“Awake, arise or be for ever fall’n.”
Proxy wars on proxy wars on proxy wars, liberation, and democratic idealism
On a rainy Saturday in October 2008, I went to an international film festival in Fort Lauderdale, FL, as a guest of the Latvian government to students in my academic program, to see a film, Defenders of Riga— the story of the battle for control of Riga during the Soviet-Latvian war for independence. It’s, on the surface, a story with clear good guys and bad guys to Western audiences— the western allies coalition, and the Soviet invaders (seeking to repatriate what had—illegitimately- once been the Russian Empire’s). This is far more complex, and highlights, in a particularly devastating way, that being liberated by self-interested parties, is not the same as liberation, albeit amongst devastation, on ones own terms, and is actually a story of true self-determination. The bravery of the Latvians and their provisional government to pursue their own resolution, than accept the boot of the German and Baltic nobility in exchange for an easier freedom from Soviet rule under invasion rather than hard-fought independence by treaty from either, is what this film is about, and an early-century example of resisting the growing global colonialist hegemenon that metamorphosed to serve a narrative that prefered committed anti-communism, to a commitment to self-determined functional democratic ideal.
In the century that followed the events of this film, we saw many similar struggles for independence, for self-determination, within and outside of the context of the Soviet Union, but also the fall of global empires of Britain, France, and even the rise and decline of American imperialism from a farcicial exercise in ““peacekeeping”” to outright colonialism. Coup attempts, puppet governments, outright occupation, the US has done it all. It’s telling that, in the conflict depicted in the film, ultimately becomes conflict with the patrons of their provisional government, the Germans, in a ploy to persecute those who had either chosen self-determination, or more commonly a target of the German occupation, Bolsheviks. It becomes clear this was a massive proxy war for a number of competing interests; a pattern that would plague the region into the present day, but is notable for being among the first (Russia, itself, of course, being an example of this) in shaping the, if you extrapolate from how borders ended up being drawn, a plausible simulacrum of a present day map of Europe, itself in flux for well over a century at this point.
Since the 1950s, almost all conflict has followed a similar pattern; still in Eastern Europe, and former Soviet holdings, but particularly in nations with a high level of agency already, Iran or Venezuela or Bolivia, for example, where the pseudodoxical concern for democracy or self-determination is beyond parody in its insincerity. This period in Latvian history is, similarly, familiar to subsequent proxy conflict between competing ideological states; because the treaty with the Russians enforced reparations, but not of the impact to industrial infrastructure from, both, the empire’s collapse and the pull-out following the treaty, Latvia was forced to rearchitect its entire economic culture, not merely reindustrialize, and policymaking from this would follow suit. This may seem familiar; a war leaves a formerly occupied state vulnerable to collapse, only to invite subsequent incursions in the name of, again, a pseudodoxical reenforcement of foreign ideals in the form of, you guessed it, occupation (i.e. like we see with Afghanistan since the 1980’s through the present between the end of the Cold War and the War on Terror and multiple occupations by foreign superpowers, or today in the former Yugoslavia from conflict in the 1990’s; just total devastation that was not inflicted by bad government of the people, but by insincere, parasitic relationships of occupiers with the occupied).
The thing I find compelling about this particular fight for independence is that, while our military and combat capabilities have enhanced immeasurably in the century since the conclusion of this war, the tactics between occupied states and the imperial/superpower states doing the occupying fundamentally not only hasn’t changed, but that this is the rare example where, as they say, “the quiet part was said loudly.” Consider, for example, the 1789 French Revolution, or any manner of coups in Latin America in the last two centuries, or even our occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, coups in Iran and Syria, what these all have in common is that the public is used as the pseudodoxical pawn to hype a humanitarian narrative that doesn’t exist, in the service of a war between two parties of ruling elites, neither of which are usually the average citizen of that nation. In the last American century, this has manifested as artificially creating and enforcing a partition (predictibly along ideological lines— i.e. against a communist insurgency) and entering combat to “liberate” and “enlighten” the oppositional group, but as was recently discovered to be the case in Korea, the CIA was aware South Korea was operating concentration camps for political dissidents; the same rationale used for demonizing North Korea, and communist bogeymen for time immemorial in the narrative arc of American imperialist warcraft.
No, what makes Latvia different is that, in the middle of this armed conflict between the provisional government and the Soviets, Latvia, and in particular the offensive in Riga (around which this film centers), is the nexus of resisting Soviet governance (and thus abolishing the Lativan SSR), rejecting German occupational terror using Latvian labor to combat the Russians, with some overlap in Poland’s own ongoing struggle against the same, to reinforce what the Latvian population wanted and needed for itself. This usually does not happen in real-time, or even sequentially, and in the case of France, sometimes not even until deep in retrospect, in recognizing that a lesser evil is not always the lesser, but different, similarly oppressive, and split along different ideological lines.
It’s now a century since this war’s conclusion, however, at the time I saw this film, I was among one or two other American college students in the theater, alongside Lativan officials, the film’s writer or director or producer (I don’t remember which, from the Q&A— this was not conducted in English, so I could not follow along, and this was also 11 years ago). There’s a scene in the film where, after Riga is retaken, two soldiers are laying in the rubble of a demolished building, rejoicing; it was their rubble, not the Germans’ and it was not the Russians— for right then, it was theirs. This film, the audience’s reaction to it, taught me a crucial lesson in the difference between patriotism and nationalism— the latter has no place, but especially in a struggle for liberation, where the ideals of your struggle for it should be at their most coherent. As I wrote above, the road from Riga was not simple for Latvians into the next century, but it was a path laid by decisions made to self-determine their future. One can look at this historical example and look to similar proxy wars between the US and other world powers in the time since and see how similar insurgency from the populations in these places mirrors that of this situation, and recontextualize our understanding in the popular imagination of what many of these conflicts really have been about. Why are we there? If we’re so badly needed, why is it only clear to our media and leaders why this is the case? Is this enhancing democracy, not in a sense of creating a democracy, but the ideal of the people’s right to determining legitimacy of their government?
I saw this film, as I said, in a room full of Latvians, many of whom wept at the the end of the film, there was a standing ovation. As I left the theater, a consulate official thanked the American students in the audience for coming; they had hoped we’d learned something, either about them, or about the formation of the modern era, or possibly even ourselves. I was given a lapel pin, an American flag crossing a Latvian one. I remember reading, later on that afternoon, a retrospective about the American invasion of Grenada, which had occurred 25 years previously on that day; another in a series of proxy conflicts, drawn along ideological lines, support within the US for its anti-communist stance, unpopular internationally (notably among even slimeballs like Margaret Thatcher, and the UN who rebuked it as violating international law), and while the outcome was ostensibly what the Grenada residents had desired (democratic elections), was the intervention justified, rightful, moral, even necessary? It’s a complex question, and one with few good answers that are not requiring zooming out to acknowledge that, yet again, this is not a conflict with Grenada, but between the US as the world police, and Cuba (by extension the USSR). That the citizens of Grenada ultimately were free to run their own elections, and won that particular right, it’s the same framework at play of self-determination winning out over the higher-level machinations of global imperialist self-righteousness, invited or not, it was never about their freedom to choose, their state’s leadership, or even Grenada itself, but the manifestation of the Truman Doctrine of incursion wherever communism asserted itself. The similarities, as we’ve discussed, hardly end there.
I mention the difference between patriotism and nationalism, and I find that, in the latter case, it’s not a sense of national self-worth, pride in one’s participation in their society, but a sense of being conferred status by an elite class; nothing earned, nothing beneficial to you, but of your service to: under fascism, The State; under a monarchy, the Monarch; under a constitutional republic, the consistution; under corporatism, the ideals that betray the public interest to private corporate owners for their own ends. Patriotism like the sort I saw that day is not something I recognize in my own society, as much as many wish it to be, even if the history of it is imperfect, the coherence of political consciousness was curiously not, for all its own political and social strife; something our forces often strip of those we occupy for such proxy conflict.
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending: