First posted 9/1/2013 @

These are complex matters, and there are no easy answers.

I've been on the phone and email with friends and colleagues in tormented discussions about whether or not the United States should take action against the Syrian government's killing of many of its citizens with chemical weapons. The torment comes, among other things, from what we know, what we do not know, and what we guess at. Images of terrified Syrians being gassed haunt us, and we want that terrorizing stopped. But we want the horrors of Darfur ended, and we want the killings of millions in the Congo ended, and we know there are dictators and terrorists and oppressors in more countries than most of us can keep track of, and we want all that to end. We ask who can end it all...and how we choose when our own country should be the one -- whether alone or with others -- to try to end it. We wonder why we did not attack Iraq and indeed why we helped through giving it intelligence back when it used chemical weapons against Iran. And since no one country can do it all, why doesn't the United Nations take on what it was created to do?

How can we guess at the motives of the President and the Congress and the lobbyists in pushing for our country to attack one place and not another, based on one principle -- or publicly-alleged principle -- or another? How can we attack Syria for using chemical weapons, when we used chemical weapons like Agent Orange in Vietnam and have used depleted uranium in our current wars and white phosphorus last year in Fallujah? Was it all right that Assad killed far more people before now, just now with chemical weapons? And if the United States takes some action now, what will be the fallout for the innocent in the country we attack and who are inevitably killed in war, as well as from the blowback against the U.S. that will inevitably follow? After all, we know that weapons of war often kill more civilians than soldiers. Due to our country's use of drones, more than 200 children have been killed in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia as "collateral damage" -- that horrible term used to try to mask the killing of totally innocent people -- in drone attacks. Do we want to kill more Syrian civilians with our weapons to punish Assad for killing Syrian civilians? As activist and artist Robert Shetterly (creator of the Americans Who Tell the Truth portrait series) said in our recent discussion, "It's a bit like saying we're intent on punishing the bad boy in class by blowing up the classroom."

Most of all, what I cannot get out of my mind are the faces and the words of the countless veterans -- from World War II through every American war including the present ones -- to whom I have listened over the past decade.

World War II was my father's war. Miraculously, he came through it and retained his gentleness, graciousness, and capacity to love. But so many from that war did not. As I learned while writing When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans, it's not unusual for Americans to make the dead-wrong assumption that World War II veterans were emotionally unscathed by their war, because it was "a good war." But a great many World War II veterans dealt with -- and today deal with -- their pain through substance abuse or horrible emotional isolation. I cannot tell you how many daughters and sons of deceased veterans of that war have said to me that their fathers or mothers either spoke about the war only on their deathbeds or never to their dying days.

Korean War veterans often speak of their war as invisible, forgotten...feeling that the risks they took and their suffering are unremembered.

The Vietnam War was my generation's war, and the suffering caused by that one has been more visible but unabated. It has been exacerbated by the rush since then to call war-caused suffering a mental illness and to treat it with usually multiple psychiatric drugs that do not lessen their moral anguish or intense grief and that cause more problems than they solve. One man in particular embodies all of this for me, because I know him so well. His adult son tells me that his father sleeps most of the day, and when he tries to move around the house, the son has to stay nearby to catch him when he often starts to fall because of the drugs.

The veterans of wars since Vietnam suffer from any and all of the above, and the brave women and men who have recently spoken out about the epidemic of sexual assaults in the military -- while what has barely been addressed is the epidemic of misogyny in forms other than assault -- has brought out of the woodwork the stories of such suffering both current and long-buried from veterans of all wars.

Advocates of a strike against Assad in Syria, including President Barack Obama, make the plan sound so simple, so clean. They speak of "surgical strikes," though it is well-known that such missile strikes often kill civilians, even more civilians than soldiers. They say there will be "no boots on the ground," using "boots" to mean "living, breathing, human beings." Do they think that will make us forget that our war in Iraq was supposed to be one of "shock and awe," get in, strike surgically, and get out fast, with few or no people dying? How do the loved ones of those who were killed there feel when they hear such talk? And can we forget the many places where we were told we were sending only "advisors," when that turned out to be a cover for fighting forces who killed and some of whom were killed?

Those who led this country knew about the Nazi death camps but failed to bomb the railway tracks that took victims to those camps, and the U.S. and many countries turned away boatloads of people desperate to escape the Nazis. Knowing and having listened to people who escaped those camps or lost loved ones there makes it impossible to ignore what is happening in Syria and also in many other countries.

Shortly before the Iraq War began, I heard the thoughtful, perceptive journalist James Fallows speak about a cover story he had just prepared for The Atlantic. Going way beyond the then-usual question, "Should we go to war in Iraq or not?" he had thoroughly explored what would happen after that initial decision was made: What would probably happen on the first day of the war? In the first week? The first month? The first year? And after that. Pointing out the huge numbers of military people we still had stationed in Germany, Japan, and Italy all those decades after World War II ended (even today, we have more than 115,000 in those three countries and South Korea combined), he addressed the fact that war is never as simple or as brief as we think it might be from the start. Will President Obama and Secretary Kerry address these questions? Will they let us in or their plans beyond whether or not to order those initial surgical strikes?

In light of that, don't we need to ask, as Robert Shetterly did in our recent conversation, what is the reason our government would order missile attacks on Syria? Of course chemical weapons are outlawed by international treaty, and Obama and Kerry seem to propose we attack to punish the Syrian government for using them. But we have not punished other countries for using them, nor have we been punished for our use of them. Do we have any aim -- or plan -- in mind once we inflict that initial punishment? And who will establish the guidelines for our country to decide when and how to punish the overwhelming array of crimes against humanity that are being committed across the globe?

As I wrote at the beginning: These are complex matters, and there are no easy answers. This essay is a plea for two things. It is a plea for honesty -- which I realize is asking for more than we will get from most politicians and from the many who profit financially from wars -- but I issue that plea nonetheless. And it is a plea to keep clearly in our sight that there are always human costs of attack -- loss of life and increases of many kinds of suffering.

©copyright by Paula J. Caplan                                        All rights reserved

About the Author

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D.

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist, is an associate at Harvard University's DuBois Institute and former fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Program.

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