The Heart of Darkness: The Syrian Inferno


The civil war in Syrian, which began in March 2011, drags on with all its madness and no end in sight.  In that time, 125,000 (latest figures) have died and 2 million of Syria’s 6 million population fled, spilling its human burden into refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

All wars are destructive, but civil wars usually are among the worst.  In our own civil war, 600,000 died, which is more than all our wars combined; more than a million perished in Spain; 2 million in Algeria and Korea.  One of the worst scenarios missed by the media is the loss of 5 million lives in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 1998 and 2008.

The present conflict proves no exceptionWhile we normally associate casualties with the military waging war, the truth is that civilian casualties nearly always exceed military losses by a wide margin; for example, an estimated 20 million European civilians died in World War II.

Syria 3

In Syria,  a good many of these casualties are children.  Consider these recently released findings (UN High Commissioner Report):

11,000 children killed.

More than half of 70,000 families now without a father.

4000 children separated from their families.

Hundreds of children born in refugee camps stateless (unregistered births and no birth certificate).

Most children cut off from school.

All wars are tragic enactments of the primordial vestiges still resident in Man. This conflict, however, has seen some of their worst manifestations, with children deliberately targeted by sniper fire and even tortured.

Horrendous as all of this is, no one seems to have come-up with a chokehold to halt the carnage.  Maybe it’s too late anyway in a struggle that seems to have come down to attrition.  While the Assad regime has gained momentum lately against the rebels, the war has become more complicated with jihadists, including al Qaeda, pouring in from other nations. Increasingly, the struggle has turned sectarian, with Shiites pitted against Sunni. It’s Iraq all over again with long term, intractable violence the likely fallout even after any settlement is reached.

In my view, it needn’t have turned out this way had we armed the moderate rebels from the beginning, even as the Saudis had wanted, and before the entrance of Iranian-supported Hezbollah and al Qaeda in large numbers.  While the Obama administration finally did opt to supply at least light arms to the rebels, it turns out that after a year it hadn’t shipped any.  It’s simply too late to help now, since the old alibi that weaponry might fall into extremists hands has gained a validity that didn’t initially exist.

I blame President Obama for much of Syria’s pro-longed anguish.  From the very beginning, he has been ambivalent, or unable to come to a decision, despite his often pointed rhetoric should the Assad regime use chemical weapons:

We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons (August 2012 News Conferences).

Then came his notorious aborted cruise missile launch in response to Syria’s calling his bluff with its chemical assault on civilians, resulting in a thousand deaths.  As it turns out, there had been previous, smaller scale chemical attacks and the President had not acted.  In mid stream, naval vessels off the Syrian coast ready to launch, the whole world watching, he did an about face, passing the puck to Congress, only to withdraw the vote option when Russia came up with its initiative to negotiate the destruction of the government’s chemical stockpile with Assad.  Got Obama off the hook, to say the least.

Imagine my surprise in all of this!  A Hamlet in the White House, this president suffers from an inability to act.  We should have seen this coming.  In election year 2012, he had the gall to use the bin Laden hit for political fodder, though the truth is he knew of bin Laden’s hideout  since  the summer of 2010, or nearly two years earlier, thus risking his escape.

As liberal Arianna Huffington shared with CBS: ‘We should celebrate the fact that they did such a great job. It’s one thing to have an NBC special from the Situation Room… all that to me is perfectly legitimate, but to turn it into a campaign ad is one of the most despicable things you can do” (Daily Mail).  It turns out that the White House had drawn up a contingency plan with a general for a fall guy should the assassination go awry.

Returning to the cruise missile fiasco, I like how House Democrat Adam Smith, a key member of the House Armed Services Committee, put it:

I don’t think you draw a line like that, that is not well thought out.  You do not say, ‘If you step across this line, we will commit U. S. Military force,’ unless you really mean it, unless you know the full implications of it.

Under the cover of the chemical weapons agreement things have gotten considerably worse for the rebels, with Assad’s forces launching daily bombing raids on the rebels and civilians in the areas they control.

Sadly the American public seems in lock-step with Obama, despite dissenters on his own White House team.  If you dip into Google and Twitter commentary, you’ll find Syria virtually absent as a search or discussion item.  We’re much more into Miley Cyrus.

I think of Auden’s poignant depiction in his “Musee des Beaux Arts” poem with its ironic undertones of the corner existence of human grief in the public world:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just dully walking along.


In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

I think of Syria’s children.


Hiroshima & Nagasaki: Reflections

Tomorrow, August 6, marks the occasion of the dropping of the A-bomb 66-years ago on Hiroshima, initiating the nuclear age, with the final chapter yet to be written. Truman gave permission, believing it would shorten the war and spare substantial American troop losses in fighting an entrenched enemy on their homeland. A few days later, it was Nagasaki’s turn. These cities had been spared up to then from the intense aerial bombing of other Japanese cities. There were some advisors who wanted to go after Kyoto, Japan‘s cultural and historic centerpiece.

All my life I was led to believe in the Truman scenario. Less naive in my older years, I know now that the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki constitute crimes against humanity. I have met survivors of the Tokyo and Dresden fire-bombings. My sister-in-law survived the nightly Frankfurt bombings.

It wasn’t the first time American militarists committed such acts in WWII:

July 24-29, 1943, Hamburg was firebombed, killing 50,000 and producing 1 million refugees.

February, 1945, 2700 American and British bombers attacked Dresden, Germany, killing 35,000 civilians. Dresden made china and dolls, not armaments.

March 9-10,1945, fire-bombing killed 100,000 in Tokyo, with 100,000 wounded and 1 million refugees.

A month later, just several weeks before the end of hostilities in Europe, the medieval city of Wurzburg was bombed from the face of the earth.

We are good at decrying the crimes of our enemies. Unfortunately, the victors are the ones who write the official history. One of the sad things about war is how easy it becomes for humans to regress into savagery, losing their sense of fellow humanity.

As early as December, 1944, the Japanese were making peace overtures. Admiral William Leahy, chief of staff to both Roosevelt and Truman, wrote that “by the beginning of September [1944], Japan was almost completely defeated through a practically complete sea and air blockade” (I Was There, p. 259). In June, 1945, the Japanese were using the Soviets as intermediaries, offering peace to the Allies in exchange for retaining the Emperor. It was a dreadful mistake. The Soviets were planning to enter the war to pick up the spoils.

On July 27, 1945, the Potsdam Proclamation was broadcast in Japanese to the Japanese government, demanding unconditional surrender. The Japanese were willing to do so, Truman, however, deleted the Emperor provision from the Proclamation. In fact, the Proclamation called for criminal trials for those associated with the war. Truman had been advised by Secretary of War Stimson to allow for a constitutional monarchy. Stimson even made 11th hour pleas. Unfortunately, Truman was under the sway of hard liners such as Byrnes (Secretary of State) and Acheson (Under Secretary of State), men with no appreciation or exposure to the Japanese way of life.

With the dropping of the second bomb three days later on Nagasaki, the Russians entered the war. There are some who believe the bombs were dropped to impress the Soviets, now perceived as a potential adversary. (See Gar Alpervovitz. The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.)

Ironically, in the final peace terms, Japan was allowed to retain its emperor, who was also exempted from a war trial. It would make for a smooth occupational presence. More tragically, it came too late and thousands of civilians were vaporized, burned, or relegated to slow deaths from radiation. (66,000 died in Hiroshima; 39,000 in Nagasaki. These figures do not include the thousands who died later.)

The best contemporary book on these horrific bombings happens to be by a Japanese, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan. He offers compelling evidence that the bombs were dropped to preempt Russia’s entrance into the war.

Postscript: Comments of Note:

“These two specific bombing sorties cannot properly be treated in isolation from the whole system of obliteration attacks…We are mindful of incendiary raids on Tokyo, and of the saturation bombings of Hamburg, Dresden, and Berlin…the policy of obliteration bombing as actually practiced in World War II, culminating in the use of atomic bombs against Japan, is not defensible on Christian premises.”(Atomic Warfare and the Christian Faith: Federal Council of Churches, March 1946)

“We were. . .twice guilty. We dropped the bomb at a time when Japan already was negotiating for an end of the war but before those negotiations could come to fruition. We demanded unconditional surrender, then dropped the bomb and accepted conditional surrender….The Japanese would have surrendered, even if the Bomb had not been dropped, had the Potsdam Declaration included our promise to permit the emperor to remain on his imperial throne.” (Hanson W. Baldwin [Former Naval officer, military analyst and journalist], Great Mistakes of the War).

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