We are a storytelling species. Since a picture is worth a thousand words and a meme can move political mountains, people have been trying out various words to depict the current invasion by Russia of the Ukraine.
DAVID and GOLIATH – By far the most frequent symbol used to describe the war has been the traditional biblical one of David and Goliath. This one routinely is used in a variety of encounters with one particular trait. It refers to a confrontation between two entities where one is very large and the other is very small. Typical examples have included start-up companies doing battle with Microsoft, Apple, and Google. Its use in legal and/or political battles is standard operating procedure.
In a David and Goliath struggle, which one would you rather be? Naturally, the answer should be David. After all, he wins. He wins rather decisively.
1 Samuel 17:48 When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. 49 And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone, and slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground. 50 So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine, and killed him; there was no sword in the hand of David. 51 Then David ran and stood over the Philistine, and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath, and killed him, and cut off his head with it. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled.
As victories go, there is little room for doubt as to who emerged victorious.
One should note that David’s triumph was not that of one involving two sport’s teams. There is no returning to the battlefield for round two. In the battle against the unnamed Philistine warrior [for those interested in biblical exegesis], David’s victory means never again will the Philistine warrior threaten David or anyone else again. The significance of this result often is overlooked.
In a David and Goliath fight, not only do you want to be David, the final outcome really is a final outcome. In the current situation, this means that not only does the Ukraine successfully defend itself against Russia but that never again can Putin threaten its neighbor or any other neighbor. In human terms, this means Zelensky remains in power and Putin is removed from power. Whether Putin ends up dead like the Philistine warrior or simply imprisoned is secondary. The point is in a true David and Goliath confrontation, it is a fight to death where the larger one, meaning Putin, loses. Putin probably knows this which is why he will never stop on his own and will have to be stopped by others.
LEONIDAS AND XERXES
A similar scenario with a different ending appears in the Leonidas-Xerxes confrontation. On March 1, 2022, I asked, “Suppose Zelensky ends up being Leonidas and not David? (The State of the Putin Union: The Dr. Strangelove Scenario). My reference was to the famous story of Three Hundred Spartans versus Persia at Thermopylae. The story has been made into a couple of movies. Its counterparts in American cultural mythology have been Davy Crockett at the Alamo and George Custer at Little Bighorn. In Jewish tradition, it is Rome at Masada which has became a foundation story for the new Israeli nation in the 20th century. These battles share in common the concept of valiant heroic death by the few in face of a much more numerous enemy. It does make for great storytelling in its own right.
So here we have these two contrasting big versus small war stories. In one, the little guy wins and the big guy is vanquished. In the other, the reverse occurs, but the dead little guy still remains the hero for the courageous fight against insurmountable odds. On March 3, Zelensky provided his own take:
I don’t want Ukraine’s history to be a legend about 300 Spartans. I want peace.
Jewish Zelensky apparently prefers David to these other options.
Marina Ovsyannikova out of nowhere has become a worldwide phenomenon. She appeared unannounced and uninvited on the Russian counterpart to the American Foxhub cable network. As everyone including Putin now know, she stood behind an oblivious news announcer with a handmade sign. Her message was a direct repudiation of Putin’s war and Putin himself. Given that such public declarations are illegal and punishable by up to 15 years in prison, her action truly was brave.
Regardless of what ultimately happens to her, one suggestion is that she speaks for many others in Russia, perhaps millions who do not have the opportunity to be as brave as she was. In fact one American commentator compared her to the “I’m Spartacus” moment from Hollywood Spartacus, not historical Spartacus. Perhaps now others will stand with her. It is too early to tell if that analysis proves to be correct. It does highlight how we seek historical symbols to understand events in the present.
The term “rope-a-dope” originated due to a boxing strategy employed by Muhammad Ali in his Rumble in the Jungle fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, on October 29, 1974, against George Foreman, the heavyweight champion. In this boxing match, the more massive Foreman was the “Goliath” against the less powerful-looking challenger Ali better known for his dancing and poetry skills than sheer raw TKO power. In presidential terms, it looked like the earlier showdown between the experienced Nikita Khrushchev and the young inexperienced John Fitzgerald Kennedy or the later Mikhail Gorbachev versus the enfeebled Ronald Reagan.
The technique Ali employed has had more legs than David’s slingshot victory. It demands a practitioner to withstand a pounding by the more powerful combatant until at last, the hulking puncher tires himself and is himself beaten. The final result may seem shocking. How could the obviously-more-powerful figure collapses in exhaustion?
The parallel with the current war in the Ukraine is limited. Yes, Russia is the larger one. Yes, it is pounding the Ukraine while the latter is unable to attack Russia itself. The world watches in awe and horror as Russia pounds away at the smaller country. The difference is that Foreman played by the rules while Putin does not. Foreman did not hit below the belt; Putin targets civilians. He targets the very exemplars of a civilized world. He targets electricity, water, food, hospitals, and everything that enables people to function as a 21st-century country. So heroic as the Ukraine is in taking the pounding, there are legitimate concerns about how long Ukraine can withstand such a pounding. Muhammad Ali would not have last long if Foreman cheats the way Putin does now.
I have no comforting words with which to conclude this post. The story is still unfolding. We don’t know what the outcome will be. We really don’t know what is going on in Putin’s mind beyond that is evil and uncaring. We don’t know what the Russian people really want or can do about it. We don’t know how the soldiers on the field of battle feel about the “training maneuvers” actually be invaders against their Slavic brothers and sisters. At some point we will and my preference is that the David and Goliath relationship prevails.