A Hole Is a Hole


These weapons are different.

That's the argument President Obama has used to justify intervening in Syria: chemical weapons cross a line. Go ahead and kill civilians with bullets, grenades, missiles, bombs, and as long as there's no chemical in there except explosives, we're good. Gas them, and we're no longer good.

It's an odd argument to make, but wholly consistent with the hypocrisy of international law in matters of war. The Chemical Weapons Convention was introduced in 1968 by an 18-nation coalition. Since then, 175 other nations have signed the treaty, though not all have ratified it. If Syria adds its name to the treaty, the total will be 194.

Chemical weapons are, without a doubt, horrible things. Slow, agonizing deaths by seizure and asphyxiation are crimes against humanity. There is no question about this.

The question for me lies in the fact that these weapons have been singled out for condemnation. Biological weapons have also been condemned for similar reasons. At the same time, though, explosive weapons and projectile weapons can be used with abandon. Cluster bombs, weapons that drop tiny grenades over a wide area and frequently maim children, are ignored by international law. Nuclear weapons, which, apart from the enormous death toll from the initial blast, have the potential to sicken entire populations for decades, condemning generations to deaths as ugly and painful as any gas attack, are completely legal.

Why, then, have chemical and biological weapons been singled out? Certainly not for their status as weapons of mass destruction; as already mentioned, nuclear weapons far exceed the capacity of any one chemical attack, and biological attacks have, up to now, been localized in scope. No, I think it comes down to one simple thing: they're unfair.

Chemical weapons kill indiscriminately. A soldier with a gun has to aim at a human being. A missile or bomb has to be sighted. Gas, on the other hand, just has to be released: open a valve, add a breeze, and anyone who has the bad luck to cross its path is doomed. During World War I, gas attacks killed and maimed thousands of soldiers. Defenses were soon developed--gas masks, protective garments--rendering chemical attacks ineffective, at best. Civilians have not tended to have such protection, and so gas has been used as a tool to terrorize and destroy populations that may be sympathetic to the cause of one's opponent. Nothing stirs up international condemnation like pictures of dead children, so it's been easy to rally international opposition to chemical weapons.

But here's the rub: famine has killed, and continues to kill, far more people in horrible ways than chemical weapons ever have or ever will. And guns, grenades, bombs, and missiles continue to exact enormous tolls on civilian populations wherever wars are fought. The outcry for such disasters never rises to the level of horror at the use of chemicals.

So back to our President: I agree with you, Mr. Obama, that the use of chemical weapons on civilians is abhorrent. But I disagree with your red line, because the use of munitions on those populations is, in my mind, just as damnable. I'll take it a step farther: watching civilians die of famine or curable disease is also damnable, and is often the result of economic sanctions--which then makes the country levying those sanctions also culpable in their deaths.

That puts the shoe on the other foot. In the Persian Gulf War and its sequel, the Bush II invasion of Iraq, thousands upon thousands of civilians lost their lives to attacks launched by the United States and its allies and to the chaos that followed those attacks. I could even go so far as to say there is far more blood on the White House for the last decade's campaigns than on whatever palace Bashar al-Assad lives in.

And as to that arbitrary distinction about chemical weapons: sometime in 1980, there was a forum at my dormitory, Lausanne Hall on the Willamette University campus, about nuclear disarmament. Or rather, about what was wrong with it. The guest speakers represented military expansion interests. Their one-note presentation insisted that more billions had to be poured into the American nuclear program to be sure that American missiles continued to be more powerful and accurate than their Soviet counterparts, because otherwise the USSR would blow us up. During the discussion after the presentation, I raised my hand and made this point: A hole is a hole. With weapons this size, does it really matter that their hole is ten feet closer to its target than ours? I don't remember what answer they had for my question--it was probably dismissed as naïve and idealistic--but I think it's worth considering in this context.

A hole is a hole; or, rather, a giant crater is a giant crater. And in the case of Syrian civilians, a dead neighborhood is a dead neighborhood. Whether they died in a gas attack or a missile attacks, they're all still dead. If we're not going to intervene over missiles, it's arbitrary and hypocritical that we would over gas. If we really cared about those deaths, we would've been there a year ago.

I'm not advocating intervention, by the way. As I explained in my last post, I'm quite certain that a military "solution" will just result in more deaths, including those of our own young soldiers. The only way I can see to untie this Gordian knot is diplomacy, and it won't be pretty: we're going to have to let our least-trusted ally, Russia, do it, and it will almost certainly mean that the tyrant with the gas bombs keeps his job.

But a hole is a hole. Those civilians know this quite well. A hole made by their president looks exactly like a hole made by American forces trying to liberate them from that president.

And one more thing: the unfairness principle is a relic of just war theory. Just war theory posits that soldiers are like game pieces on a chess board. There are rules for how they may kill each other, and in the end, the side that kills the most wins fair and square. Unless that side cheats by gassing its opponents soldiers.

When it comes to killing young men and women who are fighting because they're too poor to have any other career option, or have been pressed into service by a ruthless dictator, fairness is a silly reason to condemn any weapon. What's most unfair is that these young people, many of them still teenagers, are fighting and dying in behalf of the senior citizens who are too hidebound to find a way to talk out their differences.

Shame on them. And shame on us, for letting them continue to send our sons and daughters to fight their battles for them.

Because a hole is a hole. And winning the war just makes you king of the hole. Way to go.

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