Syria is Complicated, War is Not

Syria Is Complicated
War is a beast that we are far too eager to feed.

The word complicated, in polite and diplomatic society, has come to mean let’s not do anything. It has evolved into the last refuge of politicians, trying to duck questions of ethics and intervention. “Let’s sort out the Middle East.” It’s complicated. “Ireland?” It’s complicated. “Was there genocide in Darfur?” It’s complicated. “But it looks like genocide.” Well, yes. But we don’t have to do anything about it. “But we’re signed up to treaties which mean we have to intervene in cases of genocide.” Not this time. It’s complicated.

Naturally, whenever the powers-that-be seek intervention, reality comes brilliantly and miraculously into simplified focus. “We need to invade Iraq, a country which we supported in their last war, declaring a regime illegitimate which we had befriended years before?” Well, yes. It’s all very simple. They are bad. “We need to invade that country again in revenge for an attack they had nothing to do with?” Well, yes. Like we said before, they are bad. They’re still bad.

Clausewitz famously called war “the continuation of politics by other means”, a quote which is almost always taken out of context. We have inherited it as a cold intellectual statement, willfully ignorant of the horrific cost of war. When we do count the cost of war, we almost always do so quantitatively. We always dwell on the numeric cost in lives to our young soldiers, and never long enough on the cost to their psyche. Soldiers die. From a Christian mindset, is it not worse that they kill? Whatever the argument for state-sanctioned violence, we are not supposed to kill. We are, in fact, sometimes supposed to die in acts of spiritual sacrifice. Early Christians were famous for their zeal for martyrdom. Yet we have created this narrative where the amount of death we cause is negligible, the qualitative destruction we cause irrelevant. Only the amount of death we endure counts. We might kill 120,000 enemy soldiers and civilians, and destroy an entire society’s ability to function, but the 3,000 lives we lose, those caskets draped in our flag, whichever flag that may be, far outweigh those.

Related: Was the Iraq War Worth It? – by Craig M. Watts

Why? If I am to love my neighbours and enemies, then the number I care about is 123,000, each life counted equally. I am also to grieve beyond numbers, at the cost to those lives lucky enough to continue.

War is a beast that we are far too eager to feed.

Soldiers loyal to the Assad regime, as well as rebels of various stripe, tread the ground where Paul had his life-changing encounter on the road to Damascus. Their stories have no blinding epiphany on the horizon, no sudden change in attitude looming. What they have is what Western commentators are euphemistically calling a “stalemate”, a condition in which death occupies both sides at roughly equal rates. In chess, a stalemate signals the end of the game. There is no point in continuing. The human cost of a stalemate is hopelessness, the constant escalation of murder, of the cheapening of human existence, of increasing desperation on both sides. There is no good to come of this, no point in continuing, yet we stare at Syria and ponder, “But what could we do?”

It’s complicated. Isn’t it?

The beginning of the answer is quite simple: stop feeding the beast.

We take the support of war to be such a necessary component for world diplomacy that we scarcely question its validity, or its means. Our economies are so attuned to propagating war that there is fundamental resistance to any shift in that status quo. Just because you are not feeding the beast directly does not mean that you aren’t contributing to its appetite. We live in a consumerist society, yet cannot grasp the simple reality that war consumes, just as we consume, just as a fire consumes.

So, what does war need?

  1. Soldiers
  2. Guns
  3. Ammunition
  4. Vehicles
  5. Oil
  6. The passivity or support of the people

We cannot actively change the number of soldiers available to either side in the Syrian conflict. Any scenario for doing so involves sealing the border, and/or somehow preventing native Syrians from joining the fight. It’s not complicated. It’s simply not realistic. And in simple terms, Syria has a large enough population to support killing for the foreseeable future.

Our ability to control the amount of guns, vehicles and munitions varies by their size and availability.  The larger the weapons, the easier it is to control their supply. Turkey has decided to cut off the main route for weapons going to the northern rebels (assuming the current political problems for Prime Minister Erdogan don’t affect foreign policy). One of the ugly truths in war is that if you stop feeding half the beast, you don’t stop the war, but simply prompt a massacre. We saw this recently in Sri Lanka, when Tamil resistance collapsed, and ended in brutal ethnic cleansing.

Brave New Films

So, we need to stop feeding the other half of the beast, the one the world considers complicated: the Assad regime. Their primary source of new weapons is Russia. Russia has discussed the necessity of peace, and one of our primary goals has to be the cessation of Russian arms deals to the Assad regime. How we achieve that depends probably on a rethink of international diplomacy. Russia would support a move to less interventionism, but it also might support a move to different types of non-military intervention. More work to reveal the apparent use of chemical weapons might force Russia’s hand. But again, proving chemical weapon use? Well, that’s complicated.

Oil is a product we can cut off with relative ease, even in the Middle East.  Syria produces some oil of its own, but not much by the standards of the Gulf States, and war has an insatiable thirst for oil. We could cut off external oil supplies, possibly diplomatically, but certainly physically, as they are mostly shipped by sea from Iran. Iran recently gave a massive credit line to Syria to buy oil. Stopping Iran from sailing boats around the Gulf, up through Suez, and into Syrian ports? Complicated.

Also by John: Are You Agapephobic?

The support of the populace is, I think, easier to control than we think. Armies will do what their masters command, but by and large armies will not indiscriminately kill their own people, particularly when the army in question is numerically more linked to the people than to the rulers, who in Syria are a small tribe called the Alawites. When you start shooting back, you invite complication. As Gandhi said, “Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood.” This, at last, is Christ-like. We must sacrifice our lives for freedom, because violent victories merely lead to further violence. We must not live by the sword if we wish to claim a righteous end.

When there is a conflict, our instinctive question is who to support. What that often boils down to is: Who will we help kill who? What we need to do is start from the assumption that our primary purpose is to stop the killing entirely.

If you watch our culture, we adore violence. We worship war. We celebrate conquest, victory and even death. As Patton famously said, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

We must lose our sense of glory in killing. We needn’t lose the honour in dying for our friends. Jesus praises that directly. But we must not kill. We must not empower others to kill. We must reject killing entirely. We understand that at a personal level, but not as a society.

War is a beast that we are far too eager to feed.

John Watson discovered Jesus’ footprints late in life, and has been joyfully trying to negotiate The Way ever since. He is a musician and educator, living in Maidstone, in the south-east of England, with his wife and two children.

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John Watson

John WatsonJohn Watson discovered Jesus' footprints late in life, and has been joyfully trying to negotiate The Way ever since. He is a musician and educator, living in Maidstone, in the south-east of England, with his wife and two children. He has written for Red Letter Christians and the Burnside Writers Collective.View all posts by John Watson →

  • otrotierra

    Followers of Jesus will enact the Greatest Commandment. In contrast, those who follow Mars–the Roman god of War–will cling to the sword and justify continued violence.

    • John

      Thanks for reading. And well said, as always. :)

      • otrotierra

        Thanks John. And thank you for reminding us that to follow Jesus and affirm life we can no longer rejoice in conquest, colonization, or preemptory war.

  • Drew

    Pacifism is nothing more than ignorance. There is such a thing as evil in the world, evil that no words can change. In Romans, government has the responsibility to keep the peace, by the sword if necessary. Nothing puzzles me more than the liberal fantasy that Jesus demands people be raped, mutilated, tortured, and murdered because they cannot resist. Jesus demands we lay down our lives for the Gospel as a Christian witness, yes, but I find it to be an odd theology that demands a rape victim not fight back with physical force or “violence.”

    By the way, “talking nice” to Russia has been tried for the past few years and has not worked. Also, stopping Iran from shipping oil, the lifeblood of their economy, would be a war declaration.

    • John

      The Christian legitimation of war is well-known and widespread throughout history, and has resulted in a number of horrors, from the Crusades to the Thirty Years War to the ongoing problems in Ireland, to take a minute portion of the absolutely vast list. It was not all that long ago, in the grand scheme of things, that killing Christians with different theology was the way to go for all of us.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “talking nice”, but if you look at Russian-American relations for the past 70 years, there has not been a great deal of coming together in any way, the Suez Canal crisis being the bizarre exception. But we have to try. And we have to pursue diplomacy that doesn’t involve the constant background threat of violence. Does that work? Well, the US hasn’t tried in a very long time (I’m not saying Russia has). So none of us can say with any authority whether that would work. We haven’t seen it. We don’t know.

      As for Iran, I’m not talking about a universal embargo on Iranian oil exports. I’m talking about preventing oil from getting to Syrian ports, diplomatically if possible, physically if necessary. Israel has bombed Iran on several occasions without it resulting in declarations of war from either side. The history of the Iranian post-revolution economy, and its overdependence on oil and gas revenues in the context of a massive increase in its population recently is a big topic, and not really coverable here. But we should be encouraging Iran into a more diversified economy, for all our sakes.

      Saying that pacifism is ignorance equates to the alternatives being superior. If the 20th century is testimony to anything, it is to the fact that war is ignorance.

      The article is about war. I didn’t mention rape at all, so I’m not sure what that is about.

      • Drew

        I do appreciate you coming up with alternatives – that kind of thinking is sorely needed. However, alternatives deserve critical thought.

        Diplomacy has already been tried in cutting off Syrian oil imports, and should be continued; however, Iran was not swayed. Physically stopping Iran would be a military confrontation and not exactly “pacifism” and would most likely to lead to a military conflict or retaliation. As for Iran not declaring war against Israel, they have – they arm, fund, and train Hezbollah to carry out terrorism.

        Russia will do whatever they want because it has a large stockpile of nuclear weapons. Diplomacy is the only option with Russia, but it cannot be counted on, as evidenced by Snowden. Getting Russia to do anything is difficult.

        Yes, I do believe the alternatives to pacifism can be superior. I’m glad that the United States intervened in both World Wars, and sent tanks, missiles, and nuclear weapons instead of flowers and chocolates, and that Europe is a free continent. It’s actually one of the greatest successes of the past one hundred years, democracy and freedom and peace eventually coming to Europe.

        The reason I mention rape is that often folks push absolute pacifism and taking “turn the other cheek literally.” Then, when confronted with a situation in which applying a literal translation and application is nonsensical, most realize that they do not support absolute pacifism, but rather some sort of “comfortable” pacifism based not on the Bible but rather what they are personally comfortable with.

        • Drew

          Also, Japan attacked us in WW2 because we tried to “starve the beast.” Assad could very well try to use more chemical weapons if cornered. Complex is truly a good descriptor, not just a cop-out. Pacifists like to assume everyone is rational; rarely the case.

          • John

            I don’t think pacifists assume rationality, but rather counter the idea that violence is always the last, best, most rational solution.

            The question of Japan is a very good one. There’s a strong argument, which people don’t like, that the Japanese oil embargo was done precisely to goad Japan into attacking the US. I don’t think we can ever know whether that was the motivation, but it was a predictable result.

            I’m happy to admit that there are different levels to this argument. A country which can fight a large-scale war more or less on its own probably requires different thinking to a small country engaged in small regionalised conflicts. Much of my thinking is admittedly on the latter.

            Thinking about a cataclysm like World War II is difficult, because the response tends toward where you intervene with your nonviolence. If you apply nonviolence and Christian thought to 1919 and the Treaty of Versailles, you get one response. If you wait until 1933, and the rise of Nazism, you get a different response. If you wait until September, 1939, you get a yet different response, and naturally the closer you get to the outbreak of global warfare, the more difficult it is see positive nonviolence solutions.

            I think a good result in terms of Christian thought applied to international relations and World War II was the peace that followed, where rebuilding showed localised love for former enemies. It’s one of the places in history we can see learning from past mistakes. Sadly, those moments are few and far between.

          • Drew

            I’m glad that you agree with me – an oil embargo against Syria, predictably, will lead to bad consequences. It’s not just as simple as “starving the beast,” because starving beasts do not sit by idly and allow themselves to starve, as is the case with Japan.

            You addressed one of my fundamental problems with pacifism and pacifistic thought. I have no problem with you saying that every problem could be solved with pacifism and right timing; what I am saying is that world events demonstrate that not all problems are resolved with pacifism and that right timing is not always possible. Jesus says the poor will always be with you, not meaning that we shouldn’t try to alleviate poverty, but meaning that literally in fallen world that poverty will always be there. Likewise, conflict will always be with us, not meaning that we shouldn’t try to alleviate conflict by non-violent means, but literally meaning that in a fallen world that countries will take up arms against other countries.

        • John

          Thanks for your response, Drew. I find your language revealing. I don’t think anyone would describe the most famous two acts of 20th century nonviolence, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, as either “playing nice” or “sending flowers and chocolate”. There is this deeply rooted cultural sense that not fighting is cowardly. I would suggest that the bombing of Dresden was far more cowardly, and showed far more weakness, than the Selma to Montgomery March.

          • Drew


            Please do not conflate separate issues.

            Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr were not involved in wars.

            Also, I doubt a march would have helped to end WW2. As I recall, nothing short of the complete devastation of Japan and Germany caused their leaders to surrender, and appeasement (Germany) and embargoes (Japan) were complete failures.

          • John

            It’s only conflation if you take war and politics to be separate entities, and only if you take the beginning of hostilities to be the beginning of peacemaking.
            There’s no point in discussing peacemaking purely from a post-September 1939 context, or from a purely Allied perspective. Peacemaking needed to start in Germany, certainly from 1933, and arguably much earlier.
            Jesus never said, “Blesses are the peacemakers amongst the good guys, and only after open hostilities have begun.”
            One of the problems is the institutional status of war, and the lack of institutional status of peace.

  • bluecenterlight

    War is not is not complicated (or should be) for Christians. We don’t run from conflict. We just don’t kill. We should be prepared to lay down our lives to bring healing to a broken world. We don’t pick which side we are going to love. Something bothers me about this article though. It seems to offer Christopolical (I think I just made up a word) solution. The melding of Christian world view and government. I think seeing the American government as a righteous arm of the church and advocating politicians to do what we see as right is a dangerous road to go down. Should we be silent, no, I guess I’m not sure where the line is. Romans 13 says that God uses governments to enact His judgment in this world, we do not use violence, God does. I think this makes it difficult to look at any specific situation without a word from God and know whether or not God’s hand is in a conflict. If a country decided to invade Israel and haul them off into captivity, what side are we on? Would we have waged war on the Babylonians? If we did would we be fighting God? Difficult questions.

    • otrotierra

      The melding of Christian world views and government seems identifiable not in John Watson’s commentary, but quite clear in history: Constantine & the birth of Christian Imperialism, the Crusades, the Inquisition, Conquest of the Americas, and more recently with Dr. Charles Stanley and his god wanting the U.S. military to murder Iraq citizens (Stanley’s “A Nation at War” remains a favorite among warmongering evangelicals).

      John Watson’s commentary stands in stark contrast, and in direct opposition, to these concrete historical examples of terrible theology and consequent human-rights violations.

      • 22044

        Charles Stanley did no such thing. Why do you bear false witness here? Which is just as bad as promoting unjust wars.

      • bluecenterlight

        Just as we should be wary of the blood thirsty on the right who want to use Jesus as justification for war, we should be wary of those on the left who would use Jesus to create their own utopia (with themselves at the head of course). We do not need to be sucked into politics, left or right. We need to be people of the kingdom.

    • John

      BLC, thanks for your insights. What I’m trying to put forward is that war is a system which we, as a socio-political apparatus, adhere to. It is part and parcel of what we do, and how we work, and we need, as Christians, to step back and see our own cultural identification with war, and withdraw from it. I think we pretend this great reluctance to war, and pat ourselves on the back, when in fact, we’ve got itchy trigger fingers.

      Incidentally, I don’t live in the US, so I’m not talking exclusively from or about an American perspective, though given the audience, I try to use examples which we can all relate to.

      • bluecenterlight

        When you say “our ability to control the amounts of guns…” or “one of our primary goals has to be the cessation of Russian arms deals to the Assad regime.” Who is the “our” you are referring to? The church has no influence in Russian arms deals. I guess what I am asking is that do you feel it is the church’s role to influence the government to act in manner the church agrees with? At what point are we picking sides? Where does this cross a line?

        • John

          I would say, in the simplest terms, that the point is to disarm hostilities. “Blessed are the peacemakers” makes no bones about who is right and wrong.
          As for the “our”, that is a very good question, and currently depends on a post-WWII antiquated perspective of global relations; a sort of modern take on the old Great Powers. And that needs to change.
          I think I would tweak one of your questions. Is the church’s role to influence governments in a manner the Church agrees with? Well, that has inferences in it I wouldn’t care to make. Should the Church promote peace? Yes. And it should be ready to make suggestions, both at a national and international level.
          If you don’t have Desmond Tutu promoting the Reconciliation work in post-Apartheid South Africa, you have a very different modern South Africa, for both blacks and whites. That is the church getting its hands dirty, but never losing sight of Jesus. I think it’s possible, and in times of tragedy and cataclysm, is essential.
          Thanks for your insights, as ever. :)

          • bluecenterlight

            Thank you for your response :)

    • 22044

      I think those are difficult questions. In my post below I note that a Christian’s responsibility does not meld with the actions of his government. Always support war? Always oppose it? Both positions miss the point.

  • 22044

    Not a bad post. It reads more like a policy proposal than an explicit call for what a Christian ought to do. Wars will never cease while we’re in a fallen world, and they are initiated by actions of governments, not citizens. If a Christian claims that he does not support and does not agree with his government’s actions in promoting a war effort. I think that is acceptable to God.

    A war can be just in its objective and planning, but is often messy in carrying out and often loses any justness it might have had.

    • John

      Thanks, 22044. I think you raise a common conflict for Christians. Do we try to influence governments rather than just individuals? I think, personally, that governments are too pervasive for us to ignore. If we are to bring the Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” we need to look at institutions, not just individuals. Particularly when he have governments with lots of Christians in them. Surely, they should live out the ideals of their faith in their job, just as I should in mine.

      • 22044

        Certainly, we should try to influence where we can.
        Thanks for the response, John.

  • Thank you for this article. It has really challenged my thinking. When I think of war, I do imagine the lives lost. I mostly think about the total causality list on both sides and I hope for an end to the physical carnage; however, I really have never thought about looking at the harm done psychologically to the ones who actually fire the shots nor the ones who fear being the targets for those bullets. The Psyche is a very powerful thing for the individual. If verbal abuse from a parent or spouse can cause so much damage to an individual, often leading to future counseling or a need of it, how much more would the damage be to the one aiming the gun at another?

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