The Snake Island Episode Is A Perfect Opportunity To Explain Moral Luck To Your Family And Friends

The legend was quick to take hold. The account was that as the Russian military pounded targets across Ukraine with bombs and missiles, a small team of Ukrainian border guards on rocky, desolate Zmiinyi Island, “Snake Island” to its friends, received a warning that the Alamo defenders would have recognized: Surrender or die. “I am a Russian warship,” the invaders said, according to a recording. “Lay down your arms and surrender to avoid bloodshed and unnecessary deaths. Otherwise, you will be bombed.”

Travis answered the equivalent message with a cannon shot. The defenders of Snake Island’s answer was more reminiscent of the famous reply of the 101st Airborne Division’s acting commander Anthony McAuliffe during the Battle of the Bulge. Defending Bastogne, McAuliffe gave a one-word reply to a German surrender ultimatum: “Nuts!” The Ukrainians’ version: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.”

[Quick digression here: As I have mentioned before on EA, my WWII vet father, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and got a Silver Star for his efforts, insisted that nobody in the Infantry believed for a second that “Nuts” was the actual reply. He said the consensus of those who knew McAuliffe as well as the way soldiers talked in the field were certain that he had really answered exactly like the Ukrainians. Meanwhile, how absurd is it for today’s media to celebrate the courage and defiance of the Snake Island defenders’ response, yet feel compelled to censor it by printing “f—“? ]

Digression over. The story reported in the news media was that the Russians opened fire, killing all 13 border guards. They became instant martyrs and their fate became inspiration for the brave Ukrainian refusal to accept Russian domination. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky later announced the deaths and said that the island’s defenders will be bestowed with the title “Hero of Ukraine,” the highest honor the Ukrainian leader can award.

Today, however, the Ukrainian State Border Guard indicated that the heroic soldiers may have survived the shelling of the island and been taken prisoner by the Russians, who some accounts indicate transferred them to be detained on the Crimean Peninsula. The disappointment of TV talking heads on CNN and Fox at the news was palpable. Clearly, they wished that they could follow the advice of the old newspaperman in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The legend was so dramatic, so perfect, so uplifting! The fact that the men were captured—worse, that they might have surrendered after all—spoils everything.

No, it doesn’t. If true, it doesn’t change a thing. The response of the Snake Island defenders was heroic the second they defied the demand to surrender. Whether they were killed, or wounded, or survived the attack and were taken prisoner after fighting the hardest they could fight is moral luck—it seems to alter the previous events, but it doesn’t. If a shell had landed in a different place, any or all of the men would have been killed, and they would have had no control over it.

The men are just as much heroes for their response to a demand to surrender by a vastly superior force regardless of what happened afterwards.

This part of the story also has its relevance to the Alamo. The most famous of the Alamo defenders, Davy Crockett, was never identified among the bodies after the battle, and nobody lived to describe his end. Walt Disney showed Davy as the last defender, fighting on as Mexican soldiers poured over the walls behind him. John Wayne, in his portrayal of Davy, showed him blowing himself and the Alamo’s munitions up in the battle’s final moments. But one of Santa Ana’s officers, in his accounts of the battle, claimed that Davy Crockett was one of a handful of Texans taken prisoner, and that he and the rest were slaughtered by Santa Ana’s order. The story can’t be substantiated: the officer didn’t know what Crockett looked like, or he could have been just trying to puncture Texas pride. As with the Snake Island defenders, however, Davy’s ultimate fate is irrelevant to his heroism. He stayed and fought with his comrades knowing that the odds were hopeless. If, by luck or guile he managed to avoid death in the fort when the battle was lost, it doesn’t diminish his heroism. One biographer of Crockett wrote that even if one accepted the Mexican version of Davy’s death (and he pointed out that we will never know), it is consistent with what we know about his character. Davy, said his biographer, when he saw all was lost, was the kind of man who would have said to the few men with him, “Stick with me, boys; maybe I can talk us out of this.” He would have tried, too. That would have been Davy Crockett being Davy Crockett. He didn’t believe there was anything courageous about giving up your life for nothing.

I hope the 13 heroes are alive, and that they survive to receive the honors and acclaim they earned by being an example for all Ukrainians. They didn’t have to die to make their stand count.

8 thoughts on “The Snake Island Episode Is A Perfect Opportunity To Explain Moral Luck To Your Family And Friends

  1. On the one hand, I’m sure their loved ones are glad they’re alive, on the other hand, it makes me think of this scene:

    Also, it bugs me a little bit that in the news I’ve read of the incident, there is no mention of the Ukrainian soldiers actually fighting back. Did they actually have the means to inflict casualties on the enemy, and would letting themselves be shelled be more of a delaying action than surrendering?

    • Delaying the Russians would have done nothing to the overall scheme of things. It was a pure act of defiance. Sometimes these things are needed and have the morale boost for the rest of the nation. But engaging in some sort of resistance with a Naval vessel wouldn’t have made a difference to any other Russian timetables (I don’t think).

      I’m not quite certain what the guys on the Island could do at all regarding the war – and Russia could have done itself a favor just bypassing it altogether. But I think it’s one more example of Russia underestimating the Ukrainian resolve.

  2. Just so you don’t feel neglected:

    I read it.

    I have nothing to add.

    Spot on analysis.

    Okay, I will add this: had they fired on the ship, sunk it, and everyone on the island survived, they would have been equally brave for being steadfast in the face of death.


  3. I made a brief comment about this on your Alamo post the other day, noting that the report of their survival might be Russian propaganda. As you say, it’s an inspiring story either way, but it does lose some luster without martyrs. The Russkies may just be kicking that can down the road to lessen the potential morale boost for the Ukrainians in the current engagement.

  4. I also mentioned the Snake Island incident and Gen. McAuliffe’s response in the post on Columbia University. Not complaining here, but just following Willem Reese’s comment. I am also glad to see you have given the Snake Island story a full post here.

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