When innocent Syrians―men, women, and children―were killed or horribly wounded while they slept by exploding barrel bombs filled with sarin, chlorine, or other utterly inhumane chemicals on the orders of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, it is understandable, viscerally, why any peace-seeking leader would want to punish Assad quickly and decisively. President Trump, by reacting too precipitously, and with insufficient force, did not achieve the goal I hoped he would.
Assad, who acts with unconcealed confidence that no one will challenge him or intervene on behalf of his victims, continues to sneer with impunity at the United States and our allies who, once again, were unable to bring the full force of united global anger to bear on such a despicable tyrant. The failure was a result of not having the collective will to end the fight by hitting Assad himself, and hitting him with such a punishing blow, that he would never rise again. An example from my youth informs me of what it takes to bring down a bully.
In 1962, I was living on an Air Force base near Lincoln, Nebraska. I was a scrawny 13-year-old, in no way wise to, or prepared for, the world of a junior high school to which the base kids were bused every day. At the school, a band of thuggish town kids, led by a swaggering 14-year-old boy, singled me out as an object to be bullied. The group of toughs would wait for me to come down the front steps of the school at the end of the day, on my way to the air base bus that shuttled the military kids back home. The leader would grab me and pull me to the side of the steps, hit me once or twice and demand whatever money I had left from my lunch allowance. Of course, I gave it to him. My bus-waiting base companions stood by, possibly sympathetic, but certainly not sympathetic enough to step in on my behalf. Sometimes, the bully would just hit me because he could. Surrounded by his circle of thugs, I rarely made a move to fight back — I simply didn’t know how, and I doubted anyone would help me even if I tried.
After a few weeks of being a punching bag for a schoolyard criminal, I began to show some bruising that long-sleeved shirts or pajamas couldn’t hide. A swollen and purplish mark on my face finally caught my father’s attention, and after a few minutes of beating around the bush, I came clean and confessed my weakness. My father, who was at the time the air base commander, and well-respected by the town leaders, did something I had not expected. He did not call the school; he did not try to find out who the bully was. He taught me to fight back.
In a few short lessons, my dad showed me the simplest, most effective way to deliver a punch to the face, and he reinforced the lesson with one mantra: “Hit first, hit fast, hit hard.” He said he’d learned the same thing while a cadet at West Point, and because he didn’t like boxing, he’d figured out how to end a match quickly so that he wouldn’t have to pound or be pounded for any unnecessary rounds. He also told me that I shouldn’t expect any of my friends to come to my aid — not because they didn’t like me, but because they were too afraid, at that age, to do anything. I would be on my own. “You have to hit him in the face with all you’ve got in that first punch,” my father said. “He will only stop if he is really hurt, and you won’t hurt him enough if you hit anyplace else.” His last piece of advice has stuck with me for 50 years:
“Don’t drag it out. Just get it over with.”
I’ve given this episode of my life a lot of thought as an adult, watching bullying tyrants intimidate and rob and cheat defenseless nation’s and vulnerable populations. Rwanda comes to mind, Pol Pot comes to mind, Idi Amin and so many other bullies and their scandalous scenes of horror and depredations come to mind. Putin and Assad come to mind.
A few days later, as I left the school to catch the bus, I saw the mean gang waiting for me at the bottom of the steps. I was still their scrawny target, and my base pals began to distance themselves from me. The bully stepped forward, putting himself between me and the bus stop. I cannot remember a single thought that prefaced my action, but I suppose weeks of being terrorized came to a boil. In one flashing moment I punched cleanly into the bully’s face and he went down like a 100-pound bag of sand. Not a one of his followers made any attempt to fight me.
Nothing more was done or said. I got on the bus. None of my base friends commented or displayed any kind of support or relief. My dad took it as fact and I went on with being a 13-year-old. The bully never approached me again.
Striking one of Assad’s air bases was not enough. It was barely a body blow, and Assad knows it. It might have felt good to give the order to send off those missiles, but they were not aimed at the right target, Mr. Trump. It is up to each nation, each community of nations, to stop being afraid, and to act quickly, powerfully, and decisively. If you have to go it alone, so be it; if other nations will stand with you, even better. But, take this from someone who’s been on the other end of a bully’s fist: You must hit his face, you must hit it hard and with all you’ve got. Don’t drag it out.
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