Tuesday conversation: war.

I was watching the CNN reports the other day on Syria possibly mixing vast amounts of sarin gas.  The only really feasible use for this would be to stem the tide of rebels, both military and civilian.  A more sinister possibility is that President Bashar al-Assad will use it to take as many people with him should he be ousted.

Sarin gas is a nerve agent that essentially paralyzes the respiratory system, causing its victims to die by suffocation.  Stockpiling the gas was banned in 1993 at the Chemical Weapons Convention (where there were six non-signatory states present, one of which was Syria).  The cruelty of weaponized sarin gas is likely why President Obama has called the transportation and/or use of it a “red line” that Syria does not want to cross.

I don’t like war.  I think both wars we’re in right now are unnecessary.  I opposed the war in Iraq.  But I also am not so opposed to war that I think it is never necessary.  I think we should’ve been in World War II.  Sometimes evil must be fought with more than words or ideas.  War/violence is a last resort, but sometimes it can come to that, as much as I hate acknowledging that sad fact.

Should we go to war of Assad uses sarin gas on his own people?  Should we go to war if he even moves it?  Is war ever acceptable?  If so, when?

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Aegis

    “War is an atrocity. It should only be committed in the name of survival.” – Prothy the Prothean

  • pjmaertz

    I too hate the idea of using violence to solve problems. Assad, however, is a madman, and has shown willingness to indiscriminately kill civilians in large numbers. If we have actual intelligence that shows Assad stockpiling weaponized sarin gas, there is no benefit in waiting until he uses it. I’ve got no problem with the US killing Assad or dismantling his military.

    • Blessed Jim

      I don’t usually advocate absolute solutions to problems, but I’m going to make an exception here. There is never a situation where one should make preemptive war. Never. It is prudent to take defensive measures. It is justifiable to use threats to stop an aggressor. But to use pre-emptive violence to stop what someone might do is never justified. Pre-emptive defense is not defense, it is naked aggression. We don’t let our civil police force do this, why would we allow our military to do this?
      Look at the Iraq situation. The first Bush attacked Iraq in response to its invasion of Kuwait. We had a very clear war goal, we accomplished that goal, and then left Iraq. Economic sanctions were then used to keep Iraq from further aggression. The problem was contained.
      But the second Bush made a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. We became the aggressor, we killed tens of thousands of Iraqis for a justification that wasn’t true. We wrecked our economy and our international reputation for nothing.
      It is proper to threaten Syria with attack if they use a weapon of mass destruction. It is right to put international sanctions on Syria and to take actions to pressure Syria into removing Assad from power. But is is not ok to attack and kill people just on the possiblity that they might use such weapons.

  • RuQu

    Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

    After the whole WMD deception for Iraq, I think we should demand some solid evidence before we discuss any war.

    Get the intel. Send in some Special Forces teams and get a real sample and bring that shit back.

    And then, let’s actually only approve a war on the condition that we fully fund it, and that we don’t drop a single bomb or launch a single cruise missile until the Pentagon provides a plan with clear objectives and clearly defined criteria for success and withdrawal.

    • http://www.facebook.com/TheUkearchy Luke Smithems

      I mostly agree with you but for this line:
      “Send in some Special Forces teams and get a real sample and bring that shit back.”
      If you want to talk about avoiding our past mistakes, there’s more examples for shit going badly when we attempt the politically expedient, but militarily idiotic, “in and out” formula you’ve described. The “Black Hawk Down” movie is a great example of what can happen when we have a President who wants to do as little as possible. An even better example is “Operation Eagle Claw”. Unmanned Drone strikes are similarly easy but people are still dying, just not our people.

      I agree that we should have clearly defined goals, but If we’re going to make it our problem, let’s not half-ass it: either we think they have Sarin gas, or we don’t, either way we have to accept the risk that we could be wrong. And I doubt that Obama would claim they do have it publicly if he thinks otherwise.

      • http://www.aramink.com Anne

        | either we think they have Sarin gas, or we don’t, either way we have to accept the risk that we could be wrong. And I doubt that Obama would claim they do have it publicly if he thinks otherwise.

        I don’t know that I have that much naked faith in our leaders. I had enormous respect for Colin Powell, but I watched his presentation to the UN about Iraq’s WMDs, and my stomach sank to my shoes. He compromised his otherwise impeccable integrity because he was told to by a President and Vice President who wanted war at all costs.

        That having been said, I have a much higher expectation for Barack Obama’s integrity than for the integrity of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. However, Guantanamo is housing prisoners of war who have not been identified as such (or is holding foreign nationals in despicable conditions without charging them with a crime); Bradley Manning still has not had a fair trial and has been held in inhumane conditions; and against all reason the United States refuses to recognize Palestine as a state. The items on this list, as well as others I have not listed, tell me that Barack Obama is still a politician first and foremost, and that “doing right” may come second to political expediency.

        I hope he proves me wrong in his second term.

  • UncleBobolink

    JT, are you willing to serve in this proposed war?

    • Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

      Should discussions of ethics only concern those who have served? Should service guarantee citizenship? Would you like to know more?

      • Rory

        I like your post. You can have the job of writing cool stuff until you die or I find someone better.

      • Sir Uncle Bobolink

        In an age long past, under the gloomy canopy of darkened clouds, there existed a hollow pit into which the most depraved cast their filth. It was from this hollow grave that Jesus assembled he who would be the mightiest of the trolls: Uncle Bobolink. From the forge of Mount Dumpster was crafted a set of armor from pure newspaper, the finest in the land.

        Clad in these legendary vestments, Bobolink journeyed to the orc city of Reasonsbane. Bobolink’s parents had left him a small amount of education with which to build his fortune. But here, in the fires of Reasonbane, Bobolink sacrificed the remnants of his education at the pinnacle of Mount Prayer for a weapon unlike any other: the mythical sword “Faithbrand”.

        With Faithbrand secured within his scabbard (though you can’t tell, because it can be neither seen nor felt, but it’s there and it’s powerful), Bobolink set out to do his master’s will. Within a fortnight, Bobolink stood before the drawbridge to Castle Eberhard, with nary a consideration for the ample armory beyond its gates. Bobolink had prepared for this, and soon victory would belong to Bobolink and to his god. Triumph was the only viable outcome with the implements of his god at his command.

        This, is Bobolink’s story…

        [This comment edited by JT, per my comment policy.]

        • pjmaertz

          So the elderly, handicapped, and until recently, the openly gay, should not be able to talk about foreign policy? This is a very dumb argument, and does not contribute in any way to the discussion JT started.

          • RuQu

            I didn’t realize “willing” and “able” meant the same thing. For those who are not able to serve (elderly, infirm, etc), substitute “willing to send someone you care about.”

            Another way to ask the question: “Is this war sufficiently worthwhile to justify the draft?”

            One of the problems with modern American warfare is that it doesn’t affect most people. Less than 1% of people serve. We didn’t even raise taxes to pay for the two most recent wars that lasted over a decade or the presumably unending “War on Terror.” With no tax increase to fund it, the war didn’t even affect people’s pocket books.

            So yes, it is a valid question. “What is this war worth to you? Is it worth higher taxes? Is it worth dying for, or losing someone you love?” If you can’t answer yes to those questions, you really shouldn’t vote yes to inflict that cost on others.

          • Wilsom’s Pal

            [This comment deletion brought to you by JT, who has banned a certain group of trolls from the Kansas City area. Sometimes they comment from someone else's house, which means they get past my IP filter. They only do this, presumably, because praying to get past the IP ban hasn't worked.]

        • Brad1990

          You are overlooking one really quite important fact: the people in the Army are willing to serve. That’s why they’re in the Army. They knew that when they signed up and if they weren’t willing to serve, they wouldn’t have signed up. Like JT, I believe war should be a last resort, but is sadly sometimes necessary… and when the circumstances do mean that war is necessary, when it is decided that in the long run going to war is what’s best for the population of your country and of the world in general, I don’t think you can moan because soldiers are expected to do what they signed up to do. “Are you willing to go?” isn’t even an argument.

          • RuQu

            I’m 4th generation military. I understand that we choose to serve.

            I understand that some people would never make that choice, no matter the stakes. There were plenty of people who only went to WW2 because they were drafted, despite that being the quintessential “just war.”

            However, keep in mind that the US military is an anomaly. It is one of the very few all volunteer professional militaries in history. Historically, the people were obligated to serve in war whether they liked it or not. Even today, most of the developed world has mandatory service and conscription. The volunteer force has the advantage of training and professionalism, but the tradeoff is that it removes the cost of service from the people. Just as in economics, when the costs are artificially low, too much of a good is produced. We see that here, where Europe is generally far more reluctant to go to war than the US, and that is because the people of the US rarely feel the cost.

            “Are you willing to go?” is a question anyone voting for war should consider. If they answer “No,” and they certainly can, they need to ask the other questions I listed above.

          • Wilsom’s (very obsessed) Pal

            [This comment deletion brought to you by JT, who has banned a certain group of trolls from the Kansas City area. Sometimes they comment from someone else's house, which means they get past my IP filter. They only do this, presumably, because praying to get past the IP ban hasn't worked.]

          • baal

            “They knew that when they signed up and if they weren’t willing to serve, they wouldn’t have signed up”

            This position lacks nuance. The US military takes a disproportionate number of soldiers from the poorer segments of society. Their choice bears some amount of coercion from economic circumstances.

          • Nate Frein

            Another thing it doesn’t account for are the soldiers who were willing to fight in Afghanistan but not Iraq.

          • Brad1990


            Apologies, I didn’t know. No offence intended.

            I disagree with conscription for exactly that reason. No one should be forced to go to war, ever. Like the US, the UK’s military is made up entirely of volunteers. And I certainly disagree with the US’s foreign policy. Without meaning to insult you guys, your Government does love to flex it’s muscles, and I suspect, like you seem to, that alot of it is to do with justifying high military spending, which in turn I think happens in order to support various US arms companies which make a high contribution to your economy.

            However, I stand by my original position. War should always be a last resort, it is to be avoided at all costs, but occasionally it can’t be avoided and when it does happen people who have voluntarily joined the armed forces are expected to do their job. But I certainly agree that you always need to ask, is this strictly necessary? Are there really no other options? Do we have a solid reason for doing this? And most importantly, in the long run is this going to improve the global state of affairs? That last one is the kicker. I don’t think enough thought is put into those questions.


            Yes, I understand that, the UK is the same, but I disagree with the phrasing “takes”. They join; and it almost certainly is because they lack options due to their socioeconomic status, and that needs to be fought by opening up opportunities in higher education for those from low income households (something we were getting very good at over here before the Tory-Dem coalition fucked it up).

          • RuQu

            No offense was taken. The comment was only to point out that I am well aware of the choices that members of the military make.

            Your point about who profits from war only covers half of the equation. One of the big problems with the way we do warfare is that it is a great way for some people to get very, very wealthy, and we do a terrible job of passing on those costs. America hasn’t had a war on our own soil since the Civil War, with the exception of the single attack on Pearl Harbor.

            We go to war without our citizens ever suffering. No one who doesn’t agree to go for a paycheck ever dies. Our children and parents, non-combatants, aren’t killed in their homes.

            When we hear about a “renewed offensive” by the enemy, it means “looks like we will be in a few more years.” When people in countries that are truly war-torn, like those we invade, hear that phrase, it means “I hope there is somewhere we can flee to when the artillery and missiles start falling, and that we have enough warning to get out before our home is destroyed or our family gets killed in the cross-fire.”

            Americans do not go to war anymore. We export war to brown-skinned nations. No American who hasn’t served in the military or a journalism/aid agency has ever seen or paid the price of war.

            If we never pay the price, can we really give the order to “Buy?”

  • UncleBobolink [Same IP as Wilsom's Pal]

    [This comment deletion brought to you by JT, who has banned a certain group of trolls from the Kansas City area. Sometimes they comment from someone else's house, which means they get past my IP filter. They only do this, presumably, because praying to get past the IP ban hasn't worked.

    I do not ban for challenging or disagreeing comments, but I do delete the comments of those who have been previously banned when they try to get all clever with changing their IP address.]

    • http://www.godlessteens.com/ Godless Teen

      I’m sorry, but practically every comment you’ve posted on this website, from what I’ve seen, has been rude and confrontational while contributing little to the conversation. You want to comment on JT’s website? Fine, but follow his rules. It’s no different to you walking into a friend’s house as a guest- you still abide by their rules if you’re going to stay there. So please, either stop being so rude, or just leave. You don’t have to mention JT’s name every 5 seconds and treat him as if he’s a coward.

      And, to answer your earlier question, the willingness to do something does not affect the judgement a person makes on whether or not that action is moral. The action either promotes happiness, overall, or it promotes the reverse of happiness. Whether or not a person would be willing to engage in that action, for whatever reason, is independent of whether or not that action is moral.

      • pjmaertz

        +2, one for each paragraph.

      • Wilsom’s Pal

        [This comment deletion brought to you by JT, who has banned a certain group of trolls from the Kansas City area. Sometimes they comment from someone else's house, which means they get past my IP filter. They only do this, presumably, because praying to get past the IP ban hasn't worked.]

      • Wilsom’s Pal

        I’m a troll look at me do mah little troll dance. [Comment edited by JT, per my comment policy]

        • http://www.godlessteens.com/ Godless Teen

          Wilsom, with those two comments, I’m assuming you completely ignored my second paragraph.

          Am I willing to serve? Yes. Do I want to serve? No. Not so much because I’m afraid of war; rather, I think that my particular skill set would be better put to use doing something else that might not necessarily involve serving on the front lines.

          However, again, I’m going to point out that whether or not I want to serve is independent of whether or not the action of war is moral. Does the action promote happiness? If yes, then it is moral. Does it promote more of the reverse of happiness than it does produce happiness? If so, then the action is immoral. However, that has literally nothing to do with whether or not I serve in the war. An action can be moral, but I don’t have to engage in it. I can complete simply permissible actions, other moral actions, or I can do an action that uses my skills more effectively, and thus is “more moral”.

          Also, I’m going to assume you’re a person belonging to some religion, so before you whine about atheists talking about war, I’d like to point out an absolutely horrific load of wars, tortures, murders, laws, burnings, hangings, etc. that have been done in the name of religion and cannot be seen as anything but immoral.

        • Rufus

          This one has (back when I was a teen). As a civilian (but try telling that to an AShM).

          Actually going back to the point, IF Assad has chemical weapons, and IF he starts using them then yes, the international community is pretty much obliged to either getting them the hell away from his control or getting him away from any ability to use them. Or is sitting back and watching genocide happen a more acceptable alternative?

  • Compuholic

    I fully agree that there are situations when war is justified: Someone using weapons of mass destruction is certainly one of them. I would even be supportive of a preemptive strike.

    The thing is that they better should be damn sure about the intel. And no, satellite pictures showing – erm yes, what are they showing exactly – are not going to cut it. When they showed the pictures of the tank trucks as “evidence” for Saddams WMD I strongly smelled bullshit, especially when they came up with the idea of mobile WMD factories.

    This time however I am more inclined to believe that Assad might be really up to something. That being said: I certainly hope that they are a bit more critical of the intel this time.

  • Rory

    I would probably agree with what RuQu said above. Before we go in we need to be damn sure of what’s going on, and we need to have a clear plan for what we want to accomplish and how we’re going to do it. No plan survives first contact with the enemy, but after the past 11 years I think we owe our men and women in uniform a little bit more diligence before we send them into harm’s way.

    But let me play the devil’s advocate on this a bit. When I heard about Obama’s red line, one of the thoughts that occurred to me is that we’ve been content up until now to sit back while Assad massacres the rebels using his conventional weapons. Why is the use of chemical weapons so awful that it constitutes a red line? If Assad were to launch, say, one chemical rocket which caused a fraction of the casualties that his conventional forces caused the day prior, would that be enough to compel military action against him? Is it the number of casualties, or the nature of the weapon that compels action?

    • http://ripeningreason.com/ Bix

      I was pondering this as well. Chemical weapons are very frightening, and they kill indiscriminately–but so do bombs. I suppose, though, that chemical weapons are more difficult to control, and that makes them seem extra scary. So I think it may be the nature of the weapon more than the number of casualties, ghastly as that sounds.

      Making the decision to intervene is being stuck between a rock and a hard place. An intervention could intensify the conflict and result in more casualties, or it could save thousands of lives. There are unforeseen consequences even when decisions are made on the best available intelligence. The U.S. definitely shouldn’t act unilaterally, though, if it does intervene.

    • RuQu

      It matters how they kill them.

      Civil wars are considered a “domestic issue” in international politics, and you generally cannot simply choose to intervene. Intervening in a civil war is a violation of the sovereignty of that nation.

      Some things, however, are considered unacceptable not because of the harm of one attack, but because of the effect of the type of warfare. More people died in our firebombing of Tokyo than from the nuclear attacks, but the implications of a nuclear war and us ramping up production to multiple bombs across a city was a terrifying prospect.

      Chemical weapons are similarly terrible, which is why so many countries have agreed to ban them (Syria being a notable exception). They are indiscriminate in a way that has not been acceptable since Vietnam. Yes, Assad could launch a single attack that did less than some of the previous death tolls, but once his military starts using them, it can quickly escalate to an expedient “solution” to the rebellion and him gassing whole rebel-held cities.

      The possibility for massacre skyrockets. And it isn’t just a red-line for Assad, to not act to punish their use would encourage other oppressive regimes or governments with unrest or civil war to consider using them. It can’t be allowed, the cost is too high.

      • http://ripeningreason.com/ Bix

        True, intervention in civil wars is traditionally considered a violation of sovereignty, but that’s where the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) comes in. If a government fails to protect its citizens, or is massacring its citizens itself, the international community has an obligation to intervene. Not that they always do, but Syria definitely meets those criteria.

        I understand your point about drawing a red line at certain types of weapons, and I think the decision to disallow nuclear or chemical weapons is done more out of self-interest than humanitarian concern for the populations most immediately affected. If the latter were true, we’d probably stage stronger interventions in conflicts where millions of people are killed with guns and machetes.

        • RuQu

          Once you cross the line to chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, you have clearly passed a threshold for external intervention to protect the populace.

          While weapons are still conventional, it is very hard to have solid evidence on who is massacring who, and to distinguish “real” massacres from collateral damage. Once genocide and atrocities are clearly established, we can intervene if the victims are white (Kosovo) or just talk about for a decade if they are black (Darfur).

          Obviously that last part is half sarcastic and half sad reality.

    • Wilsom’s Pal, Mightiest of the Trolls!

      I’m a troll! Look at me dressed up in mah shiny new IP address that JT hasn’t banned ye…

      *ban hammer*


      [Comment edited by JT, per my comment policy.]

  • Kimbeaux

    @Compuholic: How do you set the bar for a “pre-emptive strike”? Proof that a country has WMDs? There is a country that freely admits to having WMDs, and has used them in the past in warfare with another country. Do you support a “pre-emptive strike” on this country? Or is the bar for the “pre-emptive strike” more like “we allege they have WMDs and we do not like them”? The first two cases justify a “pre-emptive strike” on the USA, which I do not support.

  • Alex

    I’d have a hard time rejecting a preemptive strike if we had hard intelligence that a country not only had WMD (which category does include nerve gas, as well as nuclear and biological weapons), but had immediate plans to use them against us or one of our allies. What we knew about Iraq, and even the worst case scenario of what the Bushies alleged about Iraq, doesn’t come close to such a justification, but if, for example, we have satellite imagery of missiles being armed with WMD warheads and fueled, while the leader of the country where that’s happening boasts of the destruction he’s about to rain down upon the U.S. or a U.S. ally, then a pre-emptive strike on the missile base would absolutely be justified.

    In the case of a civil war like the one in Syria, I wouldn’t favor preemption, but I would want to make very clear that, should Assad use nerve gas to slaughter the rebels, his life is forfeit. I’m not generally a fan of presidential “kill-orders,” and if they’re going to exist at all I’d certainly prefer them to be subject to some form of Congressional and/or judicial review before they can be carried out — but for leaders who order the use of WMD on civilian populations, I think they are justified, and the review in such a case ought to stamp the order “terminate with extreme prejudice.” Also, the moment one Sarin missile, bomb, or artillery shell is used, I’d favor air strikes (preferably with napalm, white phosphorous, or something else that burns hot enough to maximize the chance of destroying the sarin rather than spreading it) on every stockpile of the stuff we know about.