Updated: October 12, 2013 6:22AM
I can still summon from memory the black-and-white film of the B-52s, soaring like enormous birds of prey, opening their belly doors and dropping their tons of bombs upon the people beneath.
We did not own a color TV, but I could see the ripples as the explosions tore the air and earth, and I could imagine how the balls of flame must have looked.
The B-52s, which soon may be used to fire Tomahawk missiles into Syria, were so powerful — their payloads so obliterating — that we had to avoid their use in certain areas of Vietnam because “their potency approached that of a tactical nuclear weapon,” wrote war correspondent Neil Sheehan.
Less powerful — but, in a way, more terrible — were the fighter bombers dropping napalm. Napalm canisters were designed to tumble so that their jellied gasoline would splash in long, blazing lines.
The most famous victim of napalm was Kim Phuc, 9 years old, who ran naked down a road, her mouth a gash of pain as she screamed, “Nong qua, nong qua.” Too hot, too hot.
Water boils at about 200 degrees. Napalm burns at about 2,000 degrees.
Kim Phuc survived her terrible burns. She lives in Canada today. Her bombing, by our South Vietnamese allies (though U.S. forces used plenty of napalm themselves), was a “mistake.” The pilot said Kim looked like an enemy soldier. This made it legal.
It is still legal to drop napalm on soldiers.
Whether dying from sarin is worse than dying from napalm I could not tell you. Had Syrian President Bashar Assad used napalm instead of poison gas, he probably would have crossed no American “red line.”
I do not doubt that Assad has murdered children in a terrible fashion.
But I do doubt that our B-52s can bomb him into being a better person.
Our Tomahawk missiles, roughly 3,000 pounds each, are “smart,” but not all that smart. We can guide them against military targets, but we cannot guarantee that they won’t kill civilians.
So Assad soon could have his own pictures of dead children and white-shrouded figures, but these killed by the good guys, these killed by us.
We have said our attack, if it takes place, will be extremely restricted.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday our strike will be an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.” In other words, it will be a “feel-good” attack, one that allows us to say that we struck a blow against the use of poison gas, that we struck a blow for righteousness.
Others tell me this is not so. Others tell me the president has rejected a “pinprick” response and instead will send missiles crashing into Syria day after day, with our B-52s stopping only to refuel, pick up more missiles and select new targets.
We have a stockpile of about 4,000 Tomahawks in our arsenal. They cost roughly $1 million each. The sequestration has cut back on our meals for schoolchildren, but it won’t cut back on our use of Tomahawks. Priorities are priorities.
“The United States is not being the world’s policeman,” Kerry has said.
On the contrary. The United States is very definitely being the world’s policeman. We must bomb far-off countries, not because our national interests are at stake — they are not — but because it is our burden to do so. If we do not bomb, who else will? (Yes, a few other countries will join us, but they will not act if we do not act.)
There used to be something called Vietnam syndrome. It was the belief that Americans had become gun-shy when it came to getting involved in the civil wars of other nations.
Eventually, we got over it. We bombed here and there; we invaded here and there. We were no longer “chicken.”
But even when our intentions were good — invading Afghanistan to disrupt and destroy al-Qaida for launching the 9/11 attacks against us — getting in proved so much easier than getting out. We are still in Afghanistan nearly 12 years later, propping up a corrupt regime that lacks popular support. (The same problem we had in Vietnam.)
In Iraq, we lost more than 4,000 U.S. service members. An estimated 100,000 Iraqi civilians were killed. Children were among them. And all for a lie, all for a fantasy. All for weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.
There is now the possibility, floated by Russia, that Syria would give up its chemical weapons to international control. President Barack Obama called this a “potentially positive development” Monday but also said it may just be a stalling tactic, which would not prevent an eventual strike.
“There is a certain weariness, given Afghanistan,” Obama did admit recently. “There is a certain suspicion of any military action post-Iraq.”
We are weary, Mr. President.
We are suspicious, Mr. President.
Listen to America, Mr. President. And just say no.