We often think of pacifists as tree-hugging, touchy-feely hippies driven more by emotion than reason, and of war hawks as cold, calculating, and unfeeling. But the run-up to war in Syria has shown that often it’s the hawks who are being sentimental.
Journalist and filmmaker Sebastian Junger crystallizes this point in his Washington Post op-ed, where he argues for the justification of war in Syria on moral grounds. He recalls working in his first war zone in Bosnia and seeing the dead body of a young woman who had been raped and murdered by Serbian military forces. Despite being raised anti-war, Junger “found it hard not to be cheered by the thought that the men who raped and killed that girl might have died during the 78-day NATO bombardment that eventually brought independence to Kosovo.”
While the gruesome sight would surely be enough to make any decent American want justice, in reality we know that the United States cannot simply declare war on every country where people have been raped or murdered. And when it comes to genocide in Congo, Sudan, Uganda, or Somalia, our government doesn’t even bother to ask us citizens if we’d like to intervene.
But they’re asking for Syria. Whether the reasons are moral, strategic, or simply financial is a subject others may discuss. But our government’s appeal to us is clearly sentimental. Yes, there are issues of international law, but in truth the public is being stirred to action by videos of children dying slowly in the aftermath of a brutal sarin attack. The images are sickening enough to make even the hardest heart weep.
But does weeping necessitate a military response? I can’t help but feel that we are being manipulated into action, the same way Sarah McLachlan solicits SPCA donations with heartbreaking commercials of abused puppies. She guilts us into donating to her cause by essentially saying “Are you going to let these animals be tortured, or are you going to give me money?” And it works. Our government is doing the same thing by releasing videos of dying children in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry has essentially asked us, “Are you for murdering little kids, or are you going to support this war?” But this isn’t true morality. It’s emotional extortion. And the appeals are insincere; no matter how much money you send to Sarah McLachlan, she’ll always have more abused animals to show you. And no matter how many wars this country fights, it seems there’s always a bad guy somewhere who needs Tomahawk missiles shot at him.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with emotional reactions to these videos. Humans—and in fact many mammals—can be triggered quickly to violence upon seeing the innocent slaughtered. Evolution has favored those who reacted immediately, and lethally, to the sight of harm befalling their friends and family, and a hair-trigger for violence and retribution undoubtedly helped our ancestors survive. But modern, civilized humans have done well to tame these knee-jerk emotional responses, and when examined with reason instead of emotion, the morality of military intervention in Syria starts to look different.
Why are we so easily roused by this chemical attack and not by other atrocities? The chemical attacks are reported to have killed 1,400 people; the larger war has already cost 100,000 lives. Sentimentality aside, I find it offensive to value one death over another based simply on the method by which the murder was committed. And why is sarin the trump card of weapons? I shudder to think of any child dying in a sarin attack, but I shudder equally at the thought of a child riddled by bullets, ripped to pieces by mortars, or impaled upon bayonets, and yet for some reason those did not warrant military intervention.
Furthermore, even in choosing ideal outcomes, sentimentality may be clouding rational judgment. Bashar al-Assad is a monster and a tyrant who is slaughtering thousands for personal greed. Should he be brought to justice, I, like Junger, would cheer his death by firing squad. But putting our lust for vengeance aside, is punishing Assad the best thing for the innocent people of Syria? Will average Syrians benefit from a punitive strike against regime targets that will kill, exclusively, military grunts and innocent civilians, while leaving senior military and regime leadership unscathed?
The best thing for Syrians is to have this civil war end quickly and return to the (comparative) calm of domestic peace. But can we Americans stomach such an outcome if it means the tyrant, Assad, stays in power? If we were forced to choose between avenging a child’s death or saving another child’s life, which would we choose? This is the difference between morality and sentimentality. As prospects of a Putin-brokered deal improve, we may achieve our military goals (the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapon arsenal) while forsaking our visceral impulses (the punishing of a villain), and this leaves us with an empty feeling in our guts, a feeling of injustice. But war isn’t about seeking justice. If that’s what we want, we should go watch Gladiator. Real-life war is about weighing the cost of taking lives against the benefit of saving lives. Answering that question quickly and hot with anger makes us sentimental; answering it analytically and cooled by reason makes us moral.
Intervening in Syria may in fact be the right thing to do. It may save lives. But our support cannot be based simply on an emotional response to tragic images. It must be based on sober, perhaps even callous analysis of what is best for Americans and Syrians. Yes, images of dying children are heartbreaking, but if our government can seduce us into war with the same ease that Sarah McLachlan manipulates people watching late-night infomercials, it doesn’t make us moral. It makes us a nation of marionettes, being danced around by our heartstrings, oblivious to the true goals of our talented puppeteers.