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The Washington Post recently reported that more than 180,000 Russians have fled their country during the past week to avoid military conscription into Russia’s war in Ukraine.
That huge number represents an artificially low estimate – the Post report indicated the full tally will likely go much higher. Russian men who have the ability to leave their country, voting with their feet for peace, have delivered a clear verdict: we will not fight your war. Instead, we will walk away from war, leave behind our nationality, our homes, and our jobs for the sake of peace. Airlines flying out of Russia are all filled to capacity, and outbound border checkpoints have traffic jams so long they’re visible from space.
These many men, young and old, are not cowards – far from it. Instead, they see little cause or reason to fight such a futile, unnecessary war. They have no desire to kill their fellow human beings. Because they have courageously upended their entire lives, along with their careers and families, to obey the basic commandments of religion and refrain from killing others, we should see them as true heroes.
Try to imagine what that decision must be like personally, and how hard it is to make. Then contemplate, just for a moment, what you would do if faced with the same stark choice: upend your entire life by leaving your country immediately and maybe permanently, or take part in a war you do not support or believe in – and either kill or die in that war.
If we Westerners are tempted to feel morally superior at this juncture, we should remember that this sudden massive Russian exodus mirrors a comparable time in the United States five decades ago, when tens of thousands of American men fled their country, going to Canada or Sweden or even to prison in order to avoid being drafted into the senseless meat grinder called the Vietnam War.
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Like Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, Vietnam was never officially declared a war by the United States, and was instead described as a “police action” or a “conflict,” even though it killed more than a million people. No matter what politicians call a war, in combat, whether soldier or civilian, dead is dead.
Like Russia’s aggressive invasion of Ukraine and its support for forcibly-imposed governments in hastily-colonized parts of that sovereign nation, the United States aggressively invaded Vietnam without provocation, and then supported coups and unelected governments in the southern part of that country.
Like the Russian war in Ukraine, which has so far generated an estimated 70,000 casualties on both sides, America’s war in Vietnam produced a brutal death toll that far exceeded the total casualties of every American military campaign fought since then.
Like Russia’s “partial military mobilization” to involuntarily draft 300,000 of its citizens, forced military conscription in the United States during the 1960s and early 1970s created an enormous mobilization of men – either into the armed forces or across national borders to exit their country and seek asylum elsewhere.
Like the American justification for the Vietnam War – “to stop communism” – the Russian justification for the Ukraine War – “to stop Nazism” – rings equally hollow.
These ill-conceived, illegal, unjust, and senseless wars – America’s first battlefield loss, and now perhaps an impending loss for Russia, too – have remarkable parallels. In both wars, a major military power invades and attempts to impose its will on a sovereign nation – but that nation resists mightily, and brutal war results.
We can glean three major geopolitical imperatives and larger lessons, all of them originally put forth by the Baha’i teachings, from those dire historic parallels:
1. The world must collectively act to put an end to wars of national aggression,
2. The only effective way to end wars of national aggression is an international system of governance, and
3. Soldiers must have a voice in any decision to go to war.
Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, in his messages to the kings and rulers of the world’s major nations and religions in the mid-1800s, commanded the planet’s leaders to cease their aggressive warfare. That primary principle of the Baha’i revelation – the establishment of lasting universal peace – remains the central goal of the world’s Baha’is. In his final book, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Baha’u’llah proclaimed that a lasting global peace between the world’s countries:
… is the greatest means for insuring the tranquillity of the nations. It is incumbent upon the Sovereigns of the world – may God assist them – unitedly to hold fast unto this Peace, which is the chief instrument for the protection of all mankind. … They must put away the weapons of war, and turn to the instruments of universal reconstruction. Should one king rise up against another, all the other kings must arise to deter him. Arms and armaments will, then, be no more needed beyond that which is necessary to insure the internal security of their respective countries. If they attain unto this all-surpassing blessing, the people of each nation will pursue, with tranquillity and contentment, their own occupations, and the groanings and lamentations of most men would be silenced.
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Baha’u’llah also taught that the world imperatively needs to develop a system of global governance and collective security devoted to international peace:
The time must come when the imperative necessity for the holding of a vast, an all-embracing assemblage of men will be universally realized. The rulers and kings of the earth must needs attend it, and, participating in its deliberations, must consider such ways and means as will lay the foundations of the world’s Great Peace amongst men. Such a peace demandeth that the Great Powers should resolve, for the sake of the tranquillity of the peoples of the earth, to be fully reconciled among themselves. Should any king take up arms against another, all should unitedly arise and prevent him. … This will ensure the peace and composure of every people, government and nation.
Then, before World War I broke out, Abdu’l-Baha, the son and successor of Baha’u’llah, advised that the foot soldiers themselves, the individuals who actually do the fighting in nationalistic wars, need to have a deciding voice. He said that no army should ever enter any war without the consent of those who fight it. When asked in 1914, just before World War I began, “How can universal peace be realized?” Abdu’l-Baha answered with three specific recommendations:
The ideals of peace must be nurtured and spread amongst the inhabitants of the world; they must be instructed in the school of peace, so that they may fully comprehend the benefits of peace and the evils of war. First: the financiers and bankers must desist from lending money to any government that contemplates waging an unjust war upon an innocent nation. Second: the presidents and managers of the railroad and steamship companies must refrain from transporting war munitions, infernal engines and guns and cannons and powder from one country into another. Third: the soldiers must petition through their representatives, the ministers of war, the politicians, the congressmen and the generals to put forth in a clear, intelligible language the reasons and the causes which have brought them to the brink of such a national calamity. The soldiers must demand this as one of their prerogatives. “Demonstrate to us,” they must say, “that this is a just war and we will then enter the battlefield; otherwise we will not take one step.” …
In short, every means which produces war must be checked and the causes which prevent the occurrence of war be advanced, so that physical conflict may become an impossibility. On the other hand every country must be properly delimited, its exact frontiers marked, its national integrity secured, its permanent independence protected, and its vital interests honoured by the family of nations. These services ought to be rendered by an imperial, international commission. In this manner all causes of friction and differences will be removed.
When we consider these beautiful and achievable Baha’i principles for universal peace, we also need to squarely face a frightening fact: we now live in a military tinderbox, in a world armed with thousands of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons capable of creating mass destruction and wholesale death on an unprecedented scale.
Experts agree that wars of national aggression – in which one country invades another country, for whatever trumped-up reason – are the most likely triggers for the supposedly “unthinkable” use of those apocalyptic weapons. So when a nation attacks another nation, humanity risks everything. When the world permits the proliferation of such genocidal weapons, and then allows tyrants, authoritarians, and dictators to invade and declare war on others at a whim, we walk right up to brink of our own annihilation and delve into the devastation and death of total war.
Isn’t it time for all of us to walk away from that possibility? If war were a country, wouldn’t we all want to leave?
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