Among all the many weapons of inhumane warfare, poison gas evokes a particular moral revulsion. Although 100,000 people have already been killed in the Syrian civil war and 2 million have become refugees, the Ghouta massacre of civilians by gas, including many children, shocks the conscience.
President Obama claims that a military attack on Syria will send a message to Syrian President Bashar Assad and others that his alleged use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated. He maintains that if the U.N. can’t act, it falls upon the U.S. to uphold the international norm by force of arms. The requirement of Congressional authorization gives Americans a rare moment to deliberate on war and to convey their opinion to their representatives. My brief contribution focuses on some of the language used to justify taking unilateral action.
“Limited” is intended to reassure Americans and others that the U.S. is not launching a major war. Yet, many seasoned observers warn that no one knows how Syria, Iran, or Hezbollah will respond or how other nations may respond to them. Any retaliatory strike by Syria or its allies will certainly be answered. The Pentagon is already planning for an expanded war. The escalation and replication of violence throughout history should send shudders through those contemplating a limited military strike.
“Surgical” is meant to reassure people who worry that U.S. bombs might add to the suffering of the Syrian people. Yet, “precision” weapons deliver powerful munitions that kill beyond their intended target. “Targeting errors” are inevitable. People in war zones live in terror of sudden death from above. If escalation follows, what then becomes of “surgical?” The U.S. has already left a trail of anger about civilian deaths throughout the region. Should we be inviting more resentment?
“Credibility,” we are told, is about holding Syria accountable for crossing a red line that the president has drawn. Clearly, if perpetrators are not held accountable, they will continue to act with impunity. Yet, when war is the instrument for enforcing accountability, what is credibility really about? Many thoughtful observers believe that a military mentality has come to dominate American foreign policy and that maintaining military superiority is its paramount goal. The utility of threatening military force depends on credibility. Willingness to act must be demonstrated to adversaries and onlookers. Since 1980, the U.S. has repeatedly employed force in the greater Middle East with tragic and arguably counterproductive results. Public opinion in many countries has come to view the United States as the greatest threat to world peace. Is this the kind of credibility we need?
Credibility is also about the willingness of Americans to accept recurrent wars. Yet, polls suggest that many Americans are “war weary.” The bloody chaos in Iraq and the continuing strife and corruption in Afghanistan do not convey confidence in military solutions. We’ve been there before. Following the Vietnam War, Americans were reluctant to support military adventures in far-off places. It took the Gulf War to finally “kick” what the pro-war crowd called “the Vietnam Syndrome.” Might not going to war against Syria be a similar attempt to rescue the credibility of using America’s military might after two painful and unpopular post-9/11 wars?
“International norms,” we are told, will be damaged if the U.S. does not respond. But what if violations of those norms are the rule in war and not the exception? If war itself is inhumane, shouldn’t we question the duplicity of denouncing the inhumanity of those we define as enemies; ignoring, down-playing or even aiding the brutality of our friends; and denying our own violations of international norms and laws? If the truth of warfare could somehow be known, witnessed, experienced close up, imagined from inside the lives of wars’ soldier and civilian victims, would we turn to war so quickly?
The laws of war were created in recognition that warring parties use violence without moral restraint. Instead of taking matters into our own hands in clear violation of the U.N. Charter, we could work to strengthen international law. We could start by joining the International Criminal Court with a pledge to bring national leaders who commit war crimes to justice. We could also greatly increase our efforts to relieve the suffering of Syria’s refugees and to achieve a negotiated settlement. With renewed moral authority, we could be an instrument of the peace.
Rob Crawford teaches courses related to war and human rights at the University of Washington Tacoma and coordinates the Washington State Religious Campaign Against Torture.