The question of saving Syrian children

Dear Hannah,

I think any American at this point who's seen the videos of Syrian children getting gassed by Assad -- any of us who soul-search on the regular -- has been led to ask what exactly his feelings are for.  We know that every feeling has a purpose; and that, like faith, they were given to us for action.  So we look inside ourselves and thank God we're morally alive and feel something for the children; but this leads us to another more uncomfortable question.  Is it colder to feel nothing, or to feel something and do nothing?

We could almost wish we had the former.   But this isn't the case; and a video of gasping, convulsing six-year-olds leads us towards war like a picture of a drowned Syrian child makes us open up our borders.  We simply don't see our fathers who'll be blown to pieces fighting and our women who'll be raped because we did things in the name of other people's children.  We feel, maybe naturally but not rightly, that the children in the videos are our children.  We see in the dying eyes of the choking, shell-shocked, dust-covered Syrian child the eyes of our own; and we feel that any offense like this is worth risking the lives of our friends and our families.  And this is because we don't actually see the risk.  One thing is real and the other is imaginary; and we believe that because one thing is imaginary it can never become real.

War always affects children, and what so many of us have been slow to understand is that before Assad was gassing children he was blowing them to bits.  Bulldozing them over with tanks.  Starving them to death.  The gas is what got us.  All the other things he's done (and any warring power must eventually do) and we've drawn the line at the gas.  We made a law that nobody can use gas, and because we made a law we've made everything else seem like less of a crime.  What we haven't asked is how many of Assad's friends' children have been killed by the rebels.  We haven't asked who the rebels are or why they're rebelling or whether they're better than Assad.  But we want to meddle in Syria like we meddled in Iraq -- like we meddled in Iran -- like we want to meddle everywhere there's oil and we see pictures of people getting murdered.  Our hearts and our wallets lead us to break hearts and drain wallets.  We worry that Syrians are dying so we send Americans to die.

I don't claim to be an expert of realpolitik or international relations or the code we have for butchering one another known as The Laws of War.  I don't question that there are lawful ways of tearing your neighbors to shreds and putting holes through them and running them over with tanks and crushing them under buildings and setting them on fire because this is what people must do -- a necessary occupation like running a farm or being a dentist.  I don't claim that war itself is unnecessary, or that there must be no joy in it, or that all soldiers must be treated as innocents under the authority of their generals.  There are crimes in the midst of this non-crime called war which are more barbaric and offensive than ordinary crimes.  What I do question is the timing of it all; whether every child butchered by a tyrant is worth our blood and our sweat and our tears; whether it's possible to stop every villain or necessary; whether I'm personally responsible to alleviate all the suffering in the entire world -- whether the life of a Syrian child is worth risking the life of my own. 

Americans are held responsible when tyrants are bad and held responsible for everything that happens when we topple them.  We'll never have the world's applause as meddlers; and when we meddle we're not even willing to see our meddling through.  We'll never be cleared by the world for our policing when most of the leaders of the world are essentially criminal, and the majority of the people they lead are knuckledraggers.  The question isn't how the Syrians will judge us, but how our own grandchildren will.  The stakes are great whether we stay or we go.  But I believe in my limited understanding that they're greater if we go.

Your father,

PS This letter was especially hard for me to write; and I'm not insensible to the fact that it will lead many to think of me as cold and a coward.  The truth is that I'm neither.  What I felt when I saw the Syrian children who'd been gassed can't exactly be described in words; certainly not by horror, and certainly not by anger.  It was worse than words can express.  I know how it feels to hold your child in your arms and wonder if he's going to make it; the helpless feeling that nobody is listening; that there's nothing left to do but stand there and cry and hope it all passes.  I was lucky and these Syrians aren't and that's the difference between us.  I called out to God and they called out to God and both of us wondered if He heard us at all.  Only one of us left with our child intact.  I still question whether He loves us or not.  I wonder what the Syrian thinks.

To see anyone go through anything like this and then have to make a decision -- to decide whether someone else will go through it again or not or whether you'll merely change the people who are going through it -- is what this essay is about.  It's what every debate over refugees and war-crimes is about.  I don't want to play God or run for president.  I don't want to decide with the ballot box which mothers grieve over their children and which won't.  But I'm an American -- and my duty, if I have any before God at all, is to make sure that my family and American families are free from the ravages of war.  Sometimes this will mean killing people.  Other times it will mean saving them.  In the world of international politics it will most usually mean both.  But it will always involve a decision.  And I'll always hate the fact that God has forced me, in my limited capacity, to make it.


  1. I was talking about this to some friends at work and said that the Syrian children that we save will dance around our burning humvees like the Iraqis did.


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