Two sides to every war

SOME YEARS AGO, I was on a business trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina. On the way from the airport to my hotel, I asked the driver to show me around a bit, which he readily obliged. It was early January, which is the start of summer down under. The narrow streets were shaded by poplars and flowering jacarandas. The European architecture could easily have been mistaken for a city on the other side of the pond.

At one point, we stopped at a memorial.

“Para la guerra,” he said. My Spanish was limited, but I figured it out.

“Falklands War?” I inquired.

Monument honoring the Argentinian soldiers who fought and died in “La Guerra de Las Malvinas,” otherwise known as the Falklands War in 1982.

“AquĆ­ decimos Malvinas,” he said, with perhaps a slight tinge of reprobation. And to ensure I got the message, he repeated in halting English: “Here, we say, ‘Malvinas War.” I guessed he had made this correction to other English-speaking visitors in the past. Whatever title is used, the fact remains that the military conflict between the United Kingdom and Argentina lasted 74 days and cost 649 lives and wounded another 1,657, all in a contest over the very remote, sparsely populated, wind-swept chunks of land known as South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, located a mere 752 mi (1,210 km) from the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Newspaper clipping from a full page of coverage in The Gazette, Montreal, Canada, 29 May 1982.

“Of course,” I said, shaking my head in the affirmative to underscore that I got the point.

As I stood looking at the monument that day, it brought back memories of my career in journalism. At the time of the war in 1982, I held a position known as a “wire editor” at a tiny daily newspaper in Alameda, CA, just across the bay from San Francisco. A wire editor’s job is to monitor incoming posts from syndicated news agencies such as Reuters, Associated Press, and others and then edit those stories to fit the news space allocated by the newspaper.

What I recall clearly during that conflict was that those news agencies, which were all English-speaking, held a very pro-British narrative.

But one life to live

A statue of Nathan Hale.

AND THEN, JUST a few weeks ago, I was browsing through old newspaper articles. I mean very old, from 1776, a pivotal year in the history of the United States. My eye caught a one-paragraph missive that referred to Nathan Hale, who every American child learns to idolize as a patriot of the Revolutionary War.

Nathan is right up there as an icon alongside Paul Revere and George Washington.

As the story goes, young Nathan, all of 21 years old, volunteered to spy on the British in their camp in New York during the conflict. On Sept. 22, 1776, he was caught, tried, and sentenced to be hanged.

His final words, so often repeated, were: “I regret that I have but one life to live for my country.”

(Many historians have doubted the veracity of this quote, but to this day the sentence persists.)

The British had a different opinion of the hanging and made that quite clear in a letter datelined the day after Hale’s hanging and published two months to the day after the execution. (Mail was a little slow in those days.) In the Derby Mercury, from Derbyshire, England, the writer pronounced that: “Yesterday, we hanged a Colonel of the Provincials, who came as a Spy. Our Army is in good spirits, very healthful, and long to attack the Rebels …”

The letter goes on to optimistically predict the defeat of the “Rebels” within the year. And we know, of course, how that turned out.

TODAY MARKS the one-year anniversary of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, who as a KGB foot soldier had a front-row seat to the collapse of the Soviet Union, has offered a considerable amount of rhetoric to justify his actions, which, is obviously to put the USSR back together again.

University of Rochester illustration / Michael Osadciw

But I think the words of war correspondent and political analyst tells it best. In his prescient 2015 book, Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World, Tim Marshall postulates that Russia, the largest country in the world, spanning 11 times zones and covering six million square miles, is, ironically, at a disadvantage because of its terrain.

From the north, facing the wide expanses of frozen tundra that give way to the Arctic Ocean, it has little to worry about. The Ural Mountains protect the European portion of Russia, especially Moscow, from any incursion from the east.

But Russia has been invaded many times in the past five hundred years. And nowhere is it more vulnerable, according to Marshall, than in the flat grassy plains that give way to the Ukraine, which, in Putin’s mind, is the gateway to the decadent West.

“Vladimir Putin says he is a religious man, a great supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church. If so, he may well go to bed each night, say his prayers, and ask God: “Why didn’t you put some mountains in the Ukraine.”

Author Tim Marshall

After one year, it’s clear the war is not going as planned for Putin. He did not anticipate such a fierce, consolidated, purposeful resistance from the Ukrainian people. And he was counting on NATO and especially the United States, providing little assistance.

How it all ends up, I do not know. But his dream of putting the USSR back together seems to be fading day by day.