Morality and war have always been uncomfortable bedfellows.
Maybe things were simpler in the past. The Jehovah of the Old Testament was largely a god of wrath and battle, and citizens of other nations — Hittites, Amalekites, Philistines and many others — were often subjected to merciless, uncomplicated slaughter.
And not just their soldiers. These are typical marching orders, delivered by the prophet Samuel to King Saul: “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”
Saul, smiting hard with 210,000 men, complied. The only complication was that Saul got in trouble with Jehovah because he allowed his soldiers to keep some of the best oxen, sheep and a few asses. No one fretted over the women, infants and sucklings.
Then Jesus came along, preaching mercy and peace, and the pendulum swung wildly in the other direction. “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”
How well is that going to work in our brutal modern world? It doesn’t seem promising, but we’re not sure because we’ve never really tried it.
Nevertheless, this is the baffling moral backdrop against which our leaders make decisions about when and how to use force in our wars. The issue is further complicated by the power of modern weapons, which aren’t nearly as discriminating as the sword and spear.
It gets even more complicated. We can probably agree that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad doesn’t deserve our love or blessings. There’s no turning the other cheek with this despicable tyrant.
After Assad killed more than 80 men, women and children with chemical weapons, President Trump struck back with 59 Tomahawk missiles fired at the Syrian airbase that launched the chemical attack. This seems like simple, straightforward justice.
But others have pointed out the moral anomalies. Why did we strike Assad after the chemical attack while we haven’t responded to his regular use of barrel bombs — more than 12,000 in 2016 — which cause far more devastation and suffering among Syrian civilians than chemical weapons? The brutality is so gruesome that the media declines to publicize it.
Why was the Trump administration — supported by many Americans — spurred to military action by the images of children suffocated by sarin gas, but unmoved by the distress and peril of children fleeing Syria?
For that matter, is there a moral difference among the quick deaths — sometimes — of children hit by barrel bombs, the slower deaths of children overcome by chemical weapons and the lingering, protracted deaths of children that occur around the world every day from disease and hunger?
Finally, how do we untangle the moral threads that distinguish between Assad’s brutal attacks on his own people and our willingness to accept collateral damage as an ordinary part of warfare? There’s no use pretending that U.S. military power hasn’t caused the deaths — sometimes sudden, sometimes prolonged — of hundreds of thousands of innocent children, by bomb blast, fire, suffocation and irradiation. Our moral calculus has to include Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, Dresden, Hamburg and many more.
But this is only a way of saying that things are terribly complicated. Destroying Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan had its own moral mandate, and we responded.
Unfortunately, the stench of war is in the air again, and the power of modern weapons, including, sooner or later, nuclear weapons, means that many thousands of innocent people, including many children, are going to suffer and die in ways no less horrible than those inflicted by Assad.
I’m not enough of a philosopher to resolve this moral conundrum. Maybe the best we can do is to make a stronger commitment to treat the children better while they’re alive, to pay more attention to them when they’re hungry, homeless, orphaned, sick and lonely.
Crisp is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi.