Beyond the Myth of David and Goliath: How We Can All Support Ukraine in Bringing About Lasting Peace

The Western media offers a story that the invasion of Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir Putin is a battle between David and Goliath, which I think is partially true, but mostly false. It is accurate that the two main characters in this drama, Presidents Putin and Zellensky, are male and when a male is threatened by another male he wants to show his strength and get the other male to back down.

            But this is not a David and Goliath battle where, as the story goes, David hurls a stone from his sling and hits Goliath in the center of his forehead and Goliath falls on his face. David then, cuts off his head, and the Israelites drive the Philistines out of their country.

In real life Ukraine, only one man is putting his life on the line to defend his country and that man is Volodymyr Zelensky. President Putin remains safe in Moscow, while sending young, Russian soldiers to fight his battle. Internationally acclaimed historian, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, describes Vladimir Putin and men like him in her book, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.

“Ours is the age of the authoritarian rulers,”

says Ben-Ghiat.

“They are self-proclaimed saviors of the nation who evade accountability while robbing their people of truth, treasure, and the protections of democracy.”

            In her book she describes seventeen authoritarian Strongmen including Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin.

“They all promise law and order,”

she says,

“then legitimize lawbreaking by financial, sexual, and other predators. They use masculinity as a symbol of strength and a political weapon. Taking what you want, and getting away with it, becomes proof of male authority.”

            The David and Goliath myth is one that ultimately relies on violence between opposing males. Clearly an armed attack by soldiers is being met by an armed response, but there is a different reality being played out in Ukraine that offers potential for peace that is different from the male-to-male confrontation of the David and Goliath myth.

            On February 26, 2022, two days after Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops into Ukraine, Ben-Ghiat wrote an opinion piece for MSNBC titled, “Putin Thinks He’s the Hero of Russia’s story. He Couldn’t Be More Wrong.” In the article she says,

“If the history of strongmen is any indication, it may be downhill for the Russian leader from here. Exerting this kind of power can lead an autocrat like Vladimir Putin to believe his own propaganda and act on his worst impulses.”

            The news headlines focus mostly on the violent destruction by Putin’s aggression and the valiant defense of male soldiers defending their homeland. It also shows the millions of female refuges fleeing Ukraine with their children. It fails to show the women who have chosen to stay and fight and the men who might choose to leave if there wasn’t a law that prevents males between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country.

            But what is totally neglected in the David and Goliath reporting is the substantial reality of non-violent responses to the aggression demonstrated by men and women in Ukraine. Shortly after the invasion by Russian soldiers who told residents they were on a training exercise, one of those residents, an older woman in a white hat and puffy black jacket, walked up to a number of Russian soldiers carrying AK-74Ms.

“Take these seeds and put them in your pockets,”

she said,

“so at least sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here.”

            The video was viewed more than 8.5 million times on the Twitter account of the tiny Ukrainian news service that first posted it. Aggressors like Putin imagine their armies in heroic battles against other men encased in armor, not little old ladies in puffy black jackets wielding seeds or men facing down tanks.

            Advocates of pacifism and nonviolence are often ridiculed as naïve, as dangerous, or even as unpatriotic cowards. That is certainly how many of those who want to arm the David’s of the world to defeat the Goliath’s might view non-violent resistance in Ukraine. Clearly, there are times when a violent response is necessary. Few men or women would stand by and watch loved ones murdered if they had a gun to protect those they love. But violence usually begets more violence. An isolated, fearful, despot like Vladimir Putin might well decide kill and be killed, and take a lot of people in the world with him, rather than face the shame of backing down.

            In fifty-plus years as a psychotherapist I have worked with many angry, depressed, and violent men who feel others have disrespected and shamed them. I know that painting such men into a corner with no way to escape other than killing themselves and others, is a danger to be avoided at all costs. Non-violent action may ultimately contribute to a real path to peace where everyone’s needs are heard and supported.

            My colleague and fellow writer, Ed Frauenheim, recently wrote an article, “What Would Gandhi Do in Ukraine?” He quotes Gandhi who said,

“Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.”

            In George Lakey’s recent article, “The Dangerous Assumption That Violence Keeps Us Safe,” he says,

“A romanticized belief in violence renders people irrational to the point of hurting ourselves, over and over again.”

He goes on to say,

“One of the most popular — and dangerous — assumptions in the world is that violence keeps us safe. I live in the United States, a country where the more guns we have, the less safe we are. That helps me to notice irrational assumptions that prevent creative thought.”

            People like Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa,  and millions of lesser-known men and women throughout history have shown that non-violent responses can not only be courageous and just, but can also be effective in stopping aggression.

            The Ukrainian people have had to face Putin’s aggression before and have prepared for it. In 2015, the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) conducted a representative national survey that for the first time ever assessed Ukrainians’ preferences for resistance in case of a foreign armed invasion and occupation of their country. The survey showed that the most popular choice of resistance among Ukrainians was to join nonviolent resistance: 29% supported this choice of action in case of foreign armed aggression. In contrast, armed resistance was supported by 24%. Clearly both kinds of resistance are going on now. Finding peace may well depend on how these two strategies play out.

            In order to find a peaceful solution we need a more nuanced understanding of what causes men like Vladimir Putin to go to war that goes beyond the simple David and Goliath narrative. Females often offer a perspective that is lacking when males face off against each other. The comedian, Elayne Boosler, offered a humorous and insightful perspective when she said,

“When women get depressed, they eat or go shopping. Men invade another country. It’s a whole different way of thinking.”

            Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s book Strongmen offers important insights. Another woman, Rebecca Costa, author of The Watchman’s Rattle, reminds us of a larger historical perspective that can help us understand Putin’s fears and concerns.

            In a recent discussion on The Costa Report she noted,

“It is an undeniable fact that Russia has been invaded by Europe twice in two centuries, once by Napoleon and later by Hitler. Following the second attack in World War II, Russia vowed to maintain a buffer between Europe and themselves. But at the end of the Cold War Gorbachev allowed Russian controlled buffer zones to become sovereign states. There was an understanding that the West would not push into the sovereign states. But this didn’t stay true for long. As Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic joined NATO, followed by Bulgaria, Slovakia, Croatia and the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, that share borders with Russia. The more NATO moved eastward, the more threatened Putin became, until all that was left as a buffer was Belarus, Chrimea and Ukraine.”

“It’s not difficult to see why the invasion of Ukraine is being compared to the Cuban Missile Crisis that threatened the United States,”

Costa concluded,

“Cuba was a sovereign country but we were fully prepared to enter it to take out Soviet missiles pointed at our country.”

            These are different times and the world faces different challenges. Thinking beyond the binary of David and Goliath will challenge us all to listen deeply to those who may have different views than our own, to support people all over the world who want peace and freedom, and to find a way to show that human beings are a species worthy of millions more years of evolutionary life on planet Earth. Vladimir Putin must be stopped, but we have to find creative ways to think outside the restrictive box that the David and Goliath myth forces us into.

            Timothy Snyder is professor of history at Yale University and the author of numerous books including On Tyranny: Lessons from the 20th Century. He is also an expert in Russian and Ukrainian studies. In the book he says,

“The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

            In Ukraine, we see tyranny in action and we wonder what we can do to help keep the Ukrainian people alive and their country free. In a recent article, “Helping Ukrainians Directly,” he offers ways everyone can help protect life and bring about peace. We can also remember that being with them means sharing some of the burden of war until peace prevails.

            I look forward to your responses and comments. You can learn more about my work at MenAlive and our “Moonshot Mission for Mankind and Humanity.”  

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