As a writer and filmmaker (The Perfect Storm, Restrepo), Sebastian Junger demands and deserves our attention.
As a polemicist, he demands and deserves repudiation:
I have worked as a war reporter since 1993, when I sent myself to Bosnia with a backpack, a sleeping bag and a stack of notebooks. The first dead body I saw in a war zone was a teenage girl who was sprawled naked outside the Kosovar town of Suha Reka, having been gang-raped by Serbian paramilitaries toward the end of the war in 1999. After they finished with her, they cut her throat and left her in a field to die; when I saw her, the only way to know she was female — or indeed human — was the red nail polish on her hands.
I grew up in an extremely liberal family during the Vietnam War, and yet I found it hard not to be cheered by the thought that the men who raped and killed that girl might have died during the 78-day NATO bombardment that eventually brought independence to Kosovo.
Every war I have ever covered — Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Liberia — withstood all diplomatic efforts to end it until Western military action finally forced a resolution. Even Afghanistan, where NATO troops stepped into a civil war that had been raging for a decade, is experiencing its lowest level of civilian casualties in more than a generation.
Combat bona fides conceded, let us examine his assertions. We’ll even concede Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, and Liberia are better off after Western (not necessarily American) interventions—but Afghanistan? I don’t have access to his data, but even if accurate, do they really encourage similar intervention in Muslim countries? I supported the Iraq War to remove Saddam Hussein, but I can’t tell you honestly that “Western military action finally forced a resolution”. It just altered the plot.
Iraq hangs heavy over the American psyche and contributes to the warweariness, but the 2003 invasion was not an intervention to stop an ongoing conflict. It was an unpopular intrusion into the affairs of a country that was troubled but very much at peace. In that sense, it was fundamentally different from other Western military interventions.
Very much at peace? If you say so… I guess… sorta. But with whom was the Taliban at war (but a few rebellious tribes) when we “intruded” into their affairs? Again, I am willing to concede Junger’s point—but only up to a point. All happy countries are alike, as Tolstoy might have said; each conflicted country is conflicted in its own way. The past decade in Iraq is no argument for or against bombing Syria—though the past two years in Libya might be.
But why just Syria? Again, I cannot dispute Junger’s point:
We are safe in our borders because we are the only nation that can park a ship in international waters and rain cruise missiles down on specific street addresses in a foreign city for weeks on end.
So, why haven’t we done so in conflicts almost too numerous to mention—Darfur, Congo, etc. ad nauseam? Why does Syria uniquely cry out for us to “rain cruise missiles down on specific street addresses in a foreign city for weeks on end”?
Even after 1,400 Syrian civilians, including 400 children, were killed in a nerve gas attackthat was in all likelihood carried out by government forces, the prospect of American military intervention has been met with a combination of short-sighted isolationism and reflex pacifism — though I cannot think of any moral definition of “antiwar” that includes simply ignoring the slaughter of civilians overseas.
Nice try—but we ignore the slaughter of civilians overseas every day. We even ignore the slaughter of civilians here at home, if you count Chicago, Detroit and DC.
The United States is in a special position in the world, and that leads many people to espouse a broad American exceptionalism in foreign affairs. Even if they’re correct, those extra rights invariably come with extra obligations. Precisely because we claim such a privileged position, it falls to us to uphold the international laws that benefit humanity in general and our nation in particular.
That’s just a mess. American “exceptionalism” has nothing to do with foreign affairs. What is exceptional is our founding creed—creator-endowed rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. These rights are enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, and codified as law in the Constitution. I suppose those rights apply to Syrians, too, but nowhere does it say we have to insure them. I sure as hell don’t see anything in the Constitution calling for an obligation to uphold international law. Our privileged position was hard-earned, by others, and allows us a level of security almost no other nation in the history of the world has ever known.
I’m going to lay off here. It’s getting tedious, even to me. What’s odd is that I could see my way to supporting a strike against Syrian government positions, just not in the cluster[bleep] manner we have been—and not been—pursuing over the past month (yes, a month!). If President Obama had asserted his—and America’s—authority to call for retaliation, immediate and significant, I would have supported him. But what is left to accomplish? Our preeminence has been self-emasculated (or rendered “unbelievably small”), our moral standing reduced to a humiliating bow. The Nobel Peace Prize winner has managed to turn an ex-KGB thug into a Quaker minister.
And strike what—where are the WMD now? And intercede on the side of whom—a Qaeda?
See what I mean? Who has the time?