Fooling Ourselves Into War
"Look to the moon, not to the reflection in the pond."
That wise Buddhist expression encourages me to dig deeper into chemical weapons being presented as the reason we're attacking Syria. As an expert on the prediction and prevention of violence, I can't do a thing to prevent the U.S. military action against Syria, but I can predict with certainty that it is coming. That means we can see recent congressional debate for what it is: an illusion and distraction. In our times, a president does not state his intention to take military action, and then change his mind a few days later -- no matter what. Accordingly, rather than add to the debate show, I want instead to deconstruct the main reason we've been told/sold for our imminent and direct killing of people in Syria.
Much reference is being made to the various Geneva Conventions and their prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. Treaties have identified and carved out some forms of killing as distinct from others, taking the position that it makes a profound difference whether people die from bullets, bombs, chemicals, or fire. The distinction most frequently cited is that chemical weapons are indiscriminate. Observers all over Iraq and Afghanistan would say the exact same thing about bombs and missiles, and particularly cluster bombs, delayed-action cluster bombs, and all the "bomblets" that didn't explode until a curious child picked up one of the many small silver orbs found on the ground.1 Our best intentions aside, these results are indiscriminate.
Another fair objection to chemical weapons is that they cause unneeded suffering, and we can all of course agree that chemical weapons are inhumane, but so are bullets and bombs. Either way, it's all about tissue damage. Between Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, hundreds of thousands of people have suffered and then died from accelerated metal (bullets, shrapnel), and from accelerated gasses (bombs, blast, heat, fire).
Chemical weapons happen to damage tissue another way, but it's all about tissue damage nonetheless. Chemical weapons conjure (and some can cause) gasping, choking, dying. Bullets, bombs, and white phosphorous often cause the exact same experiences, and the exact same results. The act of identifying one type of lethal weapon as being unacceptable carries with it the implicit endorsement of the other lethal weapons as acceptable.
Secretary of State John Kerry, America's chief diplomat -- yet oddly also the chief spokesperson for attacking Syria -- based the entire case on chemical weapons.2 He expressed his horror at seeing video images of people "dead in their beds without a drop of blood or even a visible wound," as if the absence of blood and wounds is the origin of the horror. During the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, hundreds of thousands of civilians died in their beds by asphyxiation (no blood). At Nagasaki and Hiroshima, civilians were burned alive (no blood, or at least none that remained liquid).
Visible bleeding is hardly the mark of moral or humane killing, and from a moral point of view, is the use of chemical weapons worse than killing thousands of the wrong people some other way? Nowadays, we call those deaths collateral damage, and explain them as a necessary evil. It's a clever phrase, necessary evil, one that acknowledges the pure wrongness of an act, immediately made acceptable by the circular logic that is necessary.
The U.S. has itself been a persistent presence in the history of alleged war crimes, and as with all such allegations, there are accusers and defenders, evidence and witnesses, denials and admissions (more denials than admissions, perhaps naturally). There are famous examples, such as the intentional mass killing of civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the intentional mass immolation and asphyxiation of civilians during the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden, the use of napalm, and the more recent abuse and killing of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.3 There are also less widely-known examples, such as our current use of depleted uranium ammunition, which most countries of the world perceive to be a violation of international prohibitions on "poison or poisoned weapons."4
Not surprisingly, there are countries that defend our use of depleted uranium ammunition (four of them) -- and countries that oppose it (155 of them), and without trying to prove either case, it's fair to conclude that something the U.S. and its allies use in battle isn't healthy for the civilians who are fortunate enough to survive the intended consequence of contact with munitions. Several recent studies and medical surveys, one just a few months ago, described the people of Fallujah, Iraq as having "the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied." This led to renewed calls for the U.S. and UK to investigate possible links between their military assault on the city in 2004 and the huge increase in deformities, cancers, and other serious health problems.5
Since there are many violations of what amount to irrelevant international laws (irrelevant because the U.S. and other countries have violated them without consequence), the reality of chemical weapons versus other lethal and contaminating weapons might be best explored independent of the constant invoking of the Geneva Conventions.
But that exploration is not on the agenda today, because countries attacking other countries always have a more narrow and easy-to-understand jumping off point, described by a phrase any teenager can understand: a line in the sand. Crossing that line justifies the first attack, and all the talk is always about the first attack, because after that's done, you can stop explaining anything to anyone. This season, the line in the sand is chemical weapons, and like all of America's simple-to-describe villains, we're reminded that Assad has "killed his own people." Our solution: We'll kill some of his own people. For every child we saw in those terrible videos, we'll probably kill another ten Syrian children, and we'll certainly create another thousand orphans.
The maybe-use of chemical weapons by the current Syrian government versus the far more widespread use of other lethal weapons by Syrian combatants on both sides might be a distinction without a difference. We may now kill thousands, and cause suffering for untold thousands more -- because of something that, in the context of tissue damage, amounts to a nuance. The use of the word nuance when referring to a sacred cow like chemical weapons might appear outrageous, however I am not running for office, and thus can express myself plainly: Don't for a moment buy into the dark art of political-speak when it comes to military weapons. The men, women, and children who will this very day die slowly from painful and grotesque wounds caused by bullets, bombs, asphyxiation, and fire will not be soothed by someone else's ideas about the hierarchy of lethal weapons.
All the recent talk about the Geneva Conventions doesn't illuminate for the public what's actually contained in those four treaties. The Geneva Conventions are the mad product of nations opining somewhat irrelevantly about how killing should be conducted. It's not as if the treaties are the work of a committee of pacifists convened by Gandhi. Rather, they are a dark collection of detailed and specific ways of killing, toothless contracts about what's okay and what isn't okay when it comes to tissue damage. As happens with many contracts, countries sign the conventions only after adding their reservations and objections, composed by lawyers who write in cozy offices. One quickly sees that the treaties are not quite so lofty as many imagine. For example, here's a carve-out by the US:
The United States of America, with reference to Article 2, paragraphs 2 and 3, reservesthe right to use incendiary weapons against military objectives located in concentrations of civilians where it is judged that such use would cause fewer casualties and/or less collateral damage than alternative weapons, but in so doing will take all feasible precautions with a view to limiting the incendiary effects to the military objective and to avoiding, and in any event to minimizing, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.
Explain that lawyerly passage to a mother and her children who asphyxiate when incendiary weapons suck the oxygen from their home. Tell them about all the suffering they were spared.
Another U.S. amendment:
a trip-wired hand grenade shall be considered a "booby-trap" under Article 2(4) of the Amended Mines Protocol and shall not be considered a "mine" or an "anti-personnel mine" under Article 2(1) or Article 2(3), respectively6
The people perforated by shrapnel don't care what you call your device, and their families don't care how well you parse the words.
One last example of an important contract point the U.S. makes:
"Any decision by any military commander, military personnel, or any other person responsible for planning, authorizing, or executing military action shall only be judged on the basis of that person's assessment of the information reasonably available to the person at the time the person planned, authorized, or executed the action under review, and shall not be judged on the basis of information that comes to light after the action under review was taken."
Such as later learning there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Such as learning later that Iraqi soldiers didn't really leave babies for dead in a Kuwaiti hospital in 1990.7 Or learning later that the Gulf of Tonkin events used to publicly justify the war on North Vietnam didn't happen as described. Let's not be surprised if we later add to the list the Syrian government's official and intentional use of chemical weapons on its own citizens. After all, the U.S. administration had already decided Assad must go, independent of those terrible video images.
Had there been a debate that could influence outcome, other reasons to hesitate about the initial attack on Syria would have been aired, including the fact that reducing the power of a government in a civil war tends to increase the intensity and desperation of conflict on both sides. Whether people are killed as the result of Syria's heated internal conflict, or killed more dispassionately by United States technology, the introduction of extra lethality does not pacify civil wars.
Revolutions succeed when enough of a population has the will to make them succeed. Egypt and Tunisia are both examples in which the relatively unarmed public had the will and the numbers to force regime change. The public wish for change was overwhelmingly clear and widespread (in Tunisia, for example, 95% of the country's 8000 lawyers went on strike as a demonstration against the government). In both countries, the governments resisted, there were demonstrations, beatings, tear gas, shootings -- and yet regime change happened nonetheless.
The U.S. has chosen a side in Syria's civil war, and is providing lethal resources and lethal assistance to that side, though it's not easy to know who the good guys are (or who the less-bad guys are). Defense Secretary Hagel, yesterday:
"This is an imperfect situation. There are no good options. This is complicated. There is no clarity."
The Secretary has explained the challenge very well, and it's hardly a case for war. Yet today, we are warned by John Kerry and others that if we don't act with lethal force, the Syrian government will kill thousands more people. Let's not be deluded: When we do intervene militarily, the Syrian government (and we) will kill thousands more. And anti-Assad forces will also kill more.
We've been reminded often in the past few weeks that chemical weapons are awful -- and carefully not reminded that conventional weapons are too. It's tragic when civilians are killed by their own countrymen. It's tragic when foreign civilians are killed by our countrymen. It's tragic when our soldiers are killed. It's tragic when their soldiers are killed. But none of those tragedies will be influenced by the political posturing this week. Rather, the result of congressional hearings is that responsibility for the attack(s) on Syria will be distributed more comfortably for all concerned, and there will be a more comfortable consensus about which of these tragedies are necessary evils.