What the Ukraine War Teaches Americans About the Right to Bear Arms

By Mark W. Smith
Published by Bombardier Books, Post Hill Press180 pg. eBook $7.99; 220 pg. paperback $14.99
ISBN: 978-1-63758-923-6

DisarmedReviewed by Gila Hayes

Popular YouTube commentator Mark Smith of Four Boxes Diner fame has written a meticulously documented study of Ukrainian citizens fighting Russian invaders, starting with the observation that, “Many experts would have told you before the invasion that all this effort was a waste of time and lives. How could civilians with small arms expect to stop one of the world’s most powerful militaries, a military with nuclear weapons?”

The answer is spelled out in six chapters backed by extensive attribution with links for easy additional study. This work is ideal for ebook format because it encourages independent study of quoted details. Don’t just take the author’s word for it – read the end notes and the original articles in their entirety.

Ukraine has disproven the anti-gun claim that small arms in the hands of citizens are insufficient to stand against a government with tanks and bombers. Still, Joe Biden seems fond of his soundbite that unless armed citizens have F-16s they can’t resist the government; that’s only slightly less threatening than Eric Swalwell’s rant on Twitter that rebellion “would be a short war...The government has nukes.”

To the contrary, Smith quotes one Ukrainian gun buyer who acknowledged that he couldn’t stop the invading Russians, but would protect his home and family against looters. Actually, Smith points out later in Disarmed, invaders as far back as the 1940s have learned that “Bombing cities does not force their inhabitants to give up” and at some point, the conventional army troops have to go in and hold the ground, and then they are vulnerable to IEDs and being shot by the surviving citizens.

In Disarmed, Smith explores whether citizens without Swalwell’s nukes could prevail in war, seen through the lens of the Ukrainian fight against Russian invasion. “This book focuses on the need for an armed, trained citizenry in the event of larger scale disasters, such as a foreign invasion or other actions by a foreign power, like China, or to prevent domestic oppression, or possible civil unrest,” he writes. “As you’ll see in this book, Ukraine’s experience provides ample evidence that armed citizens can and do figure prominently in a nation’s defense.” He adds later that civilians fighting for their homes is one of the most motivated forces imaginable. “There are many historical precedents where over matched forces have repeatedly held strong against—and have even defeated—powerful militaries. How? The underdogs are highly motivated and use the techniques of irregular warfare,” he explains. “Why an armed people fight can be more important than what weaponry they fight with.”

Americans’ perception of invulnerability is an illusion, Smith observes. He quotes U.S. Strategic Command Admiral Charles Richard who believes an attack by China not only possible but imminent. Smith adds that EMP attacks against the power grid, cyber attack and sabotage to destroy water and fuel distribution, can led to civil strife. He adds that polling finds that nearly 90% of Americans fear political violence, and 37% think civil war could come. Nearly half think economic collapse likely.

Smith details events that left the Ukrainian people vulnerable. “Although Ukraine broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Soviet tradition of severe regulation of private firearms endured in the newly independent nation,” he writes. “Ukrainians had more than thirty years to correct this problem before the Russian invasion.” Right up until Russia invaded, Ukrainians were not allowed to own handguns; had to be 25 to buy a rifle or 21 to buy a shotgun and had to undergo a mental exam, pay a license fee, and were required to have a gun safe and get a permit approving the safe’s installation, which was rarely granted promptly. 

One would think that a country located next to an aggressive neighbor like Russia would have a capable military. Smith explains that in 2005-2006 Ukraine possessed a substantial stockpile of artillery, anti-aircraft weapons plus small arms and ammunition. When the Soviet Union collapsed, then-senator Barack Obama got them $48 million in U.S. aid, but attached the requirement that the weapon stockpiles be destroyed “for the safety of the Ukrainian people and people around the world,” Obama said. Some ten years later, when Ukraine begged for weapons to defend the Donbas region, Obama rejected the plea. Eight years later Biden had done an about face and he trumpeted the importance of arming Ukrainians, while promoting gun confiscations in America.

How, Smith asks, can the 10,000 rifles sent to Ukraine for use by private citizens be celebrated when Biden and the anti-gunners say small arms have no value in citizen hands against an army? First, Smith points out, small arms let you fight your way to bigger weapons. Second, private citizens desperate to keep their homes and country fight harder than recruits forced into military service. That spirit inspires generosity from other countries, keeping donated supplies and funding rolling in. While really apparent in Ukraine, the same principle was at work in the Revolutionary War when France pitched in to defeat the British, Smith points out.

How can men and women with no military training who are armed with rifles and pistols make a difference against tanks and artillery? Smith points out that “urban warfare is tailor- made for small arms.” Even soldiers in tanks have to come out sometime, and the Ukrainians make good use of “simple moves such as putting disabled vehicles in major roadways or popping small arms fire whenever dismounted Russian troops [were] in the open,” he quotes the Military Times. Similar tactics were effective in Mogadishu, Somalia, in Grozny, Chechnya, and Suez City, Egypt, he quotes.

Even if invaders initially overwhelm the population and capture their homeland, holding on to the territory turns into a nightmare, Smith notes. Examples include the Spartans at Thermopylae, our own Revolutionary War, concentration camp resistance to the Nazis, and the war in Ukraine. All show the extreme difficulty.

Finland is a good illustration of how to keep Russia on their side of a shared border and Smith quotes respected military strategist Edward Luttwak: “In Finland, ‘adolescent males report for a short and intense period of military training, followed by shorter refreshers for most of their adult life.’” This focused training isn’t intended to produce military professionals. Instead, “‘it prepares civilians to be ready to join their unit and harass and kill invaders,’” he quotes. The strategy has supported Finland’s century of independence from Russia, during which they’ve pushed back invasions from their neighbor three times. “The question is not so much why Finland has gone to these lengths, as it is why other countries, such as Ukraine, have not,” Smith opines. Ukraine’s citizens were just as willing, but due to severe gun control had neither guns nor experience with firearms. Now, Ukrainians may be temporarily armed, but without new laws, their right to possess the firearms they’ve been sent could end when martial law is lifted. How long will privately owned guns be allowed?

The Russian threat is nothing new and unlikely to go away. Smith quotes a Rand Corporation study that in 2016 analyzed threats to Baltic states and suggested that NATO forces could not deploy fast enough to save the capitals of Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania from a Russian invasion. The tradition of keeping citizens on call as reservists with weapon training and exercises, as does Finland, is crucial. Smith adds, “Another nation that emphasizes deterrence through an armed citizenry is Switzerland. The Swiss are famous for their long-held position of ‘armed neutrality.’ The ‘armed’ part is crucial; they couldn’t maintain their neutrality without it.”

Smith shifts gears slightly when he cites historical instances of tyrants disarming their own citizens, or invaders quickly confiscating guns from the conquered. In the 16th century, brutal Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi decreed that farmers must give up their swords to “guarantee peace and security and joy and happiness.” Only a few years ago Venezuela disarmed citizens under the guise of public safety. Today it is hard to know whether organized crime or the Venezuelan government has killed more citizens. “Do you want to end up like the people of Venezuela, disarmed and defenseless? Or do you want to be able to protect yourself, your family, your community, or even, if need be, your country?” Smith asks.

Don’t wait until catastrophe hits to prepare, Smith urges in conclusion. He quotes retired federal judge Alex Kozinski’s analysis, “The prospect of tyranny may not grab the headlines the way vivid stories of gun crime routinely do. But few saw the Third Reich coming until it was too late. The Second Amendment is a doomsday provision, one designed for those exceptionally rare circumstances where all other rights have failed—where the government refuses to stand for reelection and silences those who protest; where courts have lost the courage to oppose, or can find no one to enforce their decrees.”

I’ll close with a word of appreciation to my friend Henry who recommended Disarmed. Reading it taught me a lot about past and recent history. We should never forget the warning attributed to George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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