As every college basketball fan knows, the month of March has been traditionally set aside for the 64-team NCAA tournament — better known as “March Madness” for its unpredictability.
This year, however, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has staged his own March Madness, an unprovoked, full-on attack against neighboring Ukraine. And by closely following both events, I’ve begun to see some weird similarities between them.
Don’t get me wrong – a direct comparison would be not only flawed but callous. No one dies during the NCAA tournament (although some people seem to regard it as life-or-death), and when it’s over, the cities where it took place remain unchanged.
Not so in Ukraine, where photos and videos of devastated buildings confront the rest of the world daily.
True, it’s a little hard for Americans to relate to this nightmare. With the exception of September 11 (which, while also horrific, was short-lived and narrowly focused), we haven’t been invaded by a foreign power since the War of 1812. We don’t have to worry about Canada or Mexico massing troops on our borders.
For us, the sound of an airplane flying overhead is just part of the background noise. In Ukraine at the moment, it’s an urgent call to seek shelter. Perhaps the closest we come to what’s happening in Ukraine, in terms of sudden death and destruction, are the worst of our tornados.
Back in medieval times, two relatively small armies usually found an open field in which to act out their hostilities, using relatively primitive weapons. Civilians were generally left alone, and those battles, like today’s bar fights, tended to end quickly with the first solid punch.
Now, we have entered the age of collateral damage, although I never quite understood the logic of trying to take over another country by bombing it into rubble and forcing most of the residents to flee. What do you have left when it’s over?
I can see why Donald Trump regards Vladimir Putin as a kindred spirit. though. They apparently share the same theory about disinformation — if you say something loud enough and long enough, even if the facts seem to directly dispute it, people may start believing it.
In Putin’s case, it was “We’re not really at war. This is just a military exercise.”
But who’s blowing up all those buildings in Ukraine? According to Putin, it’s the work of a shadowy group of “Nazis” inside the Ukrainian government. This is odd because the Ukrainian president is Jewish. Moreover, there aren’t many shadowy subversive groups armed with missile launchers, tanks, and fighter planes.
Listening to Putin is like listening to Alex Jones.
Meanwhile, this is probably the first war staged in the era of mass information overkill, and here’s where the similarities between March Madnesses become evident.
During the basketball tournament, the TV networks bring out ex-coaches and players to expound on what’s taking place. With the war in Ukraine, it’s former generals and State Department veterans. The Russian strategy is being second-guessed and critiqued on news Websites, Russian prisoners are being interviewed, and Ukrainian president Zelensky has spoken to the U.S. Congress via Zoom.
And then there are the underdogs. With basketball, it’s little Saint Peter’s, which at this writing had become the first 15th seeded team ever to advance to the Elite Eight, charming millions in the process. As for Ukraine, it also would have been a heavy underdog had pre-war gambling odds been posted.
This conflict is also a reminder that it’s hard even for a superpower to beat a lesser opponent on its home court. The underdogs in war may not be able to forge total victory, but the modern array of defensive weapons at their disposal often enables them to drag out the conflict interminably and make the attackers pay a very heavy price.
In other words, victory in 2022 simply means getting your opponent to decide that it’s just not worth it.
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."