You can always find somebody in any one of the countries involved who will tell you they are frightened, that things have never been worse. You can always find another person who will talk with equal sincerity about not taking it any more, not giving in, bombs and raids and retaliation. Why is a line in the sky any better than a line in the sand ?
There are contexts in which you have to fight, but how and when – this has to be clearer to me before I can get my head round it. And what happens when the engagement is over is part of the battle plan. The French/US/British raids into Syria just flown were targeted on places where chemical weapons are under manufacture. But from WWII onward it was admitted that “precision bombing” was wishful thinking. Obviously, machinery to direct and target has improved in accuracy – but how far? And when a friend said “What is so different about chemical warfare? It procures a horrible death: in war, is there a nice one?” I stopped and thought. Is the only way to stop the escalation of a war, escalating it in a different way ?
A veteran war reporter commented on the over crowded skies above Syria – officially Syrian national forces and Russians but unofficially all sorts of dissenters and who knows who else ? I don’t know what is sanctioned and what isn’t: and even if I knew, I would suspect that a lot is done quietly, without admitting to it or only admitting to it if it goes “wrong”. What we know and don’t know is always a two edged sword, more than ever now. I heard a man’s voice say quietly on television the other night “This is not the new Cold War – it’s the same old one” while another added that “you will often find the military are the most considered: they know that war means death.” The focus changes but the idea of your domination versus my domination has never gone away.
The Bay of Pigs (1961) when the threat of (then) Soviet nuclear weapons was in striking range of the US froze us with fear. I only understood the oppressive silences, the wary glances, the lowered voices when the children were around. And then I caught my mother in our tiny bathroom and said I didn’t understand, why was it so important and she turned on me, her blazing eyes full of tears, her voice shaking – “Because it will be the end , the horrible end of everything ! Why can’t they stop ? Oh, I wish I’d never brought children into this world…” Quite a lot of us feel like that at the moment.
I first learned the phrase “collateral damage” in the context of the Vietnam War (see the documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, PBS on Wednesdays) I could have learned what it meant through the study of many wars, maybe all wars, certainly anything after the American Civil War (1860-5) It’s the bit you don’t plan for. You don’t plan for more men to kill themselves back home than died in the conflict, you don’t plan for the endless fallout of wounds that don’t heal, people who can’t sleep or work, substances that slumber in the ground or on the trees and poison the earth for years. You don’t plan for millions of people being driven out of where they live with nothing, nothing, and no hope of anything. And sometimes collateral damage is part of peace too (see Command and Control by Eric Schlosser).
Syria is such a vexed case that I long for us to be honest, to admit to the Syrians (through the language barrier) and ourselves that seven years of war is Assad’s war against his own people but they are a sovereign state, it is their business. We drop food, medical supplies, toys, toiletries, everything that will help the embattled survive and we stick to diplomacy. Or we admit that we cannot stay out because Assad’s main backer is Russia and then we haven’t progressed from The Great Game of the 19th century. No wonder we don’t sleep.