Yesterday, I saw the report from the BBC Panorama team in Syria who witnessed the aftermath of a horrific attack in which an incendiary bomb was dropped onto a school playground. The images of children with napalm-like burns over their bodies, weeping and shivering in pain, will always stay with me. I felt physically sick and deeply disturbed. The sheer inhumanity of war staggered me once again. It left me wondering about a world that could even imagine, much less make, a scene like this.
How can any pilot even consider dropping a napalm bomb on fellow human beings knowing that it will burn away at their skin while they shiver and shake with pain until they die from shock?
And how can any officer consider ordering a pilot to load his plane with napalm bombs and send them out to drop them on fellow human beings, knowing that people will burn and writhe and die in excruciating agony?
And how can officials and company CEOs make deals to sell and deliver napalm bombs to places like this, knowing that they will be dropped on fellow human beings who will suffer and die like that?
And how can cabinet ministers sign off on deals to supply governments with napalm bombs knowing that they will be dropped on playgrounds and hospitals and roads and markets and places where they will be certain to burn fellow human beings to death?
And how can workers sit on an assembly line manufacturing napalm bombs knowing that they will be dropped on fellow human beings, burning away their skin?
And how can scientists study and experiment how to make napalm bombs that burn the flesh off their fellow human beings, and then go home and play with their children while other children writhe and scream and die?
When I saw the suffering of these children, I couldn’t help thinking that we have all failed Syria, not because we haven’t gone in there and dropped our own napalm bombs on the government forces, but because we have made a world where our economic prosperity is partly dependent on the manufacture and export of weapons just like the one dropped on a school playground yesterday in Syria; because we agree to maintain a stupid and absurd line which says that war is fine as long as you kill children with napalm bombs or phosphorous weapons, and not poison gas; because we tolerate our own governments secretly assisting dictators to use poison gas against our enemies; because we believe our leaders when they say they are committed to the protection of human rights; because we accept a distinction between the use of phosphorous weapons and depleted uranium shells by our own militaries and those of our allies, and the poison gas of others; because we tolerate our governments’ long support and assistance for dictators and despots in the war on terror; because deep down we still think, despite knowing full well the immeasurable suffering it causes, that war can usually be justified, and it can be right and good and heroic; because we see war and violence as entertainment and militarism as patriotism; because we are willing to live in a world where governments maintain armies and spend uncountable trillions on weapons and reserve the right to settle their disputes by dropping napalm bombs on playgrounds; because we are willing to let our governments use military force in our name over and over again, year after year, despite the pointless suffering it causes and the long-term instability it generates; because we refuse to accept that any good that violence achieves is always temporary and always vastly outweighed by the harm it causes.
When I saw the skin burning on these children, I couldn’t help but think that we all failed Syria because we didn’t assert strongly enough that all weapons that tear off human flesh or rip bodies apart are wrong; and that our governments ought to give up their weapons of mass destruction too; and that our arms industries ought to be converted to agricultural and medical production; and that all the money spent on weapons and militaries ought to go towards improving human life and establishing social justice so that wars are less likely in the first place; and that all the scientists working on more efficient forms of killing should be re-deployed to figure out nonviolent solutions to disputes and how to improve human life; and that our leaders ought to go to prison when it turns out that they lied and warred and killed innocent people in our name; and that our national interest ought to be defined by a commitment to values and making the whole world more just and humane; and that we expect our leaders and fellow citizens to try harder to make a world where all violence is seen as abhorrent and illegitimate, and where all conflicts are settled by dialogue and compromise and nonviolence.
The sad truth is that the war in Syria is just one more example of the world we have made and continue to make every day with our acquiescence, and our indifference, and our wilful ignorance, and our failure to demand a change. We, as human beings, have made this world of violence, duplicity, double standards, geo-political games, militarism and self-interest. And this is the main reason why I oppose military intervention in Syria: it won’t do anything to change the basic nature of this world, it will only reinforce it and make the next Syria, the next intervention, the next burned children, more likely. It’s a naive and dangerous illusion to think that this time violent intervention will magically work to make lasting peace; that this time it will deter the wicked and contain the violent; that this time it will result in security and stability. Its only certain outcome is that it will make the factories churning out napalm bombs hum a little faster. The same world that made this vicious war possible will still be there after we have bombed yet another country in an effort to save it.
We are smart enough to make napalm bombs and efficiently deliver them to school yards anywhere in the world. Are we smart enough to figure out how to solve conflicts and protect people without killing? Maybe this is the wrong question. Maybe we ought to ask: are we willing to do what’s necessary to build a world where children will never be napalm-bombed again?