They Shall Not Pass

Ukraine most hold before it can told the tide.

During the Battle of Verdun in 1916, about a year and a half after the First World War had seemingly sunk into stalemate, the German Army attempted to overwhelm the French fortifications and break through to Paris. French General Robert Nivelle told his men, “You shall not let them pass.”

Shortened and simplified, the call had become the rallying cry of the French Army by 1918, when the last, massive German offensive of the war attempted to break France and Britain before American support could arrive in sufficient quantities to turn the tide.

“They shall not pass.”

It’s now 2024, about a year and a half after the Ukraine War has appeared to sink into stalemate, and the Russians are attempting to overwhelm the Ukrainian fortifications and break through to Kyiv. American support, this time in the form of artillery ammunition rather than men, has just been signed into law and is now on its way. It will take time for it all to reach and be disseminated across the Ukrainian front lines. The Russian Army knows this and will try to break Ukraine before those supplies arrive in sufficient quantities to potentially turn the tide.

“They shall not pass” will now need to be the rallying cry of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. It’s not romantic. I don’t want to be in those trenches and, as a fellow American, neither should you. Ukrainians have to do it as a matter of duty. It’s a nasty, brutal, horrifying fight, but it’s a nasty, brutal, horrifying future that awaits them if they don’t. If they hold on now, maybe they can come out the other side – like the French during the Great War that did not, in fact, end all wars, but through which France survived as a nation and a republic.

“They shall not pass.”[1]

A French wartime propaganda poster built around the slogan, which you can see in the background – “On ne passe pas 1914…1918.” Credit: Library of Congress.

[1] (For all of you Lord of the Rings nerds out there, this is where the line “You shall not pass!” comes from. Tolkien, who served on the Western Front, was undoubtedly familiar with the French slogan.)

Russians Have a Choice, Too

Today you are your brother’s keeper.


Then the Lord asked Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

He answered, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

God then said: “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!”

—Genesis 4:9-10

The war is in its second week. Ukraine’s cities suffer. Missiles launched from Russia and Belarus strike them. Cars, tanks, and trucks burn in their streets. Children cry. The toll rises.

For every Ukrainian soldier, civilian, and child who perishes under bombardment, for every Russian conscript who is killed in battle, today Putin and his lackey Lukashenko are responsible.

My friends, the people of Russia and Belarus, you say Ukrainians are your brothers. Be it so; for today you are your brother’s keeper. Only you can stop your tyrants from killing him. And if you cannot stop them, then nonetheless in valiantly attempting, in the streets of Moscow and Minsk, St. Petersburg and Kazan, Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk, and cities across Belarus and Russia, you can share in the glory of the heroes, the free people of Ukraine.

But with every day that you do not, the responsibility for your brother’s murder steadily becomes yours. And his blood will cry out from the ground to you.

Cain and Abel, by Titian c. 1542.

Only Ukraine Can Choose Its Future

Moscow cannot stop it from doing so.

“Nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which tamely surrendered were finished.” —Winston Churchill to Lord Halifax in a Cabinet meeting, May 28, 1940.

The time has come. Russian tanks are again moving into Ukraine, preceded by Russian bombs and rockets. It is unclear how far they will go, but there is no indication that they mean to stop until they have subjugated the Ukrainian nation and bent it to Moscow’s will.

In November 1939, a similar scene played out seven hundred miles to the north. After making a series of preposterous demands, the Soviet Union invaded Finland, a small country that had then been only twenty-two years independent from the Russian Empire. It had no history of independent political existence before 1917, but by 1939 it had long since begun to conceive of itself as a nation—a European nation, attached to the Western tradition of liberty. It had walked the path of freedom and was not willing to turn back.

So Finland fought heroically and suffered terribly. But Russia suffered, too. After three months of bloodshed, the Soviet Union offered peace. It took wide swathes of border territory, never to be returned. But Moscow accepted Finland’s nationhood and has not made an attempt on it again.[1]

Ukraine cannot stop Russia at the border; it lacks the might. So its people will have to choose: they can submit and have peace now, as a Russian vassal, or they can fight on at a terrible cost to preserve their nationhood and liberty.

It is not so easy a choice as it may seem to those of us in these United States today. If Ukraine chooses to fight on, it will cost many thousands of lives. Many Ukrainian soldiers will not live to see their children grow; many Ukrainian children will not see their fathers or mothers return home. Many Ukrainian civilians will be killed in the crossfire of war, and some imprisoned, murdered, assaulted, or tortured in retaliation for their defiance of Russian rule. The outcome of the contest will not be certain. And the free and independent Ukrainian nation that eventually emerges may stand amidst rubble and be shorn of much of its former territory. Ukraine alone can decide if such a sacrifice is worth the end it may achieve.

But if Ukraine chooses to fight, the United States ought unreservedly to support it. We ought to supply arms, ammunition, supplies, and information, without quibble as to whether those are lethal or non-lethal, or offensive or defensive in nature.[2] If our own forces cannot extend their shield to Ukraine as the guardians of the free world—and, yes, there are compelling practical reasons for them not to do so at present—then our Republic ought instead to fill free Ukraine’s armories as the arsenal of democracy. Moscow cannot stop us from doing so.

The nations of Europe, for their part, ought to provide sanctuary to those Ukrainians fighting for liberty and open their borders to the movement of men and materiel. Moscow cannot stop them from doing so. And perhaps now, eight decades after Russia’s assault on its freedom, Finland ought to consider joining NATO. Moscow cannot stop it from doing so.

A map of Eastern Europe.

[1] Fifteen months after the end of the 1939-1940 Winter War, Finland made an ill-judged deal with the devil and entered World War II on the side of Nazi Germany in an attempt to reclaim its lost territory. It was fortunate to extricate itself in 1944 without losing its hard-won independence. Ukraine is fortunate that no such temptation exists at present.

[2] Except for weapons of mass destruction which our Republic is prohibited by treaty from spreading.

The Fall of Kabul is a National Shame

For nations to preserve their sense of honor, they must not ignore their sense of shame.

“I will, therefore, begin by saying the most unpopular and most unwelcome thing. I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget but which must nevertheless be stated, namely, that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat…”

“All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness. She has suffered in every respect by her association with the Western democracies and with the League of Nations, of which she has always been an obedient servant.”

“…the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies: ‘Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.’” —Winston Churchill, in a speech to the House of Commons on October 5th, 1938.

The counterpart to honor is shame.[1] When a person who believes in honor does not act honorably, he or she must feel shame. And, as no honorable person is infallible, the only people who feel no shame are those who have no honor. So, too, is it with nations.

The Afghanistan War was an honorable endeavor, begun in response to an attack on these United States by a band of brutal zealots given aid and comfort by the Taliban. During the course of the war, the United States and its allies in NATO gave to the freedom-seeking class of Afghans an implicit—and, at times, explicit—assurance that they would not be delivered once more to the very same oppressors that our might had freed them from.

President Biden withdrew that assurance in April this year.[2] Within four months, the people of Afghanistan have once again been enslaved by the Taliban. Those men remain as totalitarian in their beliefs and barbaric in their deeds as they were two decades past; any restraint that they may display while consolidating their power is merely a temporary expedient in service of their self-interest, and cannot be presumed to last.

The manner in which this war has ended, therefore—whatever may be said of the calculations of interests and capabilities behind the decision to retreat from Afghanistan, with which I disagreed, or of the miscalculations about the speed and totality of the subsequent collapse, which I shared—is nothing but dishonorable.

If we are to restore our honor in the future, then we must now feel shame.

As the first step to restoring that honor, our shame ought to motivate us to give safe haven to all the Afghans who now crowd the Kabul airport, or who wait in neighboring countries, having been forced to flee upon pain of death or persecution because they believed in liberty for their homeland. We ought to welcome them as Americans and let them share in liberty as Americans.

It is difficult to write this, because I feel not only shame, but regret. I served in the U.S. Army, but not in Afghanistan—despite having dedicated much time as a cadet to learning its history and language in anticipation of doing so.[3] I could not have altered the war’s outcome, but I regret that I did not share personally in bearing its costs. Those who bore the battle should take solace at this moment in the fact that they did what was in their power to do.

Mr. Biden may not regret his decision, and perhaps he need not, if he truly believes it to have been unavoidable for the well-being of our Republic. But if he is an honorable man, as I believe him to be, he ought to feel shame for it nonetheless.

I love my country. It is built on noble principles, and it will find its way back to honor; I am not ashamed of it. But today, I bear shame with it.

[1] For an excellent, concise examination of the concept and history of honor and its relationship to shame, I recommend What Is Honor? And How to Revive It by Brett H. McKay, the founder and editor-in-chief of The Art of Manliness (AOM), an equally excellent blog. The work is available as an ebook and also as a series of articles on the AOM site.

[2] It is true that this assurance had been all but withdrawn by his predecessor. Yet it is Mr. Biden who made the final decision, and it is thus with Mr. Biden that final responsibility lies.

[3] This was partly an accident of timing and placement: I entered active duty after the “Afghan surge” of 2009-2012 had run its course and while the U.S. presence there was in the process of being substantially reduced. Consequently, my unit was not deployed. Yet it was also a byproduct of personal choice: I left the Army shortly after completing my obligated service. Had I remained an active-duty officer, I may have eventually been deployed there with another unit.