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Playing War in Syria

Donald Trump got “presidential” again and fired about $150 million worth of cruise missiles at Syria, accomplishing God knows what.

Meanwhile, the United States, in its humanitarian largesse, has so far allowed 11 Syrian refugees into the country this year, of the more than 5 million external refugees the country’s civil war has produced.

The insanity of these priorities is too much to fathom, so the mainstream media — the nation’s surface consciousness — makes no attempt to do so. The necessity of military action, for one justification or another (“we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”), is only questioned after the fact, that is to say, long after the consequences of the action have pushed Planet Earth a tad more deeply into hell.

The government of Bashar al-Assad was accused of bombing the city of Douma with poison gas in early April, killing more than 40 people. Assad denied this was the case. International inspectors were to come in and make a determination, but before they could do so, the Trump administration, along with France and Britain, “punished” Assad and his Russian allies by striking Syria with 105 cruise missiles, after which Trump quoted George W. Bush, declaring “mission accomplished.”

I have seen no serious journalistic effort to assess the number of deaths inflicted by the cruise missiles, just reiterations of Defense Department PR briefings: “No American pilots were killed, according to the Pentagon, and as of now, the U.S. does not know if there were any civilian casualties.”

And it never will, because it doesn’t matter! Not when we do it.

A cold indifference sets in around U.S. military actions. When we do it, the subsequent focus is on strategy, not humanity. What’s never questioned is the necessity for military action.

“But this is America in the 21st century,” writes Will Bunch, “led by a president with an autocrat’s unchallenged power to launch military attacks in the name of a nation that shuns diplomacy and patient strategies in favor of the instant gratification of firing Tomahawks.”

And here’s a stunningly unnerving sentence from an article in The Guardian: “The latest raids have underlined how, despite the huge humanitarian cost of the war in Syria, the country has become a proving ground for some of the world’s most advanced weapons systems, deployed both by the US and Russia.”

The military experts (and corporatists) rule. They always have — at least since the end of the Good War. They have pressured every U.S. president to lead with the military option and have usually gotten their way. It hardly matters that they have pushed over the years for the use of nuclear weapons, or that they have lost every war they’ve fought since 1945, inflicting or at least expanding global chaos and suffering in the process.

One president who was apparently able to resist the generals was John F. Kennedy. Presidential historian Robert Dallek, contributing to a 2013 issue of The Atlantic about Kennedy, described the situation in the White House after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961:

“Afterward, Kennedy accused himself of naïveté for trusting the military’s judgment that the Cuban operation was well thought-out and capable of success. ‘Those sons of bitches with all the fruit salad just sat there nodding, saying it would work,’ Kennedy said of the chiefs. He repeatedly told his wife, ‘Oh my God, the bunch of advisers that we inherited!’ Kennedy concluded that he was too little schooled in the Pentagon’s covert ways and that he had been overly deferential to the CIA and the military chiefs. He later told (Arthur) Schlesinger he had made the mistake of thinking that ‘the military and intelligence people have some secret skill not available to ordinary mortals.’ His lesson: never rely on the experts. Or at least: be skeptical of the inside experts’ advice, and consult with outsiders who may hold a more detached view of the policy in question.”

A year and a half later, he was able to disregard the military’s insistence on bombing Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis. Was he the last president to resist the pressure to play war?

Most of the time, diplomacy is such a slow, frustrating slog. Creating peace has no drama, but high-tech weapons produce instant smoke and flame. Maybe they also produce corpses, but those are easy to ignore from a distance. We’ve settled into being a nation of spectators. We watch our wars on TV, or at least selected segments of those wars, and listen to the explanatory abstractions of the experts. Assad needed to be punished: mission accomplished.

Meanwhile, the reality of the Syrian civil war continues. As many as half a million have died in it. What are U.S. interests here? Are they to end the carnage and assist the millions who have been pushed out of their homes and lives? Are they to wield influence over U.S.-supported rebel factions to begin negotiating peace with Assad?

Steven Kinzer, writing in the Boston Globe, believes otherwise: “From Washington’s perspective, peace in Syria is the horror scenario. Peace would mean what the United States sees as a ‘win’ for our enemies: Russia, Iran, and the Assad government. We are determined to prevent that, regardless of the human cost.”

Fifty-plus years ago, when JFK stood up to the generals, there was no unified “Washington perspective.” Kennedy, who, as Dallek wrote, “distrusted America’s military establishment almost as much as (the Soviets) did,” had managed to shatter the military-industrial consensus and give peace political traction.

What if it had lasted?

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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