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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

PARSING JUDGEMENT #1: STORMTROOPERS IN UKRAINE

Yes, this really does involve Stormtroopers, but not quite yet. When I started this blog, one of my (many) ideas for content was to analyse arguments in the media, and there have been some good newspaper opinion columns I've wanted to break down over recent months, but I've not got round to starting my planned occasional series until now.


I read this entertaining essay on the Russo-Ukrainian war in UnHerd: 'Stormtrooper Syndrome has seduced the West' by John Michael Greer. The author bio tells me that he was previously the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America. My first thought, and likely yours too, is why on earth this person is qualified to provide commentary on the war. But religious leaders are given media space to pontificate on war and peace, good and evil, and I suppose the druids' erstwhile chief representative in America should be afforded a platform as much as the leaders of the major religions. He happens to mention along the way that he's a 'fringe intellectual'; it takes some chutzpah and ego, methinks, to label yourself an intellectual, but I sort of admire the combination of confidence and self-awareness in identifying as a 'fringe' intellectual.


Greer makes two broad arguments. His first argument is that western states backing Ukraine have succumbed to what he calls 'Stormtrooper Syndrome' -- 'the conviction that no matter what, you'll inevitably win [i.e. Ukraine will win] because you think you're morally superior to your enemies.' His second argument is that sufferers of the syndrome believe the reason the good guys win is because of a sudden and improbable turn of events; what he calls, after J. R. R. Tolkein, a 'eucatastrophe': but, he avers, there has been no eucatastrophe to rescue Ukraine. Greers asserts that Ukraine's counteroffensive has failed, and events are shifting in Russia's favour. He concedes, appropriately, that fortunes may yet change in the Ukrainians' favour, though he clearly sees that as unlikely.


The first argument has some merit. He is surely right about the moral posturing of western societies and culture to some extent -- one needn't look too far into western states' foreign policies to find attitudes uncritically thinking 'we know best' -- although one might equally point out that Russians have succumbed to the very same syndrome (we could begin with the tradition of proclaiming Moscow as 'the third Rome' or Putin's evident conviction in Russia's moral superiority over a depraved west). On the other hand, it is not hard to find western politicians saying that more support to Ukraine is necessary. In other words, many western politicians implicitly recognise that there is nothing inevitable about the outcome and one cannot assume the good guys always triumph. Still, I don't think Greer's first argument is a terrible one. Everything really rests on the second argument, then.


He maintains that Russia's 24 February invasion plans were thwarted by not taking account of a 'massive shift in military affairs that was then underway'. This massive shift seems to boil down to a description of classic insurgency tactics, hardly new, including the use of sabotage against Russia's 'complex technologies'. In response, Russia, according to Greer, changed its approach and reverted to an 'older form of warfare' that was not susceptible to such sabotage. In this situation, he maintains, the side with more recruits and more guns likely wins. He is ostensibly right that Russia's latent capability in both manpower and weaponry is superior to Ukraine's (this is not the place to mention all the caveats). But he overstates the significance of the support to Russia from North Korea, and understates the support to Ukraine from its western backers.


More seriously, the riffing on eucatastrophe is problematic. Greer says that the eucatastrophe didn't appear to save the counteroffensive, but this is like calling the outcome of a football match after 45 minutes (not to mention that the championship is decided by more than one match). There is little to suggest the war is nearing its end and the eucatastrophe could come at any moment. A sudden turn of events won't be signalled in advance, since that would seem to contradict its 'improbability' and, thus, contradict the fundamental definition of the concept Greer relies on. The concept is therefore 'jazz' (noun. nonsense) in respect of the war: under scrutiny it leaves the reader with a cacophony in place of music.


And yet on his final point, if I am reading it correctly (and I may not be), he is right: he concludes that the idea that 'nobody and nothing else is required to play along' risks becoming a fatal mistake. Indeed, and it might turn Greer's argument into a self-fulfilling prophesy. Although it is almost certainly not Greer's intention, one could read his article as a call for western states to give greater and more direct support to Ukraine because no one can rely on events suddenly turning the way they wish of their own accord.


It is not his intention because the analogy forces a connection between Ukraine's supporters and the Stormtroopers fighting in the war. The Stormtroopers, Greer tells us, 'aren't there to do anything useful' in the film; they exist only to make the heroes' victory look more convincing. Greer tells us that we 'emphatically' do not need to label who is good and who is evil -- and yet, in the Star Wars franchise, the Stormtroopers aren't agents of the good guys.


There are factual mistakes in the essay. We all make those (I certainly do) and it's unfortunate that fact-checking is no longer a standard feature of the publication process in most media. Greer gets a bit muddled by equating corporate activism and sanctions, he is wrong to claim that forty African leaders gathered in St Petersburg recently (it was seventeen), and it would be nice to have some evidence in support of his claim that there is a consensus among Russians in support of conscription (which I rather doubt, the partial mobilisation last year prompted an exodus of young men from Russia). Less forgiving readers will take issue with reference to the '2014 coup' in Ukraine.


I think that it's enriching to read opinions out of left field, especially ones that make me step back and think. Greer's essay certainly did that. It is ambitious, in its way: creative and imaginative. It's also a little bit bonkers.


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