In his big address to the nation last night, President Obama said that the videos of the August 21 gas attack in Damascus are “sickening.” I agree with him – they are sickening. And it is because they are sickening that every American should watch them.
We have a long tradition in this country, at least since Vietnam, of no longer showing genuine images of war. During the opening months of the Iraq war, for example, while international news outlets showed civilians dying in Iraq, domestic ones showed nothing of the sort.
This is just wrong – we don’t need to be afraid of shocking the American people. In a democratic society, we trust everyday people to grapple with complicated issues like war and peace. They can only do this if they see all sides of a story, and when it comes to war, that means images of death and destruction.
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But the average American isn’t the only person who needs to think about the true brutality of war. What the president’s speech last night revealed to me is that this president has never actually considered the real consequences of war. Unlike General Eisenhower, or President Kennedy, who had actually been in war and seen the horrors of war, President Obama is operating under the delusion that there are “good” ways to kill people and “bad” ways to kill people. There are no “good” ways to kill people.
I have been in war zones and I have done international relief work in areas recovering from war. I’ve seen people injured by war and I’ve watched children die from the consequences of war. I’ve held them in my arms as they died. I’ve seen them die long, drawn-out protracted deaths from malnutrition and disease that were the direct consequences of war. There was nothing civilized or decent about it.
War is organized insanity. And, frankly, it’s often not even that organized.
Rather than watching a drone strike from 50,000 feet, our president should look at the bodies blown apart upon impact from the ground. He should watch some footage from actual wars like Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. If he saw people dying in agony from bullet wounds or shrapnel, he might have different thoughts about drone-bombing people from the sky or arming Syrian rebels, something that will only make Syria more violent.
And if the president is so concerned about the horrors visited on children by war, he should take a look at the images of children being born today in Iraq. We blanketed that country from one end to the other with depleted uranium.
Depleted uranium is radioactive, toxic, and lasts for centuries. And today, Iraq is covered with its dust. This has caused an epidemic of birth defects, all thanks to the United States. Look at these images, Mr. President, and consider doing some remediation in Iraq, cleaning up the depleted uranium, and eliminating it from our arsenal before starting another war in the Middle East.
In Iraq, we dropped cluster bombs and many of those small clusters did not go off. Children later picked them up, thinking they were toys, and immediately lost arms or legs or died. Cluster bombs should be outlawed, but we regularly use them.
All across the world today, people lose their legs as they step on old landmines from previous wars. And yet, the United States has yet to sign onto the international Mine Ban Treaty.
If the American people were to see images like this on their television news on a regular basis, images that the rest of the world sees all the time when war is covered, they might be sufficiently horrified by the entire concept of war to be a little less enthusiastic about “good wars” and “bad wars.”
There is no good war. There’s only the possibility of a justifiable war – and that would be a war of self-defense. And, our nation has not been attacked by another nation since Pearl Harbor.
It goes without saying that poison gas is an evil way of killing people, and should be banned. Same with nuclear weapons, same with depleted uranium, napalm, white phosphorous, and cluster bombs. And if we’re going in that direction, all war should be banned.
Woodrow Wilson’s original idea for the League of Nations was that World War I would be “the war to end all wars,” and that the League of Nations would create world peace. He didn’t succeed, but that’s now the mandate for the United Nations, and the UN dictates that a country which is a member – like the United States – can only engage in war in self-defense or if authorized by the UN. In Syria, we have neither justification.
The best defense against war is civilization. Building the institutions of civilization requires physical infrastructure, good governance, and the education and empowerment of girls and women.
These things generally are missing in countries at war, and should be the areas where we focus our attention, if we really want to be an agent against war around the world, to the extent that we want to be an example around the world.
Ellen Ratner, Rusty Humphries, Joe Madison, and I were all at Gok Machar, a tiny village in South Sudan new the Darfur border, recently. Refugees from the war in Darfur were streaming in.
As we flew out we could see the president of Sudan’s janjaweed troops burning another village in Darfur. People were dying. We saw the refugees.
President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has been indicted by the criminal court at The Hague, but nobody will arrest him. He continues his war and campaigns of death in Darfur and northern parts of South Sudan.
Where is our noble outrage at that? Similarly, the death toll in the Democratic Republic of Congo is horrific. Why are we, the United States, the supposed policeman of the world, not taking action to stop these humanitarian disasters?
The United States should stop using war as a way to resolve conflict and change the world. We have other tools beyond the hammer of war and every problem in the world is not a nail. Many countries could be helped tremendously– particularly Iraq and Afghanistan – by simple things like building schools and hospitals and helping with infrastructure.
And, of course, the United States itself desperately needs more schools, hospitals, and infrastructure right here at home.
Perhaps, now that our president has seen some limited images of war and is clearly horrified by them, let’s have a discussion about all war, and all instruments of war, and the consequences of war. And let’s extend that conversation to ways to prevent wars altogether.
The crisis in Syria could be a teaching moment for the United States. We have not had a war on our soil since the Civil War, and we haven’t had a draft since Vietnam. Most Americans today have no idea what war is actually like. Let’s begin the conversation – a real conversation – about war and peace and the role that the United Nations and the United States can and should play in these issues.