Updated at 9:41 a.m. ET on May 10, 2022
Last Monday, Malcolm Nance, an MSNBC talking head and former sailor in the United States Navy, showed up on the channel by satellite from Ukraine, dressed to kill. He wielded an assault rifle and wore full-camo military dress, including a ballistic helmet, and U.S. and Ukrainian flag patches. About a month ago, he said, he decided he was “done talking.” He then talked about how he had joined Ukraine’s international legion to help the country “fight [against Russia’s] war of extermination—an existential war.” Others have traced a similar journey. Andy Milburn, a journalist and ex-Marine who stopped writing and began training Ukrainians for combat, wrote an article about how he, too, was finished writing articles about Ukraine. “It just started to seem so frivolous,” he wrote, solemnly. “I didn’t want to be an observer.”
Nance is a “foreign fighter,” someone who has left home to fight in someone else’s war.* (Certain scholars draw a distinction between foreign fighters, who join an insurgency against a state, and volunteers, who join a state armed force.) Some foreign fighters are motivated by idealism: Nance, for example, or most of the several thousands of men who traveled to fight for the Islamic State. Others are paid (Soldier of Fortune magazine, which ceased print publication in 2016, had a “Guns for Hire” classified section), and still others just want to fight and are not picky about the cause or the pay. I can only assume they like the smell of stale cigarettes and BO.
I pass no judgment on Nance’s decision. But as a matter of policy, the Ukrainians should be circumspect about foreign fighters, and the governments that support Ukraine should discourage their citizens from traveling there to fight.
There are good reasons to travel to fight in Ukraine: to protect innocent lives and to kill those who would take them. Against this weighty plus are numerous minuses. Some are just practical: Think about all the crannies and hiding places in your home or city block—all the potential weapons caches or spider holes in which to conceal yourself for maximum tactical advantage against an invader. In unfamiliar places, these advantages vanish, and a foreign volunteer could end up a burden to those he intends to help. The novelist William T. Vollmann wrote a despairing account of his brief stint as a foreign fighter against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Rendered unfit for combat by his explosive diarrhea, Vollmann drank a great deal of the Afghans’ tea and Fanta but did nothing for the war effort.
The moral disadvantages of foreign volunteers are less obvious. Before the war, some predicted that Ukraine would not fight at all, and would acquiesce to its invasion and absorption into Russia. If Ukraine had not resisted, one might have wondered whether Vladimir Putin had a point, and Ukraine was a fake country whose absorption was natural. This hypothesis could be falsified only by a national resistance—which Ukraine has amply provided. The country has fought back, under Ukrainian leadership, and appears willing to keep doing so. Plenty of countries have relied on foreign fighters to ease them into existence. But the sure sign of a country’s objective reality is that it insists on being born with or without the aid of foreign midwives. Putin will say (and is already saying) that Ukraine survived the invasion only because outsiders intervened. Better that the Ukrainian victory be as Ukrainian as possible.
Kacper Rękawek, who studies foreign fighters at the University of Oslo’s Center for Research on Extremism, told me we should expect that when Russia captures foreign volunteers, it will put them “on Russian state TV, 24/7, to say, ‘Look—NATO has arrived.’ It will be too good to be true.” The experience of Aiden Aslin, a volunteer from Nottinghamshire, England, confirmed that prediction. After Russia captured him in Mariupol, he was paraded for interviews, including this one with a Putinophilic fellow Brit.
So the foreign volunteer lacks local knowledge, and his presence undercuts foundational moral claims. Perhaps these concerns are outweighed in the cases of skilled volunteers, veterans with combat experience and bowels of steel. Rękawek said the Ukrainian military appears to have sought out foreign combat veterans, who then might be “plugged into existing Ukrainian units” as supplementary forces, “like a cherry on top.” Their roles on these teams would contrast with less experienced walk-ons who are sent to join the militarized groups of Ukrainian civilians, consisting since the invasion of teachers, accountants, taxi drivers, and anyone else who can hold a rifle.
Rękawek is sympathetic to these volunteers. “I won’t claim that I’m an impartial observer,” he told me. “If someone wants to go and is ready to sacrifice blood, sweat, and tears to fight for Western democracy—if you want to do it, do it.” Numerous European governments outright criminalize their citizens’ fighting overseas, except in wars explicitly blessed by their home governments.
But governments should be worried even when their citizens travel to fight in wars that the governments themselves endorse. The decision to fight should, whenever possible, be removed from the discretion of individuals. The state should guard its monopoly on violence jealously, and discourage any individual from seizing that prerogative. The most basic function of a state is to focus, restrain, and allocate violence. It filters one person’s righteous fury—it could be Nance’s; it could be mine; it could belong to a member of ISIS—through a political process, which turns it into something legitimate, or stops it. The United States just promised another $800 million in military aid to Ukraine. It has not sent troops, in the air or on the ground, and it has good reasons for that decision.
“In an ideal world, it should be states that do the fighting,” Rękawek told me. “But in the less-than-ideal world, the Ukrainian reality, there’s nothing wrong with them asking for volunteers.” I don’t blame Ukraine for seeking all available help. (The first call for foreign volunteers came on February 27, when Ukraine’s odds looked especially grim and the country was scrambling to make up for its under-preparation.) But foreign fighters and volunteers also undermine the authority of the countries whose citizens are traveling, and those countries should craft policies that reduce their flow.
Nance and Milburn are idealists, or so they tell us. In some sense they are right: Saying “I’m done talking” means that pontification on cable TV has started to feel pointless. (I know the feeling.) But it also means that they think the legitimacy of the political process, the one that has kept the United States from entering the war directly, has reached its limit. This too is a familiar feeling, and one that is worth resisting.
* This article originally called Andy Milburn a foreign fighter. Milburn denied that characterization. He said he is providing training, including medical and basic-combat training.