Syria and the ‘moral obscenity’ of war

Dec. 8, 2012Seven-year-old Walid, right, is comforted as he mourns a fallen Syrian rebel fighter taken away for burial in … Continued


Dec. 8, 2012Seven-year-old Walid, right, is comforted as he mourns a fallen Syrian rebel fighter taken away for burial in the al-Fardos area of Aleppo. The orphaned boy is staying with this unit of rebel fighters after his father was allegedly killed by the regime. His mother’s whereabouts is unknown. After months of fighting, the city is without power, and running water and basic commodities are getting scarcer.Odd Andersen / AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry called the large-scale chemical weapons attack in Syria a “moral obscenity,” and indicated Bashar Assad’s regime was responsible. It is widely believed Secretary Kerry was laying out a case for a bombing campaign against Syria.

Pictures of tiny, shrouded corpses and especially a dead child being hugged by a grieving mother show the horror of this attack.

But what is the moral difference between chemical weapons and more conventional weapons such as bombs? Why is it not equally obscene for women, children and indeed a host of civilians to have been blown apart in a bomb attack?

The truth is, war is the moral obscenity. It is war that must be stopped and bombing campaigns do not end war. In fact, military interventions normally make things worse for civilians, a 2012 study has concluded. “Supporting a faction’s quest to vanquish its adversary may have the unintended consequence of inciting the adversary to more intense violence against the population.”

Yet, chemical weapons play a particular role in the moral imagination. Chemical weapons define the obscene nature of war in their insidious, indiscriminate death-dealing. Chemical weapons have evoked horror and revulsion especially since the first truly industrialized war, World War I.

My grandfather was gassed in the trenches in France during WWI, and he would wake up screaming, decades later, dreaming that he was drowning in his own blood. He had permanent lung damage.

“I remember the awful sights in the hospital: the gas patients who in day-long suffocation cough up their burnt lungs in clots,” wrote Erich Maria Remarque in
All Quiet on the Western Front
, a novel that captured the horror of that war.

Part of the widespread moral revulsion about chemical weapons is this appalling image of troops coughing up their own lungs.

Chemical weapons were banned right after WWI in the Geneva Protocol of 1925; even producing and stockpiling these weapons has been illegal since a 1997 international treaty. But Syria, as well as Angola, North Korea, Egypt, South Sudan and Syria, are not signatories to the pact.

It is no wonder that the response of French President Francois Hollande was impassioned and called for punitive measures. “France is ready to punish those who took the heinous decision to gas innocents” in Syria last week, Hollande said at a conference with France’s ambassadors. Chemical warfare took place on French soil and its legacy is not forgotten.

Chemical weapons are considered taboo because of the horrors they produce. The horror is both in the shocking effects, and in the uncontrolled dispersal. War by chemical or biological agents is violence without bounds, and thus horrifying to populations and governments alike who like to believe they can, in fact, control the use of force. Chemical weapons are an extreme form of war, but they are war.

But no person of conscience wants to see chemical warfare continue in Syria. Does that mean other countries have the authority to intervene?

No. The authorization for the use of military force against Syrian military targets, in response to the use of these chemical weapons, is not a given. Violation of the chemical weapons treaty, even if Syria were a signatory to it, “doesn’t automatically mean you can respond with military action,” said Ian Johnstone, a professor of international law at Tufts University. Absent a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force, many experts believe this action would be illegal.

Then there is also the crucial question, would bombing accomplish anything positive? The military uses terms like “surgical strike” which give a false impression of precision in the use of violence. But bombs exploding are never “surgical,” they are huge explosions. More civilians can be killed, adding to the suffering of the Syrian population. The use of force in retaliation will surely have widespread and likely unintended consequences, perhaps even setting off further chemical attacks by the Assad regime. Predicting what dictators will do in response to the use of force against them is notoriously unreliable. Rather than “deterring” the Syrian regime, it may provoke them.

It is totally understandable that people around the world, horrified as they are by the widespread and horrible deaths of Syrian civilians, would want to “punish” the perpetrators. But for the last two years, a horrific civil war has raged in Syria and it has taken the lives of more than 100,000 people, according to United Nations experts. Millions more have become refugees, suffering themselves in camps that are undersupplied.

One hundred thousand deaths is an obscenity. Millions of suffering refugees is an obscenity. The point is, war is a moral obscenity itself. It is this war that must be stopped, and bombing campaigns do not end war. Peace negotiations end war.

What has to happen is to bring about an end to the violence. Military intervention at this point may make even the slim chances of a second Geneva peace conference aimed at finding a political settlement in Syria, a follow-up to the June 2012 foreign ministers’ conference, even less likely.

But a political settlement is what has to happen. The war has to end, and bombing will not accomplish that.

Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a Professor of Theology, and immediate past President, at Chicago Theological Seminary.

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