For some time now, a terrible tragedy has been unfolding in Syria, as government and opposition forces have at each other over the control and destiny of the country. Now, we have learned that chemical weapons have been used, with devastating results. The international community is increasingly concerned, and now there are rumors of war as the US and other countries contemplate taking some kind of military action against Syria. That action would likely not involve “troops on the ground”, as they say, but planes and missiles that can strike from afar. We have been told that such an intervention would be in our best interests as Americans, though if the polls are to be believed, most of us are rather skeptical about that.
On the one hand, I understand the desire for some kind of action. As we see what the Syrian people have been going through, and the particular horror of chemical weapons use, we feel that we want to do something. We want to stop the suffering that these people have been going through. We want to help them. And since the Syrian government is not exactly going to invite us in to help out, this seems to be the only option to satisfy our desire to do something. And, at its root, I think that desire is driven by a sense of compassion.
However, our recent history of “doing something” when we see other people suffering at the hands of their own government has not worked out very well. Our military intervention in Iraq did, indeed, bring an end to Saddam Hussein and his regime, but there are quite a number of people who cannot conclude that the average Iraqi citizen is really better off now, as violence continues to ravage the country even as our military presence there diminishes. And our intervention in Afghanistan has not exactly turned that country into a peaceful, happy place for the average Afghani.
The decision about whether to intervene in Syria is complex. I don’t think I would want the responsibility of making it. If the President decides to intervene, people will be upset. And if he decides not to, different people will be upset. Regardless of his decision, there will be suffering for the average person in Syria — either at the hands of their own government, or as a consequence of foreign military action, or both.
The reality is that war, in any form, is not ever a good thing for the average person who is caught up in it. Americans like to entertain the idea that we, by virtue of our military might, can somehow make things better for people who are suffering in foreign places. But history shows us that this is almost never true. Those who have greeted our interventions happily have almost inevitably ended up resenting us, because their lives have almost always ended up not getting better, and in many cases, have gotten worse. There are, I think, two truths that emerge from this history. The first is that we often do not have the power to end the suffering of others, no matter how much we would like to. And the second is that war is usually not the answer.
The early Christian church was profoundly pacifistic. So much so that people who might be involved in the killing of others were considered ineligible for baptism. That all changed when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, a huge military power. In the centuries since, the Christian churches have tried to develop doctrines of just war to provide some sort of guidance as to when it was okay for Christians to go to war and when it was not. But it’s a difficult task that lay before such theologians and theorists, for in the end, the message of the Gospel is simply one of non-violence. As Jesus reminded his early followers, those who live by the sword shall die by it. And so the truth of that teaching has been manifest down through the ages.
As we consider raining down missiles and bombs on Syria out of a desire to end the suffering of the people there, let us pause to remember the non-violence of Jesus, and to remember Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. None of these conflicts ended up being good for the average person in those countries, and our interventions in these places probably resulted in more lives lost than would have been the case had we not engaged in military action against or within these countries. Thousands of Americans, and tens of thousands of average people around the world, bear the scars of military intervention, not to mention those whose lives are no more.
We should do all we can to help the people of Syria, and anyone who is suffering. But we must do so carefully and mindfully, acknowledging that while we can help, we cannot fix. And we should not delude ourselves into thinking that we can make everything better by dropping a few bombs and launching a few missiles. We have an abundance of recent history that tells us this is almost never the case.