On Reaping What We Sow, Civilian Deaths and the Syrian Airstrikes

Hopefully we will never reap what we sow.

The state violence that the U.S. has incurred on other nations has been unparalleled since World War II. The Vietnam War caused two million-plus civilian deaths to prevent a Soviet ally from burgeoning in Southeast Asia. Latin American interventions during the 1980s on behalf of right-wing dictators helped bleed conflict deaths into the tens of thousands, including in Pinochet’s Chile and the Argentine Dirty War. The second Iraq War and its related War on Terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan caused an estimated 1.24 million deaths, cost 5.6 trillion dollars and led to the brittle post-colonial Middle East’s unraveling.

Even the wars and interventions that are often perceived to be more justified, such as the Korean War and the First Gulf War, were fought for more dubious reasons. Korea was split after the Second World War along Soviet-American hegemonic lines. When the North Korea invaded South Korea a few years later, the US and allies jumped in to repel this invasion. However, what gave the Soviet Union and the US the right to fracture Korea according to their own ends? Inevitably, this led to conflict.

The First Gulf War began when the small oil-rich country of Kuwait was invaded by Iraq in 1990. Bin Laden, then a respected Saudi oligarch, offered to develop an armed group to fight off Saddam Hussein’s occupation forces. Instead, Saudi Arabia, the regional hegemon, chose American-led forces to drive the Iraqi military form Kuwait; this resulted in thousands of dead Iraqi soldiers on the Highway of Death (on Iraqi soil), after retreating from Kuwait. Such an ignoble massacre of retreating soldiers is not only a flagrant display of brutal power, but a war crime.

Interestingly, the First Gulf War suggest that the US had supposedly begun to care about sovereignty and repelling invasion, when just a decade earlier the US heavily backed Iraq’s invasion of Iran. Ten years later, things had changed considerably for Iraq. Saddam was surprised that his former ally, which had supporter his illegal war against Iran, suddenly flip-flopped after Kuwait was invaded. But, of course, he had underestimated Saudi Arabia’s vast influence on the US

Had Saudi Arabia allowed Bin Laden to repel Saddam’s forces in Kuwait, there would be a good chance US forces would never have been stationed in Saudi Arabia, the holiest land for Muslims, and that 9/11 would’ve been averted. Ultimately, the stationing of US forces in Saudi Arabia was Bin Laden’s last straw, when he began to conceive of both Saudi Arabia and the US as enemies. With no 9/11, there would not be the excuse for the US’s militaristic policy of state fracturing, Mideast civilian killing and unmeaningful terrorist-producing, that has occurred throughout the disastrous War on Terror.

But now, such an alternate history is a pipe dream. Instead, the US state violence has induced approximately (conservatively speaking) 6-7 million civilian dead since World War II, with a dramatic increase in the post-9/11 period. And that is not including American and enemy soldiers, as well as non-state actors, whose lives would not have been truncated if the US hadn’t readily engaged in intervention and war.

Indeed, hopefully we will never reap what we sow.

Could we handle it, as a nation? Would this cause us to morph into a specter of our present selves?

Well, let’s look at how we’ve responded to comparatively minimally levels of non-state violence in the post-9/11 era. Though we’ve remained inoculated from wars that tear other nations apart, 9/11 has considerably changed us. And, it wasn’t just an initial reflexive reaction following the attacks, but something that became embedded into our culture and psychology. Security became our top priority and, consequently, public deference towards the military and police drastically augmented. For instance, if the police spy on nonviolent protest movements like Black Lives Matter, it may be justified by the dangers of ISIS, although the two could not be further apart.

After the Boston Marathon bombing five years ago, the entire city of Boston and some surrounding communities were put on lockdown for days. People couldn’t go to work or buy groceries, all because a few killers of three people were at-large.

If events like this scare us to no end, one can only imagine what would happen if a real catastrophe occurred and knocked us straight out of our bubble – we may be stunned into a catatonic state.

Do we comprehend the mass civilian deaths that we incur on others in war? Or is it there a complete disconnect? Surely, we would not approve causing civilian deaths of other ‘exceptional’ Americans. We don’t seem to realize that when we bomb other countries, everyday people (like us!) – civilians – die in large numbers. When war is nonstop, as has been long the case, civilian deaths amplify.

But here, the media comes the government’s rescue, in normalizing US government policy of perpetual war. Here they help solidify Americans’ disconnect between US perpetual war policy and ruining civilians’ lives in other countries.

The talking heads of MSNBC, Fox News or CNN rationalize and justify perpetual war-inducing civilian deaths as something that is inevitable. In doing so, they often tell fibs and subtly mangle the truth. For instance, just after Friday night’s (or Saturday morning, in Syria) U.S.-led airstrikes against the Syrian regime, Fox News showed a map of Syrian airstrikes that seemed to suggest airstrikes occurred throughout Syria, including in Alawite regions of the east, such as Latakia. However, airstrikes occurred in only three locations: east of Homs and in Damascus.

MSNBC was little better. Though Defense Secretary James Mattis and General Joseph Dunford informed the press that the airstrikes had ended, at least until the ‘next time’ Assad allegedly uses chemical weapons, Rachel Maddow and her guest Richard Engel salivated over the prospect that airstrikes would continue into perpetuity.

In each case, through the apparent mistake on the Syria map and contemplating perpetual airstrikes, the media seemed to be goading the administration to conduct more airstrikes against Syria.

It highlights the Nietzschean cobwebs that the media wraps our brains in, allowing us to forget more pressing questions, such as:

Why Trump would order airstrikes hours before the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was to investigate the very chemical attack for which Syria was to be punished? Well, if you prefer not to look at evidence, then bomb. Hans Blix knows this all too well.

If there was an actual use of chemical weapons, what about the dangers to civilians when facilities that supposedly manufacture dangerous toxins are bombed? Wouldn’t these unleashed gases spread to civilian areas?

Perhaps, more importantly, what was the motive? Why would the Syrian military use chemical weapons when Assad has been defeating the rebels and winning the civil war, while knowing that their use would invite foreign intervention. Clearly, a staged chemical attack that directed the blame to Assad would be in the rebels’ interest. It would specifically be in the interest of the Salafi extremist group Jaish al-Islam that has been Syrian military’s main target in Douma.

What about potential that U.S.-led airstrikes could lead to a confrontation, or even a war, with Russia? While the media’s talking heads touched upon this, it did not sway their fervent support for intervention.

Thanks to media-induced cobwebs, Americans will go on supporting US state violence and resultant civilian deaths in exorbitant numbers. And overt lies, like Theresa May’s on the Syrian airstrikes – that we "sought to use every possible diplomatic channel" – won’t be laughable.

Whether it’s indirect support for terrorism in Libya’s chaos, intervening in Syria under specious rationale, civilian deaths in the Iraq War or vying with a geopolitical competitor in ravaging Vietnam…let’s hope we never reap what we sow.

Peter Crowley is an independent writer and scholar with a M.S. in Conflict Resolution, Global Studies from Northeastern University. He works as Content Specialist/Production Coordinator for a prominent library science company. For fun, he plays in bluesy rock band around the Boston/NYC area. His writings can be found in Boston Literary Magazine, Mondoweiss, Mint Press News, (several publications in) Wilderness House Literary Review, Counterpunch, Foreign Policy Journal, Truthout, Green Fuse Press, Antiwar.com, Rhinocerotic, Peace Studies Journal, Ethnic Studies Review (forthcoming), Inquiries Journal and a periodical publication of the Brookline, MA Historical Society.