Kerry channels shame of Munich in bid for strike against Syria

1938 Munich Agreement

ONE DECADE AGO, the French distaste for war against Saddam Hussein inspired Freedom Fries, the conventional name for this ubiquitous side-dish having been removed from Congressional cafeteria menus at the direction of Republicans Bob Ney and Walter Jones. On US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Paris, to make the case for a limited strike against Syria, the reception was by contrast positive. Yet the forms of the arguments reveal a tension in the prevailing views of military engagements whose roots reach back to the First World War.

For good reason the modern anti-war movement began on the battlefield and between the years 1914-1918. Wilfred Owen’s canonical poem Dulce et Decorum Est mocks the view, not uncommon among the generation which precipitated this bloodletting, that war is noble and heroic. Having appropriated his theme and title from the classical Roman poet Horace, Owen introduces into the venerable genre of war poetry the modern horrors of chlorine gas experienced two years earlier during the second battle of Ypres, in April 1915:

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime. –
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The inadmissibility of chemical weapons on the battlefield was as early as 1899 an international principle of war. As is often pointed out, even Hitler – himself the victim of a gas attack – recoiled from their use in battle. (The use of chemical agents within German-controlled territories, against those considered undesirables by the Nazis, was another matter.) The First World War scrubbed battle of its supposed virtues and in the place of heroism instituted the practical diplomacy of a League of Nations – what we would today term the “international community.” For the remainder of the twentieth century, war was something to be avoided if not indeed something avoidable. The menaces of totalitarianism, aggression and genocide would produce parallel doctrines and institutions in service of the notion that civilians must be protected from threats to their survival.

The Treaty of Versailles and the Munich Agreement were the bookends of a multinational effort to contain the threat of German imperialism and thereby to put an end to the European wars. In Paris, John Kerry claimed that the vote for a US-led Syrian strike is “our Munich moment” — in other words an opportunity to avoid the disgrace of Neville Chamberlain, who in September 1938 appeased Hitler and kept to the sideline as the Third Reich absorbed and Nazified a democratic and pluralist Czechoslovakia. Yet Chamberlain was only trying to avoid an unpopular war, an undertaking which received broad approval not only from the public but the politicians and media also. In Germany likewise there was little popular interest in revisiting 1914, most Germans noting with relief Hitler’s unanswered aggression against neighbouring territories.

The shame of Munich was a retrospective work, and indeed it was only the outbreak of war between Germany and Britain one year later that discredited Chamberlain’s claim to have secured “peace for our time.” In other words, the scandal was the failure of the effort and not the effort itself. Had Germany yielded in 1938 – which is to say had Hitler been content with the Anschluss and the Sudetenland – appeasement might have been seen in a different way. The diplomatic and ideological machinery of the post-war period was tooled for peace, not for conflagration, and for most it was peace which above all else was desired. In the United States this took the form of isolationism, which received in retrospect roughly the same judgement as appeasement.

This is due to the fact that the Nazis were indeed a pestilence in need of a muscular response. It is against this background of shillyshallying that Secretary Kerry chastises “armchair isolationists,” a conflation which attempts to appropriate the outrage aimed at those considered to be on the wrong side of history from Nazi appeasers to American isolationists to the Iraq invasion’s armchair warriors. (Kerry, who voted in support of the Iraq invasion but against the congressional appropriations to pay for it, is arguably both an armchair warrior as well as a fiscal appeaser.) The armchair isolationist slur thus covers both the advocates of war as well as the advocates of peace, a clever bit of rhetoric which nonetheless can not make up for the Obama administration’s otherwise sloppy and ad-hoc foreign policy performance.

The best example of this performance is the often-repeated hedge that the President is not asking for “war in the classic sense,” or classical war, as initiated with an apple of the Hesperides and celebrated by Homer and his successors onward right up to the time of Wilfred Owen. As I have noted earlier, popular enthusiasm for war would be low even without the burdens currently borne by the American people and treasury. And so the President’s plan will not, the people are assured, bring either American boots or blood to the ground. Kerry’s itinerant project this past week was to secure a “not-war for our time” which mixes the peace at home with military strikes abroad in the apparent hope of reaping the political and practical benefits of both while risking the costs of neither.

This having it both ways is in fact a modern legacy whose post-1918 developments have been an international system organized around the principle of the responsibility to prevent and protect and a broad anti-war sentiment disillusioned of battle glory and skeptical of the use of military force. In past decades we have seen again and again the conflict of these parallel trends, as the prospects of genocide and state aggression have produced unpopular calls for military intervention. Since the first Gulf War the American political establishment has attempted to resolve the contradiction of intervention without war by cultivating a doctrine which holds that military engagements shall be difficult and messy for enemies, while for Americans they will be quick and clean and from a safe distance, always with eyes on the opinion polls.

In the early 1990s, military advances made it seem that the objects of war could be had without the unpleasant classical business of blood and misery and death – for American soldiers, at least. For decades the language of war has furthered this illusion of danger-reduced combat, as apologists took to speaking of asset deployment and friendly fire and collateral damage, rather than of (say) the brutalization and murder of children. In the age of highly destructive tactical weapons, the war vocabulary of politicians has become increasingly inept and evasive. Of course a missile strike is an act of war, as any American would immediately recognize were Syrian missiles to land in Manhattan. And what if it should happen that a Munich moment really does arrive — that war is in fact necessary? The United States is at present governed by a President and cabinet which has no clear objectives or strategies and which appears unequal to the occasion.

Opposition to the military campaign should not be confused with isolationism. The Harper government has achieved a credible resolution of the anti-war and interventionist positions by directing resources into Syria’s civil society, furthering practical work including the documentation of war crimes and the preparation for a post-Assad Syria. We can anticipate already what may lie ahead, such as for instance a successor government’s Iraq-styled purge — in this case of the Alawites, most of whom are in no way responsible for the crimes of Assad. At no point however did considerations of this nature come to the foreground of Kerry’s Paris appeal. In contrast to the Harper government’s response, the American government has put forward a plan that is at once weary of war and indifferent of peace, and about everything — red lines, chemical weapons, Geneva conventions, sending a message — except the people living in Syria.

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