Now that President Obama appears to have made up his mind to fire a "shot across the bow" at Syria for the Assad government's alleged use of chemical weapons against its people, let's at least be honest and call the upcoming move what it will be... an act of war. Let's not sugarcoat it and refer to it as a military strike or a limited military action or, dear Jesus please... a shot across the bow. Regardless of what we think of Syria under the rule of President Bashar Hafez al-Assad, it is a sovereign nation, and so the moment U.S. cruise missiles cross into Syrian airspace the United States will be at war with yet another Muslim country in the Middle East.
Oh, President Obama will not call it a war, and neither will most members of Congress nor most of America. But that is exactly what it is when a country employs its armed forces to undertake warfare against the military establishment of another country. It is neither fashionable nor convenient to use the term "war" because it sounds scary and really serious. Using the word makes it more difficult to build public support for the operation, or at the very least avoid attracting too much opposition for it, so U.S. governments since the end of World War II have opted for less ominous descriptions such as police actions or conflicts or campaigns.
These descriptions are disingenuous, and they are dangerous because they lull the U.S. public into believing that the action will be quick, limited, and relatively painless -- both in terms of American lives and financial cost. Therein lies the problem.
All too often, lots of American service men and women do end up dying or being maimed in these undeclared wars, and often the cost in treasure is extremely high -- as in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq. But that's not the problem. The problem is that in too many of these cases the lives of few, if any, American military personnel are seriously at risk, thus making it easier and more tempting for gung-ho U.S. political leaders to launch such attacks... and for the U.S. public to back them and start waving around Ol' Glory.
We Americans live in an era where our government can launch military strikes and kill lots of people and destroy lots of property at will, at the push of a button, without having it affect or inconvenience most of us. So long as our government assures us of "no boots on the ground" or we don't see too many of our soldiers, sailors, and pilots returning home in body bags, we are willing to be pulled along for a short ride.
So long as we can engage the bad guys at a distance with our cruise missiles, precision bombs, and drones, it all feels rather acceptable. There is nothing noble or courageous about this kind of warfare, and it is stupid to continue fooling ourselves into believing this isn't warfare and we can keeping doing this kind of stuff without eventually, in the immortal words of Jeremiah Wright... having the chickens come home to roost.
If intervening in Syria is necessary (for humanitarian reasons or to make a point on the use of chemical weapons), then we should do it with conviction, with a clear strategy, and with a willingness to put our lives -- not just our technology -- on the line. Otherwise, stay the hell out of it, Mr. Obama.