09/05/2013 10:58 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2013

Amid Battle Cries: One Question

Our leaders loudly bang the war drums when the decision whether to wage military conflict is contemplated by a major power like the United States. It is always something of a stage production: Flags are proudly waved, sabers rattle ominously, orations thunder forth with solemn invocations of national pride, and someone is sure to salute our "brave men and women serving in the greatest military in the history of the world."

Precious little mention will be made of the PTSD effects that will afflict those brave soldiers and their families for generations to come, even if war is waged virtually, without our dusty, uncomfortable boots on the ground.

And this assumes (though I do not) that our sojourn into the theater of mass organized violence will be an entirely controllable event, that nothing unpleasant will happen to "our side", that we will be immune to retaliation.

The implication is that an American strike against Syria will be an arm's length event, and that war's cruelty will not be visited upon us, and devastated parents will not have to sit by their mutilated children at Walter Reed or bury them at Arlington as the rifle blasts of a 21-gun salute ring out.

The battle cries will somehow mute our concern about deficit reduction, which for better or worse has dominated Washington policymaking for years, as new military expenditures will literally skyrocket by the billions. The fact that much of today's daunting federal deficit resulted from our last wars will be relegated to a footnote, as it has been for years by the same deficit hawks who voted to charge those wars to the Federal Reserve.

Discussion of war-profiteering and the role of oil in strategic decision-making will be dismissed as unseemly. The environmental impact of warfare, which is always poisonous and long-lasting, will likely merit not so much as a peep.

Experts opining in our mainstream media will feature a dialogue between generals and ex-generals and will include voices of corporate and academic authorities on such topics as armaments and troop movements and the dazzling array of computer-guided devices that seem to reduce the brutality of war to a video game entertainment.

Practitioners of citizen diplomacy aimed at preventing the terror of moments such as this one and scholars in the field of nonviolent conflict resolution will be marginalized as naive and out of touch, while the flames of pragmatism burn brightly throughout the spreading war zone.

We have been here often in the past and have returned yet again.

The incident that prompts the current round of battle cries cannot but be characterized as a "moral obscenity", in Secretary Kerry's phrase. It's the reason chemical weapons were banned shortly after my grandfather served in World War I. He retained his government-issued gas mask for decades as an artifact of war, which he showed me in the basement of his Philadelphia row home, when I was a child in the 1960s, at roughly the age of some of the kids we've now seen on the haunting video images from the suburbs of Damascus.

And the reason the world's conscience has been shocked by the spectacle of people, including children by the hundreds, twitching in sarin-induced spasms, is that the victims of Assad's nerve agents are civilians. And, of course, civilians are the prime casualties in modern warfare.

A famous UN calculation estimates that in WWI civilian deaths amounted to 5 percent of casualties; in WW2, with innovations such as the Holocaust, the toll rose to 50 percent; today in the age of high-tech warfare, it has reached 90 percent. The latest reckoning by Iraq Body Count calculates the civilian death toll from the war in Iraq launched in March 2003 at a tally of at least 112,017, plus civilian injuries of 135,089.

So a rational analysis of the military attacks now being debated by Congress requires a sober assessment of harm to civilians that will result from the supposedly surgical strikes now on the drawing boards. When all is said and done, when the chain reaction of events from an American strike on Syria has played out, how many more innocent men, women and children will have been killed or injured physically and psychologically? Alternatively, it is fair to ask how many will have been spared?

I don't know the answer to the dilemma of whether the United States should militarily punish Bashar al-Assad for launching chemical-weaponized rockets into civilian neighborhoods of his own nation, in brazen violation of the most basic human rights, not to mention international law.

But I'm certain the American public can't be adequately informed on this fateful decision, without a full discussion of how it may impact the lives of civilians both abroad and at home. Without answering this question, our revulsion at Assad's treachery is dangerously incomplete.