.S. military arrived in Mexico City and won the war, they took those Irish-American soldiers into custody and summarily executed them, without even the semblance of a trial. See my article “Patriotism along the Southern Border, Part 2.” Interestingly, Mexico celebrates the members of the St. Patrick’s Battalion as patriots and heroes.
Also, see my article “Freethinkers in Texas,” which addresses what happened to a group of German-Americans in Texas who decided that the Confederacy was in the wrong and decided to join the Union instead.
When it comes to war, citizens in every country are expected to surrender conscience and support their own regime, right or wrong. Woe to anyone who follows the dictates of his conscience.