War as Spectator Sport

I was struck yesterday by this BBC-tweeted photograph of people on the border between Turkey and Syria watching the fighting for the Syrian city of Kobane. Because of the topography of the area and the proximity of the border, one can sit on a hill in Turkey overlooking the city and watch the battle in Syria raging below. This unobstructed vantage point also provides access for the various media organizations to tape and televise the spectacle of war. I assume the spectators in the photograph and most of the world are rooting for the fighting Kurds. I simply want the violence on all sides, on the ground and in the air, to stop immediately. Who will dare to begin?

Some 2,000 civilians reportedly remain in Kobane, despite what the Turkish government has said, and the ongoing street battle and airstrikes threatens their lives. Yes, if ISIS takes the city, any civilians that remain and others will be threatened with brutal treatment. Whether ISIS is “potentially genocidal,” as the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has said, well, we just don’t know. All large, armed groups are capable of mass slaughter of the innocent, as various armies at various times around the world have proved.

We in the United States have gotten used to viewing distant, televised wars. And as relatively few Americans actually take part in our many military actions, it is too easy to look upon our soldiers these days as merely armed professional athletes. War for many of our hawkish leaders, some citizens and most of the media is now a kind of spectator sport, though we have begun to realize as a nation that war is not just a game we play on foreign soil, especially for our military men and women (reduced to “boots on the ground” by some) who return home, if they come home alive, suffering in many ways.

Diplomacy, negotiation and other forms of tough-minded nonviolent engagement in the Middle East may not be a special-effects spectacle worthy of Hollywood nor some excitingly violent video game. But had we practiced diplomatic democracy rather than siding with dictators and choosing military intervention over the last five or six decades in the Middle East, we and all the people of that area would likely be better off today.

Every war, as the distinguished, National Book Award-winning American poet William Stafford said, “has two losers.” Stafford was a pacifist and conscientious objector in World War II. (His book, Every War Has Two Losers, was turned into a documentary film in 2009.) No one after a war walks away with a handshake and a trophy; whoever “wins” the battle of Kobane, the city itself will be much ruined, its people fled or dead. And the war is likely to keep growing, creating compelling drama for the world but also increasing the threat of terrorism here and abroad. The biggest losers, of course, will be all the innocent, non-combatants in Iraq and Syria.

Every war, every battle,  is a series of mistakes and bad choices that culminate in military violence; battles and wars are not isolated, inevitable contests. There is always, at every moment, an alternative, nonviolent way of being brave. It is not something we can easily see but something that first must be felt as an inner resolve.

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