Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine just over a month ago. As his bombers took flight, the despot attempted to justify the mass murder that was about to take place. In his speech, Putin claimed that Ukraine was ruled by narcotic-addicted Nazis and that his campaign would be one of liberation. A separate speech, given a few days earlier, featured the equally absurd argument that Ukraine had no right to exist as a sovereign nation.
Then, his rhetoric was eliminationist. Now, his brutal strikes on civilian targets aim to turn the rhetoric into reality. The Russian military recently struck a theater that was being used as bomb shelter. The word “children” was written in Russian next to the structure but the bombers didn’t seem to care. Endless horror stories can be desensitizing so, in order to understand exactly what is happening, we should hone in on individuals.
Serhiy Perebyinis lost his wife and both of his children to Russian shelling. They were murdered for no reason other than delusions of one man that spurred him to invade their country. The photo of their bodies has spread widely online. One struggles to imagine how Serhiy will cope with the monumental loss or how intense his contempt for the aggressor (and for those who have failed to stop him) must be.
The day after the invasion, I saw that a friend and fellow Princeton student tweeted, “i miss the era when elite white male university students would form special expat brigades to fight in european wars[.]”
He was being facetious, but I think he was also getting at something true. The Princeton of past generations was worse than today’s Princeton in myriad ways. Pure bigotry motivated its exclusion of racial minorities, women, and other marginalized groups. That being said, it seems that the University’s past leaders embodied a spirit that speaks to the current situation. Princeton, as well as the nation it serves, stands to benefit from a revival of that older spirit.
I recently read a less-than-flattering profile of Princeton in the Atlantic. In that article, I came across the writing of John Grier Hibben, who served as Princeton’s 14th President from 1912–1932. In response to the beginning of World War I in 1914, Hibben put together a small volume of his own writing to address what he called “the present European war.” As we are now confronted with another European war, I was curious about what he had to say. I searched for his book, found the small, worn out volume in Firestone Library, and dove into its contents.
The book begins with an essay entitled, “A Higher Patriotism.” In it, Hibben discusses what patriotism should look like. He says that it must not be parochial. In his own words, “the idea of patriotism in our land cannot be racial or narrowly confined … it should not be without a sympathetic understanding of the needs of humanity.” Instead, “it is the office of the higher patriotism to defy and to transcend” the limits of selfishness.
The true patriot knows his nation has a mission and a destiny and that a nation “fails to fulfill its destiny if it is wholly self-centered and self-absorbed.” American politics often feels remarkably self absorbed. Culture war debates over masks and school curricula seem petty when juxtaposed with Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The invasion is an alarming wake-up call. Foreign affairs matter not only because they affect our own interests e.g. gasoline prices, but also because when despotic regimes are emboldened by Western division and decadence, they inflict massive suffering on tens of millions of innocent people.
The West, which is led by the extraordinarily wealthy and populous United States, has failed over and over again to deter Putin. We failed to react aggressively when Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014. Then, in order to avoid provoking Putin, the Obama administration refused to send lethal aid to Ukraine. What’s more, Assad crossed the United State’s red line against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but thanks to Russia’s brutal assistance, the butcher of Damascus still reigns over a country turned to rubble. More recently, The Trump administration was willing to send weapons to Ukraine, but Trump himself was more interested in digging up dirt on his political opponent’s son than in countering Putin’s foreign adventurism and domestic repression. Lacking moral clarity, Trump evinced a personal liking to Vladimir Putin. As made clear in a Superbowl halftime interview with Bill O’Reilly, he failed to see the moral distinction between the US and Russia as both nations kill people.
Nevertheless, a track record of failure should not deter us from trying to be better. In fact, we should learn from our past fecklessness and as Hibben’s reflections suggest, embrace a higher patriotism by doing more for Ukraine. We ought to transfer the Polish jets they so desperately need. We should also seriously consider the prospect of a no-fly zone — even when it means direct confrontation with Russia.
The risk of escalation is obviously non-zero, but we are a nuclear-armed superpower with the ability to deter a nuclear attack with the guarantee of a devastating response. Putin may be unmoored from reality, but his countless supporters surely do not want to see the world around them turn to ash. We possess astounding wealth, a powerful military, and a population that has some fundamental understanding of what is right and what is wrong. Russia’s invasion is as wrong as wrong can be. To stand idly by the blood of Ukraine while we possess all those astounding resources is unforgivable.
In 1913, President Hibben delivered the Baccalaureate Sermon to the graduating class. His rhetoric sounds strange, maybe even vainglorious to a modern ear, but we should take it seriously. He argued that Princeton graduates should leverage their privilege in order to “produce as well as to consume, to add to and not to subtract from its store of good, to build up and not tear down, to ennoble and not degrade.” He urged the students “to take your place and to fight your fight in the name of honor and of chivalry, against the powers of organized evil and of commercialized vice, against the poverty, disease, and death which follow fast in the wake of sin and ignorance, against all the innumerable forces which are working to destroy the image of God in man, and unleash the passions of the beast.”
The entire world is watching what “the powers of organized evil” can do. They bomb maternity wards and replace the joy of millions of people with unbounded suffering. The besieged city of Mariupol is now home to the “poverty, disease, and death” that Hibbens spoke of. There are shortages of food and medicine. In Ukraine “the passions of the beast” have been unleashed. We are now reading reports of forced deportations, rape, and targeted assassinations.
President Hibben urged the Princeton class of 1913 not to turn away from the “human cry … of spirits in bondage, of souls in despair, of lives debased and doomed. It is the call of man to his brother.” We all ought to hear that cry. That is what it means to truly be in “the service of humanity.” We ought to urge our elected leaders to do more for Ukraine. And we ought to remember that for all its flaws, a rules-based international order that is led by the United States is better than the alternative where China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and other despotic states prey on their neighbors, oppress their own people, and enable each other to do more of the same.
America is sorely divided and this reflects real differences in our politics. Still, Americans everywhere ought to take to heart President Lincoln’s words: “We must not be enemies.'' We as Princeton students should try especially hard to put those words into action as many of us will go on to claim elite positions in the American society that enable us to create a real difference.
We should continue to disagree about things that matter, but we should also strive to be a bit less bitter and a bit more generous. We should be less dismissive and try to understand the arguments of those with whom we disagree instead. Divisions at home are reducing our capacity to project power abroad. The forces that are filling that power vacuum are beastly. The fate of the world, at least in part, depends on a strong America, an America that can live up to President Zelensky’s words and be the “leader of the world … the leader of peace.”
David Piegaro is a first year student from Ewing, NJ. Before coming to Princeton he served 3 years on active duty in the army as an intelligence analyst and is now a member of the NJ National Guard. This column reflects his opinion alone and not the official policy or position of the US Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army.