Oh So Soviet

I grew up believing, and not wrongly, that the Soviets stood...



It is true that the Ghost of Kyiv turned out to be a patrio...



Thomas LeeJun 23, 2022 (0)

The reasons why someone with no ties to a country he likely couldn't place on a map six months before he came to fight for it vary so widely that almost any statement made about him will be equally overbroad. But from a searching of my own reasons, and careful listening to the stories and apologia of others, I have developed what I think is a good and workable taxonomy: rational and irrational. Most of the guys and girls here from Western countries - Canadians, Americans, Brits, the odd Aussie, Kiwi or South African – are almost all veterans of their country's military. Some people come because they are Ukrainian-whatevers, and feel the need to defend their people, even if it is at some remove. Are there some war junkies, people wanted to join the Peshmergas with the Kurds, or whomever they could? There are, but in truth, there are simply some people born for war and not much else, and although in society such people are rare, in a battlespace they are not: it is their natural home.

So, reserve judgment, for even if you have walked in their boots two months' time, you cannot understand the processes unfolding deep inside them. You can listen with empathy to their stories, and you can try to understand, but ultimately other people are an unknowable country, despite how much you might love them or feel close to them. We are all the wardens of our own souls, and try as we might to corral them, they are wild, be they wild up front, or be the wildness hidden in some desperate pocket tucked deep in the guerilla folds, down in the most visceral regions of even the most insurgent heart.

That said, the death of another American and the continued incarceration and death sentences for the two Brits and the Moroccan, and the recent capture of the Marine and the US soldier, and their due process-free death sentences, have brought things home a bit to even the most swaggering of Western soldiers. We have enjoyed somewhat of a special status; speaking English, looking a particular way and holding up a US or Commonwealth passport generally acts as a social anodyne. Case in point – I was driving blissfully down Svobody Prospekt on Sunday, which I now know is closed on the Lord's day. A Ukrainian cop, about 17, looked at me like I had just escaped a mental institution and asked permission to date his sister as he waved me over. I put the window down and was greeted by a blast of Ukrainian.

“Ummm….bud laska (please)” I replied,  and pulled out my passport and the unit patch. Immediately he softened, and he wasn't a hard man to begin with. “You come fight Ukraine for? Throw Russians?”

“Da,” I replied, “yes” and “no” and “coffee” and a few other essentials being in my tiny panoply of Ukrainian words.

He beckoned, hopped back onto his bicycle, and led me out of the area prohibited to cars on weekends.

“You go. Don't gets killed. Ok,” he said, opening the barrier. Any Ukrainian would have been spoken to extremely forcefully…not ticketed, because in a war, small errors are thrust aside. “Putin a d*&^,” he said, and then made a Ukrainian gesture called “the fig.” It is not meant in compliment. As I drove back onto the street that I was allowed to drive on, I saw him say something to an older bike cop, who semi-saluted in the rear mirror.

So back to the place we have gotten for the guys – the lads, more properly, since most are Brits, or Commonwealth soldiers, to take a respite. As I wrote above, everyone has a reason for being here, and although I opened this by saying those reasons were unknowable viscerally, I have heard what people say, and will try to put down the reasons some have, to try to bring to the reader what is meant by our small crusade here. And I do not say that tongue in cheek, for I have begun to believe that Putin is a monster, despite finding him sort of amusing before.

The following were obtained with the permission of the person described, although I have changed their names. Truthfully, most guys go by a nom de guerre anyway, with the best one being Pegleg Actual, who, quite reasonably, has one leg. Despite this handicap, he is out there every day, although remains mounted.

Scouty is an American from Pennsylvania, one of two from the Keystone State, and neither has seen combat before. Scout seems to have reasons which I would consider, from my older and ostensibly wiser perspective, on the border of rational and irrational. He is going home for a bit, and I wish he would remain there; I spoke to him hard about how much life has to offer to a guy who gets up early to work and stays the path, and I think he understood, although he admitted, when I asked, that he didn't have a girl and hadn't known the love of one yet.  He still intends to return. That being said, he might be too broke to come back and has asked me to loan him what he needs for his ticket. I have to speak to the unit commander, a very steady and experienced Brit, before doing that, but it is unlikely. If Scouty returns on my dime and catches a cold from a bullet, or shrapnel, I would not know what to say to his parents, myself, or St. Peter, and almost five decades has given me sufficient to explain. I can't bear the weight of his soul, should it be torn free from his body; it would kill me. It is said at death a body loses six ounces, as perhaps the accumulated emotional and mental cargo remains, but in light or truncated form. Certainly most people, depending on age, have more baggage than that. Even so, those six ounces, if added to my sixteen stone, would drive me to my knees, and they might break…I need them, because the older guys bear the rest on our shoulders, at times.

Philly Dog is the other American from Pennsylvania. His reasons for being here are quite rational, and reflect his thirty-some years to Scouty's twenty. He is a Ukrainian-American, and speaks it fluently, if with the occasional hitch here and there. He has no military experience, but is useful and at the same time accumulating the experience necessary to be a proper soldier. His family is a well-heeled group of professionals from a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia, although for some years he suffered from his internal demons, and spent time in the most louche area of that colonial town, where brotherly love is scarce, if non-existent. He said, in sum, “These are my people. I have cousins in L'viv, in Kyiv, and I am here to help them. I knew with my language skills I could help, and I could get the military training I needed.”  He was right, for with the language, he is essential to practically everything we do.

The last is Tex. Despite the gunslinging name, Tex is a young woman, a former US Army medic, now retired, with a tour of Afghanistan and one in Iraq under her belt. She is a medic, and is prized for that. She has the somewhat cocky bounce of the veteran,  and described how hard it is to find a spurting femoral artery over breakfast. Thinking about it did not help my digestion, for I feel responsible for about thirty femoral arteries. But all of them with the exception of Philly's belong to ex-soldiers or Marines, of the Royal or US variety, and all bear blood that is damnably red. She was married to a now-dead Ukrainian fighter, who did not succumb to the Russians, but to the great Crab cancer. She declined to expostulate, and just said “I have skills they can use.” She is right, for no one is valued more highly than the medic or corpsman.

Ukraine means “borderland,” and has served as that for many years. Many have died here, as it was the route in for those who wanted not only Ukraine's loamy and fertile soil but the access it provides to the Black Sea and then to Mother Russia. Some are heroes to the Ukrainians; some are not, or are no longer, for revisionist history is not the solitary province of Russia. After serving several months, I can say this: I feel responsible for my people and at a remove these people. No one asked me to shoulder this burden; rather, it is simply what my watch provided for. The Ukrainians can help themselves, but the help of Western fighters, particularly in the area of training, our assistance has been invaluable. The notion that anyone from west of the Vistula is here as a mercenary is absurd; the pay is about $70 US a week. Even some Ukrainians, while being grateful think we are nuts. But let me close by saying this: the storm clouds appear to be gathering. The death sentences, if carried out, might find their way into the history books along side of Gavrilo Princip's killing of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Things seem to be set on a hair trigger, and that is palpable here, even if in the west it seems to be at some remove.

We will know soon. Until then, and likely henceforth, I give Mr. Putin the fig. I always wanted to see the Hermitage, and the dock where the battleship Potemkin was moored, to say nothing of Red Square. With the Ukrainian entrance and exit stamps, I think it unlikely. I am ok with that, because I see that for every Tolstoy there are a thousand Butchers of Kandahar.

The fig to you, sir. 

The writer is a former military man, now researching and writing about the Ukrainian Conflict. Questions can be sent directly to


Welcome to the discussion.
0 0 0 0 0