​An attorney told me a joke: “What do lawyer’s and sperm have in common?”
Answer: “A one-in-a-billion chance of success.”

​With our president now in Brussels, later in Warsaw, to confer with leaders of other NATO countries this week, much of our media’s focus is riveted upon the devolving specter of Russia’s bloody, sadistic genocide in Ukraine, its ramifications for all NATO neighbors…and what comes next, when the Russian population discovers that the emperor is, indeed, wearing no clothes.  What are the chances of something brilliant being conceived to end this horror and bring peace?  Probably one in a billion.

​Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleads articulately and passionately for help from us in waging defensive warfare for the soul of his country.  As Spring brings thawing and new life sprouting from the earth, the bodies of young Russian soldiers are thawing, too.  The air hangs heavy with the desperate smells of decay in the streets and countryside of Ukraine. Meanwhile, our government, together with other NATO nations, dances carefully around the edges of what feels like a booby-trapped plea for help, ready to plunge us – and most democratic nations – into a war, whose only certain outcome is mutually assured destruction.  Indeed, our world is troubled.

Photo courtesy, Dreamstime.

Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked violence – so-called “military exercises to ‘de-nazify’ Ukraine” – have subjected us, with horror, to images of indiscriminate bombing of residential neighborhoods, slaughter of Ukrainians – soldiers and civilians alike – on the unilateral orders of a madman. Thousands have already perished…even approximate numbers are unknown. Unchecked and unstopped, thousands more will follow.  Speculations of another dictator’s bloody march across European soil fill our airwaves.  Could this carnage come to our shores?  Could it bring our military to theirs…?

First, this disclaimer:  I belong to neither major political party.  Both are quite dysfunctional at most things, in my opinion. This article, however, is not about politics.  Rather, I’m interested in lessons that great literature can teach us about the darker side of human nature…and, perhaps, glean from that experience the lessons for us in responding to the homicidal mischief of the current Russian dictator.  Now, before you say, “But Carl, this conflict is only between two countries, the smaller of which once ‘belonged to’ the larger,” let me pose this:  if Mexico invaded Texas, claiming that Texas was once a Mexican state, and rightfully still belongs to Mexico, how would we – U.S. citizens – respond?  Would our government let Texas go…?  Or, would we defend it?  Yes, the question is rhetorical because, of course, we would put an end to that nonsense in a day.  Now, what if Mexico possessed nukes, and the apparent will to use them on us…?  Would we still respond with bravado and fury?  See how it begins to feel, at once, like a no-win proposition?  At what cost will we defend ourselves?
Welcome to Ukraine.  The problem is, Russia’s dictator may actually be crazy enough to launch nuclear weapons – his threats of this prefaced the launch of conventional bombs into Ukraine’s cities.  This reality puts me in mind of a similar, seemingly “no-win” scenario presented by the master storyteller, Will Shakespeare, in what is widely regarded as his greatest play:  Hamlet.
You see, Hamlet has a problem.  His father – the King of Denmark – has been murdered.  Such “murder most foul” has been brought to the young Prince’s attention by – of all things – the ghost of his dead father.  What’s more, his father’s murderer is the brother of the dead king…Hamlet’s Uncle.  But here’s the real rub:  his mother, Queen Gertrude, has now been wed to dear old uncle – translation:  she’s bought into it, and capitulated to this heinous plot, in order to keep peace in the kingdom, and prevent uncle’s ambitions from becoming too blind and naked…leading to rebellion, and possible overthrow of the kingdom.

You see where I’m going with this…?  For all of his so-called “madness,” Vladimir Putin is “betting the house” on his own ability to keep his little private war private by signaling his willingness to use nukes if NATO dares help the dwarfed Ukrainian military…all while using Russian state TV to feed bullshit to the masses.  What he never counted on was the possibility that Ukrainians might be willing to die for a just cause:  their homeland. 

Photo of Ukrainian girl in Mariupal - courtesy, Dreamstime.

Putin underestimated both Ukraine’s resistance, and NATO’s ability to coalesce around specific deterrence (economic sanctions, weapons systems for Ukraine, etc.) that would make Putin reconsider his decision to invade.  But, like other infamous Soviet dictators, this reality doesn’t deter Putin.  In fact, it emboldens him to carry out his slaughter in defiance of common decency…just as the new Danish king feels emboldened to behave as though he is ultimate authority over life and death.

Enter Hamlet…Act III, Scene I:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovere'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
Hamlet wages the same battle of logic within in his mind and soul that we must wage in coming to grips with any action to be taken against a tyrant such as Putin.

The upshot of this is Hamlet’s recognition that confronting and ending this tyranny may bring his death.  Indeed, it may bring death to all of us.  Yet, capitulating to a madman means we fail to make the hard decision with regard to the future of humanity: “Thus, conscience…makes cowards of us all, and thus…our resolution is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought…and [we] lose the name of action.”

In other words, we think too hard, we act with too much trepidation…ultimately failing to act as we should, when we should.  Thus, Hamlet weighs his options:  risk possible death, or live with the devil he knows, rather than face “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns.”
In choosing to ensnare and expose the corrupt king, Hamlet succumbs…but not before tearing it all down, exposing the façade of his mother’s capitulation, and his uncle’s naked aggression.  By exposing Putin’s naked aggression, we must accept our responsibility to act morally.

The primary difference between Hamlet and us is that this present life is occupied by all manner of corrupt men who fight not with swords, but the threat of nuclear annihilation.  We – like Hamlet -- may be called upon soon to consider the unthinkable, and stare down that threat.
For seventy years, this terrible capability has overshadowed all military calculations we have made. When Russia last threatened America directly, it was by moving nuclear submarines in the direction of Cuba.  Our president then, John Kennedy, made a fateful decision to promise mutual annihilation if Russia carried through with their threat.  He made his threat seem like a promise.  He was determined not to let his “conscience make cowards of us all.”

Will we “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” or take arms “against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?” Thus far, with Ukraine half a world away, we have chosen the lessor of options, in hopes of a united front to discourage a madman – a cunning madman, but a madman, nonetheless.  With so-called “conventional” warfare, being a half a world away gives the U.S. weeks, if not months, to formulate our responses.  With nuclear warfare…?  About fifteen minutes.

Pray for peace.  Pray for that one-in-a-billion chance of success in avoiding needless, countless deaths.  But know this:  sooner or later, we will be forced to choose.  How will we respond?  To be…or not to be?

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