Two more wars began before I went into middle school; one ended — formally, anyway — after I had gone to college, the other continues to this day. While I was in college, we took military action in Libya, too. Again, there was no rupture on the home front, no rationing. There were more proximate troubles at home: the 2008 financial crisis, for instance, which directly imperiled more Americans than all the far-flung, never-ending war. It hurt in a way anyone could see.
Whatever the reason — maybe it is because the wars tend to bleed together now in a haze of background noise; maybe it is because their pretexts are increasingly flimsy; maybe it is because more than half of Americans feel we failed in Iraq — these late wars have coincided with a wide demoralization of the American people. Confidence in our national institutions is historically low; so is trust in our government . Perhaps because we were so often told it was necessary to wage war to build democracies, an entire generation now seems disenchanted with the very system. We have been spared combat on the home front, but we have been damaged all the same.
Nonetheless, we find ourselves on the verge of uncertain escalation in Syria. Wednesday morning, President Trump tweeted, “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” Currently, Trump has only committed himself (as much as tweets commit a person) to retaliatory missile strikes to enforce international norms against the use of chemical weapons. But Trump himself has also warned in the past that escalating involvement in Syria could be the prelude to a longer, more embroiled entanglement, and all the White House can promise for the moment is that “all options are on the table.” Meanwhile, hawks have lately been gathering around the president: With “ultra-hawk” John Bolton advising Trump on national security, it is difficult to tell which impulses — or whose — will win out. With this administration, plans and execution are often wildly different, and not always in predictable ways; it is sensible, at this point, to consider the possibility of something more than symbolic strikes.
All the usual reasons to resist bombing still exist: All those remote wars that leave American soil undisturbed still ravage the territories of the nations on the unhappy receiving end of our engagement, and soak the ground in blood — theirs and ours. It isn’t at all clear that, at this point, escalating military intervention would actually save lives, or accomplish any humanitarian goals; even if it were possible to conceive of a kind of military intervention that would achieve those goals, it would be madness to entrust that kind of precision to our current administration. There is the possibility of provoking a spiraling sort of conflict with Russia, triggering further escalation. And then there are the souls still trapped in place: If the United States is bent on turning away refugees, and European politics have already lurched toward incipient fascism in response to their own influxes, what will become of a new wave of people driven from their homes by a war that never seems to end?
None of this is to suggest that the horrors inflicted on the Syrian people are minor or acceptable, or that humanitarian aid is inappropriate; it just is not clear to me that expanded American military intervention would leave conditions much better, or that we are at all in any shape to try, either practically or morally.
The moral sense is worth emphasizing. Trump’s White House is characterized not only by permanent chaos but also by constantly shifting flickers of vision — will it be right-populism, typical business conservatism, ultrapatriotic nationalism or something else altogether? One waits to find out each day, which doesn’t bode well for a regime contemplating military action. Moreover, Trump’s campaign — and his presidency — both rested on his gleeful indifference to people fleeing violence, be they immigrants from the global south or refugees from the Middle East. In what world could his administration be expected to become a just steward of their interests now? Is it really possible a government that can’t rush to turn back or exile the helpless fast enough has the moral capability to attempt any kind of just war, much less the practical means to carry it out? I doubt it.
And I worry. Careful restraint is harder than impulsive action; doubting one’s own moral capacities harder than ignoring the matter altogether. This means that governments least equipped to execute just action on the international stage may be the most likely to give it a try anyway, no matter its cost in blood and souls.
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