Syria: War is the Servant of No One


By A. G. Moore 8/28/2013

Boer Women and Children in a British Concentration Camp during the Second  Boer War
Photo from the British National Army Museum Wikimedia Commons in the public domain

“The regime’s belated decision to allow access is too late”, Secretary of State Kerry declared on Tuesday, as he laid the case for U. S. military action in Syria . On March 17, 2003 George W. Bush declared, “It is too late for Saddam Hussein to remain in power”–and he made his case for the invasion of Iraq. The parallel between these two speeches is not ironic; it’s tragic. In each speech the quality that comes through is a calculating and indifferent hubris. We go to war, these men say, not because we must but because we are offended and our pride demands it.

I ask, who will be punished for Assad’s offense? Kerry claims that the Syrian government must be held “accountable”. How will the Secretary accomplish this? With a bombing campaign against “military” targets but one that will exact an untold number of “collateral” losses? From whose mother, father, brother, child will Kerry ask payment for wounded pride?

News reports over the last couple of days have suggested that the U. S. plans a “limited” campaign of aerial strikes. The bombardment, these reports suggest, is supposed to start on a day certain and end three days later. This is to be a controlled engagement. Funny thing about war, though, once entered it’s a little like opening Pandora’s Box. Lift the lid and there’s no telling what will come out

War, history teaches us, is no one’s servant.

For example, take the Second Boer War. The British expected this one to be a cakewalk lasting only a few months. The Brits had wrangled with Boers in South Africa before and had settled differences with relatively little drama. So England thought the second Boer conflict would go as easily.  In October of 1899 the Brits issued an ultimatum, one that was patently unacceptable to the Boers. War ensued, but not the one the British had envisioned. This one was sloppy, with irregular Boer units waylaying and ambushing British troops. By the time the war was over–2 1/2 years later–about 75,000 people had been killed. While the Brits did achieve the war’s purpose–acquiring territory they coveted–the war had extracted a terrible toll in lost lives, spent treasure and declining prestige.

And then we can look to another war, one closer to home: the U. S. Civil War. The savagery of this conflict was so unanticipated that spectators showed up at the first land skirmish with picnic baskets and opera glasses in order to catch the show. Four years after this first battle at Mannassas, the war ended. By then 618, 000 soldiers had died in combat. Hundreds of thousands more had been wounded. An estimated 50,000 civilians perished. This war so divided the nation that it might reasonably be argued the U.S. is still suffering its consequences.

Finallly, let us return to George Bush and his Iraq adventure. The Iraq War was supposed to cost between $50 and $60 billion. By 2007, one independent research organization(Opinion Research Business Poll) estimated  the cost of the war had risen to $1.7 trillion . Not included in this estimate is ongoing, unquantifiable expenditures for care and rehabilitation of wounded soldiers. Besides the financial burden the war imposed on the U. S., there is of course the loss suffered by the Iraqi people. The ORB estimates that between 2003 and 2007 approximately 1,033,000 Iraqis met violent deaths as a direct result of the war.

Both John Kerry and Barack Obama are educated people; their temperaments incline them toward reflection. So what are they thinking? Has power so corrupted their world view that they perceive events in narrow focus? Are the lessons of history lost on them so that only noise from interested parties gets through? Perhaps it is not just hubris that brings the U.S. to the brink of war. Perhaps it is also the effect of an echo chamber in the halls of power, where vested interests jockey for advantage and gain.

Eisenhower–always I return to Eisenhower–warned about those vested interests, about that echo chamber. Of all the dangers he mentioned in his Farewell Address, this one startles most: “Beware the military industrial complex”.  It is the entrenched interest of this complex, along with certain geopolitical calculations, that send us time and again to drink from war’s bloody trough.

Let’s not be seduced this time into battle  by cynical manipulators strategically planting images of human suffering in media outlets. The suffering is true. What is not true is the notion that we can mitigate or end it by bombing the Syrian people.

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