09/13/2013 03:04 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2013

The Thrill Is Gone

It is fair to say that the on-going story of Syria has brought to the forefront a new truth about the United States in the early twenty-first century: We have lost our thrill for war.

Let's begin by reviewing events in Syria: Beginning in late December 2012, there were repeated reports of small-scale use of chemical weapons. The evidence overwhelmingly implicated the government of Bashar al Assad. These small-scale attacks culminated on August 21, 2013, in the much larger attack on the Ghouta neighborhood outside Damascus, which resulted in close to 1,500 deaths. The agent of death was sarin gas, a potent nerve agent which, upon exposure, inexorably degrades the central nervous system, leaving its victims choking to death in their own bodily fluids.

Chemical weapons were routinely used in World War I. Their use caused such widespread revulsion that their utilization has thereafter been shunned in most global conflicts. Permitting their return now has serious consequences. While as a Catholic, I was among those who sided with Pope Francis, praying and fasting for peace, that does not mean that I fail to recognize the horror of these weapons. It is possible that a peaceful diplomatic solution may now be at hand, but it is not that which I wish to comment upon, but the real and palpable anti-war climate of opinion that has taken hold here in the United States. For it seems that we have crossed some kind of threshold in the last few weeks and it is good to know why.

The threshold I am referring to is our willingness as a nation to opt for war. From 1980 to, well, the last five or so years, as a nation we have favored a belligerent posture as our first response to crises overseas. Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980 because he promised a more aggressive response toward Iran, which was holding Americans hostage, and toward the Soviet Union, which had invaded Afghanistan. After George H.W. Bush expelled the Iraqi Army from Kuwait, his approval rating approached 90 %, a record for American presidents (he would lose reelection in 1992 not because of the Persian Gulf War but because of a persistent recession).

And after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the American public vigorously affirmed the decision to go to war, first in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq, even though the latter country had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Americans have repeatedly cheered on its armed forces, from Reagan's bombing of Libya and his invasion of Grenada, to George H.W. Bush's splendid little conflict in Panama.

But something has how shifted fundamentally. And no, it is not, as the right-wing alleges, the result of President Obama's decision to adopt a lower international profile. Remember, he was elected President in 2008 because he promised to withdraw us from wars, not foment new ones. His presidency is the result, not the cause, of America's rising tide of opposition to war.

No, it seems that something fundamental has changed in the American psychology about war. We no longer find war very appealing. Back in the Vietnam War, those old enough to remember might recall watching the ugliness of that war play out on the nightly news. Villages were destroyed for no good reason. Killing was conducted on an industrial scale. We measured our victories by the most macabre of metrics -- body counts. We out-killed them 10 to 1, and we still lost the bloody war. All that loss of life was for naught. The lasting image of the war, formed by popular entertainment, was of a morally ambiguous if not morally loathsome conflict. Just think of the Deer Hunter, or Apocalypse Now, or Full Metal Jacket.

And if the Vietnam War is remembered now for its wasteful destruction of human life, the Iraq War may be recalled for its blind squandering of American treasure. Bush and Cheney and their fellow apologists for war assured the American public that the incursion would be brief and might even succeed in being self-financing. The Iraqi people would welcome us as liberators. We would establish a free and democratic republic, get the oil flowing, and we would all live happily ever after.

We know how that turned out. And the price of failure? Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz estimates at three trillion dollars. And while some economists argue that that figure is too high, others maintain that it is too low. Imagine the many more productive ways we could use three trillion dollars!

Common to both Vietnam and Iraq, finally, is a sense of the whole futility of war. And our sense of futility has been building, in the English speaking world, since World War I. The World War I poets were deeply familiar with that. Siegfried Sassoon was a highly decorated combat officer known for his daring and courage in battle. Yet all he could see was the absurdity of it all. Artillery had become mechanized killing, big guns "volleying doom for doom." The sheer randomness of life was too much for Sassoon. Wilfred Owen, another World War I poet, wrote an entire poem entitled "Futility," recalling the dying breaths of a falling comrade.

The defeat in Vietnam, the pitiless pointlessness of Iraq, these and other events, have helped democratize a brewing anti-war sentiment. No longer can an aversion to war be seen as an affectation of a few, or the domain of "out-of-touch liberals." The pessimism of Sassoon and Owen, of Francis Ford Coppola (director of Apocalypse Now), and the recent critics of Iraq, has taken new form as a mass movement. It is significant that the sternest opponents of war on Syria are right-wing Republicans, not progressive Congresspersons. While much of this is surely opportunistic -- many in the GOP will never miss a chance to destroy Obama -- some it is surely heartfelt.

Have we reached the end of western imperialism? Andreas Whittam Smith asks this provocative question in The Independent. While it might be premature to pronounce the death of the imperialistic urge, it may be the case that the West has lost the appetite for war. War's romance has vanished. No longer do we say, with Horace, "how sweet and proper it is to die for one's country" (dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori). As the Syrian debate progressed, support for war continuously dropped. The final Reuters survey indicated only 16 % in favor of military strikes.

While it is too early to concur with Smith, it is certainly the case that the American public has acquired a new sobriety about blood-letting. It is a sobriety born of exhaustion. We have now seen too many young women and men returning home limbless and shell-shocked. We have learned that war is not a cheap thrill. We are tired of war. But the hidden benefit is that this exhaustion now requires the finding of peaceful solutions to conflicts. We cannot withdraw from the world.

Let us always remember that chemical weapons are a wicked genie let loose upon the world. We now know, however, that we must result to the subtle arts of diplomacy to contain their spread and use. I hope we have the wisdom and maturity to see that process through successfully.