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.
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?
- 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.
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.
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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