To bomb or not to bomb: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind...
If that's the question, what's the answer?
U.S. President Barack Obama is desperately trying to find that answer now that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has apparently loosed poison gas on his own people and, by so doing, crossed the "red line" Obama warned him against.
So why is this gas attack so important? Surely, as CBC News' excellent senior Washington correspondent, Neil Macdonald, writes:
"Does anyone think the average Syrian distinguishes between the rape and torture and bombs and bullets Assad's executioners have used to dispatch their wives and husbands and children, and the sarin gas he's alleged to have dropped in the suburbs of Damascus last month?"
Actually yes. Sarin warfare is different from rape, torture, bombs and bullets. So different that the UN classifies it as a weapon of mass destruction. Here's a description of how it attacks the human nervous system:
"The victim has difficulty breathing and experiences nausea and drooling. As the victim continues to lose control of bodily functions, the victim vomits, defecates and urinates. This phase is followed by twitching and jerking. Ultimately, the victim becomes comatose and suffocates in a series of convulsive spasms."
Perhaps the most famous description of the horrors of gas warfare was written around a hundred years ago. It's a poem called Dulce et Decorum Est (It Is Sweet and Right), by the English poet Wilfred Owen during the first World War.
The full quote is "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" which translates as "it is sweet and right to die for one's country." (Owen's title comes from an ode by the Roman lyrical poet Horace, 65 BC -- 8 BC.)
Owen took those Latin words and turned them into a poem about the futility and horrors of war -- and particularly about the obscenity of gas warfare which killed around 100,000 soldiers on all sides during that long ago and awful war.
Here's the last verse of Dulce et Decorum Est. It describes a German mustard gas attack on British soldiers:
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
In St. Petersburg today, ten G20 nations including Canada backed the American position on Syria.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was particularly firm when he cited the suffering of First World War veterans struggling with the after-effects of mustard gas. He went on:
"Even in the Second World War, even in the war against fascism and Hitler, those forces did not on the battlefield resort to chemical weapons."
"I really do believe here that if we're going to sit back and allow a regime to try and win a military conflict through the use of chemical weapons, we are in new territory. We are in brand new territory that is extremely dangerous and that there would be no turning back from."
Meanwhile, the drums of war grow ever louder.
The BBC reports "All signals from Washington suggest that military action against Syria is a strong possibility. Contingency plans are being drawn up, potential target lists are being reviewed and various military assets are being moved into position."
Already the U.S. navy has five destroyers and at least one submarine in the eastern Mediterranean, all equipped with cruise missiles. Two aircraft carriers lurk nearby. Air bases in Turkey and Jordan are on alert.
The French -- currently the only ally willing to actually fight with the Americans -- have moved the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle into the Mediterranean while French fighter planes are ready for take off from the United Arab Emirates.
Probably most ominous of all, Obama's lieutenants back in Washington are busy persuading key right-wing politicians -- who in any other circumstance would rather donate their gonads to charity than agree to anything Obama wants -- to support his plan for a "proportional" attack on Syria.
The betting is that Congress will approve and sometime next week Obama will order an attack on Syria.
Meanwhile, South Africa's cleverest and gutsiest cartoonist, Zapiro, brilliantly focuses the presidential quandary in a cartoon published recently in the Mail & Guardian.
Picture the scene -- while President Obama looks on approvingly, an American general reads strict orders to a U.S. missile labeled "Smart Bomb":
"Your mission is to send an unambiguous signal to the butcher al-Assad without causing actual regime change (awkward for us!) or unwittingly aiding anti-Assad jihadists ... to strike for international justice (though with no U.N. mandate or proof from U.N. weapons inspectors) ... to hit military targets but avoid civilians, chemical weapon stockpiles or comparisons with Iraq or Afghanistan ... to explode without igniting the mid-East tinder box ... and keep it quiet that the biggest ever chemical atrocity was our bombing Viet Nam with agent orange."
Just about sums up Obama's dilemma, don't you think?