“War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.”
-Carl von Clausewitz
“Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.”
-Otto von Bismarck
Here’s a question to get us started: If a guy tells you that he knows he was wrong when he told you to do something the last time you had a tough decision to make, but now he is telling you to do the same thing, claiming the circumstances are different, what do you think? Well, if you’re like me, you think twice about taking that person’s advice. It’s somewhat akin to that saying that George W. Bush famously botched at one point during his presidency: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
I had those thoughts earlier this week when Bill Keller, the former Executive Editor of the New York Times, said in an OpEd piece in his newspaper (“Syria Is Not Iraq,” May 6) that he knows he was wrong when he supported going to war in Iraq, but now he thinks it’s right to beat the war drums on Syria. Really, Mr. Keller? After you and your newspaper were largely responsible (through poor reporting and your own editorials) for the public’s ultimate acceptance of the Bush-Cheney war cries on Iraq, you want to take up the charge again?
Oh, you say the situation is different now? Well, let’s see. This time there’s a tyrant who is gassing his own people in an Arab land that is a hotbed for radicalism and for unrest, not just against the ruling regime but against all things non-Muslim and especially against the United States. Gee, that really doesn’t sound all that different from what was going on in Iraq some ten years ago when you came out in support of the Bush administration’s push to go to war in that country.
I start with the premise that whenever there is a choice between going to war and not going to war, the default decision should be not to go to war. I have lived long enough, and consider myself a good enough student of history, to have come to that conclusion. As an Air Force Officer during the Viet Nam War, I saw what war does and how often it doesn’t play out as planned. And as a pacifist ever since, I have argued against every war the United States has entered (or started).
World War II is generally thought to have been a good war, but not by my calculation. Yes, it was entered and fought by the United States for good reasons: those being to defeat fascist aggression, to respond to a direct attack by Japan, and to stop the slaughter of millions of innocent victims of the Holocaust. But don’t tell me it was a good war. Not when it ended with the use of nuclear power in the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, immediately incinerating thereby upwards of a quarter of a million innocent civilians. Not when those bombs were preceded by fire bombings of numerous other Japanese cities, killing untold thousands more. Not when similar military tactics were used against the German people (many also innocent civilians) in things like the Dresden fire bombing.
Many will say that certainly the U.S. Civil War was, if not a good war, a necessary one, what with the southern states intent on seceding to preserve the practice of enslavement of a whole race of people. Again, a good reason but hardly a good war, not with the utter destruction of many southern cities and the still unresolved hatred borne by the descendants of many of the vanquished in that war.
But Mr. Keller and many others are now clamoring for Obama to take military action against the Assad regime in Syria. They say that to do nothing encourages other tyrants to similarly treat their own people while furthering the impression that the United States is a paper tiger, unable to pursue policy objectives by “other means,” as Clausewitz casually put it.
Okay, let’s think about it. What would U.S. intervention accomplish in Syria? It would hasten the demise of the Assad regime, which, presumably is going to happen at some point anyway, so not much long-term gain there. It would reduce the amount of killing of innocent civilians by Assad, which would certainly be a plus. But what would the cost be and what would emerge after his fall?
The answers to those questions are far less clear. Would a pro-U.S. democratic government naturally spring up? Unlikely, since many of the anti-Assad forces are either jihadist or militant Islamists (if there’s a difference between the two). So would the United States have to remain in the country to help “create” the façade of a pro-American regime, a la post-Saddam Iraq? Would five or ten years of U.S. presence in another Arab country help to defuse the hatred of many in that region for the United States? And can the U.S. afford such a commitment, with a sluggish economy that seems stalled by politicians who cannot agree on how to avoid something (sequestration) none of them want.
Those questions don’t even address the added collateral damage that a U.S. military presence in Syria would create. What that collateral damage would be is uncertain, but what isn’t uncertain is that there would be a bunch of it. There always is, in every war, be it unexpected acts of brutality like the My Lai massacre in Viet Nam, or the hideous acts of torture at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, or just the thousands of innocent civilians whose lives are destroyed by the errant bomb or the unintended destruction of property or the unthinking act of a single soldier.
War is Hell; it’s humanity at its worst. It should never be entered casually or as merely another means to effectuate policy, and it should never be counseled by someone who has already wrongly recommended it in the past.