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War Tourists Are on Their Way to ‘Help’ Ukraine

The Volunteers for Ukraine subreddit encourages people with no military training or experience to enter a war zone. What could go wrong?

“I want to travel to Ukraine to help but have no military training,” reads a post on Reddit’s r/VolunteersForUkraine forum, which sprang up at the end of February to facilitate discussion between those who want to “defend” the country from an ongoing Russian invasion. The writer, u/darkwizard_333 — an account that only appeared on the site a few weeks prior — described their frustration at “sitting around watching what’s happening” from the U.K., saying they don’t just want to protest and donate. “If I travelled to Ukraine is there something I will be able to do to help without being a liability?” they asked. “Don’t want to just turn up and be clueless.”

If a friend came to you with these questions, you’d probably tell them to step back and reassess what they’re feeling. You’d remind them that showing up in an active war zone with no relevant experience, minimal supplies and little exposure to the languages spoken there is unlikely to create any positive outcome, whatever your humanitarian intentions. But on this subreddit, now almost 40,000 members strong, the response is somewhat different. One user advised u/darkwizard_333 that they could join the Georgian National Legion, a paramilitary group that has been integrated into Ukraine’s army: “Many of their trainers are ex special forces and hardened international fighters from other conflicts. They’ll teach you what you need.” A second objected to those cautioning against direct involvement, or suggesting work with refugee aid in neighboring Poland. “Don’t listen to the idiots telling you not to go. You don’t need military training,” they wrote, linking to the website where citizens from outside Ukraine can begin the process of applying through an embassy to join the International Legion of Defense of Ukraine.

As veterans and professional mercenaries flock to the region for a payday, r/VolunteersForUkraine has become the controversial hub for the amateurs looking to get in on the action. While a few well-received posts there are from people with military training explaining the harrowing reality of combat — and the lifelong trauma that may come with it — the focus is largely on cheerleading anyone packing bags and buying a plane ticket with the intent to reach the Poland-Ukraine border and join the resistance. In certain cases, this leads to enthusiasm for fake stories planted by trolls. Among the top-voted content in the community is a thread started by u/GothicPiss, who claimed to have served during the U.S. occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. “Currently in Germany awaiting transport to Ukraine,” he wrote. “After being evicted from my apartment I knew this was the right choice.” Attached, however, is a photo of YouTube personality Josh Saunders, better known as KingCobraJFS; he lives in Wyoming and later denied being anywhere near the site of the Ukraine-Russia conflict. That was after many redditors bought the story and left approving comments under his likeness. “Godspeed happy hunting and I hope you live and become a hero in Ukraine,” said one. “Sounds like you made the right choice,” said a fellow supporter. “Shoot straight, keep your head down and chin up.”   

Throughout the subreddit are glaring signs that these would-be soldiers are woefully unprepared for conditions on the ground, or already in over their heads. Someone apparently in the city of Lviv, in western Ukraine, triggered an argument about what equipment and body armor volunteers could expect to receive on arrival, if any, by posing with his rifle in a bright yellow jacket and sweatpants. (He had also reposted the image to blur out his face after potentially exposing his identity with an uncensored picture.) A “trainer in unconventional warfare” has asked how they can travel from the U.S. to Europe with multiple firearms. An angry redditor telling these people to stop “larping as rambo” — pretending to be action heroes, that is — was rebuffed by critics as a “negative chump,” one of various “Russian trolls” and “low IQ.” Nobody can agree on what level of commitment the Foreign Legion requires: It’s either at-will service (meaning you can leave whenever), a multi-year contract or “until martial law is over.”     

But most worrisome, and most indicative of the direction in which r/VolunteersForUkraine may be trending, is the stubborn refusal to hear out veterans trying to talk civilians out of going over. “Bro the non military people in the comments here seriously telling the veterans that their concerns or advice isn’t valid is concerning,” an observer commented in a thread this week. “I was military as well, these guys don’t understand just how expendable they’re going to be. No training, no experience, don’t even speak Ukrainian, in a near-[peer] conflict where artillery and air can reach anywhere in the country. It’s straight delusional.” The same day, someone suggested confining the reasons for not volunteering in Ukraine to a single megathread, so that moderators could then “ban any other such discouraging comments on people’s posts.”

They, too, voiced scorn for the skeptics: “This subreddit is for volunteers to organize, group and make it to Ukraine. It is not a subreddit for those who are brave enough to drop their entire life in a blink to be called dumb, stupid, idiots or even discouraged by the lurking Russians from participating in the war.” The counter-backlash was met with agreement. “If people are so concerned about inexperienced people going to the border then maybe they should set up local boot camps instead of judging people and whining online,” reads a remark downthread.  

It would be entirely reasonable to measure the risks and expectations of self-deployment in Ukraine — and to take stock of your own limited skill set — before taking that leap. But this subreddit actively undermines such analysis in favor of spontaneous adventurism and heroic narratives. On balance, it’s a genuine danger to impressionable young men eager to prove their mettle, some of whom appear to be breaking leases, suspending their health insurance, leaving behind spouses and liquidating whatever assets they have to pay their way to the front lines. And the excitement of getting there, the anticipation of camaraderie in battle, seems to always outweigh the compassion for Ukrainian people they hope to defend. 

Most of us have heard the timeless question from a parent: “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?” Here we have a grim and striking answer — yes, as long as I can post about it beforehand for clout.