What's a three-letter word for sometimes saving lots of lives?

Photo Credit: Moyan Brenn (Flickr) I believe in war.

I've seen a lot of talk lately about war with Syria. From what I understand, that's technically a misnomer, but on the ground it won't matter much: U.S. planes dropping U.S. bombs on Syrian people is war, regardless of how you turn the phrase.  Some people are for it. Some people are against it.

Personally, I'm neither: I don't consider myself well-informed enough to make such decisions. I know the region fairly well, but am definitely not a specialist in Syria, the al-Nusrah Front, or the myriad of other splinter groups forming the Syrian resistance. Bashar al-Assad's a bastard, to be sure, but whether he's enough of a bastard to bomb, I just don't know.

But there's a time for bombs.

War of any scope is a tricky thing; innocent people are going to die. You can go to bed at night telling yourself that fewer innocent people died because of what you did, but you've still got blood on your hands. It's messy. You get dirty.

Peace seems nice and clean. Everybody is getting along, or at least they're getting along well enough that nobody's hitting each other. Maybe you make some deals that you'd rather not think about, but at least nobody's kid is stepping on a cluster munition. Of course, maybe you're agreeing that the kid who's not stepping on a bomb now has to starve to death, because if you didn't make that deal then you'd have war. War's bad. Starving to death is bad. Sometimes your options are ugly. Sometimes peace isn't so clean.

The thing with Syria, it's not as simple as that. They're already at war, so peace is right off the table, anyway. In very, very simplistic terms, you've got the schoolyard bully who's been ruling the playground with his fists forever, and you're the school safety officer, and you hear he's got a gun. You haven't intervened yet because discipline isn't your deal, not until someone says it is, but a gun is a whole different thing. You aren't sure he's got a gun, and you won't know until you step in, or until he pulls it. You harass him for no reason, and he for sure takes it out on the other kids. You ignore it and he does have a gun, what happens next is on you, because you could have stopped it. What do you do?

You can argue about whether it's our business being the school safety officer in the Middle East. Is it our job to police the whole damn world? I'll turn it around: if you see a kid drowning in the lake, is it your job to save him? We are as defined by what we choose not to do as we are by what we choose to do. If we choose not to intervene in Syria, we are to some extent condoning what happens there, or at least saying that we are powerless to influence it. If the kid is drowning in the middle of the lake, but you can't swim and you know you'd drown trying to help, then no, you're pretty well off the hook for the rescue. But if you can swim, and all it's going to cost you is the new suit you're wearing to head to the job interview of a lifetime...

It's a balancing act. What you can do, what it's going to cost you, and a third variable: the damage you'll do by trying to help. With war, you know there's "collateral damage". It's the ugly nature of the beast. Bullets fly, and they fly somewhere, and it's not always where you wished they'd go.

But sometimes that's the least bad answer. Unqualified pacifism is as morally bankrupt as letting a child drown in a lake. You might not get the job of your dreams, or you might get sucked into a costly military intervention, but sometimes that's your duty as a citizen of the world.  If you've ever cheered on Superman as he battles Lex Luthor, you believe in justified violence. On some level, you believe in war.

Again, I'm not saying U.S. involvement in the war in Syria is the way to go. I don't know. I do know that chemical weapons are bad, but I'm not fully convinced of the logic that says that we have to attack anybody who uses them, lest others become emboldened. There's a lot to think about.

That said, knee-jerk "war is not the answer" platitudes just make me wonder: have you thought about the question?

Complete side-note: I didn't write this on 9/11 just because it's 9/11. I wrote it because it was on my mind. Certainly not all of the war we're in because of 9/11 was justified. That doesn't mean that all war is unjust, or that the U.S. Intelligence Community can't be trusted to get it right.

To my former colleagues who are still in the fight: carry on, and stay strong. Good luck.