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

Why, Again, Must America Be the World's Policeman?

I'm the son of a German immigrant who escaped from Hitler's Germany and then joined the U.S. Army in World War II. I take the need to respond to genocide seriously and personally.

I'm a dove at heart. I've witnessed the misery and death our wars in Vietnam and Iraq caused, with next to nothing in the long run to show for them.

And, like many Americans, I suspect, I'm deeply conflicted watching and listening to the debate over America's plans to bomb Syria -- just enough, you understand, to punish Bashar al-Assad, but not enough to involve us in a prolonged war.

Where have I heard that before?

I know. Barack Obama drew a proverbial red line in the sand.

"Don't use chemical weapons or else," he told the Syrian leader. Assad ignored him. Can we afford to let Assad get away with it? Would this not embolden Iran to build its nukes? Or are we compounding Obama's error by attacking? Would we be raising the risks of a spreading war, regionally and even globally?

And what about the administration's moral argument? Can we take the moral high ground when we ourselves dumped untold quantities of Agent Orange over Vietnam to defoliate its forests (let's not forget the iconic image of the naked, burned Vietnamese girl running in agony from one of those attacks)? Haven't we ignored past chemical weapons attacks, such as those unleashed by Saddam Hussein against Kurds and Iran, a generation ago? Didn't we stand silently by during the genocide in Rwanda?

Why must we step into Syria now, a country in which we apparently can't sort friend from foe, where Assad is a ruthless dictator and part of the opposition is tied to al-Qaeda? Don't our past actions and inaction make our moral arguments questionable at best?

No one is going to ask either me or you these questions, my fellow citizens. But let's watch the debate with clear eyes. Because once again America is beating the drums of war, wrapping ourselves in the flag of morality. We still see ourselves as the world's policeman. And yet over a lifetime of far more warfare than peace, I've seen the United States kill more innocents than bad guys and cure very few of the world's ills with its bombs or soldiers' boots.

As the son of an immigrant from Hitler's Germany, my initial reaction was that we cannot stand back this time, cannot let Assad get away with this brutal attack. But as the drums of war beat louder again, and as the rest of the world leaves it to Americans to spill blood -- others' blood now, but quite possibly our own again eventually -- I'm taking a second look. Today, at least, I suspect we'd be smarter to stay on the sidelines, using diplomacy and perhaps, as the New York Times' Thomas Friedman suggests, targeted military supplies and training instead of bombs to make our point.

Because "a little bombing" pretty much always turns into a lot. Because our "little wars" tend to last a decade. And because the civilians we ostensibly are racing to protect too often become the "collateral damage" of our own attacks.