The Foreign Legion

We are now – unsurprisingly given U.S. history – here

It seems some retired U.S. soldiers who are watching cannot just watch. They know soldiering and want to jump in and help; and those profiled (anonymously) in that NYT article seem to have decent motives – sharing their own knowledge and skills with the outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian army. The article explains:

All across the United States, small groups of military veterans are gathering, planning and getting passports in order. After years of serving in smoldering occupations, trying to spread democracy in places that had only a tepid interest in it, many are hungry for what they see as a righteous fight to defend freedom against an autocratic aggressor with a conventional and target-rich army.

The Ukrainian government has made it clear it welcomes the assistance of seasoned foreign soldiers. (It does not want “idealists” who have never before been in combat.) Ukraine has created a formal way to volunteer, which begins with an application, and says it has received some “3,000” applications through the Ukrainian embassy in Washington alone. As of March 3, “hundreds” of foreign soldiers had arrived in Ukraine already.

The implications and issues created by former U.S. soldiers journeying to Ukraine on their own to fight naturally scares the daylights out of the U.S. government – because we have been here before. More from that article:

The risk of unintended escalation has led the U.S. federal government to try to keep citizens from becoming freelance fighters, not just in this conflict, but for centuries. In 1793, President Washington issued a Proclamation of Neutrality warning Americans to stay out of the French Revolution. But the efforts have been uneven, and often swayed by the larger national sentiment. 

A few Americans were in the French revolutionary army to defend “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” from European monarchist invaders trying to reverse the French Revolution.

Less commendably, some were involved in all sorts of personal vainglorious nonsense in Mexico and Central America in the 1850s. (In the 1820s the still recently independent U.S. was highly thought of in Mexico and the other countries of the former Spanish Empire in the Americas. The 1846-48 war between the U.S. and Mexico helped badly damage that “admiration,” but had it been a “one off” matters might have recovered with succeeding generations. But those “filibusters” of the 1850s helped lay the groundwork for an essential mistrust of “North Americans” that persists in Mexico and Central and South America to this day.)

In the 1910s some Americans even fought for Mexico’s Pancho Villa.

[American pilots of No 71 ‘Eagle’ Squadron rush to their Hurricanes at Kirton-in-Lindsey, 17 March 1941. Imperial War Museum. Public Domain.]

In the twentieth century, a few flew for England in 1940-41 before the U.S. entered WWII.

Of all the Americans who have fought on their own in a foreign force, the most famous group is still probably those who fought in Spain a few years earlier:

The civil war in Spain just before the start of World War II is the best-known example. More than 3,000 Americans joined what became known as the Lincoln-Washington Battalion, to fight with the elected leftist government against fascist forces.

Interestingly, the Soviet communist government of Josef Stalin also strongly supported that Spanish government. In 1936 a large part of its military had rebelled in an attempted coup and the Spanish government mostly had to create a “new army” for itself from almost scratch. So foreign volunteers and especially military aid – and the Soviets sent a lot of it – were absolutely necessary for it to fight.

In the 1942 film Casablanca, it is implied that Humphrey Bogart’s character “Rick Blaine” had been in that unit in Spain during that conflict:

That effort, now often romanticized as a valiant prelude to the fight against the Nazis, ended badly. The poorly trained and equipped brigades made a disastrous assault of a fortified ridge in 1937 and three-quarters of the men were killed or wounded. Others faced near starvation in captivity. Their leader, a former math professor who was the inspiration for the protagonist in Ernest Hemingway’s novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was later captured and most likely executed.

And the Spanish government was ultimately defeated in 1939 by that military uprising led by General Francisco Franco, who was strongly supported by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

Which is why the Spanish Civil War is often termed a “curtain raiser” to World War II.

Naturally, Putin’s people are not happy about foreign volunteers flocking to assist Ukraine’s military:

On Thursday, the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Igor Konashenkov, told the Russian News Agency that foreign fighters would not be considered soldiers, but mercenaries, and would not be protected under humanitarian rules regarding the treatment of prisoners of war.

That position is not a shock as he is trying to dissuade skilled foreign volunteers from arriving to help bolster Ukraine’s defense. But even if they are snidely termed “mercenaries,” as long as they are uniformed while engaging in combat on behalf of the recognized combatant state (which Ukraine is), they are legal combatants. France’s Foreign Legion we know, for example, is world famous…

[Want to join the Foreign Legion? Fortunately, I didn’t sign anything. Photo by me, Paris, France, July 1995.]

Anyone is free to fight for any country they please if that country wants them. Indeed Russians – more accurately, Soviets – were on the ground assisting the Spanish government during that 1930s civil war. Presumably Mr. Konashenkov does not believe those Russians/Soviets were “mercenaries?”

The U.S. government’s position is no American should be going to Ukraine and that those there now should leave immediately. So the U.S. government had better figure out what they are going to do about U.S. retired soldiers’ “freelancing” there. Presumably the U.S. will just turn “a blind eye” and make it clear if need be that it was these former soldiers’ personal decisions (which could well turn out to be fatal ones for them, of course).

[From Instagram.]

It is entirely possible that U.S. former soldiers (currently serving soldiers obviously cannot) may soon be in combat against Russian soldiers. Indeed it appears some may be right now. According to the U.S. Military Times web site, March 7:

“The first groups are already in the battlefield,” said [a] Ukraine official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to explain the situation. “A new group goes to the combat area every day.”

They have arrived from the U.S., U.K., Sweden, Lithuania, Mexico, India and other countries, said the official.

And as we also see, it is something of an “international legion.” The volunteers are not just Americans. They come from all over the world.

It appears the Ukrainian military is not going to be destroyed easily by Russia. It is receiving infusions of new equipment and it appears even some skilled trained soldiers from abroad. Unless there is some quickly negotiated settlement to this horrific mess, this war seems likely to drag on until… whenever.

Even if Ukraine collapsed unexpectedly suddenly “tomorrow” and Putin’s tanks rolled into Kyiv, make no mistake: This is a catastrophe for all of us (Americans and Russians especially) now well-beyond Ukraine. Relations had become rougher diplomatically between the U.S. and Putin’s Russia for some years now. However, this murderous adventure by the former KGB thug is the wrecking ball: It has destroyed in two weeks what had been left of what had been built up in particular between the U.S. and Russia since the 1990s.