“That’s Pollyanna thinking, Robert! Pollyanna thinking!” So loudly spoke Adm. B.J. Semmes. The commander of the U.S. 2nd Fleet, my father’s boss. B.J. had invited us to his quarters on Admirals’ Row for dinner as my father lay dying of cancer. He intended to offer kind support to our family and maybe straighten out his friend’s errant son. I was 16 and adamantly opposed to the Vietnam War, then at its height.

APTOPIX Russia Ukraine War

Ukrainian forces fire from a multiple rocket launcher at Russian positions in the Kharkiv area Saturday. Vadim Ghirda/Associated Press

When we got home from dinner, my mother commended me for remaining civil in the face of B.J.’s continued attempt at discipline. Mine was not an easy position to take while living on the Norfolk Naval Base. It led to random harassment just for stepping out the front door. I did not believe in the “Domino Theory,” that if Vietnam fell, then the rest of Southeast Asia would follow. I saw no point in the death and destruction we were visiting upon a small country far across the Pacific. The continued struggle only solidified my belief.

Fast forward to the invasion of Iraq. I traveled to Washington, D.C., to join in the protests against our destruction of a sovereign country, feeling very strongly that it was an unnecessary war.

I am not fond of war. I know full well the sacrifice made by the members of our armed forces and their families. I am too familiar with the mental anguish, physical and emotional injury, the post-traumatic stress disorder that accompanies our armed forces home from battle. I saw those injuries in my own father. War is the truest waste of human potential we could ever invent.

Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine has changed my thinking. I find myself now troubled by the question, “How do you enforce a rule against war?” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has accomplished what the commander of the 2nd Fleet could not: I now believe we need a strong, effective military. Now I see there is most certainly a time and place to fight, to resist domination.

At the same time, we need to nurture a deep aversion to arms as a way to solve the inevitable conflicts that will arise between the 8 billion humans crowding onto a continually shrinking and warming planet. Serving these two imperatives at the same time is the most difficult thing we have ever attempted. Each choice obviates the other by its very existence. Our choice is between mass personal internal confusion and mutual assured destruction. It is a choice between angst and annihilation.

Vladimir Putin places no value on human life. His Machiavellian worldview is a growing cancer on his nation. He has convinced many of his people that life sucks and then you die. His soldiers inflict the same on the vanquished through torture, rape and murder. They interrogate innocent civilians while screaming “Gde natsisty?”, “Where are the Nazis?” If a Ukrainian captive can’t answer this question that has no answer, they are executed on the spot. Mr. Putin cannot be allowed to prevail, to spread his poison on the planet, full stop.

This war will be costly, it will be challenging in many ways economically and politically. But if we fail Ukraine, we fail ourselves and the idea of democracy. If we do not find an alternative to arms and continue seeking ways to annihilate each other, we also fail ourselves. There is no right answer. This is the dilemma we face.

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