As we approach the one-year anniversary of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it is imperative for those who help Ukrainians to stay resolute in their support. As the war drags on though, it is only fair for them to ask themselves: What is it that we are actually supporting and for how long should we continue to support it? A story from classical antiquity may provide a useful frame of reference.
In around 650 BC Sparta was fighting in the Second Messenian War. The Spartans were retreating. In the course of two generations prior to the war, Spartan society had become very unequal. Some citizens displayed luxurious lifestyles while others became increasingly poor and disenfranchised. Society was divided. The Messenians invaded Sparta and achieved several victories. In search of guidance, the Spartans sent a delegation to the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle told the Spartans that if they wanted to win, they needed to invite a leader from Athens. The Spartans ignored the prophecy and promptly lost another battle to the Messenians. Despite of thinking about the Athenians as foolhardy, the Spartans went to Athens and asked for a general. For their part, the Athenians despised the Spartans. They thought the Spartans were too set in their ways. So the Athenians presented the Spartans with their best offer – a lame poet/pipe-player/schoolmaster named Tyrtaeus. Keep in mind that lameness and any other physical inadequacy were not tolerated among the Spartans. A poet/pipe-player is not a general. And a schoolmaster teaches kids; he does not lead adult warriors into battle. This was clearly meant as mockery, but the Spartans had no other choice.
Tyrtaeus went to Sparta and did what he knew how to do best. As a poet he wrote hymns for the Spartans to sing. Singing together allowed citizens to set aside their disagreements and make common patriotic cause. As a schoolmaster he lined up young unruly Spartans into a formation that became known as a phalanx. When they became adult warriors, they fought as one in this tight formation. He led Spartans into battle playing his pipe. Rhythmic sounds helped to maintain a steady pace and keep the troops moving together. The Spartans did not lose another battle against the Messenians. Sparta as it is remembered now is a result of spontaneous innovations put in place by Tyrtaeus.
The story of Tyrtaeus demonstrates that an unconventional personality can rise to the challenge and become a leader. Before the second invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Ukrainian society was divided. A handful of citizens displayed luxurious possessions. The dominant majority lived hand to mouth. Corruption eroded attempts of national unity. Both the old and the young were leaving for other countries. The oracle of the 2019 Presidential elections elevated a comedian to the highest position of leadership. Although Ukraine has been at war for the previous five years, the voters overwhelmingly supported not an imposing diplomat, defense minister or intelligence official, but a diminutive entertainer. This was possibly perceived by the Russians as a sign of weakness, an opportunity to exploit. But when the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, 2022, the entertainer president did what he knew how to do best – he recorded poignant videos of defiance in the face of overwhelming force. The president asked allies for weapons and any other support they could give. And the allies provided both weapons and support. Ukrainians displayed valor and endured atrocities unimaginable by anyone. One year later they continue to fight for their very existence.
About two hundred years after Tyrtaeus, Spartan phalanxes held an overwhelming Persian force at Thermopylae, winning the moral victory that saved the Athenian alliance of democratic states. That moral victory ultimately saved Western civilization. By fighting and not fleeing, the Ukrainians have undeniably won a moral victory. This victory would not be possible without the support of their Western allies. The Ukrainian economy is on financial life support. The Ukrainian military has long run out of its own weapons and ammunition. Much of the Ukrainian civilian infrastructure is in ruins. A lot of it is beyond repair.
To turn the moral victory into the indisputable military and economic triumph over the aggressors will be impossible without the continuing support from the alliance of democratic states and their free citizens – the descendants of the Athenians.
The ultimate impact of the Ukrainians on the survival of Western civilization will become known in time. Without a doubt, we will always remember, “I need weapons, not a ride.”
Glory to Ukraine!
Disclaimer: While Tyrtaeus is a confirmed historical figure, I am neither a qualified historian nor a scholar of leadership (a sizable academic field in business schools). This is my interpretation of a handful of secondary sources that I’ve come across. All views, errors and inconsistencies are my own.
The author doesn`t work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations