But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
— Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est”
My high-school English teacher, Mr. King, knew that Owen’s poem would grab our attention. For teenage boys, following an hour of quadratic equations, war stories are an easy sell. But Mr. King also knew that the horrific imagery of chlorine gas in the poem would give us pause, and make us think on humanity’s capacity for brutality.
There’s a special savagery to chlorine gas. It burns the eyes, lungs, and skin — anything with water, turning the source of life into an agent of death. In doing so, chlorine gas is war at its worst — slow, agonizing, pitiless.
And timeless. Today, 96 years after Owen’s testament to the First World War, this weapon is alive and well. In a new “sea of green,” innocent Syrians are drowning as the West looks on.
While Syrian opposition groups allege that Assad has used chemical weapons many times since the Russian brokered a WMD deal last September, the most compelling evidence comes from recent attacks in the town of Kfar Zeita.
Watch this video and hear the choking screams. Or trust the experts: One U.S. official told CNN, “Our assessment is it is, at a minimum, concentrated chlorine dropped from helicopters. That could only be the regime.” From an intelligence analysis perspective, “at a minimum” suggests a high-confidence judgment, which means reliable reporting streams and not random guessing. But it’s not only the U.S. government: Read this Reuters report of chlorine gas canisters found in Kfar Zeita that are stamped by a Chinese company known to supply Assad.
You may not have heard about any of this. Coverage of Assad’s ongoing atrocities has been buried. Instead, from the New York Times and L.A. Times we have celebratory claims that the despot is meeting his Putin-mediated WMD handover timeline. This reporting ignores two realities: First, Assad seems to have been hiding select WMD stockpiles from the very beginning (which could easily have included the chlorine gas). Second, with the WMD production facilities he retained, Assad will be able to reconstitute his WMD program on short notice.
He’s playing the United States of America.
While Assad fills his people’s lungs with hydrochloric acid (that’s what chlorine does), Obama-administration officials spectate from the sidelines. Take State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki and her Tuesday masterpiece in evasion. Equivocating on the chlorine attack, Psaki insisted that the WMD deal was succeeding.
Still, the White House finds some support in world opinion. With everyone desperate to avoid hard truths, the conspiracies continue to run wild. It was the rebels killing their own families. The Israelis did it. America is using chlorine gas as a pretext to invade Syria and “steal stuff”. MH-370 is doing it.
Courage is too complicated, leadership too difficult, and indifference too easy.
Yes, I’d be the first to admit that the Syrian civil war is exceptionally complex. Nevertheless, with Assad’s record, his ongoing efforts to hide his WMD programs, and the compelling evidence of another chemical attack, America must act.
Unless the killer learns there are consequences to his mayhem, he’ll continue unstrained. Moreover, in this world of Putin, Khamenei, Kim Jong Uun and imperial China, Syria’s unanswered oppression will be a catalyst for global aggression. Correspondingly, to do nothing wouldn’t simply break America’s word (again); it would wager the peace of Europe, the Middle East, and the Pacific.
That’s a heavy wager — a suffocatingly heavy one.