War is a lot of things. It’s brotherhood and sacrifice and heroism. It’s one man giving his life to save others. It’s an entire society mobilizing towards a common and just end. It’s the free people of the world drawing a line in the sand against the encroachment of tyranny and casting it into the dustbin of history. It’s a struggle, to the death, in the name of good and freedom and liberty.
These are the things we need to believe about war in order to fight it. And service towards those ends is what we need to believe in order to honor those we ask to fight it for us. Because if you can’t then you run the risk of being reminded of exactly what war is.
Beyond the abstract visions that we sell ourselves to do it, war is a very real and terrible thing. War is the taxi driver in East Timor taking me 20 minutes out of our way to show me the sea wall on which his parents were lined up and shot. It’s the cooler sitting next to my desk full of the body parts of a teenager who blew himself up. It’s me looking at it uneasily, waiting for the technicians to come and take it away to try to identify him. War is the dozen women and children he killed the day before at a funeral. That’s what war was for me. I got off easy.
Because war is much worse.
It’s the 40 thousand civilians—men, women and children- killed by Nazi bombs from the sky in England during the blitz. War is the 300,000 Chinese killed in the Rape of Nanking. War is the 120,000 civilians killed during post invasion Iraq. And now war is the death squads going house to house in Aleppo killing women and children by the dozens. War is all of those things. Whether we sell those parts, or not.
War is one other thing. It’s a choice.
No matter how much we spin it. No matter how much we believe that our safety and the future of our society is at stake, war is always a choice. If the forces of evil are at our doorstep, inside our borders, marching on the capital itself, the movement to fight is a choice. Sometimes it’s the best choice. Sometimes it isn’t. But the iron die is never actually cast, no matter how much we need to believe it was. And the progression towards arms is never inevitable.
War is always a choice.
We point to the isolated atrocities of war as outliers. We think of them as extreme and rare cases to plug into our overall calculus of choice. They give us comfort, knowing there will never be another like it. There was only one My Lai massacre. There was one Abu Ghraib. There was only one Batan Death March. There was only one Andersonville. Those singular events are isolated. And they will never happen again. But the consistency of those sort of events are as much a part of modern war as artillery or tanks or ships. Rest assured, when we mobilize and march to war, someone somewhere will be sitting in their house in fear, having never lifted a finger to harm anyone, and they will be killed. It might be a stray bomb. It might be an accidental target. It might be a death squad or a chemical attack.
Sometimes it’s our fault. Sometimes it isn’t. But it’s going to happen. And it happened because somewhere someone chose it to in the name of something reasonably sellable-security, democracy, capitalism. Though the specifics of the horror are impossible to predict, the certainty of horror is not.
Aleppo has fallen. And the aftermath, death destruction and human tragedy in the streets, is the ultimate end to how modern cities fall in war. It was no different in Berlin. It was no different in Fallujah. And it wouldn’t have been any different in Tokyo, had we not avoided it by annihilating others from above with nuclear destruction. There will be blame to go around. There will be calls for war crime inquiries. And there will be calls for us to act.
To volunteer once again.
Man is a sentient, warring animal. We are capable of committing horrible transgressions in the name of our interests. And we are capable of feeling every ounce of pain it gives us. And now, as the grim events in Syria play out on our televisions and our social media feeds, we need to feel it. All of it. Because we should never miss the opportunity to account for the true costs of war. All of its death and suffering and cruel unfairness. And balance that against the true weight of our gains. And reflect honestly about what side of the ledger holds the most value.
So don’t turn away too quickly. And don’t point to other peoples as unique in their destruction. This is a habit of man. But it’s also a choice. And in these times of fresh tragedy, it’s important to remember that when we decide what to do next.