When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turned poison gas against the rebels and their families, everyone could agree that even in a civil war -- where passions burn hottest -- that's inhumane, and it's not forgivable.
The harsh and mechanical reporting of war rarely invites poetry to make a correspondent's points, but a reader with a yearning for a more penetrating reality turns to the poignant verse of Wilfred Owen, the young British poet who was called to duty when the poisonous mist of chlorine gas settled over the trenches in the Great War of 1914-1918. The poet who dreamed of joining bards and birds "singing of summer scything" turned the poetic power of observation to describe a victim on the front, fumbling with helmet and mask, too late to protect himself from the poison that leaves him "guttering, choking, drowning." We see the victim's white eyes wilt on his face, like a "devil's sick of sin" and listen to "the gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs."
Tanks and machineguns killed many more soldiers in the Great War than gas, but the poison could linger when it did not kill, terrifying and demoralizing both the soldier on the front and the public back home. It was such an inhumane way to kill that its use led to the Geneva Protocols that outlawed chemical warfare in 1925.
Although powerful images of "ordinary" battlefield and civilian deaths have been blamed on both government and rebels in Syria, there's less talk about the grim inhumanity of the weapons than identifying a political rationale for our own self-interest. The fighting simply didn't feel up close and personal when President Obama argued against getting "mired" in such a grim and difficult dilemma. A year has passed since he drew a blood-red line that would be the outer limits of American patience and then declined to follow through when Assad looked at the red and saw it as green.
Photographs of the dead, of women, children and whole families, shouldn't have been necessary to get President Obama's full attention. He could have helped the rebels when they were winning. But the use of chemical weapons is a game-changer, even for a president who leads from behind. The appeal to good will and fair play hasn't worked. He neither "reset" relations with Russia nor did he establish a "new beginning with Muslims around the world," as he promised in Cairo in 2009.