Beyond the Syria Debacle

FILE -- In This April 21, 2014, file photo, provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which h
FILE -- In This April 21, 2014, file photo, provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a Syrian man holding a girl as he stands on the rubble of houses that were destroyed by Syrian government forces air strikes in Aleppo, Syria. Nearly four years since it began, Syria’s civil war has defied all diplomatic attempts to broker a peaceful resolution _ and the fierce fighting still goes on daily, though it has taken a back seat to the rampage in the region by Islamic State militants. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center AMC, File)

It is unlikely that the upcoming Syria talks in Geneva will in any way resolve the crisis or even move closer to a resolution. That hopelessness is evident on all sides. What is equally remarkable is the belief that negotiations would end this and similar catastrophes elsewhere -- Yemen, Iraq, Turkey, Libya, Nigeria -- when there's every indication that we are in for a very long, traumatic period with these kinds of uprisings and state violence. I think we might even look at it as a new kind of trench warfare, a poignant if distressing metaphor 100 years after the Somme and Passchendaele. The question is, should we accept this?

The debacle in Syria includes hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. No one knows the actual scale of these embittering numbers. The "sides" in the conflict are nearly indecipherable to all but dedicated observers. The causes of the debacle are equally difficult to discern, though the mayhem is mainly attributable to Bashar al-Assad's brutality in dealing with what was initially a non-violent protest of his authoritarian rule -- you remember, "Arab Spring."

Matters did not remain so vivid for long, however, as Al Qaeda and other such actors came to dominate the anti-Assad forces and the repugnant Islamic State rose from the ruins of Iraq and seized an opportunity to advance in Syria. Virtually every country in the region has played a role, either as a purveyor of arms and violence (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Iraq, Turkey) or as a victim of the humanitarian disaster (Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey). President Obama has tried to stay out of it, with uneven results; Israel is mainly a bystander. Russia's big-footed entry into Syria last year has bolstered Assad.

The debacle is not contained to the Middle East, however, as a million refugees have streamed into Europe to an uncertain reception. At first somewhat welcoming, this reception was led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as most refugees sought out German soil. But it has increasingly been fraught with xenophobia or indifference, with Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, and others acting in self-protective and often anti-migrant ways.

The European reaction is noteworthy because much of the strife in the Mideast has Europe's fingerprints all over it. One can harken back to the long dominance of Britain and France in nearly every country of the region, a hegemony disrupted in the two decades following the Second World War. But the impacts are more recent, and include bracing Arab authoritarians, scheming to overthrow some of those same regimes, supporting many of the worst state actors with ample military hardware, and consistently giving political cover to those strongmen, almost all of whom run corrupt and repressive states.

The United States has played a similar role, more or less prominently practicing the same folly. And it is this folly that strikes me as an apt link to the Great War. We look back on that war as supreme folly, with Europe inflamed by the assassination in Sarajevo and war pursued by men who were keen to fight with other people's sons. The passions animating the conflagration, and the way the war was fought, now seem ridiculous. And yet in that time and place these beliefs -- the depredation of the Hun, the necessity of trench warfare, etc. -- were accepted as fundamental truths.

Similarly, a "fundamental truth" animating American and European policy is that we must tame the violent insurgencies and states, the kinds we've witnessed over the last four decades from North Africa to Central Asia. Yet there's very little evidence that policies of containment, military interventions, counter-insurgency, or accommodation of authoritarians has produced favorable results. Meanwhile, millions of people have died, been impoverished, or displaced by Western policies. Not a few U.S. soldiers have been casualties, too, and like the Great War, they're not the children of the elite clamoring for intervention, either.

So a new trench warfare is upon us. We were told there would be a long war against Al Qaeda after 9/11, but many of us thought that was a conceit of the neocons and we would outgrow it. We haven't. European politicians in 1914-18 could see the slaughterhouse of the Somme (a million casualties in less than five months) and persist as if such losses were fateful. The new trench warfare is similar. Generals quietly say the battle against the Islamic State could be a decade long. It is in some respects a war of attrition, but the attrited are civilians in the war zones. And just as the Great War led to the next one 20 years later, our current wars lead seamlessly to the next: Operation Iraqi Freedom to the war against ISIS.

The zealous baying for bloodshed (Assad's, jihadis', Iranians') alternates with an enervating pathos about the refugees. While this swirl of sentiments is more public than a century ago (what isn't?), the Great War stirred similar cross currents. Vera Brittain, in her brilliant memoir, Testament of Youth, revealed the cynicism and hopelessness of the young officers who fought in those trenches, but they went anyway. All of them -- her fiancé, two close friends, and her only brother -- died there, and despite her loss and misgivings she served as a front-line nurse. The recognition of folly did not keep them from "duty" anymore than it dissuades us from one belligerency or another.

Our capacity to remain personally distant from tragedy, from the pain and loss of war, neuters its emotional power and allows us to sustain an ideological commitment to its utility. I write this a few hundred yards from the citadel in Huê, Vietnam, scene of one of the most ferocious and consequential battles of the American war here. At that time, 48 years ago, resisting the Tet Offensive of the Viet Cong seemed as important as defeating the Islamic State is today. The people of this city and country outlasted our hysteria, put many of their own demons to rest, and mostly thrive. It's a lesson, if we'd learn it.

Yet here we are in a never-ending war again, another twilight struggle. We have been at war for half of my lifetime, nearly all of my daughter's lifetime. It is our state of being. Political elites speak only of more of it, as if proposing a hike in Social Security benefits. No one (credible) says, let's just get out of the Middle East. Those who said 50 years ago, let's just withdraw from Vietnam, were ridiculed and marginalized. As Paul Fussell writes in The Great War and Modern Memory, "the drift of modern history domesticates the fantastic and normalizes the unspeakable."

The Syria debacle will go on, because no one really wants it to simply end without some "strategic" victory, except for most Syrians, of course. It is a symbol of a much larger moral blindness in which we are entrenched. And our very distance from the unspeakable allows us to be cavalier about its persistence. During the Great War, Britons at home could hear the guns at Passchendaele; an officer about to go on leave could breakfast in the trenches and dine in London. Our lack of proximity hardens our psychic shield against knowing loss. Vera Brittain's daughter, the British politician Shirley Williams, noted in a preface to "Testament of Youth" her mother's lifelong sadness. "It was hard for her to laugh," she wrote, "at the back of her mind, there were too many wooden crosses."