Aleppo: Is it not time to give up war?


Aleppo souk on fire

A fire rages at a medieval souk in Aleppo, Syria, in an image taken from Shaam News Network video. Photograph: Anonymous/AP, Guardian, 9-29-12

War is a serious, harmful and very destructive undertaking.  However, it has existed for most of the history of organized human society and shows no signs of going extinct.  I will admit that when I was a young man war was much like a game to me, serious but still a game.  In the early 1960’s, with my comrades, I was well- trained and well-prepared to fight, kill, destroy and bring back the trophies of victory.  And like football players standing on the sidelines, we were eager to get in the game.  We were eager to show the coach, the fans and, of course, the girls back home what we could do.  Juvenile, I know, but true nevertheless.

As I age, my feelings about war have aged and matured also.  Still, until the last ten years or so, I could easily justify going to war under the right circumstances.  War was justifiable when my country was threatened, when my country was grievously insulted or when a nation was just wrong-thinking and a threat to world peace and stability.  All of the years leading up my recent change of heart, war was a tool to use when it was needed.  Never in all of those years did I think in depth about a war issue or a war – again like a game, I thought a play at a time.  That was much like President Bush, who failed to really think through his invasion (actually it turned out to be our invasion, but we did not vote on it) of Iraq or Afghanistan.  What might he have done if had known that it would be at least ten years before it all ended? If he had known how many Americans – and others – would have to die first? If he had known none of our stated goals would have been accomplished by war?  Would he have ordered the attacks then?  Give the man his dues, Osama bin Laden is dead and so is Saddam Hussein, but what else was accomplished?  Did their deaths justify the thousands of other deaths?  Is the world safer now? Is Al-Qaeda gone?  Is there peace and security for the citizens of either of those countries?  I think not.

But war is not an American exclusive, most countries have long histories of armed conflict; and their wars were not nobler or more successful than ours.  I started thinking about this today because of the damage being done to the medieval souks in Aleppo.  Like the other cities in the Middle East with long histories, Aleppo has districts that are very old – a thousand or more years old; Aleppo has had an organized human community for 7 or 8 thousand years.  There has been fighting in Aleppo for months, but it has become more intense and more destructive lately.  When something is destroyed in Aleppo it is irreplaceable.

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that the nearly 30,000 people who have died in the Syrian civil war are more important and their deaths more significant than old buildings.   But we have become accustomed to reports of deaths, it is part of all wars and the reporting of war; traditionally, each side sends home the death tolls, claiming always to have killed more than they lost.  Vietnam was the first of modern wars – wars covered by live television, up-to-date and up-to-the-moment results.  With Vietnam there was no waiting, as in previous wars, for days or months to find out who won the battle.   The American public was treated to nightly numbers of those we had killed and those of us that had been killed.  In time the numbers become just that – numbers; they were chalked up on charts like the baseball scores, the ups and downs of Wall Street stock prices or the gold metal count from the Olympics.  Unless one of yours was killed the numbers were just scores in the game.

The war in Syria has been like that, day after day the number of civilians killed is reported.  The next day more are reported, but nothing changes, just day after day of tallies of bodies.  It would seem that neither side stops to think about those numbers with shock and horror; each just restates its adamant stance – to fight until the other side is defeated – come what may and the devil take the hindmost.  Today, because it was something new that was killed, or rather something very old, it re-framed my thinking.  It reminded me that war is destructive and never productive.  War is horrible, unacceptable and useless.  When a person is killed another steps up and takes his place – or so military and political logic would have us believe; but when something a thousand years old is destroyed there are no more to take its place.   But in war it seems we never stop to seriously think about the consequences – we are motivated instead by our desires and the emotions of the moment.   As a species we give ourselves credit for thought, the ability to plan and to communicate – above all other species we say we can think, remember and articulate our thoughts and memories.  Really?

How is it then that neither individually nor collectively we can remember our past failed wars well enough to avoid making the same mistakes over and over?  Or, how is it that we cannot sustain our thoughts long enough to think past this moment, these emotions and project our intended actions into the future, not a week, month or year, but for a decade or a century.  If we did think that far into the future and evaluate our plans in those time frames and with the aid of our memories and knowledge of our personal and the collective history of our species we would never go to war.  War is horrible. War is cruel. War is destructive. War is inhumane.  Isn’t it time to give it up as simply a very bad idea?

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