On Syria, the War on Terror, and the Loss of Souls
“What I don’t understand about Democrats and liberals is, why do they hate America more than they hate the Iraqi terrorists?”
I glanced over at the person in my passenger seat who had just said this, and started to laugh; I thought he was joking. A quick look at his face, however, made me swallow the guffaw. His expression was a perfect storm of intense concern and fury. It was late 2002, and I was speeding down the freeway to Salem, Oregon with a newly hired salesperson to meet with a potential client. Just as surely and quickly as we were making our way to Oregon’s capital city, our country was bulleting itself toward the inevitable invasion of Iraq.
The gentleman sitting next to me was something of an anomaly of a sales hire for us, in as much as he was older than I was by a couple of decades. The concept of what my company was trying to accomplish was so radically different from our competitors that we found it best to hire people green enough that they didn’t at first understand just how outside the proverbial box we really were. We had made an exception with this person, however, because his resume was just too good to pass up. We rationalized our decision by noting that the “teaching old dogs” headaches we were buying would be offset by his track record of being able to connect with people.
I asked if he was serious, and he was happy to double down. America was at the threshold of its own destruction, he declared. The primary reason for the impending cataclysm was turncoats liberals and registered Democrats who would rather take the side of terrorists than the nation that had given them the freedoms they obviously took for granted.
Today, more than a decade later, it’s hard to put into words just how bizarre this rant sounded at the time. Aside from the rather astounding lack of empathy one needs to get from “I don’t think we should invade Iraq” to “I want America destroyed because I like the terrorists better,” the argument required an almost unworldly lack of knowledge about the political landscape. Democrats and liberals had not been fighting the tides of war; they were largely diving into the surf with boogie boards in hand. The previous vote to invade Afghanistan received a total of three nays from the House and Senate combined. Republicans had a minority in the Senate and too few votes in the House, but the nod to green-light Bush’s decade-long Iraqathon would still garner nearly three quarters of the votes available. And full disclosure: I, too, supported the invasion after the mushroom-cloud shaped testimony given by Rice, Powell and Rumsfeld.
At that moment, my number one concern about my new-hire’s comments was that we had wasted time and money hiring the wrong person to represent out company. (And, as if wanting to confirm my suspicion as soon as possible, the guy actually said something similar to the person we went to Salem to meet. He did so without having any idea what the prospect’s party affiliation was before he opted to cram his own foot into his idiot maw.) Back then, I’d have happily paid you $100 to make sure I never heard such a moronic response to a war drum as I heard from that guy. Now, more than ten years later, I find myself in a place I never thought I’d be. Now I’d give anything to hear people saying stupid things, ignorant things, vapid things, frustrating things – really, anything at all – about the lead up to yet another seemingly inevitable war. Because here’s the thing that truly frightens me about the slow but steady build up to bombing Syria:
No one actually cares.
That no one cares is, of course, a wee bit of an exaggeration. There are a few: Policy wonks care, of course, because it’s the kind of thing policy wonks care about. (Though I suspect they don’t care about it nearly as much as they do, say, immigration reform.) There will be certain businesses that stand to gain by another conflict, and I’m sure the executives and employees of those enterprises are paying close attention to where we’re headed. Bloggers, of course, are always looking for something to write about, so you’ll see Syria mentioned on the political websites. (But at about a 1-to-10 ratio, I’m betting, of the degree to which they write about Edward Snowden, Rand Paul or Ted Cruz.) Lastly and most importantly, there is that tiny percentage of working class families whose sons and daughters are in some branch of the military that will put them in harm’s way.
Other than that, though, I’m pretty sure the “no one” stands.
When I add up the number of people I have talked to over the past month who have mentioned Syria – in any way – I come up with a number that I bet is pretty close to the number that you would come up were you to do the same. (Residents of Washington DC excluded, because Washington DC is a tad fetishistic about whatever Important People in Washington DC do or say.) I’m excluding blogs here, I should note. I’m talking more about dinners and beers with friends, chats with grocery clerks and baristas, all of the various people I chat about any manner of things (especially politics) when I sit in my favorite coffee shop in the morning. The bartender who makes my martini while I’m bellied up, of the others at that same bar who strike up conversations about anything and everything. Those people. If I add up every single person that has mentioned Syria in any way, the grand total come to:
I’ve never actually experienced this before. There have been a hell of a lot of lead-ups to skirmishes big and small in my adult life, and for every single one there have been discussions dogged and passionate alike. In the past in my hometown of Portland, whenever the beating drums of war were even hinted at people would gather on corners and bridges during rush hours, holding comically toothless signs that happily urged motorists to “Honk For Peace!” Over time, though, their numbers have grown smaller. I remember thinking during the lead up to Libya, “Boy, it seems like we’re getting close to a place where no one cares at all whether or not we’re going to war. I wonder if we’ll ever get to a place where no on really does?”
The answer to that question appears to be yes.
This, then, may be the final and greatest tragedy of the never-ending War on Terror: When war is the natural and ever-present state of things, war itself becomes passé. Sure, things in Syria may or may not be bad, but so what? Were we to invade Syria on Friday, it would make things so different from Thursday how, exactly? Same old, same old, really. Besides, have you been watching the final episodes of Breaking Bad? Isn’t the way Vince Gilligan continues to create tension even though we know what’s going to happen to Walt amazing?
The biggest cries over the War on Terror have been over the loss of liberties, but sprinkled throughout the dissenters have also been those that have warned that our new way of life might come with a far bigger price tag: our very souls.
When I look at our collective indifference to Syria, I worry that we may have already paid that debt in full.