Dawn is breaking and you exhale a deep breath. Frost clings to the ropes and metalwork of the thirty foot high gauntlet ahead, whilst you’re attuned to the laser focussed, eery silence of the soldiers around you. It’s the calm before the test. It’s in these moments that soldiers are bred, grappling with the question: When the time comes, can I do what is needed of me?
Being a peacetime soldier as a slightly younger man, I can’t speak to the experience of Ukrainian fighters risking their lives daily on similar cold, quiet mornings that are shattered by the grind of Russian tanks.
One serving British soldier has decided that he was not content to sit on the sidelines, becoming the first of a growing number who are flouting the MOD’s orders, reiterated yesterday, in an attempt to join the conflict. They are seemingly naïve to the consequences of NATO soldiers being captured in a direct fight with Russia.
Distinguished from mercenaries who ply their trade for pure financial gain, the tradition of fighting for the cause of another nation is not new. In 1936 George Orwell famously fought with the republicans against the fascists in the Spanish civil war. What has changed today is that modern travel and decentralised online coordination has made it easier to participate and harder for governments to control. This was most prominently witnessed with those fighting both for and against ISIS, and now in Ukraine.
The development of serving soldiers joining this ‘war tourism’ has taken it from the purview of intelligence agencies and created a mainstream diplomatic issue. Only yesterday, foreign secretary Liz Truss had to reverse her support for civilians joining the Ukrainian Foreign Legion. This seems appropriate given that Ukrainians are even turning away civilian fighters.
However, Ukraine is actively welcoming those with military experience. Notably Conservative MP Helen Grant’s son, a former Royal Marines Commando has joined Ukraine’s Foreign Legion. He explained that the reason he was willing to put his life on the line was out of principle, because of the familiar question, noted in the first paragraph, that is bred into his mindset.
Ukrainians and foreign fighters have united in answering that one question for themselves, inspiring the world by demonstrating so far that, against the odds, with their backs against the wall, they have been equal to the challenge.
Ultimately, it’s not wise to join a conflict. Instead, we should keep our empathy and support Ukrainians in every other way we can, hoping that each morning they can face the challenge anew, whilst asking themselves if they have what it takes. Because for them, it’s an existential question.