Three weeks ago, the United States was on the brink of war with another country in the Middle East. Almost one year to the day after President Barack Obama delivered his now-famous “red line” warning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regarding the use of chemical weapons in that country’s ongoing civil war, evidence emerged of just such an attack in Damascus. This time the president noted that he had not drawn the red line himself. The world community did when it banned chemical weapons. However, Obama noted that he would call on Congress to give him authorization to launch a series of air strikes on Syrian targets.
Public opinion was not in the president’s favor in this case and, perhaps luckily for him, President Assad (probably with some gentle nudging from Russian President Vladimir Putin) denied that he ordered a chemical attack on his people and agreed to place the nation’s stockpile of chemical weapons into international control. After some initial hedging on the validity of this offer by President Obama, the American and Russian secretaries of state reached an agreement on how to proceed.
This marks something of a milestone in American history and, indeed, world history, but this compromise on the part of the Obama and Assad administrations is not quite deserving of the praise that anti-war activists have bestowed upon it.
Many in that crowd cited a growing sense of war fatigue among Americans, pointing out that we as a nation are tired of our ongoing entanglements in Afghanistan and Iraq. Others, however, like former ’60s radical and professor Bernardine Dohrn, have made the unique claim that the anti-war movement’s work over the last few decades is responsible for this recent turn of events.
One could be excused for being unable to put aside the somewhat obvious irony that this message came from Dohrn, who as a leader of the Weather Underground declared “war” on the United States — a “war” that included actual bombings on domestic targets — but that is a conversation best left to eager young political science majors at whatever colleges still teach political science as part of the living record of America’s history, and not just as a way to make a quick dollar shilling for candidates in our political-industrial complex.
No, the more serious question is whether or not either of these two positions is even correct. Perhaps if we take the short-term view that we have grown tired of our ongoing War on Terror, or even that the work of the anti-war movement may finally be paying off, we cannot afford to ignore the longer-term view of a nation which has, quite simply, been on a war footing for most of its entire history, and certainly as long as most of today’s citizens have been alive.
A 1962 report from Secretary of State Dean Rusk to the U.S. Senate cited 103 American military actions in foreign nations between 1798 and 1895. For the next two decades before World War I, America’s military undertook more than 30 overseas actions and another two dozen or so came in the “peaceful” years leading up to World War II. After that came the Cold, Korean, and Vietnam wars, not to mention our less obvious actions in Central and South America and the Middle East. If you think the “New American Century” was something recently cooked up by the neoconservatives behind our nation’s early 21st century escapades in the Middle East, you should think again. War is nothing new, and America is well-versed in doing it on both a large and small scale.
The truth of the matter is war is deeply ingrained in our national psyche. We use war analogies in business and in sports. Our children even use them in “play.” While we may agonize about the role that violent video games have with mass shootings — like the recent tragedy at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. — we should remember that only a portion of Americans are exposed to violent video games, but each of us lives in a country at permanent war.
Syria, though, is different — and it is not our supposed war weariness or the actions of the dedicated anti-war activists among us that makes it so. Syria is different in the same way Rwanda was different or that Iraq was different when Saddam Hussein gassed his own people in the 1980s. And it isn’t that we aren’t being shown how the actions of a few generals in Syria run counter to our best interests. It’s that the business elite and the men and women behind the military-industrial complex haven’t figured out how they can profit off an attack on Syria. Once that is accomplished, with or without diplomacy, all bets are off.