Dragoon Ride (3): Seeing Poland as medieval Europe’s sword and shield
Everywhere we go, there are reminders of the past here, which Poles remember and Americans have either forgotten or never learned in the first place.
By Adrian Bonenberger
Best Defense bureau chief for medieval Polish history
“Poland is an ancient empire, very strong,” says a burly and ebullient Polish major. I’m nodding and listening intently on a warm summer day in early June, looking at hills behind him that have been German, Czech, Polish, and Hapsburg. I’m not sure what they are now. “The Poland cavalry was the best,” he says. “The Hussars fought for Napoleon, yes? They would fight in any odds — 2:1, 5:1, even 10:1, and they never lost.” While I know that objectively this claim must have some kind of contextual twist in order for it to be true — if the Hussars never lost, then how was Poland subjugated? Of course, they might have won a 10:1 battle and then decided to pack things in — or withdrawing didn’t count as a loss — but delving into this point with an energetic and enthusiastic nationalist twice my size seems imprudent. “In World War II, the Poles helped defeat Normandy. The first armored division closed the gap in Falais, like a — what do you put on top of a bottle?”
“A cork,” I offer. His English is extraordinary. I don’t know how to say “hello” in Polish.
“A cork!” he says, and then continues his tale of Polish military strength throughout history.
Up until recently I would have responded to this display with skepticism. I thought I knew all about Poland. My grandfather was with the State Department, back when that organization’s agenda was stopping the Russians, holding classy parties with your World War II buddies, and hitting on other peoples’ wives (not necessarily in that order). He was assigned to Poland at some point in the late 1980s, around the time the wall was coming down — it was, I believe, his final post. Growing up, all I knew about the place was the propagandistic basics: some weird Iron Curtain country that would be Russia’s staging ground for World War III, just another country in Eastern Europe with an inflated and unjustified sense of national self-worth. I picked up other important details about Poland and Polish culture from “Saturday Night Live” and visits to Chicago. Finally, from joke books, I learned that Poles were brave in a reckless kind of way. These basic assumptions about Poles did not change meaningfully until 2015.
For years, my understanding (which is to say, that of a well-educated American male interested in foreign policy) was based on unserious caricatures delivered to me by unserious caricaturists. They tricked me — or, more accurately, I allowed myself to be tricked: My willfully superficial education was worse than ignorance. This isn’t uncommon for U.S. citizens, whose knowledge tends to be broad about the world, but not deep, and who tend to concentrate on ideological or cultural antagonists like China or the Islamic State. As it turns out, Poland’s history is extraordinary, at the heart of modern Europe’s identity. Failing to understand how Poland became the country it is today negates one’s ability to see contemporary threats at a strategic level, reduces one to an ambitious tactician at best and a clown (like I was) at worst.
Dragoon Ride II left Germany on June 3rd. To avoid creating an unnecessary burden on Polish transportation infrastructure the route is longer than 2nd Cavalry Regiment has planned — about 125 miles longer. The expected daily range of a Stryker is 150 to 220 miles — that’s a long ride, at 30 to 45 miles per hour. The original, direct route was about 220 miles. The new route clocks in at 332 miles. It will be the longest tactical movement a peacetime Stryker convoy has ever conducted. Expected movement time is between 14 and 18 hours.
For this portion of the movement I ride in the squadron Commanding Officer (or SCO) of 4th squadron’s (2nd Cavalry Regiment, of course) vehicle. LTC Jonathan L. Due is an intelligent, bright-eyed leader who seems simultaneously younger and more knowledgeable than his 40 years might suggest. Due is part of that group of officers who found themselves leading platoons or troops during GWOT’s opening phases, and are now taking command or commanding during the military’s pivot back toward conventional threats. In his case, he commanded a troop with 4th ID during the invasion of Iraq. His leadership is quiet, deliberate, and not unpleasant — there is room for subordinates to ask questions, and he always has an articulate answer for them, delivered in an even-handed tone. Over the course of what ends up being an 15 hour drive around Polish cities and through small Polish towns, I get to see the SCO in action — he has an easy smile, a good sense of humor, and a broad, infectious laugh. Morale in the vehicle is high, matching that of the Poles who view the convoy, smiling and waving, taking photos and videos.
Poland, as it turns out, really was a special kind of country, and occupied a special place in the evolution of European governance. It was among the most powerful kingdoms in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, owing in large part to its unusual composition. The Kingdom of Poland (which at the time encompassed much of modern-day Ukraine) built and maintained an alliance with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (much of the Baltics, the Duchy of Prussia, and most of modern Belarus) and were able to integrate with an impressive degree of coordination for the time, achieving something approximating a federal government centuries before the American experiment. Most notably for students of Western history, Poland was responsible for the defense of Vienna in the 17th century against a superior Ottoman force. Without Jan Sobieski’s timely intervention on behalf of Western Christendom, it’s likely that the city would have fallen to the Turks, one of those events like Waterloo that one can examine and say in retrospect absolutely changed the course of human development. Poland developed a modern constitution late in the 18th century. The “Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth,” as it was called, encompassed many different religious, linguistic, and ethnic backgrounds, at a time before any of those absolutely defined an individual (or an individual’s relationship to the state).
Professor of history Timothy D. Snyder poses the paradox of Polish-Lithuanian history best in the opening to his excellent book The Reconstruction of Nations, in which he writes:
At the end of the twentieth century, as this study closes, the core lands of the old Commonwealth were divided among states named after nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus. By then, the prevailing conception of nationality expected state borders to confine linguistic communities, and the languages of speech, politics, and worship to be the same. How did four modern national ideas arise from a single early modern one?
Snyder claims that the evolution occurred when the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany effaced that old federal culture in those formerly Polish-Lithuanian countries through ethnic cleansing and genocide — essentially, that totalitarianism made the ethnically homogenous “modern” countries possible, cleared room for the type of caricatures I grew up knowing from sitcoms and cartoons. Interestingly, Snyder seems to view Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as far more similar than they were different (because he seems not to recognize language or ethnicity as important determining factors in a country’s makeup — rather, how a given system evaluates the various types of peoples within its borders). And when one sees the history of Poland in terms of partition, murder, and forced resettlement, it’s difficult not to develop a deeply sympathetic view of the people who’ve come to call themselves Polish (or Ukrainian) over the generations — reduced from mighty federalists, the stewards of a recognizably cultured Eastern Europe, to longtime servants of the Russian Empire or its inheritor, the Soviet Union.
In this context, it’s not surprising that Poland is seen as one of NATO’s most eager allies. When people (myself included) mocked President George W. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing” in 2003 — the list of nations ready to support the foolhardy and disastrous Iraq expedition — Poland was always second on the list after Britain, part of the gag, the setup for the punchline that was Guam, or Uganda, or some other suitably tiny and strategically unimportant partner. This could not be further from the truth. Poland is what we imagined Germany used to be — the greatest bulwark against Russian imperial ambitions, the country with the greatest stake in a federal, united Europe.
LTC Due changes positions between the back of the Stryker where he commands the convoy, the TC position, responsible for guiding the Stryker and alerting the driver to potential dangers, and the “Air Guard” hatch where he’s able to survey the convoy behind for potential breaks in contact, and wave at the Polish cars, trucks, and buses filled with waving Polish men and women of all ages. LTC Due’s understanding of leadership is well-developed, logically coherent, and stems from a willingness to subject himself to the same hardships endured by the soldiers that work in his command. When we finally arrive at the Polish airfield that will be our home for two days, he grabs his patrol cap and leaves the Stryker for his tactical mobility vehicle, or TMP — he’s off for a chalk that hasn’t made it to the airfield, to spend the night among his soldiers, and their escort of Polish police.
Poland recently elected a right-wing government that has been raising eyebrows among its Western partners. The election came about in part because of the refugee crisis, and hostility to the prospect of allowing non-Poles to immigrate into Poland — and when one knows Poland’s history with ethnic variety within its borders, it’s not difficult to see why they’d be protectionist — but a great part of that was also the invention of media and politicians. In light of Poland’s ongoing commitments to NATO and the EU, it’s more likely that the right-wing sentiment nationalist Poles were able to inspire came about from late and light reassurances from the United States and other NATO countries when their greatest historical antagonist, Russia, annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine. In the United States, the Islamic State and the Middle East is the greatest foreign policy story, and (in my estimation) the one onto which the media and politicians have latched themselves like a parasite latches onto its unknowing host. We think Poland’s isolationism is racist and anti-refugee because that’s how the argument has unfolded in our country. The truth is far more complicated — Poland isn’t even looking southward. Its eyes are (as they have been for generations) focused east.
The SCO’s Stryker has three other occupants besides myself and the SCO: PFC Maleek Boston, SGT Austin Utz, and SSG Shawn Buzzell. The three form a good team. Boston is a professionally ambitious young soldier who masters tasks quickly and enjoys his time in Germany. Utz is a good-natured former Bradley Gunner who operates and maintains the Stryker’s .50 Caliber Machinegun and is a sort of savant with the vehicle’s communications equipment. And Shawn Buzzell, the de facto Platoon Sergeant for the command team’s enlisted personnel — more of an honorary title to dignify his responsibilities — is the vehicle’s leader. A wiry, fit, and sharp-tongued storyteller, SSG Buzzell drives the Stryker’s crew hard, but he’s fair; the others obey his orders without question. He seems to know everything about the vehicle and how to keep it maintained, from the variety of high-frequency and frequency modulation radios to the load plan and packing. He moves quickly and savagely, packing or unpacking his hygiene kit from its place in his go-bag with the same enthusiasm and attention as he brings to programming radios, checking sensitive items, or inspecting personnel and equipment for defects or flaws.
Everyone’s been on other NATO movements before — since 2015, the unit has been incredibly busy training alongside other countries’ soldiers, organizing and participating in operations like Dragoon Strike, and preparing for the type of more high-intensity conflict Army planners expected during the Cold War. While nobody assigned to the 2nd Cavalry Regiment will say so — on the contrary, everyone denies this, expressly — Operation Dragoon Ride and similar exercises aren’t just to reassure our partners, they’re also to send a message to Vladimir Putin: to paraphrase Bart Simpson, “I’m going to start swinging, if you get hit, it’s your fault.”
Poland is ground zero for what happens when the United States takes its eye off the ball in Europe. Dragoon Ride and Fearless Guardian — substantial, strategic-level troop maneuvers on the part of the United States — didn’t kick off until 2015, almost a full year after Russia began operations in the East of Ukraine and in Crimea. It’s not difficult to imagine that between the annexation of Crimea and the original Dragoon Ride, the Polish were talking about and thinking about 1939. They were seeing that Western Europe had, from their perspective, failed to live up to the Budapest Memorandum, wherein Britain, the United States, and Russia agreed to support the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine as it existed in 1994 in exchange for its nuclear arsenal. They were remembering their own history, and how, while Poland had rescued Europe in 1683, no such payback was forthcoming from the West in 1939, or later in 1945. They and the states like them (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) began very nervously preparing for a life that has always been abstraction to American and British citizens — life lived under the boot of a dictator.
The summer sun sets late, but by the time the SCO’s vehicle and its serial of 4th squadron and regimental vehicles arrive at the Polish airfield, it’s completely dark out. The final portion of the ride unfolds in silence. It reminds me of Afghanistan — the long, concrete drive onto a base filled with crumbling Soviet-era buildings. Everywhere we go, there are reminders of the past here, which Poles remember and Americans have either forgotten or never learned in the first place.
We sleep well.
Image credit: Aleksander Orłowski/Wikimedia Commons
More from Foreign Policy
A New Multilateralism
How the United States can rejuvenate the global institutions it created.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
The Endless Frustration of Chinese Diplomacy
Beijing’s representatives are always scared they could be the next to vanish.
The End of America’s Middle East
The region’s four major countries have all forfeited Washington’s trust.