In London’s West End last week, I saw War Horse. War Horse is Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel of the same name (which I have not read). I don’t know if the story is based on an actual incident, but the play’s plot is a powerful witness to the brutality and futility of war.
Watching the play evoked memories of visiting World War I (WWI) battle sties at Verdun and the Somme, touring re-created trenches in London’s Imperial War Museum, and reading about the “war to end all wars.”
In early WWI battles, Allied cavalry units charged entrenched German positions defended by machine guns and armor. War Horse, in part, is the story of a horse sold to the British Army and its participation in such attacks.
WWI also included the first documented use of chemical weapons in warfighting. Both the Central Powers and the Allies used tearing agents (e.g., chloropicrin and chloromethyl chloroformate), asphyxiants (e.g., chlorine and cyanide compounds), and blistering agents (e.g., mustard gas). Of these weapons, mustard gas was perhaps most feared, causing internal and external bleeding that, over the course of several weeks, usually resulted in a very painful death.
The Iraqi military under Saddam Hussein utilized chemical weapons in Iraq’s 1988 war with Iran and against Kurdish Iraqis. In 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo religious sect executed the last known chemical weapons attack prior to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, releasing sarin in the Tokyo subway, killing twelve and injuring over fifty-five hundred people. Press reports suggest that the Syrian attacks also used sarin, but may have killed as many as 1400 people.
Nations rarely act in ways that contravene their perceived national interests. International bans against chemical weapons are no exception to that generalization. Although the rhetoric about chemical weapon emphasizes the horrendous suffering that chemical weapons cause, an international ban would never have achieved wide support if chemical weapons were truly useful militarily. However, chemical weapons depend upon the vagaries of the wind (no known water borne chemical agent has been used), resulting in effects that are unpredictable and unreliable. Furthermore, modern militaries, even with an international ban in place, routinely practice defending against chemical attacks, using protective clothing and other measures to reduce or avoid potential harm.
So why does the United States draw a “red line” against Syrian use of chemical weapons?
One reason may be that the U.S. was hoping to dissuade Syria (or the rebels, if one accepts Vladimir Putin’s assertion in a September 11, 2013, letter to the New York Times that the rebels, not the Syrian government, used the chemical weapons) from using chemical weapons. Apparently, the threat of retaliation failed to provide sufficient deterrence.
Another reason, not mutually exclusive, may be that the U.S. wants to promote the rule of law by encouraging groups to respect the international ban against chemical weapons. Ironically, as Putin acidly observes in his letter, the U.S. taking unilateral military action against Syria would violate other provisions of international law, undercutting the integrity of its position as an advocate of adhering to international norms and law.
Yet a third, non-exclusive reason for the U.S. to oppose Syria’s use of chemical weapons so aggressively is out of concern for preventing attacks against Israel. When Iraq, then a U.S. supported ally, used chemical weapons against Iran U.S. leaders did not call for decisive action against Iraq. Only when Iraq ceased to be a U.S. ally, did the U.S. voice concerns and demand action to eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, i.e., the U.S., like most nations, tends to act in ways that support its perceived national interests.
Putin called for the U.S. to support Syria turning over its chemical weapons to a third party and to stop arming the rebels in lieu of the U.S. taking military action against Syria. Some commentators have described Putin as tossing a “lifeline” to Obama, offering a positive way out of an otherwise no win situation.
At least two of the rebel groups opposed to President Assad’s Syrian forces are groups that the U.S. has formally declared terror groups. Any action that enables those groups to seize power directly, or to become part of a coalition that seizes power, bodes ill for U.S. national interests, Israel, and Syria’s diverse population. The potential exists for an even worse regime or chaos to replace Assad’s evil regime.
In War Horse, the boy, who had raised the horse at the center of the plot, lies about his age to enlist in the British Army so as to find his horse, which his father had sold to the Army at the war’s beginning. The boy’s enduring love for his horse poignantly shows love’s power and importance, even in the midst of horrendous slaughter. Helpless in what appears a hopeless situation, he perseveres.
Although the play offers no hint about the boy’s religious orientation, he models what Christ, the Prince of Peace, calls his followers to incarnate in their peacemaking: a hope that perseveres against all odds. Perhaps in Syria we can today see a glimmer of hope that prayers, protests, letters, and other expressions of concern will contribute to a resolution of the crisis that will entail the destruction of chemical weapons, end nations arming both sides, and avoid direct military action by any other nation.