Last night, I watched Talvisota, the 1989 film rendition of the Winter War, a short but fierce border conflict between Finland and the Soviet Union during the first year of World War II. Finns, newly independent from Imperial Russia, were confronted by Stalin’s ambition and paranoia. With no allies to speak of, outnumbered and lacking modern fighting vehicles, they inflicted enormous damage on the Red Army. Stalin ultimately achieved part of his objective, but lost a great deal of international sympathy and respect in doing so. Finland, for its part, avoided the fate of its Baltic neighbors (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland), remaining independent throughout WWII and the Cold War.
Talvisota depicts Finland as a simple, but proud country with an egalitarian spirit and incredible tenacity. Finns have a respect for tradition, their Lutheran faith, and, most of all, their land, refusing to yield an inch of territory without a fight. Despite being confronted with enormous numbers of Red Army soldiers, tanks and airplanes, they managed to inflict casualties at a ratio of approximately five to one. It may be tempting to write off the Red Army of the time as hopelessly incompetent and bungling, but just a year before the Winter War general Zhukov had crushed Japanese forces in the Battle of Khalkin Ghol in Manchuria and Mongolia, which was the true beginning of WWII, and featured the most recent Mongol cavalry action in East Asia, although probably not the last.
The movie focuses on two brothers who leave their family farm to defend a border outpost as political tensions rise. When negotiations between the Soviets and Finns fail, they are attacked by tanks, airplanes, artillery and massed troops. Holding on in their trenches and bunkers in the forests and farmland of the frontier, they repel wave after wave of Soviet assaults, suffering severe losses themselves. The young men of the platoon featured in the movie are from the same region – Ostrobothnia – and many are related by blood and marriage. Although this amplifies the pain of loss, it also strengthens their resolve to fight, as they know they are risking death not only for an abstract notion of Finland, but for their own kin.
This is a lesson lost on many Americans, and may explain our failure in Afghanistan, where the war is very personal for the Pashtuns. We may think of Afghans as feudal, backward barbarians, but their blood ties are very strong in the isolated valleys of the mountainous land. On the other hand, as the US evolves into a “proposition nation,” we may find that our citizens have little regard for any territory or the fates of their fellow citizens, who may as well be foreigners, thereby requiring other incentives for fighting.
However, the strong feeling of solidarity is not the only characteristic of a nation united by a common heritage, but a sense of egalitarianism as well. Finnish superiors are reluctant to throw men away, and officers share the discomforts and misfortunes of their men. One gets the sense that when it’s all over, the survivors – whatever their rank – will return to their villages and farms and take up their old lives on an even footing. It seems that Finland retains this sense of solidarity and egalitarianism today, which has prevented both the country and the Finns as a people from descending into the tyranny that has come to characterize the UK, where thousands of native Britons are arrested every year for what are, essentially, thoughtcrimes, even as their national identity is crushed and their patrimony stolen by a hostile elite.
Unfortunately, for those of us living in what are essentially modern empires, such solidarity may be impossible. The United States is too large, as is China, India, and even Russia. Feelings of nationalistic pride can never become a fixed part of the national identity in these states, as they are too rigid and unwieldy for spread-out civilizations of hundreds of millions of inhabitants. They are better suited to smaller countries that, due to a lower population and/or geographic proximity, encourage both blood ties and personal relationships throughout the country. Examples would be Ireland, Israel, Korea, etc.
I’d highly recommend the movie to men who are interested in 20th century history, as well as those who might be curious about what real patriotism looks like. The film offers a portrayal of one of the noblest qualities of men, and yet one of the greatest tragedies of the human condition. As far as war movies go, it holds its own with classics like Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, and what it lacks in flashy cinematography is easily made up for in its very human realism and historical accuracy.