It’s not just generals who fight the last war.
The principle that fighting the last war is foolish policy applies not only to generals, but also to politicians and a war-weary public.
For generals, the classic military example of this precept is the French Maginot Line, constructed after World War I to deter Germany from repeating its August 1914 invasion, the start of four years of bloody trench warfare. Unfortunately, in 1940, French generals were outfoxed by the Nazi blitzkrieg -- lightening warfare in which the German Army simply went around and over the Maginot Line.
Sadly, much of the debate over whether to strike against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people has been dictated by the mistaken, unjust, and unnecessary war in Iraq. The American people understandably are jaded by that experience, by the lies told by the Bush administration to justify its invasion of Iraq, and tired of more than a decade of war in that country and Afghanistan.
But there is a huge difference between Iraq and Syria: In the former, we are still looking for the weapons of mass destruction, the alleged raison d’être for the invasion; in the latter, we know Damascus has chemical weapons and that the regime has used them.
In interviews Monday evening with the major television outlets, President Obama said strikes would be put on hold if the Assad regime turns over control of its chemical stockpile. For now, the public debate over Syria continues, and the president will try to influence the course of the national discussion with a televised address this evening.
And for now, it’s the shadow of the Iraq war that looms over Syria. But it’s the shadow of the First World War that should also inform the debate over whether to retaliate against Assad, should a peaceful resolution of the crisis prove elusive.
Chemical weapons were first used in “the war to end all wars” by Germany on April 22, 1915, at Ypres, Belgium, in an attack that killed 6,000 British and French troops. The total casualties from chemical attack in the 1914-18 conflagration was minuscule, but the horror those weapons evoked led to the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the use, though not the possession, of chemical and biological weapons. Unsurprisingly, the protocol is one of the few international treaties that have been accepted almost universally. Syria is a signatory.
Most armies in World War II shunned the use of chemical weapons. Germany shied from their use on the battlefield, though the Nazis did not hesitate to gas noncombatants in the Holocaust.
The violations of the Geneva ban have been few: Italy under Mussolini used mustard gas in Ethiopia in 1935-36, and Japan employed chemical and biological weapons in China in 1940-41. In the mid-1960s the Egyptian army used chemicals in Yemen, and Saddam Hussein gassed both Iranian troops and Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s. (The United States received wide international condemnation for spraying Agent Orange in Vietnam, but its use was technically legal since it is considered a defoliant.)
International revulsion against the use of chemical weapons is clear. Nothing has changed since Wilfred Owen, one of the famed war poets of World War I wrote in “Dulce et Decorum Est:”
Gas! Gas! Quick boys! -- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, 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.
(Latin from an ode by Horace: “It is sweet and right to die for your country.”)