Knee-Deep in the Big Muddy

By Jeffrey Page

For a moment, I gave Sarah Palin credit for voicing one of the cleverer observations about the sound of war drums in Washington.

 “So we’re bombing Syria because Syria is bombing Syria?” she said. “And I’m the idiot?” 

So it’s like this. President Obama is outraged at Bashar al-Assad’s murderous use of chemical weapons against the easiest target of all – his own people. These would include subversive 4-year olds and other enemies of the regime, such as the rest of Syria’s children plus their mothers, fathers and grandparents, brothers and sisters.

In going after them, Assad has proved himself to be a very special kind of monster. No one on record – prince, president or prime minister – has done what he has done. Which is to say no national leader has ever given the order to assassinate his people with nerve gas, a substance hard to avoid once it’s deployed and one that produces a particularly nasty death.

But Obama has been unable to find many allies. Britain won’t join him – France will – and once again the United States is searching for a coalition, which is something you do long before you order the Navy into Middle Eastern waters. Who knows? Maybe Andorra will send a couple of soldiers to assist America. Or maybe Lichtenstein. Or Honduras. Maybe one of these days, there’s going to be a need for a worldwide response to some atrocity and some outraged nation, other than the U.S., will take the first step.

Obama is out there all by himself. In polling, the Pew Research Center found that 48 percent of those polled were opposed to U.S. military action in Syria. An ABC News/Washington Post poll found 60 percent against war, and an amazing 73 percent of Move On members – Obama’s base – say no to action in Syria.

But to paraphrase Pete Seeger about a different president in a different adventure in a different time, we could use our might against Assad and quickly find ourselves neck deep in the big muddy [or big sandy] while the big fool says to push on.

The official American position: Assad’s a thug. We hate Assad. Assad’s regime is opposed by “Syrian rebel fighters” – whoever they are – so let’s cozy up to them and hope for the best. But who knows? The “best” may have appeared on Page 1 of The New York Times yesterday, Sept. 5. See the seven prone Assad soldiers, their arms bound, their faces in the dirt. See the eight “Syrian rebel fighters” standing over them, seven with automatic rifles and one with a handgun. The event was the summary executions of the soldiers by people we’d in bed with, at least as far as our mutual loathing of Assad is concerned. You can see a video of the last moment in the soldiers’ lives at The Times’ web site. It is difficult to watch.

And the big fool says to push on.

The specific goal of an American military strike against Syria hasn’t been fully articulated yet, but one must suppose that destruction of Assad’s chemical plants and storage facilities must be high on the target list. But you never know what will happen when you play with gas. Hit a chemical factory or storage site the wrong way and things get very ugly very quickly.

Here’s a quick story about the uncertainties of gas warfare; this one is almost humorous. On a hot summer day at Fort Dix in 1964, Tango Company went for gas training. We were ordered to put our gas masks on and then file into a small hut whose air had been contaminated with chlorine gas. Then, one by one, we had to stand before the instructor, remove the mask, count to 10, salute, and leave the building. Most of us weren’t fast enough and inhaled some of the gas. We didn’t merely vomit, which is what chlorine gas is supposed to make you do, but we retched to a degree that felt like someone was ripping out our throats.

Here’s gas’ unpredictability. Our sergeants, who never carried backpacks or gas masks, were sitting under a tree, smoking cigarettes and getting a kick out of the sight of us rushing out of the gas house, choking and gasping for clear air.

And then, the gentle August breeze changed direction and some of the gas residue escaping from the hut fell on the sergeants, who bolted. We laughed – from our side of the rest area.

Has anyone figured out the potential damage to Syria’s children and other noncombatants if we bomb Syria’s gas facilities?


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One Response to “Knee-Deep in the Big Muddy”

  1. bennett Says:

    The business of comparatiove atrociousness is tricky, but from a purely consequentialist perspective Assad in no worse that many of the “monsters” we’ve supported when it was in our perceived interest to do so.

    If our concern is the death and suffering of children, it would be far more effective to spend our money on saving the 18,000 kids who die from hunger every single day.


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