The opening narrative of The March, a little-known volume about surviving the Second World War, is set in and around Lwow—the city now known as Lviv, Ukraine—wherein a shell-shocked Polish army is crumbling under the westward advance of Russian troops.
Wieslaw Kuniczak’s unnerving work of historical fiction begins with the efforts of one particular soldier, Abel Abramowski, whose sense of purpose evolves page by page. The battle to save Poland seems increasingly lost to him and his scattered fellow soldiers, so he turns from fighting to finding his grandfather, who lives on a manor in the forest near the city now squeezed from the West by Nazis and from the East by Soviets. “Home,” Robert Frost famously penned, “is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” It was Abel’s best bet, but unfortunately the enemy found his grandfather before he did. It was not enough to be “brother Slavs.” Bolshevik ideology had trumped that.
Just as in 1939, the events of early 2022 remind us of the elemental strength, meaning, and priority of family during crisis. Shortly after Russia entered Ukraine on multiple fronts, there came an order for 18–60-year-old men to remain in the country. It wasn’t qualified, either: it meant all men, not just unpartnered or childless men. (All women and minors are free to remain, of course.) Before the invasion was a week old, nearly 700,000 Ukrainians—sans the adult males—had sought shelter in surrounding countries. Just as civilians had clogged the road fleeing their northeastern neighbors in 1939, so today the two-hour nonstop train from Lviv to Przemyśl, Poland is jammed. Up to four million refugees are anticipated.
Men, Women, and War
In the blink of an eye, prompted by the return of that ancient nemesis—war—we are witnessing the rapid public renewal of dependence on the distinctions between men and women, mothers and fathers, despite ubiquitous gender equality efforts. Western media offered surprisingly little moral commentary on the policy, save for veiled ambivalence. Rare photos of women-in-arms were apt to upset. Why? Perhaps it was because there remains a tacit recognition of sex distinctions and the importance of sex roles, only permissible to admit during crises. Sure—10 percent of the country’s military comprises women, and the country’s women were asked to register for possible conscription late last year. And even some civilian women are picking up arms. (I don’t blame them.) But most are not. Instead, their husbands, boyfriends, sons, brothers, and fathers are—first voluntarily, now by order. The sex ratio of expats returning to join the fight is doubtlessly skewed.
In his fascinating book Is There Anything Good about Men, social psychologist Roy Baumeister asserts that men and women “are different in some basic ways,” including the proclivity for risk-taking, and that successful cultures “capitalize on these differences to outperform rival cultures.” Baumeister’s blunt evolutionary yardstick isn’t about human rights, personal freedoms, gender equality, or measures of collective well-being. It’s about survival and continuity, and it’s pragmatic. The tasks of war are practical, and generally paid for with men’s lives, not women’s.
Cultures that understand and capitalize on sex distinctions, Baumeister claims, “live longer and better and, most important, they reproduce more.” Hence the judgment of a president that it is better to put a nation’s men at risk than its women. Family ties and motivations are a cornerstone of resistance to cultural and national invaders.
Scholars, activists, politicians, and ideologues typically balk at such unenlightened, antimodern talk. Influential feminist law scholar Susan Moller Okin famously wrote that a just future would be one entirely without gender. “In its social structures and practices,” she penned, “one’s sex would have no more relevance than one’s eye color or the length of one’s toes.” Such a society would be a short-lived one, I suspect, and utterly dependent on enforced commitments to authorities outside the household. Like your subsidiarity? Forget it. In a genderless world the family cannot—must not—matter.
Distinctive Traits of Ukraine and Its Leadership
In Ukraine, on the other hand, there remains a shared understanding of sex differences. That’s not all. Multi-generational households account for more than 30 percent of all households there. (By contrast, it’s less than 16 percent in the United States). Eighty-one percent of women were married before age thirty (in 2012), a rate well above most of their neighbors. To be sure, not everything about Ukrainian family demographics spells success. Ukrainian domestic violence is notable, while its fertility remains dismally low. But even its critics agree that the family has not yet lost its status as the elemental organizational form. Why does this matter? Multi-generational households require inhabitants to navigate a shared culture, despite normal intergenerational irritations. Solitary living requires no such thing. In Scandinavia, for example, single households make up 40 to 45 percent of the total. But the gap between happy independence and sudden, absolute dependence on strangers is thin.
President Zelenskyy’s order could be construed as signaling women’s lack of value. Hardly. On the contrary, the order is a sign of their comparative worth and a mark of healthy governance under pressure. Zelenskyy understands this: A nation could recover from the loss of scores of men (including him) as the twentieth century’s postwar societies all did. But it has no future without women and children and the moral order of the family and society that they not only represent but constitute. Civilization hinges on women. People of good will nevertheless hope and pray that the Russian invasion of Ukraine will not put this grim thesis to a new test.
Zelenskyy’s order is also practical. Research on shipwrecks—a more sudden and localized type of life-threatening emergency—reveals that women and children are more at risk of death in such circumstances than men, all things considered. This is no surprise, given the elevated strength and aggressiveness of men, on average. Accordingly, the study’s authors remark, “if men try to save themselves, we expect women to have a relative survival disadvantage.” Women-and-children-first policies turn out to be uncommon, but when enacted (as on the Titanic) more women than men survive. But it is the policy of the captain, they found, rather than “the moral sentiments of men, that determines whether women are given preferential treatment” during such crises. In other words, a “preferential option” for women may exist culturally, but only a leader can make it stick in a crisis. American efforts to encourage, or at least offer, a way out of Ukraine for Zelenskyy have been rebuffed—as they should be. So far, he is leading from the front. Even his masculinity is getting rave reviews, reinforcing that conflict does not suppress sex distinctions but magnifies them.
In The March, Abel Abramowski survives capture, imprisonment, and exile—the long night of the Polish and Jewish soul. It was not without scarring. And yet under “the ruthless man of war, the remorseless soldier . . . there is another man . . . the son of a [Vilnius] tailor” and the “the product of an old man’s dream.” Moreover, the love of a woman “had been his last handhold before the fall from grace into chaos, but he could no longer remember what it was about or how one went about it.”
The memory of his beloved, Catherine, whose own family had been destroyed, was “the safety spike driven into the rock-face of his hopes on which his sanity had been hung.” Whether he would ever return to Catherine, or she to him, he could not foresee. The motivation of the possibility, however, remained.