Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
The news this past week seems to confirm that “Masters of War,” the phrase from Bob Dylan’s 1963 song of that title, are firmly in control of US foreign policy. Diplomacy and fairly negotiated economic agreements have taken a back seat to violent military action as the primary way to deal with the world.
At the age of 22, Dylan understood US foreign policy more clearly than most politicians in my lifetime. I am not suggesting with regard to attacking Syria, for instance, that there are not some people genuinely concerned about the welfare of the Syrian people, who were likely gassed recently by President Assad. But I consider most of their comments hollow, hiding motives other than the humanitarian ones they espouse.
Sen. John McCain, for example, says, “For us to sit by, and watch these people being massacred, raped, tortured in the most terrible fashion, meanwhile, the Russians are all in, Hezbollah is all in, and we’re talking about giving them more light weapons? It’s insane.” John McCain has never seen a conflict that couldn’t be improved with a little war-making. He’s been a friend of the “Masters of War” his entire career, and has been richly rewarded. McCain is so pro-war that he made a trip to Syria last May and wound up having a photo-op with terrorists who were involved in a high-profile kidnapping case. The terrorists’ virtue was that they opposed Assad.
President Barack Obama is hardly any better than McCain: “It’s important for us to recognize that when over 1,000 people are killed, including hundreds of innocent children, through the use of a weapon that 98 or 99 percent of humanity says should not be used even in war, and there is no action, then we’re sending a signal that that international norm doesn’t mean much. And that is a danger to our national security.” Obama apparently opposed the Iraq war ten years ago against just as brutal a dictator as Assad and one who killed more people with chemical weapons than has Assad. Of course, some of Saddam’s gassings were done with US approval and aid, when Iraq was fighting against Iran, our long-time enemy that does not bend to our will. And the US gave Saddam a pass for killing between 3,000 and 5,000 Kurds in Halabja in 1988.
Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments on the subject are even more jingoistic than McCain’s and Obama’s: “Our sense of basic humanity is offended, not only by this cowardly crime but also by the cynical attempt to cover it up. What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality. The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons, is a moral obscenity. By any standards, it is inexcusable, and despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.”
These words come from an anti-Vietnam War veteran who nevertheless had few problems with agreeing to invade Iraq in 2003, making his talk of morality unpersuasive. War itself should be enough to shock the conscience, especially of someone who has participated in it.
Maybe these three US leaders forgot that the US has used the same excuses and equivocations to justify its use of depleted uranium against innocent Iraqis several times over a 20-year period, leading to vastly increased incidences of cancer (especially leukemia) and birth defects in Iraqi children.
As Marjorie Cohn and Jeanne Mirer, both associated with human rights organizations, have reported, the US also used white phosphorous gas, which melts the skin and burns tissue down to the bone, in both Afghanistan and Iraq. A third weapon used by the US in both those countries is cluster bombs, which contain tiny bomblets that spread over a vast area and can kill or maim long after being deployed if civilians, often children, disturb them.
Cohn and Mirer write, “The Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in time of War (Geneva IV) classifies ‘willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health’ as a grave breach, which constitutes a war crime.” Our leaders can always be counted on to lament the loss of civilian lives, but they do little else to prevent such losses.
Kerry’s comments about Assad’s use of gas, that it “defies any code of morality” and should “shock the conscience of the world,” apply equally to America’s conduct in its wars. But the US has not been held to account for the “use (of) the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.” And neither McCain, Obama, nor Kerry is calling for America to be held accountable. Their claimed moral outrage at the use of Assad’s weapons is mere hypocrisy until they take responsibility for our own human rights violations.
While I agree that Assad’s use of gas is an affront to civilization, it is time to acknowledge that the US has committed similar atrocities that also affront humanity. What disturbs me even more, however, is that over 100,000 people have been killed so far in the Syrian civil war. This fact should be even more alarming than the deaths of 1500 by unconventional methods.
I have tried to understand why unconventional weapons – chlorine, phosgene, mustard, and sarin gas, along with phosphorous gas, depleted uranium, and cluster bombs, and atomic bombs and their successors – are viewed as being in a special class of war-making weapons that various people see as so exceptional that they should be banned. I understand that a gas attack can be very painful and leave people in agony for days before they die, but conventional weapons often have the same result.
When it comes to atomic and hydrogen bombs, I understand that their wide-spread use would likely end life as we know it on the earth. But this is not true of the other weapons, including the sarin gas that Assad is likely to have used recently against his foes in Syria. Ninety-eight percent of the world’s countries oppose chemical weapons. This figure would impress me more if the same number of countries opposed all military weapons that kill and maim indiscriminately.
If the purpose of war is to kill the enemy until it surrenders, it is unclear to me why any weapon should be considered more horrendous than another. War has always meant indiscriminate death. The best solution to indiscriminate death is negotiation, preferably through the UN or other international bodies. The US has not pressed negotiation aggressively in Syria because its perceived interests are best served by prolonging that civil war. Syria’s allies include Iran and Hezbollah. Tying up Iran and Hezbollah in helping Assad diverts their attention from other mischief, such as bothering Israel, America’s closest ally in the Middle East.
In addition, the US doesn’t know whom to support among groups that oppose Assad. All of the groups could become bitter enemies of the US should they prevail and come to power in Syria. This is what happened in Egypt. The US supported the ouster of Mubarak (after many years of supporting him), only to see a democratic election put the Muslim Brotherhood’s choice in power, making necessary (from the US perspective) the ouster of President Morsi by the Egyptian military. But the US government won’t call that a coup by the military because we don’t have any good options there to bring someone to power who will do our bidding. The Egyptian military, supported by $1.5 billion in annual US aid, is not a reliable friend. And why should it be, when $12 billion has been pledged by Arab sources?
For all those too young to remember Bob Dylan’s words, the lyrics to “Masters of War,” which I find useful to read occasionally as a reminder of what drives the American war machine, can be found at <http://www.bobdylan.com/us/songs/masters-war>. Dylan identifies the “masters of war” as those who build weapons, from which they become wealthy, thus giving them an incentive to push for war whenever possible. By implication, Dylan suggests we should “follow the money,” to see who benefits from war. He sees these people (and their minions in Congress) as indifferent to human life. He references their lies and deception, the fear they generate, and the immorality of their actions.
President Obama now wants to punish Syria for its use of sarin gas, but he wants the approval of Congress to do so. It is beginning to sound as if Obama will attack Syria, with or without congressional approval, but finds it politically advantageous to get its approval, if that doesn’t take too long. Considering the forces arrayed in favor of attacking Syria – the Pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, the neo-conservative pundits who took us into Iraq, policy institutes (think tanks) that have produced such people as National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice, the entire arms industry, and most of the oil industry – there is little doubt that the US will attack Syria. Only the duration and extent of that involvement seem in question.
Dylan’s words remain relevant 50 years later, and will probably remain so as long as human beings exist. If it is possible to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice and freedom, we could do worse than pay more attention to what Dylan had to say.
© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos
LAMAR W. HANKINS is a former San Marcos city attorney.