Americans glorify war. We are a violent people born out of a bloody revolution and an even bloodier Civil War over whether we should continue to subjugate and torture slaves brought here from Africa. This is not a trait confined to history, as one glance at Hollywood’s products reveals that this violent temperament is still very much alive and well within the American character.
We have anointed ourselves the world’s police—clearly declaring our intent to “modernize” the planet through force. We bombed Syria because we can’t imagine dealing with a seemingly intractable problem any other way.
Yes, Bashar al-Assad is a brutal despot whose only rightful place on the world’s stage resides six feet underground. Unfortunately, violence is the answer sometimes, but this is not one of those times. Removing Assad from power through force would create a power vacuum like the one we saw in Iraq, and unless we are willing to commit infinitely more resources to Syria than we have to say, Flint, that vacuum would produce untold levels of violence. One night of bombing will do nothing to loosen Assad’s vice grip on Syria—nor will it deter him from committing future war crimes—as we saw the last time this happened.
Bombing Syria to “send Assad a message” is a wholly self-serving exercise. So long as he is propped up by despotic regimes in Russia and Iran, anything less than a full-scale invasion will do nothing to remove him from power. We bomb countries because our culture is so corrupted by violence that we literally cannot imagine any other solution to the intractable problem of “terrorism,” despite the fact that it is nearly inseparable from poverty.
But why should we understand that bombing poor countries won’t fix their problems if we don’t even understand our own issues with poverty? The police here act as something of a paramilitary force in our dilapidated communities, and they can kill anyone with impunity (Police shoot and kill about 1,000 people per year, and just 26 officers have been convicted of murder or manslaughter since 2005). America’s largest city has discontinued the “stop and frisk” policy of violating citizens’ democratic rights, but there was no such thing on campus at NYU, as this supposition of violence and malfeasance was confined solely to New York’s poorest communities.
There is a sickness inherent in not just America, but Western society. Violence is the language of colonialism. Every nation who has occupied another does so through force, and it is baked into the culture that the only way to obtain something you need is to take it. Like stop and frisk, diplomacy is reserved for the rich nations, while poorer ones become victims of our heroes with badges and guns. For poor countries like Syria, “diplomacy” means that England and France enter into a Sykes-Picot agreement to divvy up their country however a bunch of old white men want.
I spent the last week in London, and I visited the Imperial War Museum. It is filled with a litany of items from World War I to present, and as I wandered through its mesmerizing halls in the wake of our attack on Syria, I was surrounded by reminders that we had not learned from history. For example, inaccurate bombing runs is the norm, not the exception, throughout American warfare.
During the Obama administration, it was revealed that the American military classified nearly all males in zones we bombed as “enemy combatants.” A source told The Intercept that “If there is no evidence that proves a person killed in a strike was either not a military aged male, or was a military aged male but not an unlawful enemy combatant, then there is no question. They label them [Enemy Killed In Action].”
This is reflective of both our inability to truly discern the “bad guys” from the “good guys,” as well as our government’s desire to keep their failures hidden from the democracy they’re supposed to serve. The story of positive American intervention is a fairy tale. Every war we have launched since World War II has been a failure—from the Korean War setting the stage for our struggles today, to the calamity of Vietnam and its modern sibling in Iraq. We believe that because America, Western Europe, and Russia stopped a madman from taking over the world in the 1940s that the answer to all madmen is war. There is no other option on the table because our foreign policy has refused to consider any other one.
This is because war is immensely profitable. This is what President and former five-star general, Dwight Eisenhower, warned us about in his final presidential address when he spoke about the military industrial complex.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of ploughshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.
America is a democracy in name only. Profits drive policy far more than popular will, and this is the true nature of warfare. Before the bombs landed in Syria, it was already accepted fact that they would do very little to stop Assad’s slaughter, so why did we do it? Well, that one bombing run cost taxpayers at least $92 million. Thanks to the opacity of the Pentagon budget and its operations, we don’t know the exact figure, but it is almost certainly higher than that.
America’s merchants of death are just as despotic and bloodthirsty as Bashar al-Assad, they just have a better PR campaign around their actions.
Our bombs land in civilian centers in the name of freedom, while Assad’s fall on populations in the name of fascism. This is the central crux of the lie of American exceptionalism: our violence is good, but theirs is bad. There is no good kind of violence. My grandfather fought against Hitler’s army, and he was haunted by his memories up until death. The American tradition of treating our soldiers like demigods enraged him because he did things he was not proud of. If you are the kind of person who believes that all troops are infallible, my grandfather would have despised you. Only those who have never fought in war believe that it comes without a cost to the victors.
There’s a reason why we have such an intractable problem with gun violence in this country, and it’s directly tied to our endless wars. Americans have become the Israelities worshiping the golden calf at the base of Mount Sinai, and we practice ritual human sacrifice in our schools, churches, movie theaters, nursing homes, colleges, and any number of other public spaces in the name of the Almighty Dollar. Bombing Syria is simply the foreign side of this uniquely American coin.
America’s gun problem is one of simple math, yes. If you have more guns, you’re likely to see more gun violence—but we are far from the only nation with an abundance of firearms. Switzerland is loaded to the brim with weapons, yet they don’t experience the kind of ritualistic violence that has become the status quo in this country. Our gun violence problem is also one of culture. There is a direct connection between Parkland, Newtown and Syria. Violence is woven into the fabric of our identity, and we have yet to understand that it is a self-perpetuating issue.
Syria, Iraq, Yemen and a whole host of other countries currently under the thumb of American occupation could dramatically benefit from an anti-poverty agenda. So many kids indoctrinated into ISIS and its ilk do so because they grow up in areas where war criminals are the only ones providing any kind of societal infrastructure and opportunity. This problem is echoed in hip-hop, where gangs are explained as a necessary evil in a community bereft of any real investment by the government designed to protect them. Poverty is the common denominator for most of the world’s problems, and meeting it with violence will only exacerbate them—as the last 70-plus years of American foreign policy has shamefully demonstrated.
I don’t know what we should do in Syria. There is no magic bullet to solve this problem, and that widely-used term proves how deep this association with violence goes in the American psyche. Iran and Russia prop up the Assad regime, and accomplishing our goal of removing Assad with violence would almost surely mean a war with those two countries—which means that an invasion is a non-starter.
So why are we bombing Syria? What will that accomplish? What did the last bombing run accomplish? We know that we cannot advance full-scale warfare in Syria, yet we still dip our toe in that pond. Diplomacy should be our only goal in foreign relations—as our soft power is unmatched throughout the world—but we have no clout with Russia, and even less with Iran given that we are currently fighting a proxy war against them in Yemen (while committing countless war crimes against the civilian population—something that ALWAYS accompanies any American intervention). We have backed ourselves into a corner with our bloodlust, and now we’re trying to fight our way out of this quicksand, sinking deeper with each assault.
Americans must learn more from history and demand that our government avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, or this sickness will only get worse as our empire continues its steady decline. War is hell. It is not something to be glorified—but reviled. It is a primitive act that has no place in the society we say we want to build. We believe ourselves to be a noble people delivering modernity to the planet, yet when you actually look at our interactions with anyone who isn’t our ally, our actions more closely resemble the warring tribes of humanity’s distant past than our technologically advanced present.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.