Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Syria in September

As the talk shows endlessly hypothesize about what the U. S. should or should not do for the world in Syria; as Congress questions two veterans of foreign wars, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and debates resolutions; as at least one senator demands to know what the outcomes will be as if the strategists hold crystal balls; and as citizens weigh in, I find myself torn.

Yes, the world should never again ignore the suffering and torment of people. Innocent men and women in Rwanda held fast to the hope that the U. S. would intervene to save them. We didn’t and up to one million men, women and children were slaughtered.

We intervened in behalf of the world during WWII, but not before Hitler invented and implemented the final solution. At least six million died then.

Our footprint has also fallen in Bosnia, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Laos, Cambodia, and countless other places.; for our costs in Iives lost, disrupted, and irrevocably altered, the world has not always judged our interventions kindly. In Japan, for example, our use of firebombs took about 100,000 lives and left many survivors without shelter, food, or clean water. During an interview for the documentary, Fog of War, one of the architects of the firebomb raids, Robert McNamara used the firebombs as a cautionary tale about the use of force. Even in war, McNamara explained, proportionality must be a significant consideration. In other words, later in life, McNamara believed that killing 100,000 and leaving as many more to suffer in order to break the Japanese morale and will to fight was wrong; the death toll was out of proportion when considering the results.

McNamara was also the Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. When McNamara began to urge President Johnson to withdraw from Vietnam, Johnson asked McNamara to resign, and he did. Nevertheless he shares in the blame for the U. S. presence in Vietnam because of his first seven years as Secretary of Defense. Worse, he shares the blame for the use of napalm, first deployed against Japan and in Vietnam. Napalm and Agent Orange not only burned buildings and forests, they scorched the earth and melted the flesh from human beings. Both were chemical agents that enhanced the destructive, killing power of fire.

And therein lies my dilemma about Syria. How can we claim to stand on higher moral ground when we have deployed chemicals against enemies after the world agreed, we’re told, not to use them?

Mustard gas was a weapon of choice in World War I. Its horrors informed Wilfred Owen who concluded in Dulce et Decorum Est

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Few survived the gas, and those who did were forever disabled, teaching the world to eschew chemical warfare, but its use has persisted, and our hands are unclean. We cannot claim the higher moral ground against a despot who has used chemical gas against his own people, at least until we admit our own violations and invite the world to join us in swearing off such cruel attacks. They are not and cannot be delivered without human collateral damage. Chemicals fall upon the guilty and the innocent, the perpetrators and the victims as do drones, the source of much Middle Eastern hatred for us and our might. If we wish to lead the world, shouldn’t we lead the world in peace rather than hypocrisy and chemical weapons?