The Folly of Hero Worship

America’s over-commitment to the war in Ukraine has created an unnecessary burden for itself. In the effort to legitimize our involvement in this war, celebrities have occasionally traveled to meet with President Zelensky in a show of support meant to inspire and motivate. Most recently the actor Ben Stiller praised Zelensky as his personal “hero” after meeting him in Kyiv.

Hero worship continues to saturate American coverage of the war, while antiwar opinions have been mostly ignored. Zelensky has been put on an unimaginably high pedestal for reasons which often are emotional rather than rational. For example, Professor Susan J. Wolfson of Princeton University declared Zelensky as the “genuine Byronic hero of our times.” She puts him on the same level as the poets Byron and Shelley, which is absurd.

Zelensky may very well remind her of “Thomas Paine, Winston Churchill, and John F. Kennedy” and she may feel compelled to analyze his words as if they are the utterances of a genius poet, but none of these comparisons are based in reality. Are Zelensky’s words like a poem that we should study and admire? Absolutely not. She may forever be enthralled by his most famous phrases, but when one truly studies Zelensky’s words they are often full of contradictions and he has more than once made bizarre statements.

Perhaps it is not well known to American scholars that Zelensky has given well over 100 speeches and interviews. If we take her advice to “listen closely to his words” we arrive at much different conclusions than she suggests. Apparently Professor Wolfson herself has not listened closely to Zelensky’s words. After studying his numerous speeches, it is painfully obvious that he is not very well suited to be the leader of a country at war.

Speaking with The Economist newspaper on March 25, 2022, Zelensky seemed to go around in circles. On the one hand he argued that his goal is to save people, on the other hand argued that he will fight to the last city, and at the same time elaborated that a long war will come at the cost of more Ukrainian lives, yet he has been demanding a long war. “Victory is being able to save as many lives as possible […] I don’t know how long the war will last but we will fight to the last city. […] There are those in the west who don’t mind a long war, even if this means the demise of Ukraine and comes at the cost of Ukrainian lives.”

There seems to be some very palpable confusion between his definition of victory and saving lives. In a previous interview for Eurovision News on March 22, 2022, Zelensky boldly said, “Ultimatums will not be fulfilled by Ukraine, you’d have to destroy us all. […] We will fulfill an ultimatum only when we do not exist.” He went on, “Therefore it comes down to dialogue, we are for peace, I repeat it again, even no matter how difficult it is, it is better than war.”

Yet Zelensky continuously opposes his own statements, while painting himself as an antiwar activist he also asserts himself as a warmonger. Why is it that a man seemingly focused on peace and diplomacy is so quick to abandon this for more war? It is a contradiction of priorities. Speaking to 60 Minutes on April 10, 2022, he bluntly said, “When you are working at diplomacy there are no results. […] I’m no longer interested in their diplomacy that leads to the destruction of my country.” Later in the interview, striking a softer tone he said, “I cannot put pressure on these people because everyone is afraid of war.”

Inexplicably he went on to do just that when speaking about the world’s hesitation to pursue a nuclear war, “Some are using that politically, as an excuse, by saying, ‘We can’t defend Ukraine because there could be a nuclear war.'” It’s hard to understand how the hesitation to engage in a nuclear conflict can be dismissed as an excuse. To take such a cavalier attitude toward something as serious as a nuclear war is ridiculous. We should hope to never experience one, how can that be criticized?

The interview went on with more baffling statements. Zelensky continued, “This is not a movie, this is real life.” However, just yesterday while speaking to a Canadian audience, Zelensky appreciated being compared to the fictional movie character Harry Potter. Another contradiction in a long list of contradictions that one hears when listening to his words. “We know who is Voldemort in this war and we know who is Harry Potter, so we know how the war will end.”

Our enduring infatuation with Volodymyr Zelensky is not realistic. We are willing to rush headfirst into the abyss of total war for a man who consistently sounds like a broken record, all for reasons which do not make sense. At the same time, we are not giving ourselves many options to avoid a third world war. The words of John F. Kennedy are more relevant than Zelensky’s will ever be. During Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural address he rightly said, “let us never fear to negotiate.” Rather than burden ourselves with an endless war, we must find a way to end it.

Edward Alvarez writes from San Diego.